Well, we have good news and bad news regarding BioShock Infinite. The bad news is that it’s been delayed again. According to Irrational Games’ Ken Levine, when they brought Rod Fergusson from Epic Games over to serve as executive vice-president of development, and to help finish this title, one of the first things he told them was that the game needed another month for polish and refinements. We’re okay with that... as long as it doesn’t signal a series of small delays.
So, that’s the bad news. What’s the good news? It’s worth the wait, and then some. While we don’t want to see this title pushed back any further, all of the hype behind it since the announcement and subsequent peeks at development have all been spot on. We were worried, as we are with most games, that the product wouldn’t live up to the expectations put out there from early looks and studio-controlled videos. But BioShock Infinite is on course to become the must-have video game for 2013.
We were able to play through the first two and a half hours of the game, which differs enough from the original BioShock to make it a new experience, yet remains rooted in a completely realized world just separated from our own. While Columbia soars high above the clouds and makes Bespin look like a boring day-spa, it still recalls the opulence and grandeur of Rapture. Only this time, the city teems with life and you’ll hear snippets of overheard conversation throughout the game as the citizens of this utopia interact with you.
Also returning is the period music, which made such an impact in the first title. However, Irrational has slipped some goodies in the game, including a version of God Only Knows by The Beach Boys, only here it is rendered by a barbershop quartet known as The BEE Sharps, and billed as Columbia’s Gayest Quartet! We also caught the strains of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun while on the sands of Battleship Bay, presented as a calliope tune amidst some Columbia tourists visiting the beach. Hopefully there will be more of these anachronisms on the soundtrack.
We joined the game at the very beginning, off the coast of Maine in 1912 as Booker DeWitt is being rowed out to a waystation with promised access to Columbia. It’s a nice touch as the scene is somewhat reminiscent of your descent into Rapture, only this time you blast skyward in a steampunk rocketship and leave the waters far behind.
Booker, a former Pinkerton agent, has been tasked with bringing a young girl named Elizabeth back unharmed from Columbia. As he checks the contents of a box handed to him on the rowboat, recalling a similar scene from BioShock where you check the contents of your suitcase, he finds the first of several clues that he’ll use to find Elizabeth. Without revealing too much here, because your liftoff is nothing short of wondruous, recalling parts of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Once aboard Columbia and losing his pistol in the flight to the heavens, DeWitt begins the task of exploring the city. With plenty of shops and spaces to check out, along with trash cans to search (who throws away so much money and bullets?), the game unfolds organically and completely lends itself to simply walking around. There’s a fair being held with different Vigors on display, and you can try them out while learning how to fire guns at shooting galleries. You’ll also interact with animatronic vending machines for the first time, and discover that you can affect them with your Possession vigor.
You’ll also encounter your first kinetoscope. These primitive motion picture machines are peppered throughout Columbia and are used to disseminate information about the city, and the "Prophet" Comstock who bills himself as the savior. In fact, there’s a ton of religious imagery throughout the game, and your ears will smart from how much you get bashed over the head with it initially. From the savior, to the miracle child, to the usage of the number 7 and even tinges of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, there’s a lot of preaching going on here.
There’s also a heavy element of racism in the game that is stronger than anything presented before. While it was clear that the city was going to great lengths to fight against "the foreign hordes," this new playthrough reveals that it runs right down to races, with "Whites Only" bathrooms located around the city, and the near public-stoning of an interracial couple. It’s not surprising, given the era in which BioShock Infinite is set, but it is still jarring when you encounter it. No doubt this will be central to the plot, as establishing a new existence was part of the reason for Columbia’s launch in the first place.
Once you’re tutored in the basics, the game subtly drives you towards finding Elizabeth. Pushing up on the d-pad will place an arrow on the ground driving you to your destination, which is new to the series and while somewhat welcome (it’s easy to get lost in Columbia), it does bend the illusion that you’re in another world somewhat. Getting around definitely quickens in pace once you have access to a skyhook, which doubles as a very vicious melee weapon, until then you’re hoofing it and following the arrows.
