It’s a BioShock game alright. Despite the sideways shift in tone and departure from one of the most iconic venues for deathly doings of recent memory, this is unreservedly BioShock. It even kicks off with a trip to a lighthouse, although this time you approach by paddle and leave by rocket.
The world of Columbia lies in stark contrast to Rapture, certainly, but only on a surface level. Where Andrew Ryan’s failed, subaqueous dystopia was made up of gloomy hallways – an undersea carcass, long dead by the time you popped by – Columbia is a world with a pulse. It’s serene with a hint of Studio Ghibli’s fantasticality about it; a skyborne archipelago held up by whirring contraptions and industrial-sized propellers. Science be damned. Churches burst through the thick blanket of pristine cloud, hot dog stands and delicatessens garland the cobbled streets while humungous airships drift by casual-like and calming music spills from an aquaduct. Children frolic in the streets, couples relax on an artifical beach and shopkeepers are happy leaving their wares unguarded.
It’s all a ruse, of course; a meticulously crafted mask concealing many of the same horrors that worked to make Rapture such an enthralling and perverted place. I’m not sure Columbia is as immediately captivating as Rapture was, but look a little closer and its image of purity begins to give way. Children whisper of a beast known as the songbird, worship cartoon characters named Duke and Dimwit (their motto: “don’t be a dimwit!”) and there’s an undercurrent of militarisation bubbling away. Where Rapture was a blatantly hedonistic abyss, Columbia’s horrors are nestled a little deeper and Irrational are keen to ensure Infinite is deeply uneasy, rather than briefly shocking.
Compared to BioShock’s blistering descent into madness, the opening half-hour of Infinite is a touch spun out (although you can whoosh through it). You plunder sandwiches from bins, listen to vonographs (Columbia’s carelessly placed audio diaries) and eavesdrop in on conversations all the while getting a feel for Booker, Infinite’s voiced protagonist. He’s a down-an-out cowboy, resolute in the face of danger but nonetheless quietly likeable even if, by the end of the demo, we still know very little about him.
Except, of course, that he’s handy with a gun. Combat is a marked improvement over the original game, meatier and more tactile. Heads disappear in a red haze at the hands of a carbine or sniper rifle, while the sound of metal ripping through flesh or a skull crunching under the jurisdiction of Booker’s metal claw (Infinite’s replacement for the wrench) all help bolster the newfound oomph. Only a feeble submachine gun fails to adhere to the new ethos of bang and buck, but shooting chaps in Columbia is reliably good fun.
That’s largely due to Vigors – wild magical abilities sent screaming from the palm of Booker’s left hand – which fill the hole left by BioShock’s Plasmids. The best of those available in the demo is dubbed Bucking Bronco. Channelling the spirit of Bulletstorm’s whip, Bronco flings nearby enemies into the air where they linger momentarily, soaking up additional damage but unable to dish out any of their own. A touch unfair, perhaps, but send a cluster of these chumps on their way with a one-two punch of Bronco and shotgun blast and all notions of fair are suddenly irrelevant.
Combat doesn’t stray too far from the expected though, at least not until the sky rail comes into play. Enemies aren’t so keen to charge toward you anymore and instead dip in and out of cover, although never in the pop up shooting gallery manner that typifies Call of Duty and its ilk. There’s greater variety in the enemy types though. Many avoid duking it out up close, playing up to the newly expansive levels which accomodate for firefights that rage through sprawling courtyards or across several small islands connected via sky-rail. It certainly makes the combat a more multi-faceted affair, but the enemies lack the pull of the Big Daddy or any of the Splicers.
The sky-rail too initially feels like a gimmick. A mishmash of Ratchet & Clank’s grindrails and Futurama’s iconic tube-travel, these looping metal railways allow you to travel through Columbia at speed. They crisscross neatly through the sky and Booker is able to leap great distances to travel between them. It’s pretty spectacular and even by the end of the demo the frission of excitement that comes from zipping down a particularly steep drop or getting a good look over all of Columbia hadn’t waned.
And as the demo goes on the sky-rail becomes as much a tool for combat as traversal and it’s here that it comes into its own. You can hang motionless and fire on enemies from afar, use the rails as a reprieve from battle or as a means to drop claw-first onto an unsuspecting goon. The sky-rail would appear to be to Columbia what Splicers stood idly in pools of water was to Rapture, and then some.
Infinite’s crowning glory though, is sure to be Elizabeth. She picks up where Alyx Vance and Valve left off and while she’s useful enough in combat – hurling weapons and pointing out enemies unobtrusively – her presence is most keenly felt during the quieter moments.
At one stage during the game I entered a toilet in search of ammo left in a bin or food stuffed down a urinal no doubt. In here Elizabeth squirmed, wrinkled her nose, held her stomach and proceeded to tiptoe straight back out the door. A handful of minor mannerisms, sure, but they infused her with a realness most videogame characters sorely lack. Her expressions are wonderful and she has the voice-acting to match and it’ll be the relationship between her and Booker that mark BioShock out from its predecessors.
Elizabeth’s got one hell of a party trick too. She’s capable of opening tears; windows into another place or time through which she can yank physical objects like, say, a machine gun turret. When, where and what you can summon is predetermined and clearly marked in the world, so there’s no pulling weapons or cover through on a whim, but the tears lend combat an additional tactical edge that compliments the more expansive combat zones.
Outside of combat it gets even more interesting. During one scene Elizabeth opens a tear to Paris through which spill the dulcet tones of Curt Smith crooning Everybody Wants to Rule The World. It’s an enigmatic hint at things to come, or an indicator that my notes are nonsense.
It might lack the instant pull of Rapture, but Columbia lacks none of its intrigue. Yet it’s not the star here. That crown goes to Elizabeth and it’s a testament to the quality of the writing and Irrational’s keen eye for detail that they’ve created an AI that manages to upstage its beautifully realised floating city time and again. It’s a BioShock game bolstered by punchy combat and a tantalising new art-style, but it’s Elizabeth that provides the true reason to be excited.
This preview was originally published on Strategy Informer.