Whether or not you think of BioShock Infinite as the true sequel to BioShock probably depends on your definition of the word sequel. We've already had a numerical and chronological successor set in the drowned world of Rapture, of course, echoing its pressured, clanking undersea horror and iconic art deco imagery.
BioShock Infinite catapults us backwards - and upwards - to a very different world. It's 1912, and we're in Columbia, another failed utopia. But this one is a city flying high in the clouds: islands of whitewashed brick and mortar kept aloft by airship envelopes and giant propellers, studded with trees, connected by a tangle of sky lines, bathing in bright summer sunlight. What happens there seems faster, more spectacular, more overtly fantastical - and more personal.
It's not explicitly set in the same universe as BioShock. It looks and feels very different - and yet strangely familiar. Columbia is largely deserted and collapsing around you, thinly populated by unpredictable people with strange powers. There are faded posters done in immaculate period style, shouting about lost ideals and brands that never were. The soundtrack is defined by the scratch of needle on acetate. And there's that sense of exploring a world that you almost recognise but is also utterly new to you - the sense that defined BioShock but that - by definition - was beyond BioShock 2.
That will make Infinite, in the eyes of many, the true BioShock sequel. That, and the fact that it's being made by Irrational Games and masterminded by its founder Ken Levine.
Levine's on stage in an elegantly chandeliered function room of the Plaza Hotel in New York, an imposing chunk of faux-château that was built in 1907 and perfectly encapsulates the bold spirit of 1900s America that he's talking about. (Later, the black drapes around us will fall away to reveal a 360-degree panorama of Columbia on the walls, suspending us in Infinite's new sky world. Well, almost all the drapes fall away - some stubbornly cling on for a minute, emitting awful mechanical coughs. It spoils Levine's big moment a little, but adds a touch of broken hubris that's somehow very BioShock.)
After showing us the first trailer, Levine explains that Columbia was built at the turn of the century, not in secret like Rapture, but as a very public expression of the economic and engineering might of a nation that had gone from rural backwater to industrial powerhouse in a couple of decades: "the Apollo project of 1900," as he puts it. Ostensibly a peaceable metropolis built in the founding-fathers, neo-classical style of Irrational's home town of Boston, Columbia turns out to be "a Death Star" that's armed to the teeth, becomes involved in a catastrophic and violent international incident, and then disappears.
In a break with Shock tradition, the player is no nameless cipher but a pronounced character in Infinite's story: a Pinkerton agent, a disgraced strike-breaker and strong-arm, rejoicing in the name Booker DeWitt. A mysterious figure who knows Columbia's location employs him to find and rescue Elizabeth, a woman with strange and immense powers who's imprisoned there. DeWitt finds her without difficulty, but Elizabeth is embroiled in a conflict that's tearing Columbia apart, and the pair must combine their powers and form a partnership to escape the city as it crumbles away beneath their feet. (Elizabeth is strictly an AI companion: you won't be controlling her in a co-op mode.)
Levine then introduces a live gameplay demo that, frankly, is almost too good. A condensed barrage of spectacle and set-piece rattles past us, picking out elements of the gameplay just long enough to register but not so long that we can dwell on them. It's a slice of tightly-scripted performance gaming that stretches credibility in places - without ever quite breaking it, to be fair - and raises questions about just how linear and contained the final game is going to be.
You can't fake the magnificent artwork, however, the reach of the new game engine, or the wealth of contextual detail and thought that's been applied to this wild, quasi-steampunk alternate history. BioShock Infinite is a stunning game, every bit as sumptuous as the original but blasting open its snow-globe world and flooding it with light, colour and space. Maybe it's just the palette change, but it seems to have a more hand-drawn, pronounced and painterly look - cartoon would be the wrong word - that brings the Fable games to mind. It's lush.
It was Irrational's mastery of tone and the way it fed details of the city's secret history through the environments and the artwork that set BioShock apart, and from the demo it's clear that Infinite is no different. It begins with a triumphalist poster swimming blurrily into view, depicting a stout George Washington holding the Liberty Bell aloft surrounded by craven, jingoistic caricatures of racial stereotypes. "It Is Our Holy Duty To Guard Against The Foreign Hordes," reads the legend.
