Elevating the conversation
Game design is like real-estate in surprisingly few ways – and yet, in both, location is everything. In a good game it is not merely the backdrop for your adventure but a key factor to be wrestled with or otherwise used to your advantage. In the best games it provides context as integral to the experience as your character and their motivations. In BioShock it is arguably more important than that.
So when Irrational Games announced that not only would they not be involved in BioShock 2, but that their glorious return to the franchise wouldn’t even be set in Rapture… well, it seemed they had thrown the Little Sister out with the bath water. What could BioShock be outside of Rapture? What gameplay environment could they deliver that would be as compelling as a city hidden miles below sea-level? It turns out the answer was in the question.
Death from above
Columbia may be a city floating in the sky rather than 20,000 leagues under the sea, but it owes its creation to same origins that birthed Rapture – namely, hubris. A monument to the pinnacle of American achievement at the turn of the century, Columbia was built to be a kind of flying World’s Fair; visiting foreign nations to benevolently grace them with all the spectacle of Western accomplishment before moving on to the next. As is the way with these things, human weakness and shady motives soon erode the foundations of the city’s civilised society, bringing about a civil war between the ruling class of ‘Founders’, and the ‘Vox Populi’, an underclass of immigrants and servants looking for revolution. This is around the time our protagonist, Booker DeWitt, arrives in the city.
Booker is a Pinkerton, or more accurately, an ex-Pinkerton agent – thrown out of the notoriously unpleasant security agency for ‘unacceptable behaviour’. He has been hired by a shadowy collective to locate and return Elizabeth, a similarly mysterious young woman who has been imprisoned on the city for the last 12 years (interestingly, the game takes place in the year 1912).
Finding Elizabeth proves simple enough, but Booker soon finds himself caught between the Founders and the Vox Populi as both factions attempt to take advantage of the girl and her strange powers. There is also the small matter of dealing with ‘Songbird’ – Elizabeth’s giant clockwork guardian who acts somewhere between a Big Daddy and an abusive spouse. Songbird has helpfully been programmed with emotions like love, hate and betrayal, and will hunt you down tirelessly to reclaim Elizabeth for his own. Naturally, this wouldn’t be a Ken Levine joint if every NPC wasn’t out for your blood.
Birds of a feather
This time, however, there is Elizabeth to accompany you through the horror. BioShock 2 gradually gave the player Little Sisters to assist them, but these always demanded escorting and protecting. In BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth escorts you. Not only can she hold her own when left alone in battle but her supernatural powers allow her to create ‘tears’ to alternative realities, realities where there might be a conveniently placed piece of cover, weaponry or escape route. She’ll need to recover after using these abilities but when a zeppelin comes to respond to a foe’s flare, one mounted turret can make all the difference.
The combat of Infinite is fluid and varied. Escaping the narrow corridors of Rapture, fights now take place over Columbia’s various floating islands which are connected by a network of monorail ‘Skylines’. Booker uses his Skyhook to sling himself on to these rails, building up momentum to reach other areas or evade incoming fire, making for frenetic yet impressively coherent combat. The Plasmid powers of BioShock are replaced with ‘Vigors’ – bottled abilities such as Murder of Crows and Bucking Bronco, that can summon flocks of birds or electric charge to equal the odds. There is also increased customisation in Booker’s powers, which – coupled with how you choose to use Elizabeth – promise to make Infinite a more unique experience from gamer to gamer.
The most interesting information coming from Irrational is their focus on the performances of the game’s two stars. The work going in to these roles is impressive in itself (not least given the low bar for FPS acting) but there is an intriguing amount of context-sensitive dialogue enforcing the promise of a personal experience. Whether you approach a particular cabinet during a quiet moment or leave Elizabeth to fend for herself in a louder one will result in different dialogue, which then weaves in to the soundtrack more seamlessly than the generic lines piped in to most action games.
This may be only a small element delivered well, but if you connect it with scenes where Irrational are clearly attempting to take BioShock’s binary moral choices to a more mature level (for example, the ambiguous moment where you can euthanize a horse before Elizabeth can resurrect it) could it be too much to hope that Infinite’s action isn’t the only thing that branches?
The place to be
As dense as the information currently released aboutInfinite is, each new reveal raises at least as many questions. The original game was rightly lauded for its deep storytelling, yet the apparent complexity of the dynamic between Infinite’s factions are already making the twists and turns BioShock’s Jack has to get his head around appear almost cartoonish in their simplicity. What unmentioned factor ties together the disparate players in Infinite will have to remain unanswered, as will the (presumably linked) question of whether there is any text at the heart of Infinite that reflects the way Ayn Rand’s writings underpinned BioShock’s every turn. Ultimately, Columbia will undoubtedly be the must-see location for gamers this year.
Wish you were there?