BioShock Infinite Hands-On: It’s Worth The Wait
BioShock Infinite can’t help but impress. Columbia’s vision of a city in the clouds is the perfect contrast to the dark depths of Rapture and it’s disgusting inhabitants. But, there’s more to BioShock than an impressive setting.
With its release date forced back (yet again), this time to March 2013, for that all-important last bit of ‘polish’ we’ve been given the chance to experience BioShock Infinite’s opening levels.
Shown the game’s first four hours we were thrown into Columbia’s beautiful and warped world.
It might be messed-up and troubled but it’s immediately recognisable as BioShock and yet, it’s also clear that there’s plenty more at play in the floating city of Columbia than Irrational Games has let on.
To convey just how BioShock Infinite is shaping up, we’ve broken down the game’s early hours into handy sections for you to mull over. Avoiding story spoilers we’ll give you a play-by-play of Irrational Games’ ambitious, artistic and complex BioShock Infinite…
BioShock Infinite: Booker’s first steps
Avoiding the actual opening, BioShock Infinite truly begins with its protagonist’s first steps on the floating city of Columbia. When Booker DeWitt steps into the serene world and into what appears to be a church. Drenched in Christian symbolism and explaining the core tenets of this new world, often described as New Eden, Booker steps into surreal scene.
It’s certainly a less violent welcome than what was experienced in Rapture and following the crowds all dressed in white, Booker has to be baptised before he’s allowed to enter into Columbia itself. Being the sort of ruff and ready type that just wants the job done, Booker obliges and is practically drowned by the strange grinning priest.
Where Rapture was a city on the brink of collapse, it’s main tumultuous events occurring long before the player set foot in that ill-fated bathysphere, Columbia is a living breathing city. Its occupants neither crazy nor deranged (except for their political values, perhaps, but that’s obviously up for debate).
The PC version boasts better visual design, but the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions both offer striking views of the city.
Booker’s first experiences in Columbia are slow enough for you to stop and smell the roses. Its beautiful and logic-defying scenery floats all around and Irrational eases you into this new world, both in terms of Infinite’s narrative and the large range of new abilities you’ll eventually use.
Characters talking on the side of the street relay information about the city and its problems. As in Rapture the world’s advertising and scenery do more to explain the situation and it’s a real joy to just explore.
Columbia is in the midst of a celebration and confetti, fireworks and happy revealers help paint a picture of a city perfectly content.
That’s also kind of the point, though. Left to your own devices Booker is able to explore what first appears to be a perfect world, almost heavenly, but it doesn’t take long before the cracks begin to show.
Discovering a stage and a bustling crowd, Booker is forced by the happy residents to step up and take a raffle ticket. Of course, his number is called and he’s given the honour of having the first throw of ball at a couple tied up on stage.
The couple – a white man and a black woman, who have fallen in love – have to be punished by Columbia’s strict race laws. It’s here that Booker is given a choice; throw the ball at the couple and remain inconspicuous within the crowd or, throw the ball at the MC, drawing attention and the wrath of the nearby guards. You’ll get noticed but you’ll at least have the moral high ground.
It’s up to you how you react to the blatant racism on display and it won’t be the last time BioShock Infinite throws some shocking imagery your way, but it’s the way the world around the player justifies its actions that is really interesting.
Just like in Rapture, the world has something very wrong with it and exploring what this means for its inhabitants and, ultimately the protagonist, is core to the series. Booker’s early hours in Columbia are filled with incidental detail and seemingly insignificant events that help paint a picture that will ultimately leave you cold.
And all of this stems from the Prophet, Comstock, and his vision for the perfect society. As beautiful as Columbia is it’s hard to forget that it’s ruled with an iron fist and unwavering belief in a higher power.
A call to arms
BioShock Infinite doesn’t rush into combat and though you’ll eventually have access to an impressive range of abilities and choices to fight with, you’re eased into things.
Booker’s altercation with the guards leads to Infinite’s first combat and you’re introduced to the melee attack and the pistol. With the Sky Hook attached to his left arm Booker is able to deliver a punishing blow and there are even moments, when an enemies health is low enough, that you can grab hold of them and use it to finish them in a disgustingly bloody fashion.
Without the insane occupants of Rapture to justify the constant need for combat, the Columbia police force form much of the early level’s enemies. Booker is obviously up to no good and it at least makes sense to see what is actually a very busy world react in appropriate horror when a man wielding a gun approaches.
Combat evolves from these early encounters and you’re quickly given access to BioShock Infinite’s version of the Plasmid, the Vigor.
It seems Columbia’s technology has progressed along similar lines as Rapture and these Vigors account for much of the increased firepower available to Booker. In total you’ll have the ability to use:
- Two Vigor abilities which is eventually upped to four later in the game (and a select wheel helping you choose between them when you get more than two)
- Two guns
- Four Gear Slots
To give you a good idea just how BioShock Infinite balances its loadouts check out this one from later in the game.
The Vigors are different to the Plasmids, though and it’s still how you combine them that’s important. Murder Of Crows distracts enemies with a flock of pecking crows, but you’ll be able to throw a fireball with Devil’s Kiss and set them alight for added punch. Each Vigor comes with two different modes of fire giving them an extra tactical element, but you can’t rely on them quite as much as BioShock’s Plasmids.
The Gear slots, however, account for abilities found or bought within Columbia that offer a more supportive role during combat. Giving Booker a greater shock radius when he jumps from the Skyline for instance or even discharging fire when using the melee attack.
The Gear slots can be mixed and matched to your own preferences, but you’re also give a shield early on that helpfully recharges. You still need a medkit to fully heal, but you’re never totally out of the fight.
