E3 2011 BioShock: Infinite preview

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BioShock: Infinite may well be the most immediately appealing game being shown at E3 this year. It’s all still hands-off at this point, but the bits that seemed so promising in previously shown glimpses of the game coalesce in the demo put together for the annual trade show, a section of the game that involves an exploding blimp, a giant clockwork raven-thing and a movie marquee that reads Revenge of the Jedi.

Just to catch you up on what we know of the story, you play Booker DeWitt, a disgraced former member of the Pinkertons who has been hired by persons unknown to infiltrate the floating city of Columbia and abscond with a young woman named Elizabeth. She has been held captive in the high-flying metropolis for more than a decade, kept sheltered from the outside world by a giant, winged machine called Songbird.

Our demo begins at some point after Booker has made off with the young woman. The two are making their way through the colorful city, which is itself in the midst of being ravaged by a civil war between the Founders and the rebellious Vox Populi. This is a much busier city than BioShock‘s Rapture was; instead of scattered groups of raving madmen and women, you have organized groups of militia members and freedom fighters.

We’re jumping ahead though. First, Booker and Elizabeth explore an abandoned souvenir shop nearby. Tchotchkes like an Abraham Lincoln mask clearly ground this BioShock in some alternate version of our own world, though how or if there’s a direct narrative tie to the previous two games remains to seen.

Whatever’s happening in this place, space and time don’t appear to be entirely stable. Elizabeth possess the ability interact with these literal “tears.” The first time we see her use the power, to help a dying horse, both she and Booker are transported to what appears to be a modern-day(-ish), right down to a movie marquee sporting the legendarily canned third Star Wars title, Revenge of the Jedi.

We see this ability in full effect when DeWitt and Elizabeth find themselves beset by a gang of the angry citizens. The attack is launched when the duo come across what is about to be the public execution of a postal worker. An X button prompt pops up on the screen along with a timer, giving Booker a brief window in which to act and disrupt the killing.

The extended combat sequence that unfolds from there caps off the demo, and this is really where we start to see glimpses of BioShock: Infinite‘s true potential. The Skyline — a series of train-like rails that connect the city’s multiple floating islands — can be interacted with using Booker’s hook-like handheld device to slide along.

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He is forced to do just that when an unfriendly blimp floats into view, launching volleys of rockets at our hero and his young charge. It is here that we get a sense of the scale of this place. Columbia is huge, a yawning battlefield with numerous deadly drops and any number of nooks and crannies from which baddies can emerge. Once Booker and Elizabeth become targets, they emerge in full force, sliding along the Skyline in pursuit.

While it’s hard to say exactly how the controls feel, interacting with this floating rail system seems pretty well put together. Whenever the demo player’s crosshairs came to center on a section of rail, an indicator would appear on the screen. The same goes for transferring between rails or planting a landing. From there, it seems to simply become a matter of pressing the right button at the right time to enure you end up in your intended destination. With drops as steep as Columbia’s, that can only be a good thing.

The possibilities feel limitless — infinite even — with regards to employing different strategies on the BioShock battlefield, especially with Elizabeth’s ability to interact with tears thrown into the mix. We saw a fair number of things she could simply summon into existence, everything from cover objects to turrets to the odd weapons cache.

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The demo ends shortly after DeWitt finally makes his way onto the blimp. He proceeds to knock out the thing’s engine, take a flying leap off and ride safely back down to where Elizabeth is waiting.

Then, all of a sudden, Songbird arrives. The robot bird gives Booker a mighty heave, sending him flying off and through a window, in a high ceilinged round room. The bird approaches to finish the job, but that’s when Elizabeth steps between them, with apologies for trying to escape the bird’s clutches on her lips. The two fly off together, leaving DeWitt alone. He leaps out into the open air after them… and that’s where the demo ends.

This collection of words can’t possibly do justice to the majesty of the experience that Irrational Games has constructed. Even this small snippet of entirely hands-off gameplay is enough to sell it completely. Just when you thought BioShock had run out of innovations, the development team led by Ken Levine take a sharp left turn, to deliver something that is wholly different and yet increasingly feels fundamentally connected to the original game. You don’t need to wrap your hands around the controller to know that BioShock: Infinite is shaping up to be something truly special.

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