By Alec Meer on December 20th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.
I’ve talked a lot about the setting of BioShock: Infinite, but let’s not lose sight of what the game really exists for. To (Booker De)whit, shooting people in the face and magicking them to death. (Actually I’m also going to talk a whole lot more about the setting too, because I can).
The combat aspect of the game is broadly in keeping with BioShocks 1 and 2, though amped up noticeably, while the environments feel significantly more open and the bulk of your enemies are straight-up police and soldiers rather than the creepy, scuttling Splicers. It does perhaps feel a less distinct combat experience than its predecessors despite the dramatic, often open-air backdrops, which is partly because shooting soldiers is such a familiar 21st century videogaming experience and partly because the weapons available in those fourish hours I had generally cleaved a little closer to a traditional videogame arsenal, even though they were in theory from an alt-universe 1912.
Shotgun, pistol, machinegun, rifle, sniper rifle, rocket launcher – classical elements of this corner of the electronic world for sure, but whether it’s in the damage output, the sound effects or the animations of shooting and dying, they didn’t feel especially distinctive from each other, let alone from the vast arsenal of gaming as a whole. Perhaps odder, bolder things arrive later in the game, but as it stands I was far more interested in the surprisingly regular quieter sections, where I was free to nose around the world without fear of gunpowder-based reprisal.
Thankfully, there does seem to be much more of that, at least in these early stages of the game. Where Bioshock by and large went for the straight-up ‘gosh, would you look at that? Aah, a monster!’ approach to world-building, this really seems to take its time to teach us about the superficially content, secretly sick as Cenobites society here. This is an examination of patriotism and authority, and the terrible things that spill out of those. It’s by far the most exciting, enticing aspect of the game to me – much more than the fact it’s set in the sky and that there is magic and mystery here.
Speaking of the game’s stratospheric setting, the Skyhooks, Columbia’s monorail-like inter-island transit system play their part both in and in combat. Drop-kills are possible, and you can of course shoot people as you hare about on them, but in these first hours I can’t say they performed a major or particularly tactical role. In terms of transit, too, they were simply linear ways of progressing to the next area rather than Arkham Asylum-style freeform sky-travel. They’re exciting to use, as whizzing across huge spaces at speed tends to be, but this A-to-B stuff. As is the game generally, though it’s analagous to BioShock in that you cobble together a route through the larger spaces rather than just charge through the one and only tunnel.
The settings were much bigger here, both in an out of combat, and I found more excuses to take my time poking around and ogling at even the less demonstrative areas: this is not a tunnel game. There is a little off-road exploration to be done beyond the purely aesthetic too, in the fairly familiar form of hidden ammo caches and audiologs. Rather than just being hidden around corners, here a few require dropping off a Skyhook early to root around small side areas such as houses’ balconies.
The Vigors, Infinite’s update of BioShock 1 & 2’s Plasmids, are less homogeneous than the guns, though those on display weren’t wildly different from their predecessors. They’re satisfying to use because their long-lasting effects really show amid these more open and brighter environments – they’re crowd control, and as such bring chaos in a way that, say, Dishonored’s more targeted powers didn’t. On display so far were an anti-gravity effect, fire, electricity, a possession power that initially turns only machines friendly but later of humans too and, of course, the Vigor posterchild, Murder of Crows. This latter is essentially Bioshock’s wasp swarm, but the size and violence of the black birds it summons does make it look and feel more powerful – and horrible. In this elegant, colourful world, it really does feel like a darkly awful thing to do someone, especially when they’re just guys doing their jobs. Even so, I don’t know if I’m comfortable with calling Bioshock Infinite particularly satisfying as a combat game, but those big, wide, vibrant spaces and the chance to use big, dramatic powers in them makes Columbia genuinely feel a long way from Rapture’s murky corridors. The action here is genuinely spectacular, in a way that Rapture’s shadowbound, constrained fights never were.
Deliberate, I don’t doubt. A grisly vein of amorality throbs underneath Infinite’s gleaming surface, and thus far it has seemed rather less prescribed than the kill or save Little Sister choice of the earlier BioShocks. There may be many things wrong with Columbia, and Comstock is clearly a cruel and twisted authority, but Booker does seem to be bringing hell and death into a place that, on the surface at least, seemed happy. At one point, having found Elizabeth but left destruction in the wake of his subsequent, desperate escape to another of Columbia’s floating island zones, the well-dressed residents of this as-yet unharmed new district stare in horror at the smoke, fire and shattered architecture in the distance. Who would do this? Why?
That ‘who’ is going to be an important question, I think. While much of Booker’s backstory – a disgraced former Pinkerton and soldier, now taking on dangerous mercenary work to pay off debts – is known and shared, he is recognised by some characters, he offers some description of himself to Elizabeth and he provides an occasionally excessive pre-director’s-cut Bladerunner-style running commentary, he feels almost more of a mystery than Jack ever did. This floating, old fashioned, puritanical nation, seceded from the United States recently enough to still feel venomous about it, seems to know him and his past, but he does not know it. Does he even know himself? But I must be wary of such speculation. I have my theories, but it would unwise to share them now.
