There Is Something In The Sky

E3 2011 is in just over a week, which is just enough time for me to catch us up on some games that I am very much looking forward to. We’re just about halfway through the year and there have been some great titles already, but some of my most anticipated releases are yet to come. We’ll start with one that has recently had a fresh round of press coverage ahead of its E3 showing.

The last time we looked at Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite, Martyn walked us through the newly unveiled teaser trailer and some of the early details about the game. Not much to go on in this all-too-brief CG video, a finely crafted reveal of the world of Columbia, but the details paint a grim picture. Posters touting the city’s motto describe an ultra-nationalist, xenophobic society, clearly the core philosophical theme to be explored by the game in true BioShock fashion.

Infinite takes place in 1912 on the massive floating city of Columbia. You take on the role of Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, on a mission to seek and assist in the escape of a young woman by the name of Elizabeth. It seems that she is no run-of-the-mill damsel in distress, however: your NPC companion has a mind and will of her own, and a host of supernatural abilities to boot. She will aid you in combat with her various powers, and you can choose to exploit these abilities at a cost not yet fully defined.

Along the way your progress will be impeded by enemies from either of the two warring factions, the Founders, the patriotic supporters of the city, and the Vox Populi, anti-capitalist Marxian thugs. And this wouldn’t be a BioShock game without some bizarre and distinctive icon; the Songbird may very well be this game’s Big Daddy. A hulking, mechanical bird-like figure with human hands that seems to serve as both Elizabeth’s protector and captor, the Songbird shares a unique relationship with your partner - not quite like that between the Big Daddy and Little Sister perhaps, but just as nuanced.

So that was what we gleaned from the teaser and the press materials during the announcement, but since then we’ve also been treated with a ten-minute uninterrupted gameplay demo, embedded below. Reminiscent of that very first demonstration of BioShock way back when, this video of in-game footage offers a fascinating glimpse of a unique new world crafted by Irrational.

One of the first things you may notice is the monologue that opens the video. One fundamental step forward that Infinite makes from the previous two BioShock titles is in the nature of the main character. In the earlier games the player controlled a cipher who had a personality and backstory, but no voice of his own; his actions controlled by the player and his mindset presumed by his puppeteer1. But in Infinite, not only does Booker DeWitt have a past, he plays an active role in the goings on as the player progresses by voicing his thoughts at opportune moments. I see that most other sites can only name recent similar examples of the wry, quipping hero, such as those voiced by the prolific Nolan North, but my memory goes farther back to a much more likely influence on DeWitt’s expressive nature. That is to say, one of the fathers of the immersive sim, Thief, and its sorely missed protagonist Garrett. In that classic series it felt more like you accompanied the master thief on his journey, each tense moment a shared experience and your every triumphant move validated by his assured demeanour.

But I digress. We’re not 20 seconds into the video and we’re inundated with images of American Exceptionalism, an ominous introduction to Columbia. As DeWitt walks through a rundown alley a mechanical horse pulling a broken carriage stutters by. Reaching the streets we’re graced with a gorgeous view of open air, and a huge floating building towering over us. Short-lived wonder, though, as the structure breaks down before us and comes crashing down to the ground at our feet. The place is in a state of disrepair, this much is clear. DeWitt makes his way down the street and along the way we witness some haunting scenes, such as that of a woman sweeping the porch of a burning building, and a dead horse sprawled across the sidewalk.

There’s someone on a bench, feeding crows, and another man under a pavilion preaching his patriotic cant. Only when DeWitt draws his rifle does the man react and shimmer with malevolence. There’s something supernatural going on here that will hopefully be explained at some point. Suffice it to say that both NPCs have at their disposal some powers that DeWitt can gain to his advantage, too. The man commanding the crows leaves behind a curious bottle, which upon drinking bestows DeWitt with the Murder of Crows “vigor”2. Flashes of old BioShock here for sure, in the splicer-like enemies and the tonic-like vigors, though no doubt there will be a different explanation to all of this.

The scale of the environments is staggering, with enormous buildings floating in the air and expansive sky beyond. Spatiality - one of Irrational’s trademarks - is strong here, with various kinds of landmarks such as hotels and clocktowers in sight. There’s definitely some nifty new tech powering this game, a big step forward from engine used in the previous games3.

There’s hardly any time to take all of that in, however, as a gunfight quickly escalates into a cannon fight, and DeWitt isn’t faring too well just picking enemies off in the distance with his rifle. To close the gap between him and the enemy, he has to make use of a new mechanic known as “the skyline”, a rail transportation system that connects each of the discrete floating islands of Columbia. It certainly looks like a thrilling way to get from place to place, jumping from one rail to the next, attacking enemies as you go. I recall that earlier this year at PAX East some of the Irrational developers gave a panel about the creation of Columbia, which featured some footage of an early version of the game with the rail system already up and running. It’s worth checking out if you’re interested in the genesis of the mechanic.

Back to our gameplay, anyhow. DeWitt lands in the thick of the combat, handling crowds that are surely larger in number than we’ve seen before in a BioShock game. DeWitt employs plasmid [sic] power after power, but it seems the hoard is too overwhelming - when suddenly Miss Elizabeth appears to even the odds. Summoning a rain cloud gives DeWitt the chance to electrify them all at once. Phew! DeWitt and Elizabeth make a good team, but the closing moments of the video present a couple of much tougher foes, the Handyman and the terrifying Songbird. It’s going to take a lot more to bring down these beasts.

That’s all we have of the game to date. Things are ramping up for an eventful E3; there will surely be brand new footage to see. The official site has been revamped, and who knows, there may be some additional marketing - of the viral kind, perhaps, in the same spirit as with previous 2K games. Lord knows I have obsessed over some of it already. Various previews that went live this week have discussed a new demo shown to the press, elaborating on the nature of Elizabeth’s abilities, and head dangerously into spoiler territory - even hinting towards the meaning behind the term ‘Infinite’ in the title. We’ll cover the new details once we see it for ourselves. Catch you back here during E3 week.

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