BioShock Infinite Preview

  • By: CM Boots-Faubert
  • Posted 24th Jun 2011

BioShock Infinite

There are unique challenges to creating a video game series, and the process is often more than many games can endure, because they either lack the solidity and the quality of story and environment to support the process, or they are a product of a studio and publisher that lacks the experience to shepherd the games through that process -- or worse -- lacks the heart to do it right. That is why so many games stand alone, destined never to be part of a series, and why often the second game in a series is the last, because it fails.

None of that applies to the BioShock games.

Before we get too far into this, it should be emphasized that if you have yet to play the first two games in the series, it would be an idea to do so prior to the release of this one if only so that you are both well-grounded in the BioShock Universe, and so that you have the opportunity to enjoy playing two very solid games. You do not have to have played the first two to get into this third game, because as surprising as this may be, it takes place in a different setting entirely, and tells a much different story. It is not, in other words, a sequel or prequel to the previous two games, but rather a stand-alone story in itself.

This may shock a lot of gamers -- and disappoint more than a few who were looking forward to another go at the world of Rapture that was created by Andrew Ryan -- but upon closer examination, the decision to take a different road, to blaze a new path, and to abandon much of what has come before is actually part of the genius behind the team that is responsible for the game! But we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves here...

Before we get into the story and the proper game preview though, there are a few things to cover first, starting with the presentation at E3.

The 2K Exhibit Space was a carefully constructed world within the confines of E3 that took us away from the madness and the maelstrom of the show floor, safe inside the relative quiet of a walled-off courtyard that resembled the Sports Pub that it was built to mimic. Within the confines of this area there were theaters built along the edges, tables and chairs and booths for us to relax at, food and libations of which to partake. In short, it was an oasis of calm in a sea of chaos, and that alone gets high marks for the publisher.

Each of the theaters focused upon a different game, and each was customized to reflect the essence of its title, and it was very clear which of the theaters was dedicated to BioShock: Infinite by the large statue of the Songbird (probably not what you are thinking so look carefully at the photo above), which was a dead giveaway.

Although having an appointment got us in the door, like all of the other games journos, industry people, and PR's, we had to wait for the next presentation, and while we waited we chatted with each other, compared notes on the games we had seen so far, and talked about our expectations for Infinite -- and I must confess that in spite of a basic awareness of what the plot and story line was, none of us waiting for those doors to open really had a clear idea of what we were going to see and experience here.

The faces of the audience that exited the theater were animated and intense as they filed out -- this is always a good sign -- so as we filed in our expectations went up a notch. After the two-dozen of us were seated, the lights came down and the hand's-off demo began, and it is safe to say that it was impressive and something of a surprise.

The Story of Infinite
As mentioned above, the choice for this third title in the BioShock series was a complete departure from what came before. In fact it comes before what came before, because the events of Infinite take place almost 50 years before the events of the first two games! There is no Rapture -- Andrew Ryan is still in school and not the industrialist millionaire that he will one day be, and the geopolitical realities of the world are very different from what they were in the first games.

In fact it is the relative weakness of the United States of the first decade of the 20th Century that forms the foundation for what we are about to experience -- a USA that is not a super power, is not a global player, and in fact barely has diplomatic relations with the economic forces that do fit that description. It is from this relative position of weakness that causes the US Government to embark upon the construction of a floating city that will be at once a marvel of technology, civilization, and luxury -- the airborne city of Columbia -- a floating city that can be moved anywhere on the globe but that has a dark secret.

Columbia is a city suspended in the air by giant blimps and balloons that is named as an homage to the "female personification" of the United States. Built and launched in 1900 by the US government with much fanfare and publicity, the city was intended to symbolize the ideas of exceptionalism and the social experimentation that was currently taking place in the nation.

To all appearances Columbia was created as a floating "Worlds Fair" that could travel the globe, projecting the newly-found prosperity and freedoms of the USA -- but before it could even begin its around-the-world tour to send those messages it was revealed that the city was in actuality a well-armed battleship and the product of a secret Defense Department Project.

This was revealed after military forces on Columbia directed its weapons upon a group of Chinese civilians during the Boxer Rebellion, with the direct result being that the floating city was disavowed by the United States, as the government looked to weather the scandal of creating a military gun platform that could be placed anywhere in the world.

With all official government involvement in the project withdrawn, the civilian authority in charge removed the city from the public eye, and it quickly became little more than an obscure footnote to most of the world. Every so often there would be a sighting -- and it was involved in a few more confrontations -- but its exact whereabouts remained largely unknown outside of the intelligence community.

During this period of isolation the various factions that existed on Columbia went to war with each other in order to determine who would rule the city.

It is at this point that the player enters the game as the protagonist -- Booker DeWitt -- a disgraced ex-agent of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Dismissed on moral grounds, Booker sets up shop as a solo investigator and is hired by mysterious individuals to infiltrate the city and rescue a young woman named Elizabeth, who has been confined aboard the air-city for the past twelve years.