His rescue target Elizabeth, who he encounters an hour or two into the game, depending on how long you spend nosing at Columbia’s corners, crates, characters, hoardings and audiologs, seems somehow clearer despite her overtly mystical nature. She also served, to my mind, the useful effect of re-heroising Booker after my concerns that he was bringing about a fire in heaven. Without saying too much about her circumstances as there’s fun to be hand in the discovery, suffice to say that she does not have the run of the city and the first glimpse of her makes it clear she is, or at least so it appears, an innocent with youthful wonder and a clear yearning for freedom. The rulers of Columbia have taken her childhood and her liberty away from her, and it seems unlikely that the city’s civilians were entirely unaware of this. Between that and their awful treatment of non-whites, perhaps they don’t deserve the happiness and peace they had before Booker’s arrival after all.
Elizabeth isn’t at all cryptic about herself, and is clearly governed by natural reactions such as fear and excitement rather than archness or mysticism. Mercifully, she also doesn’t prove to be an expository character but rather one who’s experiencing Columbia for the first time as you do. There’s a very sweet moment where, shortly after she and Booker have made their (too) heavily-scripted escape , she hears music playing in the background. Clearly delighted, she runs off to find the source despite the danger. Booker finds her dancing to a fiddle band on nearby, and startling, man-made Victorian-era beach, and it takes some doing to distract her from her delirious twirling. It’s charming, well-performed, establishes her character and the strong desire to protect her, and I felt sadness at what she’s missed as well as delight that she could now have it. This beach in the sky was a delight of detail too – all stripey bathing costumes, candy floss stalls and families posing for portraits. After the sound and fury of the escape, it’s welcome and cheerful calm.
The non-combat sequence lasts a surprisingly long time as the pair explore more of Columbia’s society – both its vibrant, innocently hedonistic side in a lavish amusement arcade and its insidious underbelly, with its barely-concealed racism and the warlike nature of its deified ruler. In both cases, it’s a far cry from the mere echoes of life in Rapture – we very much get to see this intended utopia during its heyday. Perhaps it’s a little odd that the people here were so happy and calm given a huge chunk of the city had just exploded, but perhaps them’s the breaks when you live somewhere humanity was not supposed to live.
Combat soon ensues again, of course, affording an opportunity to observe the role Elizabeth plays while the bullets and Vigors fly. She’s not Alyx, although it’s hard to avoid comparing the two. She keeps out of trouble though she’s near you most of the time, but she’ll pipe up with offers of health and ‘salts’ (the Mana analogue here) if she can see some nearby when you look like you’re in trouble. Out of combat, she’ll do similar with any money she passes. Perhaps the more important role she plays is conversation, advising of objectives without the distraction of a gleaming arrow or pop-up box, and discussing her past, what she knows of the world and trying to find out more about Booker.
Yes, there is also flirting, but on a charmingly genteel basis. Theirs is a quickly established and convincing friendship, no matter what else it might lead to – both with a shared sense that something is dark as sin underneath the colourful surroundings, but Elizabeth’s regular awe at her towering, floating surroundings is a sweet and necessary reminder that the player shouldn’t think only of themselves as a gun here. There are also any number of oblique hints about what may really be going on, at least in terms of Booker’s surprising ignorance about Columbia despite having also played a role in the American conflicts Father Comstock proclaims himself hero of.
Elizabeth’s ‘Tear’ ability, wherein she can access different realities for short periods, is shown as plot setup, character-building and combat mechanic. Her first use of it is to briefly visit Paris after a yearning for freedom and the chance to see the wonders she’s read about, which proves an opportunity for us to see the ‘Revenge of the Jedi’ film posters we got excited about earlier this year. Was that the 1980s Paris of this world’s future, or some other universe? There are many mysteries surrounding Columbia’s true time and place, which had earleir startled me when I took five minutes to watch a barbershop quartet perform a blissfully harmonised version of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows. While standing on a flaoting barge. In 1912. I do not for one minute believe that the people behind this game simply forgot that the Beach Boys wouldn’t exist for another 50 years. Was this song-out-of-time due to Elizabeth and her Tears, or something else entirely? Where and when is Columbia, really?
Elizabeth does explain that, most of the time, her Tears only access universes with the most inconsequential changes. “Sometimes it’s just a different coloured towel,” she claims, while conjuring up a window from another reality’s wall in order to release a trapped bumblebee. In combat, this is used to summon in a few doohickeys that otherwise wouldn’t be there, such as robo-turrets and Skyhooks. In the brief play I had with that stuff, it seemed to be a simple case of do or don’t do, with no placement options or obvious effect on Elizabeth, but I wonder if there might be later consequences to just reflexively summoning everything offered. It didn’t seem as though a relatively adept shooter player would need these bonus killing tools – was I simply making life easier for myself, and potentially exhausting Elizabeth, for no reason? Similarly, opportunities to kill civilans offered themselves, and as I mentioned in the last piece there’s an early interaction revolving around Columbia’s unpleasant attitudes towards race. Which is more important – my mission, or my beliefs?
Questions, questions. That’s what a Bioshock game does. I’m very glad to find I am so interested in these questions after some hands-on time with the game – much more so than before, in fact. From trailers and talks alone I had fallen into thinking ‘oh, here we go again, fancy setting, twist or two, overt and oblique references to some philosophers, yada yada.’ No, there’s much more going on, I think, and much more than simply the cryptic story of Elizabeth. It seems, very quietly and quite possibly without overt consequence, to be testing my own attitudes – what will I do to make my own life easier, and how much reverence should I show to the civilians of a sick society?
I put far too many question marks in this article.