In Internet Time, it's been infinity years since we last saw Levine's second BioShock. Has it been worth the wait? We ventured to LA to find out. New screens inside.
Following a drawn-out period of actual applause, that was the first thing I heard after BioShock Infinite's latest demo wrapped. It was unanimous, too. Travel-wearied, on the brink of finishing out a brutal pre-E3 week, and crammed into a tiny conference room, every games journalist in attendance had reached an unspoken consensus. We'd gotten a tiny taste of Columbia, and we wanted more. It's a rare quality, that: to spellbind someone so completely that – for a brief moment – all your little troubles take a backseat, and when they pipe up in opposition, you're forced to say, “Don't make me turn this Reality around.” BioShock Infinite managed that feat in roughly 20 minutes. Yes, it was a carefully crafted demo, but if the rest of the game manages to display similar levels of imagination and character, then this may be among the least hyperbole-packed paragraphs you'll read about it.
It all began outside a particularly patriotic-looking novelty store. Booker DeWitt – intrepid hero and Nolan North soundalike extraordinaire – wasn't too thrilled about ducking in, but proceeded with an enthusiastic Elizabeth in tow nonetheless. The store itself, in turn, extended a typical BioShock welcome. That is to say, it was dark, clearly abandoned, and just unsettling enough to only draw on a few of my deepest-seated phobias. Infinite, however, quickly drilled a hole in that atmosphere with Elizabeth's goofy charms. Instead of playing silent second fiddle to Booker, she immediately began interacting with the treasure trove of US-themed paraphernalia at her disposal. The best bit came when she donned a plastic Abraham Lincoln head, dropped into a deep growl, and rattled off a “Four score and seven years ago...” She behaved like a kid in a toy store, which isn't all that surprising, considering that's basically exactly what she was. Her endearing brand of quirk was refreshing given the circumstances, however, and went a long way toward convincing me that Elizabeth is far more than just a new set of powers with a pretty face.
And then a loud crash. The smile may as well have exploded off Elizabeth's face as a bright green light beamed in through a barely open window. The Songbird – as the giant mecha steampunk pterodactyl that's hunting Elizabeth is known – emitted a high-pitched screech, and Elizabeth dove behind a counter, nearly sobbing. It was an abrupt mood switch to be sure, but it's exactly what Irrational's going for.
Elizabeth is far more than just a new set of powers with a pretty face.
“I really wanted that challenge of building [something that's] not a relationship of two people bantering together and having a grand old time,” Ken Levine told VG247 during a post-demo interview. “Though they do have fun together. I mean, of course. But never let the audience forget that [Booker and Elizabeth] are really going through some s**t here.”
“Their relationship is forming, as you see. And some of the things you see are really important to the formation of that relationship.”
Levine's statement, however, barely did it justice. What happened next in the demo was absolutely striking. After the Songbird moved on, Elizabeth peered out a door to make sure the coast was clear. Then she turned to Booker (who was still in first-person, mind), grabbed his hand, and raised it to her face. As he moved to stroke her cheek, she pleaded that he kill her instead of allowing her to be taken back to the tower where she'd been held all her life – punctuating the whole exchange by forcing Booker's hand around her neck and exclaiming, “Because that's death, Mr. DeWitt.”
It was a small interaction to be sure, but brilliantly executed. Games have quite the flair for intensity, but that typically involves explosions, gunfire, and the occasional giant worm. Here, however, character interaction got my blood pumping. Will there be more? I hope so. For now, though, Levine's keeping things understandably vague.
“Where it works,” he said. “To me, that's a moment where Booker starts to realize this isn't just a child. She surprises him, and he's kind of taken aback in that moment. That's a nice moment between them, but it's not a sexually intimate moment. It's an emotionally intimate moment. I think those moments are important. That's a big thing to ask somebody. And Booker's this big tough guy, and suddenly this young girl has completely thrown him off his game.”
