The funny thing about keeping a high profile game project secret nowadays is the sheer difficulty factor. Twitter, online resumes, trademarks, financial reporting, classification boards: they all conspire against would-be tight lipped developers. So Irrational Games deserve credit for somehow concealing the fact they have spent the past three years working on BioShock Infinite unbeknownst to anyone outside of the studio and what we assume was a very tight clique within 2K Games.
Just how security-conscious Irrational founder Ken Levine and the BioShock Infinite team were was brought home in the steps they took in the game's New York unveil. Irrational staff went in person to 2K Games offices worldwide to show the trailer of the game. Not code - just the launch trailer.
The city of Rapture in original BioShock may not have identified itself as necessarily "American", but this time around Irrational Games are being very specific about what informs this game world.
As the trailer reveals, Columbia isn't your ordinary population centre. It's a miniature archipelago of land masses suspended in midair by large hot air balloons, designed to show the new progressive American spirit. While the peons toil away on the earth below, the distinct impression is Columbia is meant to be a Better Place for Better People, much the same way that Rapture was.
Also like Rapture, Columbia represents a corruption of ideals. Inaccessible to commoners, the floating city that was meant to demonstrate American ingenuity instead has become in Levine’s words a “death star”. After conflict breaks out, Columbia ascends out of sight. Since then nobody knows where the city has gone, or how to get there.
Your involvement comes as an outsider, Booker DeWitt. An ex-Pinkerton for hire, DeWitt is regarded as a corner-cutter who can get the job done if the price is right. As Levine points out, “he’s not an unknown cipher”. DeWitt is charged by a mysterious stranger with a missing person job with a difference - his quarry, named only as "Elizabeth" is somewhere in the airborne city complex of Columbia. His job is to find and rescue her from the city where she's been cloistered all her life.
First steps in Columbia
Irrational’s demo opens in first person with DeWitt facing a large recruitment poster. Shades of a leering Uncle Sam echo here, with a stark warning about the "foreign hordes".
Once DeWitt is up and about, the fidelity on show is immediately noteworthy. Irrational’s director of product development Tim Gerritsen later confirmed the game demo was run off a PC, saying the choice was made in part because it’s a “neutral platform”. However the combination of high resolution, extreme draw distance and what looked to be a solid 60fps framerate on show had a few attendees wondering how console hardware would bear up.
When I put the question to Gerritsen, he was adamant the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms wouldn’t lose out. The game engine is an in-house concoction of Irrational's, and will make heavy use of streaming technology in order to render a city comprised of several floating clusters of buildings.
The game already looks exceptional. Characters are rendered with the same satirist's eye as BioShock's were, forsaking photo authenticity in favour of caricature, however the detail level has been considerably enhanced. Further the demo took place predominantly outdoors, without the luxury of Rapture’s shadows conferring the benefit of the doubt. The impact is only a minor step down from the rendered CG of the trailer, with the standard first person shooter camera angle being a more obvious differentiator than the detail or animation level.
Irrational's design team has clearly enjoyed the opportunity to create a world set in broad daylight where fluid dynamics are reduced to rendering water trickling in a gutter rather than being a defining characteristic. The other thing BioShock players will be unused to is the existence of a sky. It seems like such a minor thing until it's slapping you in the face with its cheeky blue-ness. BioShock Infinite already appears to be more selective in how it will use your environment to convey oppression. Instead of the subterranean gloom of BioShock, we were confronted by intense, summery hues.
With immersion in the sea no longer the game gimmick of choice, there were suggestions wind may play a factor. While there was no mention of it impacting how people will play the game, several of the sequences we saw featured prominent cloud and wind effects come into play. Either the environmental animation crew at Irrational have a disproportionate amount of sway, or the developer is gearing this up to be more than eye candy.
Skipping the foreplay
It doesn't take long for BioShock Infinite to turn on the action. Columbia's decline doesn’t appear to be as progressed as Rapture’s was, however its inhabitants are still a fractious, unpredictable lot. We pass a house blazing on fire, with a woman seemingly heedlessly sweeping its porch. A gigantic statue with the stars and stripes gazes into the distance, while we’re pretty sure the horse lying on the ground isn’t just taking a kip after a midday frolic. Drawn by a human voice, DeWitt enters a park area, passing a chap on a park bench surrounded by crows. The sun might be shining, but the vibe is bleak.
DeWitt passes a succession of campaign signs jammed into the ground. “They’ll take your gun.” “They’ll take your business.” “They’ll take your wife.” The person on the controller pauses for effect before moving onto the last one - “They’ll take your life.”
The human voice we heard is coming from Saltonstall, a mad xenophobe campaigning in a park. Apart from the crow-man lounging on the bench, there’s no other people in sight. As Saltonstall urges his nonexistent audience to take up arms, we amble up to his handy barrel of rifles and select one, and then all hell breaks loose.
First, Saltonstall’s eye start glowing a decidedly unfriendly colour, and the next thing you know he’s sicced Charlie, the crow man onto us. From here the action gets familiar. Before long, we've shot his minion in the head and are in hot pursuit of the madman, who has fled by jumping on a mini roller coaster system that is strung up between the landmasses. It’s quite a sight to see: gold railings twist and cascade between Columbia's islands, with only your grip stopping you from a clearly lethal drop below.
