December 07, 2012 at 01:01 PM EST

The Game: One of the most highly anticipated games of 2013, BioShock Infinite hopes to do for airships and American Exceptionalism what 2007’s BioShock did for underwater cities and Ayn Rand-ian Objectivism. Which is: Make them really, really cool. The game (for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC, and now due for release on March 26, 2013) is set in 1912, roughly 50 years before the events of BioShock — though I should add that it’s unclear whether these games are even set in the same basic universe. We follow ex-Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, as he infiltrates the massive, dazzling floating city of Columbia in order to find and rescue a mysterious woman named Elizabeth, who seems to be at the heart of both the city’s overriding mythology, and its ongoing civil war. The city was founded by a self-styled prophet named Father Comstock, whose loyal followers, keen on keeping Columbia a pure place of worship, are at odds with the violent insurgents known as the Vox Populi. Booker quickly discovers his simple rescue mission is anything but.

What We Played: At a special press preview event on Thursday, I got a good 90 minutes with the game, from the very opening sequence up to right before Booker first finds Elizabeth. The opening will feel quite similar to anyone who played the first BioShock: Booker is deposited on a lighthouse off the coast of Maine, where he is rocketed up into the vast city of Columbia, which we first see through the porthole in the capsule. When he lands, Booker finds himself in a gorgeous, exultant temple, filled with lit candles and brilliant stained glass windows of Father Comstock leading his flock to his shining city in the clouds. Water covers about an inch or so of the floor, and after a bit of exploring, Booker learns why: To enter Columbia, first you must be baptized, in front of a clutch of blonde haired, blue eyed true believers all clothed in white robes. It’s about as unnerving as it sounds.

From there, Booker’s invited to wander through Columbia as the citizenry prepares for its annual fair and raffle. The city itself is a marvel: Towering, turn-of-the-century-style buildings hover in the air, as rail-guided trolleys and small airships transport people throughout its expansive, cloud-cloaked districts. Every so often, Booker can peek into a kinetoscope that tells a little bit more about the history of Columbia; you learn, for example, that the city announced its secession from the union a few years earlier. (Curious.) Posters everywhere warn against the false shepherd, who will come to lead the lamb of Columbia — i.e. Father Comstock’s daughter, i.e. Elizabeth — away from the city. At one point, Booker sees a poster proclaiming that you’ll know the false shepherd from the brand on his right hand, “AD”; as it happens, Booker has the same brand on his right hand too, and he was most unnerved to suddenly see it on a poster in a fantastical city he’d only been in for a half hour. (Most curious.)

Eventually, Booker makes his way to a crowd gathered in front of a stage inside a lovely park. A carnival barker of sorts announces that the raffle is about to begin, and Booker is invited to select a baseball-sized ball with the number on it from a basket. Wouldn’t you know it, Booker’s number is chosen from the raffle, so he gets the first throw! The curtains part, and a white man and black woman — their arms and legs bound, and clothed in just their undergarments — are wheeled to the front of the stage, as large cartoon monkeys appear around them.

Yeah, you read that right.

NEXT PAGE: All hell breaks loose


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