Click after the break for a look at the Game
The nods to the original BioShock are obvious early on. Infinite begins at sea as you approach a lighthouse. After a sequence of flashing light and booming sound that owes a lot to the finale of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you’re whisked up on a rocket elevator to Columbia and initially given the impression the city might actually be a secessionist paradise supported by a religious worship of major figures from American history.
Curving metal rails connect Columbia’s bobbing subdivisions and allow for the shipment of freight containers. Posters and statues of Comstock, the city’s religious leader, are everywhere. You listen to the chatter of Columbia’s idle citizens and you pick up audio recordings to hear more concentrated stories. You’re not forced by desperate circumstance to trust some character you’ve never met before, which seems to suggest Infinite might not gradually build to a BioShock- or System Shock 2-style reveal.
Even the tutorials cleverly further the story. You approach booths at a fair in Columbia and take on shooting gallery challenges. You shoot at targets shaped like members of the allegedly villainous Vox Populi, and so are introduced to the notion that faction warfare is deeply embedded in Columbia’s public consciousness. If you shoot accurately you’re given coins, and if you don’t care you can ignore the booths entirely, and so Irrational doesn’t punish those who’d rather just get to the part where things start to go crazy.
When you find her trapped in a tower she seems eager to leave. You both flee from a hulking bird-like beast called Songbird and attempt to find a way out of the city. She’s been imprisoned in a library her whole life like some fairy tale princess, and when outside she spins and dances and peers out windows and examines mundane objects with child-like fascination. Her eyes are enormous and wonderfully expressive, and it seems clear that she’s meant to be the innocent, idealistic foil to Booker’s world-weary selfishness. She’s confused by the idea of Columbia’s segregated bathrooms while everyone else barely notices them. She recoils in horror the first time you kill someone in front of her. She calls Booker a murderer, and he can’t offer much of a defense because her assessment is entirely accurate.
She also asks questions, which leads to some of the most memorable moments of Infinite’s opening sections. She asks what happened to Booker’s wife, and Booker responds:
“She died giving birth.”
“You have a child?”
Precise dialogue like that opens up Infinite’s character development in ways that simply weren’t possible in prior BioShock games and helps crystalize both characters far more effectively. After a while Booker doesn’t seem as callous, and there seems to be far more fueling his disillusionment than a simple lazy disinterest in the human condition. It’s obvious their relationship will strengthen, though to what end remains unknown for now.
The shooting parts, at least near the beginning, don't stand out quite as much. Though your magical abilities are called Vigors instead of Plasmids and you receive a regenerating overshield, the initial combat experience feels very familiar. You get a fire Vigor called Devil’s Kiss to burn foes and can charge it up to set flame traps on the ground. A possession Vigor turns enemies and turrets against each other temporarily. You get a pistol and a machine gun early on, and if you want to use another weapon you’ll need to drop one you’re holding because you can only ever use two at a time.
While Irrational had talked before about implementing a new resource system for Vigor use, the powers are now activated by drawing on a pool of Salts in the same way that BioShock’s Plasmids required Eve, so the rhythm of combat shouldn’t be difficult for any franchise fan to adjust to. By finding special potions around Columbia you can choose to boost health, overshield or Salts, so you can build yourself into a durable fighter or more of a fire-slinging sorcerer to suit your preferred play style.
Passive upgrades return, but they’re no longer called Nostrums like previously reported. Instead, they’re called Gear, and four can be equipped at a time. Like Tonics from the original, these confer passive benefits. Combined in the right way, they can enhance specific elements of gameplay and let you fight much more effectively when dive-bombing onto enemies from skylines or give you special effects like a chance to shock enemies when hit.
Though the fights in the first hour or so were pretty basic, the later encounters required a more creative approach. Switching between pistol and shotgun, setting fire traps to singe pursuing foes while using possession to flip a turret’s allegiance then swapping to the Bucking Bronco Vigor to launch forward a wide blast of paralyzing energy to suspend foes in midair and set them up for one-hit-kill skyhook swipes was very satisfying. Enemies eventually brought bigger weapons to fights alongside pistols and rifles and special types of adversaries teleported around battle zones and launched powerful fire attacks. The later fights felt like more sophisticated challenges where the shape of the environment, ability to scramble and loot bodies mid-fight to recover health, ammo and Salts, and knowledge of how best to combine weapon and Vigor use actually mattered.
Elizabeth’s contributions to fights aren’t spectacular, but are helpful. When she’s nearby she’ll offer up health and ammunition in limited amounts. She also has the power to open tears in the fabric of reality to conjure structures. By clicking on a tearable area you can order Elizabeth to activate it, and it seems only one tear can be active at a time, meaning you need to decide whether to summon a turret, a clump of Salts or a health station. While there seems to be a lot of potential for a system like this, the actual in-game applications seem very conservative in the early stages. Elizabeth also serves as Infinite’s version of a Vita-Chamber and revives you if you die, which takes away some of your money and lets enemies regenerate a portion of their health every time.
While the gameplay uses many ideas from the original game, Irrational does such a great job of infusing a sense of wonder and mystery into the experience so that it feels like a journey well worth continuing beyond the initial sections. Between Booker and Elizabeth’s relationship, the occasional TV static-like flicker of seemingly solid objects in Columbia, the nature of Booker’s bizarre flashbacks, the Songbird, Elizabeth’s reality-bending power, the nationalism-as-religion themes and conflict between Columbia’s factions, Infinite has no lack of big, ambitious ideas. Where it’s all headed and whether or not it’ll wrap up in a sensible, satisfying way is anyone’s guess until the full game is made available.
In case you hadn't already heard, BioShock Infinite was just delayed again. Assuming this date actually holds, Infinite will be available on March 26 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.