BioShock Infinite — Irrational Games trades the sea for the sky

Following a teaser trailer revealing its super-secret, much speculated over, and eagerly anticipated BioShock follow-up, Irrational Games' real-life Big Daddy, Ken Levine, stated, “so obviously you’re not in Rapture anymore.” Talk about an understatement. More spiritual successor than sequel, BioShock Infinite takes gamers above - far above - the doomed underwater utopia to Columbia, a city in the sky. This floating World’s Fair of sorts, constructed on hot air-powered airships was “designed to demonstrate to the world by example the founding democratic principles of the United States , the product of American ideals, endeavor and industry.” explained Levine.

Like BioShock’s soggy city, though, things are not as they seem in Columbia. As the story goes, the majestic city in the sky was secretly armed to the teeth, a “Death Star” as Levine put it. This led to a mysterious and disastrous international incident that saw the government disavowing Columbia, forcing it to go rogue and disappear into the clouds. Fast forward to 1912; you’re Booker DeWitt, a disgraced former Pinkerton agent with a reputation for “getting things done,” who’s hired to seek out the skyward metropolis and rescue Elizabeth, apparently a woman of great importance.

Our demo opens with DeWitt’s arrival in Columbia, a beautiful place evoking a strong patriotic vibe; think turn-of-the-century Americana, 4th of July, and Main Street brimming with red, white and blue pride. Of course, Columbia resides within BioShock’s universe, so despite practically being able to smell the apple pie cooling on granny’s window sill, this place is more like a Norman Rockwell painting from Hell. We get a taste of this as DeWitt strolls by an almost catatonic man dragging a newspaper cart with a missing wheel. The oddly expressionless figure and his lame cart - its metal wheel housing sparking against the cobblestones - effectively sets our spines tingling in the same way the woman crooning to the gun in the baby carriage did in Bioshock’s opening moments.

From this point, our stroll through town only gets creepier; a woman sweeps the porch of a flame-engulfed grocery store, seemingly oblivious to the blinding blaze nipping at her backside; black crows compete with flies to feast on a horse carcass; and, taking the prize for most disturbing scene in Columbia, a crazed politician preaches to absolutely no one in a town square. Surrounded by barrels of guns, this Uncle Sam-looking madman encourages us to take up arms against foreigners right before he flashes in and out of some strange blink-and-you’ll-miss-it transformation, identifies DeWitt as an enemy, brandishes a hook, and uses said hand claw to flee via Columbia’s zip line-like rail system.

If there’s any doubt we’re not in Kansas - or Rapture - anymore, this mind-screwing scene squashed it like an Adam-oozing slug under a Big Daddy’s boot. From here, DeWitt grabs a sniper rifle from one of the barrels and treats us to some of Infinite’s FPS gameplay. Separated by the rail system, which Irrational’s Lead Artist Shawn Roberston later describes as the “Skyline, which was originally meant for carrying freight around the city, but has been repurposed for the people to transport themselves.” , DeWitt scopes in on a distant cannon-firing baddie. The ensuing exchange is less about showing off the gunplay than displaying Columbia’s sky-stretching expansiveness, again reminding we’re no longer in Rapture’s suffocating confines.

With hot lead properly placed in his enemy’s skull, DeWitt takes to the Skyline with some hesitation and soon lands in another part of Columbia. He enters a saloon where he’s stared at suspiciously by its armed patrons just before using a Plasmid-like telekinesis power to strip some hooligan of his shotgun. In doing so, he also offers a neat little you-couldn’t-do-this-in-Rapture nod by actually firing the hand cannon while it’s still floating toward his grip. But this was nothing compared to his next trick; unleashing a power that makes BioShock’s bee swarms look about as menacing as a lone mosquito, he conjures a room-eclipsing flock of crows to finish his fight, the assumed result of a tonic we’d sipped earlier dubbed Murder of Crows. The birds’ blackness swallowing up the screen makes for an impressively macabre, chaotic, and deadly display that instantly has us counting the days till we can sample some of this killer-bird cocktail for ourselves.

The concluding moments of the demo offer an almost dizzying display of powers, characters, and plot points that our brains are still struggling to decipher. In the wake of the saloon massacre we meet Elizabeth, who soon reveals some baddie-blasting powers of her own. At one point DeWitt combines his apparent ability to shoot electricity from his fingertips with her power to summon a storm cloud, resulting in a half dozen or so foes being fried by shooting lightning- take that Electrobolt Plasmid! We then witness DeWitt and his new weather-controlling sidekick unleash a similarly devastating offense against a bizarre robot-like baddie; the towering menace, which we’re pretty sure could take a Big Daddy in a fight, was a weird cross between a gorilla and a mech, save for its exposed human face which resembled that of an old timey boxer, complete with waxed hair parted severely down the middle and a curly mustache - like we said, bizarre. DeWitt and Elizabeth take on this behemoth with a collaborative effort that seems to have him shooting a large ball that she constructed - telepathically, of course - from pipes, pots, pans, and other metallic objects.

Finishing with a fade-to-black cliffhanger, the demo leaves our protagonists at the mercy of an enormous black, winged creature that wouldn’t look out of place battling Godzilla atop a Tokyo skyscraper. Needless to say, our time with Infinite left us with more questions than answers, and its brain-bending impact will no doubt take up residence in our minds until Irrational decides to share more with us. This early reveal was all about introducing Columbia, explaining its backstory, and teasing what promises to be a twisted tale on par with BioShock’s engaging yarn. The studio is revealing few, if any, details on pretty much everything except the set-up and setting; many of our questions were met with “We’re not talking about that right now.” responses. Still, there are some seemingly obvious defining features involving Plasmid-like powers as well as some sort of sharing of these abilities between DeWitt and Elizabeth. Additionally, Columbia seems to be populated by its fair share of freaks harboring deadly secrets and devious motives. But many more subtle mysteries, like the reason Elizabeth’s nose bleeds after helping DeWitt, will keep are brains busy until what already looks like another winner from Irrational Games hits in 2012.

Aug 12, 2010

Matt Cabral
A full-time freelance writer based in Lizzie Borden's hometown, Matt Cabral has covered film, television, and video games for over a decade. You can follow him on Twitter @gamegoat, friend him on Facebook, or find him in the basement of an abandoned building hoarding all the canned goods, med-kits, and shotgun shells.