BioShock Infinite preview: vertical slice

BioShock Infinite stunned game critics at E3 2011. The demo introduced us to an imaginative world, where a giant robot bird chases a magical girl through floating islands connected via magnetic sky rails. Set in an alternative 1900s America, Irrational Games' latest certainly showed no shortage of creativity. It had won our hearts. And then it disappeared. And then came troubling news that key members of the team had departed. Suddenly, there were doubts if the year-old vertical slice we had seen could be sustained through a full game. Given the number of disparate elements--from vigors to tears to sky-lines to Elizabeth and more--could BioShock Infinite even feel cohesive? The answer is "yes." After playing the first two hours of the game, my confidence in the game has been more than restored. Nay, the same inquisitive excitement I felt when I first saw the game has been renewed. focalbox There are so many reasons why Infinite's opening moments captivate. Key to the experience is what creative director Ken Levine calls the "living world" of the game. Unlike the first BioShock, which was drenched in atmospheric somber, Infinite is a boisterous world, with an overwhelming amount of things to see and do. When you're first introduced to the floating city of Columbia, you're thrust into the middle of a carnival. Here, you're free to look at videos detailing the city's history, test your might in some mini-games, or simply overhear the conversations of the denizens around you. While creeping through the underground city of Rapture made the first BioShock reminiscent of a horror game, there is still something unsettling about Infinite. Its Pleasantville exterior is already suspect, but as you progress through the opening moments of the game, it's clear that something is gravely wrong. The religious zealotry of Columbia's citizens, and the increasingly-obvious racist undertones, make Infinite go into territory games rarely venture to. The story may seem to be a hodgepodge of disparate elements, but Irrational manages to weave its narrative in such a compelling way that it's easy to go along for the ride. The game presents many mysteries: why does Columbia even exist? How does it exist? What is Elizabeth? What do the tears mean? And what is the significance of Booker's flashbacks? Infinite proposes a truly interesting mystery, but given how complex the story is shaping up to be, I also worry that it could end up a bit like Lost.

The journey to meet Elizabeth is full of mystery

Infinite already offers a compelling design before you even get to meet Elizabeth. The world is rich enough, and the gameplay exhilarating enough. Infinite does a great job of slowly introducing new mechanics over its intro: from melee combat, to gunplay, to your first encounter with vigors (Infinite's equivalent of tonics). At its core, combat in Infinite should be familiar to players of the original BioShock. But those sky-lines really change things up. Once they're introduced into combat, you have a whole new way of interacting with and approaching situations. You can still go guns-blazing, but you can also try to get to a higher vantage point by taking advantage of the sky-lines. Also, they are not as intimidating to use as one might expect. You don't have to gauge your jump to connect to one; instead, you simply aim your cursor over where you want to connect, and simply press the Spacebar. Switching tracks and landing on platforms (or foes) is as simple as aiming and clicking once more. Whilst mid-air, you can fire at other enemies, change your speed, or even go in reverse. While enemies don't chase you on the sky-lines in the early parts of the game, I can already envision later battles ratcheting things up.

Sky-lines are surprisingly easy to use

The core tenants of what made BioShock's combat so satisfying return. You can use "Possession" to remotely take over an enemy turret, for example. (You can also upgrade it to take over human enemies, as well!) With Devil's Kiss, you'll be able to set up a fire trap against a teleporting enemy. However, having Elizabeth join your party introduces even more options for you to consider in battle. For example, in one point in the game, I was able to choose between having hooks to grapple onto, or a turret to blast at enemies. I chose the latter, only to realize how valuable getting a better vantage point would have been. Elizabeth not only provides color commentary for the world Booker is in, but she can be a rather useful ally at times, throwing ammo, health, and money your way whenever the situation calls for it. And don't worry about having to "protect" her; it appears that is not a concern (at least in the beginning portions of the game). Not only does she not get in the way of fights, it doesn't appear any enemies want to directly attack her, either. It's not often I find myself so captured by a world. However, Irrational has crafted something truly extraordinary with Infinite. Even after two hours with the game, I know I'm barely scratching the surface, and I cannot wait to see more. It's going to take quite a lot to make all these disparate elements come together--but if Irrational succeeds, the payoff will be truly extraordinary.