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BioShock Infinite preview: Welcome to the enigmatic floating city of Columbia, a good place to die

A sword, a key, and a scroll. These three symbols pair up with Fathers Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, respectively. The United States’ real-life founding fathers are held up as demigods of a sort in BioShock Infinite‘s floating city of Columbia. Statues of the three great men, each one clutching his symbol, are waiting to greet Booker DeWitt when his eyes open on the cloud-scraping metropolis for the first time.

After many months of silence following the hands-off reveal at E3 2011, BioShock Infinite is finally playable. Some rough edges are most definitely evident in the game’s opening hours, now delayed an extra month beyond its previously planned February 26, 2013 launch, but Ken Levine’s vision of an American Expansionism-era floating city most definitely lives up to the expectations set by the E3 reveal.

Readers beware: before you tread any further, you should know that there are early-game spoilers ahead. The opening hours of Infinite most definitely raise more questions than they answer, but for those who are dead-set on going in with the freshest possible eyes, all you really need to know is that the wait will be worth it.

Got it? Good.

BioShock Infinite opens in a familiar way, with a memento-filled cigar box, a stormy moonlit ocean, and a lighthouse. Many of the motifs established in BioShock — both textual and mechanical — return in the follow-up. Vigors replace Plasmids, newly enhanced with alt-fire options that allow for traps to be set. Upgrades further deepen the possibilities; your initial Possession Vigor, which turns any machine into an ally, is (or can be if you choose) quickly upgraded at a vending machine to include humans as well. Possess a flesh-and-blood pursuer with your upgraded Vigor and the person will fight on your side, only to commit suicide when the effect wears off.

Vigors come quickly once the early stage-setting is complete, so it’s not long before you’re tossing Devil’s Kiss fire grenades and disorienting your foes with a flock from the Murder of Crows vigor. The most useful tool in Booker’s arsenal, however, is the Sky-Hook. Used to navigate Columbia’s Sky-Lines rail system, saddling up is as easy as highlighting any rail or freight hook that’s in range and pressing the action button. You can control your direction and speed easily, jump over to different lines, rain fire down on enemies, and perform a leaping melee attack on anyone who gets close enough.

The Sky-Hook also doubles as a potent melee weapon with its own gruesome assortment of execution animations. That’s made clear from the first moment Booker grabs one, guiding an attacking police officer’s spinning blade into the neck of another nearby attacker. This turns out to be a pivotal moment in BioShock Infinite for reasons that are best not spoiled. The quiet menace behind Columbia’s cheerful, celebratory veneer is brought to the forefront by your sudden burst of violence. With a single choice, Infinite reminds the player that Columbia’s alt-history society is still saddled with the same sort of intolerance that threw the U.S. into a Civil War roughly 150 years ago.

Intolerance appears to be a running theme in the story, exemplified by Columbia founder Zachary Comstock’s lily-white supporters and their ongoing conflict with the equality-seeking Vox Populi. It’s entirely possible that these loosely drawn battle lines conceal a deeper conflict that will only be revealed in the late-game. Booker’s debt-erasing target Elizabeth is a true wild card; she’s an object of reverence among the residents of Columbia, locked away in a mile-high tower that has been molded in its lone resident’s image. Elizabeth’s Monument Island prison is visible from anywhere in Columbia, a constant reminder to the people of… something. 

Elizabeth herself is an innocent, raised in captivity as the subject of an elaborate science experiment. Comstock has invested a significant amount of resources in keeping his “lamb” locked away while a team observes her from behind one-way glass. When Booker completes the first part of the mission he was hired for and frees her, it seems that he’s done a good thing. Elizabeth revels in her newfound freedom and in the mundane wonders of the world around her. There has to be something more though, something that we’re not seeing initially. She’s a priceless commodity for unexplained reasons, and much of BioShock Infinite‘s combat in the early hours is driven by those who pursue her.

Once she links up with Booker, Elizabeth becomes both an invaluable companion and an emotional anchor that keeps players rooted to Booker’s identity. She’s somewhat squeamish and fearful, avoiding direct combat whenever it flares up. Her presence offers game-y rewards, however, as she’ll frequently scrounge up ammo, weapons, and cold, hard cash for Booker to make use of. Then there’s her ability to interact with “tears,” a process that involves bringing an object from another reality into Columbia. The hands-on demo ends shortly after “tears” are introduced, but they definitely add a new wrinkle to the already impressive array of combat options in Infinite.

Tears appear in the environment as flickering, black & white afterimages, a visual motif that carries over as well to a number of first-person flashbacks that Booker is thrown into during the early hours. Interacting with a tear is as simple as highlighting it and pressing the action button. Only one can be active at a time, but you can quickly swap between, say, a crate filled with healing items and a weapons cache in the heat of battle. 

These tears are just one aspect of Columbia that fosters a sense of mystery, of something much bigger going on behind the scenes that you’ll no doubt uncover as the story unfolds. The city is filled with some very deliberate nods in unexpected directions. Stroll slowly through the floating beach resort of Battleship Bay and you’ll catch instrumental strains of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Columbia exists at a specific point in time, but there are numerous points of disruption that effectively knock the city and the setting out of that era. Like the underlying sense of menace that comes to the forefront when the intolerant views of Comstock’s followers is laid bare, the time play carries the strong suggestion of a deeper narrative at work.

There’s so much more from these first hours of BioShock Infinite that could be talked about: Ciphers for Elizabeth to decode and other optional quests. A new Shield Vigor that adds an additional, regenerating health bar to Booker’s medpack-supported gauge. Enemies that wield fire and fling flocks of crows in your direction. Voxophones (audio diaries) and penny arcade Kinetoscopes that flesh out the city and its community. The red-headed Lutece siblings who seem to follow Booker’s every step with some unknown purpose. Then there’s Columbia itself, a dazzling cityscape that feels at once familiar and alien, with old-timey, multi-story buildings always visible and always bobbing up and down as you stroll through the pedestrian-filled streets.

What sticks out the most, however, is the endtimes scenario that Booker’s arrival seems to trigger. Cast as a false prophet and pursued for assaulting that which the city’s residents hold most dear, series fans will undoubtedly pick up on echoes of Rapture’s eventual fall in this new take on BioShock. It’s a deteriorating situation from the moment that Booker’s re-directed Sky-Hook blade meets flesh, a roller-coaster that seems fated to end in the death of a city established as an escape from the failings of mankind. 

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