Shock and awe
Once outside, the pair quickly sighted their objective: the Comstock house, which looked like more of a Comstock castle. Comstock himself heads up one of Infinite's two opposing factions – the Founders. In the demo, he also happened to be Elizabeth's best shot at learning to master her much-talked-about Powers, which get their own capital letter because - damn. Or, if you'd like an actual explanation, because Booker and Elizabeth stumbled across a dead horse, which Elizabeth – hopeful to a fault – decided to try and revive. Her powers, you see, involve time/dimensional/maybe-something-else-because-Levine-was-really-cryptic-about-it rifts called “tears.” Normally, that translates to warping in objects – say, trains, gun emplacements, etc, depending on your location – mid-battle, but sometimes, it can go horribly awry. This instance was, er, definitely the latter.
"Because that's death, Mr. DeWitt."
Elizabeth widened the tear, and for a brief moment, grass grew where once only scorched earth remained, and the horse's eyelids fluttered open. Then she lost control. Suddenly, Booker and Elizabeth were standing on a darkened city street. We weren't in Columbia anymore, Toto. Before Booker and Elizabeth could take stock of their surroundings, however, an ambulance came roaring down the street. Thankfully, just before it added Elizabeth to its list of patients, she slammed the tear shut. And then everyone watching the demo breathed for the first time in a solid minute.
And that's only the beginning. Other examples given by Levine included reaching portions of a level normally inaccessible by people without the power to laugh in Reality's face and make jokes about its mother, warping away skylines to make enemies fall to their deaths, and – of course – the aforementioned gun emplacements. Elizabeth does have her limits, though, so you can only activate a certain number of tears at one time. That, Levine hopes, will only add to the game's focus on choice and variation.
“That's what BioShock is. It's like, 'Oh, I did it this way. How did you do it?' It's just another tool that Elizabeth can provide for you to help expand your vocabulary.”
Moving into the next area, Elizabeth and Booker encountered something that's been in short supply in previous BioShock games: people. Crowds of them, too. As the demonstrator approached, a member of the Vox Populi – the other main faction in Columbia – hurled a Molotov cocktail at a giant, multi-story Comstock propaganda poster, causing the crowd to panic and scatter every which way.
Quickly ascending a stony flight of nearby stairs, Booker and Elizabeth were then verbally harassed by other Vox Populi members, who seemed more like bored thugs than righteous revolutionaries. After continued advances from one, Booker whipped out his pistol, adding that he didn't want any trouble. Instead of fleeing at the prospect of hot metal death, however, the man casually strolled away, chuckling quietly to himself. The whole scene was unsettling – especially when contrasted with how bright, colorful, and downright gorgeous the outdoor surroundings were. Unlike Rapture, Columbia still looked nice and inviting, with bright reds, whites, and blues adorning towering buildings as far as the eye could see. Its citizens also weren't stark raving mad. Or at least, some of them weren't.
“If you go through this game just shooting everybody, you will fail."
As a result, shooting first and asking questions after you've punished the nightmare-inducing masked mutant with bees and fire isn't always your best bet in Infinite. So, when Booker and Elizabeth came across a crowd that had its collective pitchfork pressed against some poor messenger’s Adam's apple, the demonstrator tried negotiating. The end result, unfortunately, was still a gunfight, but Levine's promising just about any possible outcome you can imagine. Oh, and also whatever this is:
“We are coming up with scenarios where basically there are a bunch of things that might happen,” said Levine. “Like, for instance, we were actually planning on having this in the demo, but we ran out of time. We wanted to show you another example. There's a part where a guy gets thrown through a window. That's a dentist at a dentist's office. In the actual game, you could actually just use your gun and rescue that guy from the Vox Populi, and he'll be really grateful. Or you could let him get shot. Either way, right? But you may come across him later on, and he's standing over a pile of dead Founders, and he's pulling all their gold teeth out. And he's like, 'Hey man, thanks for helping me out back there. Here's some gold teeth.' And you're like [disgusted noise that mere words can't even begin to describe].”
He added: “If you go through this game just shooting everybody, you will fail. Just like in the real world, I don't advise it. So Booker is always judging – just like with that guy [who taunts Elizabeth]. He doesn't know if that guy has any friends waiting in the wings. Booker tries, in the execution scene, to defuse that situation verbally. It doesn't work, but he tries.”