Vigor’s need Salt to work and like the Adam and Eve combo found in Rapture, you’ll be constantly topping up your supplies or looking around the levels for those all important blue bottles.
It’s an evolution of BioShock’s original combat and without Infinite’s secret weapon it feels very familiar, but when Elizabeth enters the equation, things become very different.
Also, there are no Vita Chambers in Columbia, but with Elizabeth’s aid you’ll be partially healed when she brings you round, but so will all your enemies. When you die and Elizabeth’s not around, well, that’s going into spoiler territory.
It takes a while for Booker to actually locate her and he spends a great deal of time dealing with Columbia’s bad guys on his own, but when Eizabeth is with you, death is only momentary as she rushes to your aid and brings you back to life, placing you a few feet from where you fell.
When Booker is finally given access to all of his abilities, combat becomes a frantic mix of high-octane roller-coaster escapes and explosive gunplay. Though the AI will react to you by hiding behind cover or simply rushing you, if you turn tail and escape to higher ground with the Sky Hook they will follow.
They have all the same abilities the player has open to them and though it might appear like they’re not as complex as previous BioShock enemies, they have much more opportunity to surprise you.
Booker’s no slouch when it comes to dishing out the pain, though, he was after all a Pinkerton and his dark past haunts him throughout the early hours of BioShock Infinite, but he’s not the main attraction.
When you finally catch up with Elizabeth, that’s when things really start to get interesting…
“The seed of the Prophet shall sit on the throne and drown in flame the mountains of man”
Andrew Ryan was at the heart of Rapture and its ultimate downfall, but in Comstock (or the Prophet, as he’s constantly referred to), Columbia has a much more angelic and dangerous antagonist. Though Rapture had few redeemable characters, its Little Sisters were victims that needed saving, Elizabeth is much more complex.
Though she is initially caged, her role runs in tandem with that of Bookers and she forms the final piece of the BioShock Infinite puzzle.
Ken Levine describes Elizabeth as a ‘1912 nerd girl’ who has read loads of books and has taught herself to pick locks and breakcodes.
Player’s experienced Rapture alone, but Columbia is viewed through Elizabeth. Part of what makes the floating paradise such a fascinating place to explore is because neither the player nor Elizabeth have ever seen it before. She’s been imprisoned her entire life and when Booker finally manages to make his way to Monument Island and into her golden cage, their adventure together is just beginning.
It’s interesting to see what she reacts to and what she has to say. BioShock Infinite doesn’t want you to follow her constantly and have her bark orders at you, she is a natural character within the world and she’ll react to what you’re doing.
Elizabeth isn’t a hindrance, too, she can’t die and in fact she’ll often provide Booker with exactly what needs during combat. More ammo, a specific gun or even health, Elizabeth will call out and throw it at you after she’s found it lying around the environment.
Spending time with Elizabeth in these early hours, and you’ll eventually spend all your time with her, is fascinating on two fronts. Not only is she an interesting, well-written and performed character, but what she says means something within the context of the world. Booker will often respond with his own glib remarks, but her innocence and charm keep her from becoming an irritation.
Secondly, Elizabeth doesn’t ever stop the player from doing what they want. You don’t have to indulge her if she’s stopped to get some candy floss or dance with a group of people on the beach, you’re still in control and it’s this push and pull between character, narrative and player freedom that makes BioShock Infinite’s initial few hours very interesting.
Unravelling Elizabeth’s mystery could be more important than unravelling Booker’s and they could even be connected, but the greatest achievement in BioShock Infinite’s player/Elizabeth relationship is that it’s more fun to have her around than not.
At the very least she provides you with ammo and health when you’re in a pinch and that’s more than any NPC has ever done before.
“Girls just want to have fun”
But that’s not all, Elizabeth forms the final part of the combat puzzle and it’s her unique ability to open ‘tears’ into alternate dimensions that provide you with tactical options during combat.
What story importance this has is still a mystery, though.
It doesn’t take long before BioShock Infinite’s hub levels open out and you’re shown just how complex some encounters can become. Using the Sky Hook to avoid enemies or approach tactically advantageous platforms can keep things in your favour, but using Elizabeth’s abilities really gives Booker an edge.
You’ll find alternate dimension ammo crates, turrets, Sky Hooks and even guns (mounted on some poor alternate dimension- chap’s wall). There’s always something open to the player and it helps if you experiment when you’re faced with taking on one BioShock Infinite’s huge Handy Man.
Drinking a Vigor gives Booker a horrible vision as it takes over his body. Don’t panic, it only lasts a few seconds.
Trouble in paradise
But, the success Irrational finds with Elizabeth’s characterisation doesn’t mean there aren’t a few obvious issues. We played debug in-development preview code but it’s difficult to escape the impression that BioShcok Infinite is a much more linear experience than its predecessor.
The hub areas of Rapture are replaced with the facade of a city (beautiful though it is) and the narrative pull constantly keeps players moving on to the next big event. There are optional side quests that appear when you discover a key, but the sense that Columbia has an accurate street map players can explore, like with Rapture, is lost. But, that does nothing to detract from Columbia’s majesty.
Graphically, the PC version is leagues ahead of the PS3 and Xbox 360, too. Much as you’d expect. In the version we played (PS3, if you’re interested) character models looked less detailed and the overall resolution was substantially lower, but Columbia still looked impressive.
Considering what we played, it’s easy to see why Irrational would opt for an extra month of development to give BioShock Infinite some extra polish. The console versions seem to suffer in comparison to the PC one, but it’s important to note that the differences aren’t on a gameplay level, merely a visual one.
What polish Irrational can add with its extra time will be interesting to see when it’s released next March. But, until then we came away feeling like this was an interesting step forward for BioShock, but we are far more intrigued to discover what secrets Columbia and Elizabeth have in store.