I can't think of BioShock without thinking of Walt Disney. Aside from Andrew Ryan sporting the same haircut and moustache as the famous animator, both were perfectionist visionaries who would do whatever it took to create their own paradise. One built an underwater city, while the other was in the process of doing the same in a Florida swamp before he died. Disney may not have lived to see his dream come to fruition, but he at least left behind a hell of an amusement park, whereas Andrew Ryan's legacy was a rotting tomb at the bottom of the sea.
It's only fitting then that Irrational Games' follow up, BioShock Infinite, bears a resemblance to the Magic Kingdom. Its floating city of Columbia's quaint architecture is comprised of cobblestone roads, well groomed grass and pastel storefronts bringing to mind Main Street U.S.A., while the giant manors floating in the clouds resemble a cross between the Haunted Mansion and Snow White's castle.
The cultural and political turmoil that defined BioShock has returned - this time focusing on pompous nationalism, workers rights, and scientific pursuits of this alternate early 20th century - but whereas before the allegories and setting were thrust into the foreground, BioShock Infinite uses them as a backdrop for a character driven story.
"We've always been successful about immersing people in a space," BioShock creator Ken Levine says. "Now we want to immerse them in a relationship."
Before unveiling a new 15 minute hands-off demo at the Viceroy hotel in Los Angeles, Levine sets the stage: the player assumes the role of former Pinkerton agent Booker Dewitt, a man with a troubled past and gambling debts. He's given an offer he can't refuse by a mysterious benefactor who tasks him with flying to the floating city of Columbia and bringing a girl named Elizabeth back to New York.
Columbia was something of a travelling American emissary, a means of presenting its power unto the rest of the world. After it was involved in an international incident involving the destruction of a city in China during the Boxer rebellion, it seceded from the United States and became its own sovereign nation. Complicating matters, Elizabeth has mysterious powers and has been held prisoner in a tower since she was five years old.
As luck would have it she's also the key to a civil war within Columbia. The Founders, a group of ultra-nationalist religious fundamentalists, want her to stay in the tower, while the internationalist anarchist movement, Vox Populi, want her dead. Busting her out instigates the war, and places you firmly at its centre.
The demo begins with DeWitt and Elizabeth setting off in search of a man named Z.H. Comstock. He's the leader of the Founders, and the only person that can help Elizabeth control her powers.
BioShock Infinite's focus on characters is apparent from the off. DeWitt and Elizabeth enter the Columbia Flag Company, a touristy storefront. Filled with American flags and nationalist memorabilia, Elizabeth playfully throws on a Lincoln mask and begins to recite the Gettysburg Address. While her childlike naiveté kicks in (she mistakes cheap trinkets for solid gold) Dewitt is preoccupied with looting more practical things like cash, a pistol, and a Bucking Broncos Vigor, this iteration's equivalent to plasmids.
It's easy to peg DeWitt as a pragmatic badass and Elizabeth as a childish goof until their happy looting spree is interrupted by the appearance of the songbird, a giant mechanical fowl. We're told this has been Elizabeth's only friend over the past dozen or so years, as well as her jailer. Its only goal is to bring her back to the tower, and it will stop at nothing to "rescue" her.
The damsel in distress premise soon takes a dark turn. "Promise me, if it comes to it, you won't let him take me back," says Elizabeth as she places your hands around her neck. It's a chilling moment, its power amplified through some fantastic animation and voice acting told through faces that are cartoonish and expressive.
"I think he [DeWitt] is a bit cynical," Levine later says. "That's the point in the relationship where the tenor changes a little bit. His respect for her goes up a little bit, but he doesn't know how to deal with her... Cynicism is about thinking you can't be surprised, and Elizabeth surprises him."
The revelations don't end there. Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth tries using her powers to heal a dying horse. "It's just a horse," DeWitt grumbles before pulling out a pistol. A prompt to euthanize pops up, requiring the player to hold it down for a set period of time. Just as he's about to take the shot Elizabeth yells, "No!" and the prompt crumbles.
Pressing up against the horse, a luminous radius emanates from her touch, bathing everything within it in a clean and bright light. At first she doesn't succeed but she tries again until, on her third attempt, we're suddenly transported to a grimy city street, complete with a paved road and seedy neon signs.
It's a jarring moment, and one that proves that BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth is more than just another addition to the long line of needy sidekicks such as Resident Evil 4's Ashley, Ico's Yorda and Enslaved's Trip. She's a quite beguiling enigma in herself.
Before there's time to gather a sense of place a siren sounds and an ambulance enters this new reality, and it's set on a swift collision course with Elizabeth. The moment it's about to hit her, the reality crumbles and Columbia whooshes back in to view. The horse didn't make it.