As DeWitt gains the safety of a distant landfall, you start picking off enemies in the distance with your rifle. There’s not much time to get comfortable as Saltonstall starts firing a mortar-style cannon at you. The shells describe a fiery, flare-like arc before slamming down increasingly close to you. The message is clear - it’s time to hit Columbia Rail.
Immediately prior to DeWitt taking his first ride on the Terry Gillam-esque creation, we get a glimpse of a type of psychic power he's been imbued with. DeWitt takes a swig from a handy, crow-shaped flask. The screen distorts, flickers black and white, and he's suddenly able to stop and move objects with the power of his mind. There's little time to ponder the import of these actions in the demo, but we're sure the game will explain them fully later. What we do know is the avian-themed flask coupled with DeWitt’s private eye occupation seems a subtle nod of the head towards the Maltese Falcon. Except Humphrey Bogart never had telekinesis.
Hanging on for dear life, DeWitt ziplines across the gap to Saltonstall - including a death-defying drop from one rail to another some distance below. Of course, someone has to jump aboard from the opposite direction and attempt to take your head off, joust-style, but a quick belt with a wrench quickly solves the problem. Once DeWitt hits the ground - literally - we see more of his new mental powers in action. Ducking into an old fashioned western-style bar once again we see evidence that BioShock Infinite won’t just be a “slaughter everything” deal. You’re initially met with indifference from the locals before trouble kicks in. A barman threatens you with a shotgun, but gets more than he bargains for when DeWitt’s power plucks it out of his hands and brings the shotgun - floating in midair - to bear on its previous owner. Boom. DeWitt then uses the same crow-swarming power the unfortunate Charles used on him to leg it.
Once outside, it’s time to dispatch the cannon. DeWitt stops a shell inches from his face, Neo-in-the-Matrix style, then turns it around and flings it back home to a gratifying explosion. Problem solved.
Levine had mentioned previously the game action wasn't so much about locating Elizabeth as escaping Columbia with her. As the trailer already revealed, she possesses powers of her own. It becomes clear progression in the game will rely on the two of you working together. We're told Elizabeth will be imbued with a little more nous than the average AI drone, which tends to indicate Irrational's team might have collected a little inspiration from the likes of Prince of Persia’s Elika along the way as well.
We didn’t witness any ill-effects on DeWitt after he made use of his mental powers, but Elizabeth is a different matter. While it’s heavily implied her powers are far greater than DeWitt’s, using them appears to diminish her and cause her harm. The two first combine when DeWitt is fending off more deranged Columbians with a electrical attack. It’s worth noting that a lot more bad guys are onscreen than we recall in BioShock here, and DeWitt is currently fending off a football team’s worth.
Elizabeth conjures up a raincloud, and the entire group of bad guys in DeWitt’s becomes toasted in a coruscating ring of lightning. This takes a fair bit out of your charge, and she his the ground in distress. There’s not much time to relax however, as the action segues into a boss battle of sorts. One of Elizabeth's captors, a chap who looks like the offspring of Robocop and Duke Nuke Em with a bum part lumbers on the screen. If you’ve seen the trailer, this is the owner of the mechanical talon that drags Elizabeth from you.
As DeWitt tries zapping roboduke to little effect, Elizabeth is yelling instructions and trying to demolish the bridge he’s attacking from. Success: the bridge collapses, and your foe vanishes into the void after you zap his grasping hands off the edge. The demo closes out with a familiar sting - a bigger, meaner airborne beastie swooping down on the duo, and a fade to black.
Levine's new shock to the system
Past BioShock titles have been strong on subtext and Infinite will be no exception. This time however Levine has taken on a topic uncomfortably close to home to many of his fellow countrymen: America's hero/saviour complex.
While BioShock Infinite is set towards the end of the 19th century - a time that Levine points out saw an "agrarian" America still exiting the national trauma of the civil war. Columbia in this setting becomes an ideal of sorts, a glimpse of the future of a nation still finding it's identity.
To help reinforce the setting and ideals of the game, Levine took a page out of actual history, quoting ex-US president William McKinley's argument for the USA's annexation of the Philippines - a move at the time was justified as being "for their own good". Move forward to today and the criticism borne of the US' self-appointed role as global policeman, and it's fair to say Levine will be hitting very close to home with Columbia's notions of enforced civilisation.
When asked about this, Gerritsen was at pains to stress that like the original BioShock, the deeper thematic layer is purely there for gamers looking for more depth in their experience. It's completely possible, he noted, to play the game purely as a first person action adventure. Further, what Levine and Irrational are doing is merely presenting a fictitious case study that so happens to touch on particularly hot American buttons such as race and imperialism; Gerritsen insists the game doesn't judge, it merely presents cause and effect and invites players to draw their own conclusions.
The demo session and the trailer combined give the strong impression this is Irrational's vision of a "proper" sequel to BioShock. It also explains the absence of rancour when it first was revealed Levine and the then-2K Boston wouldn't be involved with BioShock 2. As it turns out Irrational were busy taking the franchise back in time and skyward.
The obvious observation to make is you don't fly games press from all corners to New York to unveil a trailer and a few minutes of gameplay unless you're pretty certain you're on a winner. There's a story worth telling up there in the clouds, the real test will come when we go hands-on.