BioShock Infinite feels like the original BioShock, and yet nothing like it.
That was my initial impression just a few minutes into previewing the first four hours of what quickly became my most anticipated game of early-2013.
The original BioShock was praised for its unique atmosphere and genuine shocking twists -- as well as stunning visuals -- but its sequel failed to live up to the hype. It wasn’t a bad game, but rather a follow-up we didn’t need for the sake of having a sequel.
BioShock Infinite feels like the sequel we deserved; the one we want to play. It’s very much a BioShock game, yet its clouded setting and mysterious characters set it apart.
You play as former detective Booker DeWitt, sent to rescue a girl named Elizabeth, who has spent her entire life held in captivity. The characters are mystified by the unexplained shenanigans unfolding around them, and so are you, thrown straight into the thick of the action with little in the way of vindication. Booker’s intentions for rescuing Elizabeth are unknown, as is her captivity, for that matter.
I was immediately in awe of the vibrant American fair and merry tunes that usher in the start of what is sure to be an unforgettable story.
Set in the floating city of Columbia during an alternate version of 1912, I was immediately in awe of the vibrant American fair and merry tunes that usher in the start of what is sure to be an unforgettable story.
While it feels like BioShock, the floating world is in stark contrast to the gloomy underwater Rapture. The sights and sounds are unlike anything we’ve experienced before -- unless you’ve been to a supernatural floating world or lived through the 1910s -- yet offer a resounding homely quality that immediately engross you in Columbian life.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very much a set world with what boils down to a linear path, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lively city to explore along the way. I didn’t kill anyone for the first hour, as the NPC chitchat and seemingly insignificant areas engulfed me in the thrill of exploration -- 1910s racist banter and all.
At its core, it’s very much a BioShock game, as a first person shooter infused with supernatural elements. Booker fires a 1912-era(ish) weapon with his right hand and controls Vigor powers with his left. The latter replaces ADAM with Salts to power abilities such as possession, fireballs and conjuring a murder of man-eating crows. My personal favourite was Bucking Bronco: the ability to suspend enemies in mid-air, rendering them defenceless.
It’s also the only bonafide newcomer. The rest, while rebranded, are all new takes on old tricks, evolved from the Plasmids in the original BioShock. It’s a little disappointing to see only one entirely new ability, but each is seamlessly integrated into the new environment.
There are two tiers to each ability -- and you probably won’t understand why I’m bothering to mention it, but once you’re sick of the tutorials, you’ll understand why it stuck in my mind. Pressing the left trigger (I played on PC using a 360 controller) will activate the ability, while holding it down will set a trap for unsuspecting minions. This is all explained through a timely silent animated film, but it grows old upon the fifth viewing, which is followed by a text explanation just in-case you weren’t paying attention. We get it.
It would be cruel to reveal any more about BioShock Infinite's spellbinding story. It's an adventure best explored going in cold.
Aside from fire-power, Booker is armed with the well publicised Skyhook. The device features three magnetised rotating hooks controlled by a trigger. Melee attacks have been mapped to the Y button, and dish-out surprisingly gruesome damage amidst a utopian backdrop -- but I don’t know what else I was expected from jamming spinning blades into a man’s face.
The Skyhook is one of Booker’s most important assets as it also plays hosts to transportation. The floating islands are interconnected by a skyline rail system, which the hook can magnetically grapple to. Much to my surprise, it’s more than a simple “press A to hop on and again to jump off” mechanic. You have control during the journey to alter Booker’s speed and quickly switch line to change direction.
From here, BioShock Infinite becomes a hard game to preview. It would be cruel to reveal any more about the game's spellbinding story. It's an adventure best explored going in cold.
However, anyone with a hint of interest will know the evolving relationship between Booker and Elizabeth plays a pivotal role in both story and gameplay. When she's with Booker, Elizabeth will scavenge for ammo and health, but this doesn't turn into a painstaking escort mission. Left to her own devices, Elizabeth will never need protection.
She proves to be even more useful after unveiling the ability to create rifts in the universe and "tear" in items that otherwise aren't there. Tears allow Elizabeth to pull items from another reality into Booker's universe. They range from automatic turrets to points of contact for Booker's Skyhook and much needed ammunition.
As a storytelling quirk, it only adds to the mystery. When young Lizzy first showed Booker her amazing gift, I got a glimpse into 1980s Paris and Revenge of the Jedi, a throwback to George Lucas’s original title. But Infinite is set in 1912 -- what in blazes is going on? (And before you blast me for spoilers, I only mention it because it’s also in the screen above).
My only major concern was with the control scheme. While improved on previous instalments, I was never completely at home at with it, and stumbled through some awkward moments.
Granted, most of that can be attributed to an unintuitive control scheme that will likely be able to be customised. Aiming down the scope was handled by depressing the right control stick, while the left trigger launch into a Vigor attack. That caused serious problems, as did Y being used to melee instead of swap between the restrictive two weapons (down from four).
None of these are major issues, but hopefully the controls aren’t set in stone. Every embarrassing death (all five of them) was a direct result of a control gaff causing everything to go horribly wrong.
I’ll leave you with this. I was always interested in BioShock Infinite, but nothing more. Having played the first four hours, it’s sky-rocketed to become one of my most anticipated games of the year -- that very rarely happens after a preview session. The next six weeks can’t go quickly enough!
BioShock Infinite will be released in Australia on March 26 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC!