BioShock Infinite Updated Preview

The latest adventure from Irrational Games is surprising us in entirely new ways.

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BioShock Infinite is shaping up to be one disturbing game. Anyone who has played the original BioShock knows this is territory that Boston-based Irrational Games knows very well. And, after getting a tease of what the developer will be showing off at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, we can say that BioShock Infinite is unsettling in a whole new way. The brief demo of a work-in-progress version of the game we saw showcased the game's setting, the floating city of Columbia, the cast of troubled characters you'll encounter, your relationship with the mysterious Elizabeth, and offered a deeper look at some key gameplay mechanics. Although the meaty demo did a fine job of answering many of the questions we've had about the game, it wound up raising even more as we got a sense of the intriguing adventure's scale.

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Our last look at BioShock Infinite offered an introduction to the airborne city of Columbia; Booker Dewitt, the game's main character; Elizabeth, the mysterious and powerful woman Booker is sent to retrieve; and a taste of how the game would play. The short but captivating demo did an excellent job of painting a vivid picture of what to expect from the upcoming game. For this update, creative director Ken Levine served up another 20-minute chunk of the adventure from roughly one-third of the way into the game that focused on Booker and Elizabeth's journey to the home of Z.H. Comstock, the locale at which he's supposed to drop her off.

The demo kicked off with the pair entering a sundries shop filled with candy and assorted knickknacks. The scene offered a snapshot of Booker's evolving relationship with Elizabeth as they explored the store. Elizabeth, given her years of "Rapunzel"-like confinement in her prison, was literally acting like a kid in a candy shop and darting from one item to another. The pair's conversation veered from silly to serious with Booker coming across like an older brother at times. During the exchange, Booker collected items hidden throughout the shop, ranging from money to the Bucking Bronco "vigor" which is the game's version of plasmids. Shortly after Booker collected a gun, a wind kicked up around the shop and Elizabeth had a bit of a freak-out. A quick glance around the room revealed a figure moving outside, visible through the shop window drapes that were mostly closed. Booker moved next to Elizabeth, who was hiding behind a stack of crates, as the room became flooded with a green glow from one of the windows. A massive eye of some kind was shown peering in, obviously looking for something. When the creature stopped its search and moved on, Elizabeth ran to the shop's side door. When Booker caught up, the pair had an awkward conversation in which Elizabeth made it clear she'd rather die than go back to her prison.

When they left the shop, they head in the direction of Comstock House, but Elizabeth wandered off. Booker found her near a dying horse. Although the poor animal was clearly ready for the glue factory, the game even offered a "euthanize horse" option, Elizabeth sensed a tear and offered to tap into it. This kicked off an exchange between the two that had Booker sternly telling her not to tap into the spatial rift as she didn't have control over her powers. Elizabeth argued and wound up using her powers on the tear. Unfortunately, despite initially appearing to be in control, Elizabeth lost her mental handle on things and wound up warping the world around the pair. The next bit left us wondering just what was going to happen as it appeared that her losing control caused the tear to shift them in time, if not space. The two went from standing in a grassy area next to a horse to the middle of a street across from a movie theater showing Revenge of the Jedi. Booker didn't deal well with the unfolding events and yelled at her to "close" the tear. His requests gained more urgency as sirens were heard and a fire truck came barreling down on them. Fortunately, Elizabeth was able to close the tear and return them to their original spot. After Elizabeth had another freak-out about not being able to control her powers, the pair moved deeper into the city.

What's interesting to note about the city as Booker and Elizabeth explored it more fully was the population. As Levine noted in his presentation, the original BioShock had you arriving after everything went down in Rapture, which created a unique, solitary atmosphere for the experience. BioShock Infinite puts Columbia's turmoil squarely in your face, which makes for an entirely new kind of uncomfortable experience. As the pair moved into the city, the environment became more populated and the atmosphere got an uncomfortable charge. The vibe changed slowly at first with massive propaganda posters touting a "Daisy Fitzgerald" and screens playing video of what we assume was her speaking. At the heart of the disturbances was the clash of the Vox Populi, an anarchist movement focused on destroying Columbia, and the Founders, the nationalist organization that created Columbia led by Z.H. Comstock. From the look of the demo, the Vox Populi was definitely having an affect on the citizens with looting and general anarchy starting to occur. In one instance, Vox Populi members came across someone being assaulted and Booker warned them off and saved the victim, who thanked him profusely.

The Vox Populi are not a friendly bunch.
The Vox Populi are not a friendly bunch.

As the two continued their exploration, Booker found a Murder of Crows vigor and they discussed Elizabeth's situation, highlighting the complicated relationship the two will likely have. After a bit, Elizabeth asked Booker if he wanted to head straight to Comstock House or look for more supplies. The choice selection appeared to be done by following Elizabeth or continuing on the obvious path to Comstock. In our demo, Booker followed Elizabeth to another part of the city, which was even more populated. What was especially unsettling about the sequence was, oddly enough, all the people milling about. There was much staring as the pair moved around that lent an air of unpredictability, which was uncomfortable. This was especially true when the pair came across the start of an execution. While the exact players weren't totally clear, the fact that they were going to shoot a mailman was a problem. When the option to stop the execution came up and Booker selected it, the small mob of people turned on him and the action quickly shifted to combat; it seems like a "good deed" in BioShock Infinite can lead to problems.