The problems begin when you learn that Elizabeth is a central figure in the strife, and each faction wants to use Elizabeth to turn the conflict in their favor, forcing you and Elizabeth to become allies as you seek to escape the city and the war. What should be a simple matter is complicated by the fact that Elizabeth has biotic powers that she has very little control over, powers that were forced upon her -- she believes -- by a shadowy character named Comstock, who is part of the current ruling establishment.

Elizabeth refuses to leave Columbia before she learns the truth about this, but helping her do that is further complicated by the mechanized creature called Songbird, who served as a combination of nanny / companion / bodyguard and jailer for Elizabeth. Songbird is designed to feel betrayal if Elizabeth tries to escape, rapidly escalating its level of violence to the point of killing anyone who it feels is in the way of it recovering her.

As you work your way towards achieving the short list of goals that are required before she will allow herself to be removed from the city, you come face to face with another much graver problem, the source of which is a mystery to you -- there are tears in the fabric of time throughout the city, allowing anachronistic elements from other times to appear in the city, and as you investigate the rifts it becomes obvious that Elizabeth is the source, which adds another unfathomable threat.

Game Play
The basic game play in Infinite is similar to that of the previous games, it being a first-person shooter with RPG elements to it, and most gamers will hit the ground running or at worse, experience a shallow learning curve. The only element that really stands out as radically different in Infinite is the Skyhooks that are used by teens in Columbia to hook onto the elevated track system that is used for public transportation and freight handling, a sort of daredevil-like way of thumbing their nose at the system while still getting around the city.

The Skyhook system takes a little getting used to, but once it is mastered, it will be an integral part of game play, being necessary for the player to move from area to area within the city and between zones. That rapid transit is the only non-confrontational means at your disposal to avoid combat with the different factions in the city, most of whom appear to know who you are and, more to the point, want you dead.

As with the other games in the series, the biotic powers -- or plasmids -- exist here, and in fact many of the special skills that you will need and use in the game come from them. During the presentation this was only briefly touched upon, with no solid details being offered on that aspect of the game, but in a conversation with one of the hosts after the presentation we were able to confirm that Infinite does not use a plasmid-based skills system or the upgrades used in the previous game -- rather the effects of the plasmids in this game are permanent, and the player is only permitted to use a certain number before they have exhausted their ability to augment their powers.

Using this new approach not only improves the replay potential for the game, but adds real consequences to the decisions that are made by the player, something that we have not seen in the series before. In addition to this more selective system, the game includes two types of plasmids -- a more expensive sort that produce well-defined results, and a less expensive sort that have unpredictable results and, no surprise, could actually have negative consequences in their use.

Conclusions and Observations

At the presentation the decision had yet to be made as to whether there would be a multi-player mode in Infinite, which is still in the very early stages of its Alpha Build. Despite that, the sections of the game that we were shown are very tight and fluid, and presented an interesting look into the world of Columbia that gave great promise for this title, which we fully expect to be a major contender for GotY in 2012.

One of the elements of the game that stood out starkly when compared to the previous two was the game world. In the first two games it was placed in a dark and dismal underwater city in which the colors often reflected the mood and the precarious existence of the protagonist, who had very little hope for a positive outcome. In Infinite we find ourselves in a completely different environment in which vivid colors splash across the screen, offset by a starkly blue and cloud-filled sky, and where shadow has very real impact on the surroundings and on game play, thanks to the presence of the sun.

It is clearly a very different experience indeed, which is why we feel safe in offering the opinion that you really will not have needed to play the previous games to hit the ground running with this one, though at risk of repeating ourselves, playing the first two games will likely provide a more instant immersion and acclimation in this one.

One of the secrets to the success of the BioShock series is its demonstrated ability to place the gamer within the construct of a well-defined historical era and then engender feelings of nostalgia for that era in generations of gamers who, for the most part, did not even exist in the time period of the game. They did this so well in fact that it is easily one of the foundation elements of the games, and largely part of their appeal, and Infinite retains that power and effect in spades.

All games are not created equal, and while we saw literally dozens of games at E3, only a handful were so vividly entertaining and engaging so as to provoke feelings of instant resentment in us as the presentation ended and we were confronted by the reality that we would soon depart -- without a copy of that game -- and such was the case with BioShock: Infinite. Slowly departing the theater, we now better understood the intense and sharp expressions that we saw on the faces of the previous audience, because our own faces now bore them as well.

Gaming Update will be keeping an eye on Infinite, and keeping you well informed about its progress and its release date, when it is available!

Official Title: BioShock: Infinite
Developing Studio: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: TBA / Q2 2012
Platforms: Xbox 360 / PS3 / Windows PC
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Ratings: TBA