Bioshock Infinite: Something's amiss in Columbia

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Not much has been said about Bioshock Infinite since its original unveiling at E3 2011. In fact, we haven’t really heard or seen anything beyond continued delays. That trend was finally broken last week in Los Angeles as I got hands-on time with the first three hours of the game. Thankfully, it didn’t disappoint.

As I sat down at my high-end PC and started the game, one thing was immediately clear: Bioshock Infinite is beautiful. Not in a “there’s bright colors everywhere” way, but rather that the team at Irrational pushed the hardware to its limits. The story opens with Booker DeWitt getting rowed to a lighthouse on a small boat by a chatty couple. He’s given a box that starts to give us our first indication of who he really is, but it’s not until later in the opening chapters that we really find out just who Booker is in the world and what his purpose is.

Soon after he exits the boat, he enters the lighthouse and sits in a chair that turns into a rocketship and shoots him into the sky and eventually, right into Columbia, a floating city in the sky. It’s a magical place, that somehow manages to operate just as efficiently as the rest of us do on solid ground, despite taking place on floating platforms. 

This all takes place around 1912, but the Bioshock universe still runs on its own alternate timelines, so you just have to deal with the fact that they’re hyper-advanced in some areas, yet right where they should be in others. Everything still looks just as you’d expect a city to at that time, so there’s kids selling newspapers and cobblestone roads everywhere. There’s still horses pulling everything around, but they’re robo-horses, rather than real horses.

Unfortunately for Booker, everything isn’t as magical as it seems, as he quickly finds out that there’s something far more devious going on behind the curtain. Everyone in the city zealously praises Comstock (the founder of Columbia), claiming that he’s one of the greatest men to ever live; yet all the while, he has locked his daughter Elizabeth in a room for her entire life, so that he could "preserve" her. Not only that, but he watches and records her through one-way mirrors. As if that wasn’t creepy enough, he created a mechanical creature, called the Songbird, to protect her and make sure that she never once leaves her captivity.

There’s a pivotal moment about twenty minutes in that gives you a hint at the tone that the rest of the game will take, as we find out that Comstock and the residents of Columbia are completely racist. They don’t just disapprove of interracial marriages, but they hold raffles to see who gets to throw the first baseball at the heads of the people who are caught in interracial marriages. It was a big moment for me that sent the message loud and clear: Bioshock Infinite takes you to some uncomfortable places.

It's also really great to see such a priority placed on Elizabeth. While you're technically protecting her in this sequence we played, it never felt like an escort mission. In fact, she was usually the one leading me around, not the other way around. She even helps by throwing Booker ammo or weapons every once in a while, which is a great and unobtrusive way to involve her in combat, despite her not having a weapon.

The first three hours are a mix of non-combat and combat sequences (there’s a really strong balance between the two) but as soon as things shift to combat, everything cranks up a notch very quickly. It goes from a slow pace, where you can’t help but take in the vast world around you, to one where you might have to blow through some areas in order to keep the flow of combat moving, but it manages to do all this without it feeling like a forced push to move on.

You have your guns and iron sights, just like any other modern shooter, but there isn’t as much of a reliance as there is in most games. Sure, they’re still a necessity, but it’s all about using Vigors (a sort of psychokinetic power found throughout the world) in combination with objects in the environment to solve combat puzzles. During my playthrough it quickly became second nature to chain together a vigor like Murder of Crows (which, well, calls in a murder of crows to peck at and slowly peel the skin off of your foes) with gunfire to easily take down a larger group of enemies that I would normally have been able to.

This kind of environmental manipulation is aided and abetted by the great implementation of the Skyhook, which allows Booker and Elizabeth to ride the cargo rails found throughout the floating city. It drastically quickens the pace of combat scenarios and makes for a handy secondary weapon to boot.

Despite the great pacing, combat can feel somewhat shallow at times, whether that’s due to the scarcity of ammo that leads to constant weapon swaps or just the typical AI behavior that’s incredibly easy to read and abuse, I can’t say for certain, but for a world as deep and thought-out as Columbia, it’s somewhat concerning at times. 

There’s so much more to Bioshock Infinite than what we were shown and for the first time in a long time, I’m genuinely intrigued and mystified by its story at every turn. Setting aside the combat and presentation, I’m absolutely fascinated by what Bioshock Infinite is doing in terms of storytelling and can’t wait to see more. This small segment of gameplay confirmed my feelings about Bioshock Infinite as my most anticipated game of 2013. 

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