Friday, April 13, 2012

BioShock Infinite preview

The successor to a truly acclaimed shooter, BioShock Infinite has some massive expectations to live up to. But it's well on its way to meeting them.

The skies are blue, but this is not a relaxing summer’s day. In Columbia, the climate is one of fear. Its residents clash in conflicts between the traditionalist right-wing and a new, populist uprising: one side believes this floating city should cater to all, the other wants foreigners strictly forbidden.
And there’s tension. It radiates from every second of the BioShock Infinite demo we sit through. Even in its serene moments, there’s an air of menace to everything: indoors, in the safety of a closed-up building, the prevailing thought is that you know things are going to be bad outside.
Creating this sort of omnipresent threat in broad daylight is no mean feat. In the original, acclaimed shooter BioShock, Irrational Games had the benefit of its wonderful setting: a crumbling, rusted underwater city, a utopian paradise gone wrong. Rapture was filled with long shadows and flickering lights, but Columbia doesn’t need to rely on visual motifs to be a truly intimidating place.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t look extraordinary. Beneath its blue skies floats a vast cityscape, held aloft by propellers and balloons. Its look is a strange cross between fantastical steampunk and far-future science-fiction, but it’s all set under a blanket of early 20th Century ideologies, and they too find their place in this hybrid art style. It is, at its core, an image absolutely centred on the notion of contrast: between the views of the disputing factions within the game, and between the colourful surface and the dark interior of the world.
In the game - which again takes the form of a creative first-person action game with roleplaying elements - you play as Booker De Witt, a disgraced agent hired by a mysterious organisation to rescue somebody from Columbia. And that somebody is Elizabeth, your new companion. She’s both an emotional hook and a chance to build new systems within a BioShock game: you’re together for much of the journey, and that means in both the quiet moments and the frantic ones.
When the action switch is set to ‘off’, she exudes a nervous faux-confidence. She runs around an abandoned shop, trying on masks and wondering whether some statues might be made of gold. Creative director Ken Levine recently discussed the scripting procedure that went into this behaviour, but when you see it in action the technology doesn’t seem important. What comes across is that Elizabeth is a young lady who’s clearly trying to escape from her awful situation. She tries to be playful, perhaps endearingly annoying, doing her best to put her experiences to the back of her mind. But as soon as we’re paid a visit by Songbird - the huge, robotic bird-creature from whom you’ve rescued Elizabeth – she’s cowering, tearful, and tangibly afraid.
Despite her large, cartoon eyes, it occurs to me during the demo that she’s one of the most convincing videogame sidekicks I’ve seen since Half-Life 2’s Alyx Vance.
As the demo progresses, the tension ramps up. We walk down the street, keeping one eye behind us. People are staring at us an uncomfortable amount. Elsewhere, there’s shouting going on. Some worrying sounds. Graffiti and propaganda posters fill every street corner. A guard sneers at us, sticks his middle fingers up, but eventually allows us to move on.
Up ahead is the scene of an execution, and we’re afforded the opportunity to intervene. Irrational have promised us some impactful choices, and suggested a single playthrough won’t allow us to see all the content. But this is a hands-off demo, so we don’t get the chance to see what would happen if we chose not to speak up. It’s an interesting prospect to think about, though, because it’s at this moment when things kick off in a very real way, and before long we’re hiding from a hail of gunfire, responding with our own, zipping around Columbia’s rollercoaster-like Skyline and evading rockets fired from a zeppelin.
And with the action switch now very much set to ‘on’, Elizabeth becomes a helpful addition to the fight. Not only does she have a unique set of combat-specific powers, she’s also blessed with the ability to manipulate space-time, playing with the ‘tears’ that have begun to crop up around Columbia. It’s via these means that the world around you can alter during play, and the process feels dynamic and natural.
Without playing the game it’s hard to tell how combat will feel, but simply watching it suggests improvements over BioShock and even BioShock 2. During the demo’s more hectic moments there are enemies attacking from every direction, closing in at a terrifying pace. Infinite also ups the explosive eye-candy significantly: I don’t recall seeing quite such awesome action sequences, nor so many dramatic set-pieces, in a BioShock game before.
Once again, it’s about contrast, and the immediacy of the switch from suspenseful restraint to all-out war is startling. But despite the shifts in mood and approach, this is still very much a BioShock game. It’s an intelligent first-person shooter with a rich and intricate story to tell: a story about a world, its politics, and what happens when groups of people clash during difficult times. If Irrational can add some spectacle and emotion to that journey as well, they might just have perfected their own formula.

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