If you've played the original BioShock, then you'll have a good idea of how some of BioShock Infinite's combat works. Booker has access to firearms and his vigor powers when dealing with enemies, which all works as expected. You can take out enemies with either or mix them up and use your powers to set up enemies to get a shot in the face. Where things get interesting is when Elizabeth comes into play. Before we dive into that, we have to make a special gratitude call-out to the Irrational team for making sure that Elizabeth can take care of herself during a fight. Levine noted that the team decided it wouldn't be fun if players had to babysit her during battle, so she's been made to be self-sufficient and stay out of your way, which is awesome if it's consistent. Elizabeth appeared to work as advertised in the battle we saw as she generally hid someplace near Booker and offered suggestions in battle. However, her biggest contribution to the fight was manipulating the tears in the environment.

You can zip around on train tracks and free-fall from massive heights.
You can zip around on train tracks and free-fall from massive heights.

Levine noted that at that point in the game, Elizabeth can only interact with a single tear during a fight, allowing her to pull an object fully into the world. In the demo we saw, this ranged from a vehicle to use as cover to a mounted turret; the choice will ultimately be up to the player. In our run, Booker chose to have the vehicle pulled into the world for cover. Later in the fight, when Booker wasn't able to stop one of his foes from calling for help, the pair came under fire from a massive blimp that was sporting rocket launchers. Levine noted that players could have chosen to take the blimp out from a distance, but it would take a while, so a player would have to think of alternatives. Of the two he laid out--finding an alternative way to take out the blimp closer or waiting until Elizabeth had recovered enough to pull a mounted rocket launcher into the world--the alternate route was chosen because waiting for Elizabeth to recover would take a while.

The alternate-route option provided a dizzying showcase for Columbia's sky lines; the not entirely practical array of tracks strewn throughout the city that let you travel anywhere by hanging on and using a hook. While we're sure we'll have a better sense of navigation of the sky lines once we spend some time with the game, we got a little lost in the demo as Booker hopped rails at breakneck speed, shooting people on the ground and sky lines the whole way. Once we got our bearings, we were able to see that Booker had zipped all the way to the blimp and hopped onto it to destroy it.

Once the blimp was taken out and the battle had settled down, the pair was reunited as Booker returned via sky line. Unfortunately, there wasn't a moment to celebrate the victory as Elizabeth's ex-jailer, the massive creature known as Songbird, appeared and tossed Booker into a building (although, technically, we suppose that would be "through" a building). As the agent tried to pull himself together, the massive mechanoid came in, clearly eager to do some revenge murdering as reflected in the color cycling of its eyes (green, yellow, red). But, just when it looked like Booker was about to be pecked to death, Elizabeth appeared and had a heart-to-heart with the creature. Songbird wasn't too chatty, but he and Elizabeth clearly came to an understanding that wound up with her agreeing to go back to her prison with him (which if you recall from earlier in the demo would be her least favorite thing). The demo ended with Booker running after Songbird and his prisoner.

The demo wound up making a powerful impression on us, thanks to the rich world and the mountains of little touches that we're sure are significant in some way. The major things that have stayed top of mind for us are the tears, the Founder/Vox Populi conflict, Elizabeth, and Booker. The tears have us wondering just what's going on in Columbia as they appear to be scattered throughout the world. We have to imagine they're the result of some kind of experiment gone wrong or temporal phenomenon. The sequence that suggested some kind of crazy time travel is a big question mark that we reckon will be a big part of the game's story. The conflict between the Founders and Vox Populi is also clearly a "thing" in the world as both factions are going at it pretty aggressively to the detriment of the locals. Elizabeth is shaping up to be an enigma, who has epically bad luck with relationships. She's clearly got some issues with Songbird, given all the time she has spent with him as her jailer. Her relationship with Booker is obviously going to be a complex one. In the bigger picture, the impact her powers have on the world and the polarizing effect she has on the Founders (who want to save her) and the Vox Populi (who want her dead) make her one complicated lady. Finally, Booker is possibly the greatest mystery of all. We know he has a past and he's a former agent who has hit hard times and taken the job of delivering Elizabeth to Comstock to set his life right. But, at the moment, he doesn't quite add up. He doesn't appear to be a killer and he's protective of Elizabeth in a way that suggests a softer side. We'll be very curious to see how it all plays out.

Meet Elizabeth. She's good with horses. Just not dead ones.
Meet Elizabeth. She's good with horses. Just not dead ones.

BioShock Infinite continues to make a good impression on us. The visuals are gorgeous, even at this early stage, and the gameplay is very intriguing. While the demo wound up leaving us with almost as many questions as it answered, that's not a bad thing. The game is shaping up to offer the kind of dense, nuanced experience we've come to expect from Irrational that has us hungry to see more. The only downside to what we saw is that it's not due this year. BioShock Infinite is slated to ship in 2012 for the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. Look for more on the game in the coming months.

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