"I can't control it," she sobs. "It's not possible."
"After what just happened, you really want to take bets on what's possible?" DeWitt replies.
Next the pair enter Vox Populi territory. Alleys are draped in red flags, large projections spout propaganda, and a corpse lies in the street with "hoarder" smeared in blood beside it. Meanwhile the Vox Populi are throwing Molotov cocktails, looting civilians, and making catcalls at Elizabeth. Hostile though the territory may be, we're not being directly attacked.
This is one of the most notable new ideas in BioShock Infinite. Not all NPCs are threats. Some won't fight unless provoked, and though not apparent in the demo, Levine claims that people can fight alongside you if you have a common foe.
"You don't know what's going to set people off," he comments. You'll have to stop and think before you shoot. You're aiding a fugitive, but not everyone knows what you look like. If you see a group of people up ahead do you get the drop on them and open fire, or try to keep a low profile and hope it doesn't come to blows?
We can only keep quiet for so long, before our cover is blown. The Vox Populi are about to publicly execute a man while a bloodthirsty crowd cheers on. A prompt appears giving the option to intervene. We take it. "He's just a postman," DeWitt shouts before the crowd turns its attention towards us. "It's DeWitt!" a man yells before the mob opens fire.
Things get dicey for a moment with the player getting riddled with bullets every which way, and serving as a reminder that BioShock's shooting mechanics were never its forte. With no cover system or sprinting on display, it looks a little rough still.
Of course guns only form the blueprint of BioShock's combat, and Infinite is no different. Vigors like the aforementioned Bucking Broncos allow you to launch enemies and objects into the air - useful for flushing out foes behind cover - and the previously revealed Murder of Crows sends a flock of birds to distract enemies. These add a little spice, but the bigger change is Elizabeth's ability to manipulate "tears" in the environment. The world is littered with various translucent objects that Elizabeth can will into existence. A cart creates cover, a turret provides firepower, and a rail car on a Sky-Line turns into a moving train that pushes enemies off ledges. She can only activate so many tears at a time, though, so you'll have to choose wisely.
Possibly the biggest innovation are the Sky-Lines, a system of rails connecting the various floating islands. Only glimpsed sparingly in the debut trailer, one would be forgiven for thinking they were nothing more than a flashy method of moving from one linear set-piece to another. This couldn't be further from the truth. Sky-Lines are everywhere and provide plenty of opportunities to zip about more open battles.
Hopping from one rail to another is a major component of the game, transforming it almost into a platformer at times. It's hard to gauge how intuitive this will be, but director of product development Timothy Gerritsen boasts that a lot of work has gone into ensuring this is user friendly. Your aiming reticule will dictate when it's safe to jump and you can fine-tune your trajectory mid-air. Riding the rails is exhilarating with swift swooping movements and rickety creaks giving a strong roller coaster vibe.
Compared to Rapture's claustrophobic interiors, BioShock Infinite contains less fluid, but more fluidity. Sky-Lines can be used by foes as well, so you have to keep moving. While not shown in the demo, Gerritsen says they've swapped out BioShock's cumbersome weapon wheel for something more akin to Uncharted where you can only hold a couple guns at a time. This new limitation would be frustrating if Elizabeth couldn't take care of herself, but Levine assures us there will be no escort missions and Elizabeth can't die due to neglect. In fact, she'll even fight alongside you.
The demo ends with the songbird's second appearance. Tossing you through a building you awaken to Elizabeth standing before you, defiantly using herself as a human shield. "I'm sorry," she cries. "I never should have left. Take me home. Please!" The songbird whisks her off as she stares longingly back as you reach for each other in vain.
There are still plenty of unanswered questions. What do the founders want with Elizabeth? Why do the Vox Populi want her dead? What's in the tower? Why does she have super powers? What is she capable of? Where were we when Elizabeth opened the tear? Who's the mysterious figure that wants her back in New York? And what secret is Booker hiding in his past?
Based on the demo, Irrational has certainly upped the ante in terms of storytelling. All this happened in real-time without an audio diary or pandering piece of exposition in sight. In BioShock "you arrived in Rapture as an archaeologist," says Levine. "When you arrive in Columbia things are very much still in motion, and you freeing Elizabeth puts the torch to everything."
BioShock Infinite maintains the peculiar mix of unique historical settings and science fiction that made the first game such a rousing success. Touching character moments, tantalising foreshadowing, and thrilling set-pieces are all noticeable improvements upon its predecessor if the demos are any indication. Following up one of the most highly acclaimed games of the generation is no small feat, but as DeWitt said, "After what just happened, you really want to take bets on what's possible?"