When the game first presents you with combat, you’ll be surprised at how much faster enemies move here and how lethal they can be. The AI is smart and will seek cover and try to flank you, but they are much harder to take down, and fire with increased accuracy. You will quickly come to hate automatic turrets, although they can be Possessed, and ammunition is once again at a premium.
However, one of the biggest changes to the game is that Booker can only carry two weapons at once. While you can stock all sorts of ammo, there will be times that you are forced to choose between different types of firearms. Depending on the situation, you might want a pistol and a shotgun, or a carbine and a machine gun. We spent most of our time in the game with an RPG and a sniper rifle, for both ranged and up-close combat, but the RPG reload rate can be a killer.
Also new is Gear that you can equip which adds new abilities to Booker’s person. For instance, the Newton’s Law piece of gear will knock back enemies when you land near them after jumping off a sky-line. The Shock Jacket will give you a 50% chance to shock enemies and so on. It’s a new mechanic for the series, and while you can find multiple pieces of gear, you can only wear four pieces at a time. Our favorite was a piece of equipment that let us set enemies on fire when attack them via melee, but your mileage will most certainly vary.
Early in the game, you’ll gain access to the Possession, Devil’s Kiss, and Bucking Bronco vigors, with Murder of Crows not far behind. In combat, we came to rely heavily on Possession, which makes enemies fight for you and when it wears off they commit suicide in remorse. Devil’s Kiss is also good for lobbing explosive fireballs at the enemy and yielding excellent splash damage. Bucking Bronco will launch enemies into the air, and Murder of Crows sends a hail of pecking crows against your enemy.
But with each Vigor comes a cost. The mana element in this game is Salt, which comes rendered in blue so as not to confuse those of us who identify magic with the color blue, thanks to years of MMO playing. Once you’re out of Salt, your Vigors no longer work. You can find different foodstuffs that will increase your health and add to your Salt level, or drink Salt tonics or find Salt machines that will refill you as well. But Salt can be harder to find than ammunition, and it does not self-regenerate, so you’ll need to keep an eye on your gauge.
Once you link up with Elizabeth, she quickly proves herself to you as a companion and not just someone you’re escorting through the city. She’ll toss you cash and ammo as she finds them (somewhat comically tossing you an entire weapon and not just a clip), and she can also pick locks using lockpicks you’ll find. Of course, her primary ability is to open "tears" in the world, giving you access to things that exist in a different dimension of Columbia. For instance, she may be able to open a tear and reveal a hook that wasn’t there, allowing you to grab on to access different parts of a level, or bring medical kits and ammunition in.
Thankfully, both you and Elizabeth have access to the sky-line system, once you’ve received your hook. While the early videos gave us some doubt as to whether this system would really work that well and be intuitive. Well, it works much better than we expected it to. You’ll see an on-screen prompt to hit the A button to jump on a sky-line, and you’ll see the same prompt when looking at surfaces, which allows you to dismount. You can fire while lining, and even detach and perform a sky-attack on ground-based enemies. You’ll feel a bit like Spider-Man while zipping around the clouds, and the melee attack the hook provides is like extremely gory icing on the cake.
While our demo stopped just before a climactic battle introduced by a second authority figure who is battling against Comstock, it’s was apparent long before then that this game had gone above and beyond the preconceived notions that we’d brought to the table. There’s a slew of information that we’ve left out here (the Songbird is awesome!) so you can discover it for yourself when the game comes out in (fingers crossed) March, but rest assured that your wait will have been more than worth it. We played the entire demo on the Xbox 360, and while it looked fantastic, we spent about an hour with the PC version, which is breathtaking. Of course, that just makes it tougher to decide which version of the game to get when this game rolls out.
For even more Bioshock Infinite, stay tuned for X-Play next week!