Shooting for the sky
Unfortunately for Booker, it was apparently “Bring Your Loaded Firearm to Work” day for the denizens of Columbia. He was quickly assaulted by a hail of bullets. Just as many enemies came from above as they did below, leaping from skyline rail to skyline rail like some sort of mix between a Crackdown character and Tony Hawk. Booker sprang into action, using a power that allowed him to lift enemies into the air – typically to give them an exciting new perspective on the shotgun blast to the face they'd be receiving shortly after. Elizabeth's tear powers were also on full display here, terrorizing enemies with instantly materializing train carts, among other things. And then Booker joined in on the skyline surfing fun, turning the battle into a high-speed, higher-flying affair that was unlike just about any other FPS I've ever seen.
After taking down at least 20 or so enemies, Booker ascended a skyline all the way up to a zeppelin, which had been vying for his attention the only way most zeppelins know how: with rockets. Hundreds of feet in the air, Booker briefly boarded the machine, popped it as though it were a run-of-the-mill balloon, and then leaped onto the nearest skyline – which was, you know, only hundreds of feet below him. Put simply, it was insane. Put even more simply, “WANT.” That said, the shootout almost seemed too chaotic – especially with gunfire pelting Booker from so many different directions. The demonstrator was playing with invincibility enabled, but even so, his health bar constantly hovered precariously close to empty. Fortunately, Levine and co have no intention of turning their game into a death-ridden frustration fest.
“What can the audience handle? Where do they feel they have agency? Honestly, we're still figuring out the right amount. I think the first thing is, 'Can we get enough?' And I think yes, we can definitely get enough going on there. So the next challenge is, 'How much is too much?' And there's going to be a lot of tuning there along the way. We don't know yet. These demos aren't just demonstrations for the public. They're how we figure these things out,” Levine explained.
That wasn't the only element of combat that struck me as odd, however. Elizabeth – the heart of Infinite's story and allegedly the main target of both the Founders and the Vox Populi – may as well have been invisible. Enemies flocked to Booker like he was Justin Bieber at a there-aren't-laws-against-murder-anymore convention. It was far from game-breaking, but I still definitely had to suspend my fair share of disbelief. Even so, Levine pointed out that it's much better than the alternative: one giant escort mission.
“I don't think there's a lot of interest for the gamer in protecting someone,” he said. “I don't think that's fun. I think Elizabeth can handle herself. Like, it's hard to see, but if you come by the skyline at the end, you see her kneeing some dude in balls [laughs]. So she can defend herself, because we just wanted to remove that [escort mission element] from the equation. She's obviously very powerful.
“We wanted Elizabeth to be there for you as a narrative partner and as somebody to provide more gameplay opportunities for you – rather than a babysitting experience.”
Second verse, same as the first
Thankfully, the end of the demo went a long way toward proving Levine's point. Wearied but not beaten, Booker and Elizabeth approached Comstock house. “That was incredible!” Elizabeth said of Booker's earlier rollercoaster jousting exploits. “That's good,” Booker rasped, “because I don't think I can do it again.” But all's well that ends well, right?
Unfortunately, Infinite's answer to that question was “robo-pterodactyl.” Songbird swooped in, sending Booker careening into a building. Just as the surprisingly lithe behemoth moved in for the kill, however, Elizabeth shouted that she'd return to the tower – that she'd accept a fate worse than death, essentially. Booker reached for her hand, but missed by a matter of centimeters as Songbird took to the skies. Booker, utterly desperate, dove out of the building without so much as a glance, thankfully landing on a skyline.
All that said, Infinite is - on a surface level - still very much a BioShock game. Its approach to storytelling is still roughly the same (though thankfully minus a bunch of loonies whose final thoughts were apparently "Oh! I need to get this on tape!"), it still relies heavily on smart scripting, and it still does its best to dissect heady philosophical ideals. Dig deeper, however, and you'll find an entirely new beast - an extremely ambitious Frankenstein monster composed of big, open battles, a wildly different world, and what appears to be a deeply personal character-driven story, sown together by Levine and co's palpable passion for each element. So we reached the end of the demo – just as we had the first time through. After that, there was applause, followed by a satisfied silence. And then a single word:
BioShock Infinite releases for PC, PS3 and 360 next year.