It's not that subtle, but Columbia is not a subtle place, and you sense that Levine is aiming for a more robust, satirical tone and more pointed engagement with politics this time around. As De Witt sets off down a cobbled street, a broken mechanical horse and cart limps and screeches past, plastered in newspaper headlines shouting, "Anarchists Loose". At the end of the street, a flying church's tenuous grip on the air fails it, and it lurches and falls, its tower toppling and bell crashing into the street in front of us.
"They'll Take Your Gun - They'll Take Your Wife - They'll Take Your Business - They'll Take your Life," read the hustings slogans at a bunting-draped bandstand where a local worthy hectors nobody in particular. We take the hint, picking up a sniper rifle with a burnished bronze scope, and the speaker takes exception. His eyes glow and he assaults us with telekinetic powers, and summons a crowd of bloody-beaked crows to pester us - this power, Murder of Crows, we pick up later by drinking from a handsomely-moulded flask.
Combat is sporadic, and not necessarily triggered immediately. You can't be sure which side the inhabitants of Columbia are on, and whether they'll be hostile. At one point, we enter a saloon - its dark wood, gleaming brass and shaded lamps a strangely comforting echo of Rapture - and there's a tense moment when its patrons look at DeWitt with mixed curiosity and disinterest before one attacks with a shotgun from behind.
When fights do break out, however, they're big. Flaming artillery strikes arc through the sky from one island to the next. We use telekinesis to stop a shell from a steam-cannon in mid-air and send it back where it came from. Zipping down a sky line at a rate of knots using a grappling hook, we use a wrench to smack an enemy coming the other way - frock coat flapping in the wind, Derby hat staying firm - off and into a sheer wall. We grab an enemy's shotgun off him with telekinesis, turn it on him and shoot it while it hangs in mid air.
Things get even more dramatic when we're joined by Elizabeth, big-eyed, dark-haired and buxom in her Edwardian frock. A mob of unruly locals attacks - enemies come in larger numbers than they ever did in BioShock - and she summons a howling wind and darkening storm clouds which, combined with DeWitt's electro-shock power, fries them all at once. At another point, she telekinetically moulds a heap of scrap metal into a molten boulder that DeWitt can then hurl at their assailants. The pair talk a lot, DeWitt and Elizabeth clearly signposting targets and strategies for the player's benefit, although Levine says you can always ignore them to pursue your own path.
Levine (in our interview) says that the power development in Infinite will work similarly to the first game's - although we don't hear anything about an Adam equivalent, not yet at any rate - but your options will be expanded, primarily, by the interaction with Elizabeth and by the scope of Columbia's environments. It's maybe not as quite open as it looks - Columbia being broken up into discrete floating chunks keeps your immediate surroundings tight - but there are still much longer sight-lines, with DeWitt using the sniper rifle to pick out enemies on neighbouring 'islands'.
More on BioShock Infinite
The demo climaxes with the pair being attacked by a man-machine, a Frankenstein's monster of robot with a heart beating behind glass in his chunky metal torso and a pallid, giant human head with a waxed handlebar moustache. He's not as sinister as a Big Daddy - like a lot about Infinite, there's actually something vaguely comical about him - but he is similarly poignant, and impressively tough.
DeWitt and Elizabeth take him down by bringing down the sky-bridge he's standing on, only for a second, much more terrifying threat to appear: a gigantic winged gryphon, leaping from building to building, a black silhouette even in the sunlight, except for one telling detail: his eyes are glowing, barred, bathyscape portholes, exactly like a Big Daddy's helmet.
It's the only visual reference to BioShock in the entire demo; with the playful glimpse of a toy figure in a diving suit at the start of the trailer, it bookends Irrational's unveiling of the game. That's an artful touch, but in truth, BioShock Infinte doesn't need to lean on its heritage even as lightly as this. The demo may be somewhat theatrical, and the questions stacked far higher than the answers, but Infinite very obviously possesses the intellect, intensity, craftsmanship, playfulness and wonder of its predecessor without seeking to repeat it. If only all sequels could say as much.
BioShock Infinite is planned for release in 2012 on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.