By Adam B. Vary
Updated December 07, 2012 at 01:01 PM EST
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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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Before I had a chance to pick my jaw up off the floor, the barker commanded Booker to throw his ball at the sinful miscegenators. Up prompted my first real choice in the game: I could have Booker throw the ball at the couple, or at the barker. I threw it at the barker.

Well, I tried to. As Booker’s hand rears back, someone notices the incriminating brand on his right hand. All hell breaks loose, and the real first-person-shooter gameplay begins.

This is where the BioShock-iness of BioShock Infinite really kicks in. Like the previous games, you can wield a series of conventional guns with your right hand, and a series of supernatural powers (or vigors) with your left. The two powers I was able to obtain during my demo were the “Possession” vigor — which lets you take over machines and people to your favor for a short time — and the “Devil’s Kiss” vigor — which fires a volley of incendiary grenades at your enemies. (I was quite sad that I never had the chance to use the “Murder of Crows” vigor, in which you can unleash, well, a murder of murderous crows.)

The biggest innovation is the wrist-mounted magnetic grappling hook that allows Booker to leap from floating building to floating building even if they’re not connected, as well as ride the magnetic rails that run throughout Columbia. The hook also makes for a particularly brutal melee weapon.

Though I never got there myself, once Booker finds Elizabeth, she’ll also tag along as a helpful companion, tossing health and ammo if you need it, as well as apparently manipulating rips in the fabric of space-time that have been causing some odd anachronisms throughout Columbia. One such anomaly I encountered: A barbershop quartet, singing the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”

The Good: Unlike the ruined and crumbling underwater city at the heart of the first BioShock, Columbia is still a vibrant home to many regular citizens, some of whom talk and interact with you, so you’re not forced to trudge through yet another exquisitely designed graveyard. Even better, Booker talks, and has real personality — at one point, he grouses, “Just ’cause a city flies doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its fair share of fools.”

What I was most taken with during my demo period, however, was Columbia itself. As I noted before, it’s a stunning creation, even more so than Bioshock‘s Rapture, since you can actually see so much of it drifting around you. From what I saw of the level design, the city is also more interactive than Rapture, and much more vertical.

But even though Columbia is called the “New Eden” by its founder Father Comstock, the game isn’t pulling its punches in its exploration of the toxic excesses of American exceptionalism, especially when it comes to religion. At one point, Booker encounters three statues, of Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, dressed in robes like deities, each of them respectively wielding a giant key (for invention), a giant sword (for strength), and a giant scroll (for knowledge). The sight of three robed citizens kneeling before these statues in prayer made me laugh out loud at the audacity of it; actually, this sight is what prompts Booker’s aforementioned sardonic aside. And then there’s that anti-miscegenation moment, one of the most shocking story turns I’ve seen a game make in a long time. If BioShock Infinite can maintain that level of storytelling boldness throughout the game, it may be one for the ages.

The Not-So-Good: If the world of BioShock Infinite feels bracingly unique, its gameplay feels a bit familiar — at least in the stretch I got to play. Granted, I didn’t get much experience with the grappling hook, and I never got to play with Elizabeth, both of which look like crucial elements of the game. Let’s hope that variety can match the splendor of just watching Columbia levitate around you.

Excitement Level: With the release date pushed back another month, I’m just that much more anxious about getting my paws on the full thing. On a scale of 1 to 10 of anticipation, BioShock Infinite is a solid 9.

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