BioShock Infinite Goes Beyond The Sea & Into The Skies
August 12, 2010
This is the BioShock of a floating city, of America in 1912, of a helpful damsel in semi-distress and of something called the Skyline.
"The time for silence is over," said Ken Levine, creative director of Irrational Games to a room full of reporters at New York's Plaza Hotel on Wednesday night, seconds before the BioShock Infinite trailer began. We were a controlled audience, our laptops and cell phones confiscated before we entered a small ballroom and sat in front of the stage and screen from which Irrational would show its new project.
Levine's team is one of the most acclaimed and secretive in game development. Since the '07 BioShock, which they made in partnership with 2K Australia, Irrational gave no hint about what they were working on, no clue that they were making another BioShock. They were not involved in this year's BioShock 2, which was created by several sister studios and was set in that undersea city of Rapture. But Irrational, which had, for a time, been known as 2K Boston, is indeed back on the franchise and allowed Wednesday night for their new trailer tease briefly that they were back on the virtual ocean floor.
Their trailer begins with a camera swoop across what appears to be ocean bottom, past an iconic BioShock Big Daddy. But that's just a trick, a look inside the fishtank of a man on the place where BioShock Infinite is really set, the early-20th century airborne crumbling metropolis of Columbia.
A 19th Century 'Death Star'
What I saw — and what you can see in the trailer here — was the first glimpse of a game shrouded in years of secret development and now scheduled for a 2012 release on the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
The trailer signaled that Infinite is a first-person return to the style of idea-driven historical science fiction of BioShock, but set in the skies. Later, Levine would tell me that the game is thematically tied to the work he did in first BioShock in that it is another game about a strange and yet strangely familiar place as well as about expressive, variable gameplay. He doesn't call it prequel though and drew no narrative connections between the BioShocks we have played and the one his team is making. "I don't want to think about that," Levine said to me. "I don't think it's particularly constructive to have that conversation."
After the trailer unfurled Infinte's world, Levine began explaining the game to his audience. Infinite is set in the early 1910s. Its main setting is Columbia, a city that floats on balloons and drifted across an ascendant United States, showing the accomplishments of a post-Civil War American ready to express its idea of excellence.
"Something terrible happens," Levine said, establishing the stakes and the mystery. Columbia proves to be something worse than a beacon of prosperity. "This is not a floating world's fair. Columbia is a Death Star." In the lead-up to the events of Infinite, Columbia is embroiled in an international incident of unspecified horror and then disappears into the clouds. Our character, a "disgruntled former Pinkerton agent" named Booker DeWitt, is contacted by a mysterious man who knows where Columbia is. In that city, DeWitt is told, is Elizabeth, a woman who has been raised there and who the man wants rescued. DeWitt accepts the mission, which will be ours as a player: to rescue Elizabeth and, with her super-powered help, get out of the patriotic-turned-violent Columbia.
We were shown a live gameplay demo to get a sense of how Infinite will play. The demo was paced for action and was as heart-racing as a good sequence in the campaign of a Call of Duty. If you've played the BioShocks, as I have, you'd spot the potential for dynamic gameplay. Guns go in your character's right hand. Powers are on the left. The gameplay sequence began with DeWitt walking up one cobblestoned street of Columbia. A floating bell tower teetered and then collapsed in front of him. Up the street, he passed a woman sweeping in her doorway while the building behind her blazed. A dead horse was in the road, being pecked by birds. Columbia's a weird place.
Columbia looks American, particularly a style we might call, kindly, American Obnoxious though Levine describes it more technically as an age of American Exceptionalism. It was built, in the fiction, at a time of swelling U.S. pride, when the inventions of electricity and radios and the progress of the American people could, theoretically, spawn a floating city that waves the flag and, more distressingly, exhibits imperial racism.
DeWitt walked past flags with 48 stars that flapped near posters pumping the slogans "For Faith, For Race, For Fatherland." Columbia's patriotism is off-the-rails jingoism, its citizens taking gun rights to the extreme. A man preaching politics from a gazebo stood near signs that warn "they'll take your gun" and barrels full of rifles from which, you can indeed take your gun.
When the Irrational developer controlling the Infinite demo had Dewitt take his rifle, the pontificating man in the gazebo scowled. His eyes and mouth started glowing and a fight began. For a moment, the fight pitted DeWitt's scoped rifle vs. this combative man and a swarm of crows — well, a murder of crows, to use both the proper term. Murder of Crows is also the brand name of the bottle from which DeWitt later drank in order to obtain the ability to send out his own angry birds.
We were shown other powers. Deeper into the demo, during a combat sequence in a bar, DeWitt appeared to use telekinesis to pull a shotgun out of a man's hands. The gun floated in front of the man, pointing at him, shot him, then zipped into the grip of our hero. That same power was used to stop a football-sized shell in mid-air, rotate it and fire it back at the turret from which it came.
Aside from the splendor of a floating city populated with angry patriots, the newness to the BioShock series presented by Infinite are the roles played by Elizabeth and the Skyline, the railways connecting Columbia's floating districts.
Let's take the lady first. Elizabeth is a skinny-waisted, dark-haired, cleavage-showing damsel who is sometimes in distress and sometimes the key combat support. She is not controllable by another player. She is a computer-controlled ally and she is not, Levine told me, ever supposed to feel like a nuisance, a video game "escort mission"-style hindrance. She is instead, he said, a character, one who will enable the type of in-the-midst-of-gameplay dialogue-driven storytelling seen among the characters of Valve's Left 4 Dead. She is also a power amplifier, if the player chooses to accept her assistance. And she has her limits.
In one moment of the demo, Elizabeth was placing a storm cloud over the heads of a crowd of gun-toting men; DeWitt blasting forth with electricity to ignite a storm of lightning on the crowd. In the next she was struggling to her feet, falling behind, nose bloody. "When she helps you, it takes a toll," Levine said in a canned print interview supplied by Irrational. "You're not a super hero and she's not a super hero, and you're both up against a very difficult challenge that pushes you to the extremes."
Later, there was a robot or a man in a robotic suit on a bridge menacing DeWitt and Elizabeth. The lady was able to zap an orb high on its suspension tower. DeWitt was able to bring it down on the robot-nemesis' head. The middle of the bridge collapsed. As Levine later told me of Elizabeth's gameplay significance, "She is there to enable things that are of a scale that you just couldn't do in BioShock 1." With the bridge out, a robotic bird swept in, ending the gameplay demo.
The other distinct gameplay element in the demo had been what Irrational calls the Skyline. These rails are ostensibly used for sky-trains that travel from room to room and from one city block to the next. But in the demo, they were used by people. That pontificating political man from the gazebo had grasped for one during his fight with DeWitt and zipped along it well out of reach and then back in for a melee swipe. DeWitt could grab onto one as well and zip down its line, to speedily get from one place to the next, and to, presumably, escape, dash toward or even flank his enemies.
In our interview, I asked Levine if it would be right to think of the Skyline as Infinite's Warthog, the Halo vehicle that changes the famous Xbox series on the fly from an on-foot heroic slog of a first-person shooter to a rushing driving-based war game. He liked the analogy and said that the rails in Infinite are not a mere Ratchet & Clank style mode of conveyance.
I saw a gameplay parallel between the Skyline and the rails that connect floating sectors of one of the main worlds in Retro Studios' Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. But in Infinite, the Skyline network appears to be so complex that it seems likely to function less as a limited-use means of conveyance and infrequent combat, as it was in Metroid, and more like an additional tactical option added to the already-variable arsenal of BioShock.