There's something I can't tell you about BioShock Infinite. Not because it's a spoiler – I'll avoid those too – but because I can't quite communicate it. It's something I felt after playing Half-Life 2, and again after playing BioShock 1. It's the sense you get after experiencing something so vivid and rich that you know you'll never be able to fully describe what it felt like. But I'll try.
That's not how I expected to feel after playing Infinite for the first time. They'd kept it out of journalistic hands until suspiciously close to release, and the trailers and walkthroughs didn't give a good sense of what kind of game it was. Somewhere in my head, I just copied BioShock 1 from the bottom of the sea and pasted it into the clouds.
Some of that is accurate. In BioShock 1, you played an outsider discovering a failed utopian city at the bottom of the sea; in BioShock Infinite, you play an outsider discovering a failing utopian city floating in the sky. Both games let you explore an extraordinary place, piecing together its story from evidence left lying around. And both games alternate that with combat: you wield both conventional guns and a suite of basically-magical powers that let you do interesting things to your enemies.
Once you arrive, though, it's hard to call them similar. 'City in the clouds' doesn't really express the sheer size of it: there seem to be several of those in every direction. Columbia's huge districts are disjointed, drifting in loose formation as the impossible flotilla tours the world. The first one I explore feels disjointed in itself: half the buildings seem to be bobbing and lurching independently, like some weird dream. Curving skyrails take massive carriages of cargo, like sidewinding trains. Airships propel themselves slowly between districts on twin fans. And the smoke from every chimney streaks in the same direction: we're moving.
But the most startling difference from BioShock 1 isn't the views: it's the people. Rapture was a failed utopia, Columbia is still very much in the process of failing.
Plenty of times in my five hours, I'd enter a new district of the city where no-one has any particular reason to hate, fear or shoot me yet. Columbia is full of civilians milling around, gossiping, griping, and going about their business. It's exactly what Irrational Games had avoided doing not only in BioShock, but in its spiritual predecessor System Shock 2, simply because it's so hard to make it work. I asked creative director Ken Levine: what changed?
“If we went back to that now, I think people would say we were just repeating ourselves. Listen, it would have been a lot easier. We would have been having this conversation two years ago... but exploring a dead place by yourself, with you being this cypher, we've kind of done that.”
Was it as hard as they feared back then? “So, I don't want to bore you with my problems, but the writing task was monstrous. It was huge. I remember the first level I wrote, the first draft for this prologue, I sat back and looked at this script, and I realised this script alone was longer than my entire script for BioShock.”
As I'm playing it, though, it's not a game of long conversations. A lot of that work seems to have gone into a depth of story, rather than length. Even more so than in BioShock, the density of information encoded into the world around you is overwhelming. Every poster is propaganda for a faction you'll meet, or a product you'll buy, or a cryptic hint to one of the game's dozens of connected mysteries. Pre-television viewing booths show flickery greyscale government infotainment, with title-card dialogue and jaunty music.
Plot characters still leave audio diaries of their thoughts lying around, but now they're joined by living people having normal conversations. And almost every line of their daily lives has some payload of information about this foreign place.
“It's damned inconvenient when buildings don't dock on time,” a well-dressed man complains to his companion as I walk by. “Yesterday I had to take a gondola, rubbing shoulders with all sorts.” If you're 'someone' in Columbia, your destination comes to you.
Later on, I actually see it happen. As I'm walking towards a bridge, Chas White's Home and Garden Supply shop floats slowly towards me and docks noisily with a pair of metal teeth jutting out of the street, clanking into place and steadying as it locks. A nearby troupe of a cappella singers harmonise over the noise.
It's all terribly... nice. It has the atmosphere of a cheerful village fete, but in a village that couldn't exist. At one point, we seem to be in a cloud: a thick haze turns everyone in the street to silhouettes, picked out by spectacular rays of golden sunlight. Confetti floats through the air, and hummingbirds pause to probe flowers. Two children splash each other in a leaking fire hydrant.
Half an hour later, for reasons I won't go into, I'm ramming a metal gear into a man's eye socket until blood geysers all over my face. I'm drenched. Everyone's screaming. Four more men are coming for me, and this blunt steel prong is all I have to kill them with.
I skipped ahead there for two reasons: one, I don't want to spoil why violence does finally break out in BioShock Infinite. It's a moment that will become notorious in gaming, and a hard one to forget.
Two, I wanted it to sound jarring, because it is. Extremely, intentionally and upsettingly so. When I ask Ken about it, he describes the intended effect as “biting into an apple and finding the worm at the core”.
It works as that. But it's also jarring in another way. A moment ago I'd been enthralled by this place, fascinated by how different and fresh it was, hanging on every word of these people's everyday lives. When I realised my next task was to ram a piece of metal into eight different people until they were all dead, part of me thought, sadly, “Oh yeah. Videogames.”
It's not a new thought, it only stands out here because Infinite is so superb at conjuring this place and luring you into its story. When I mention it to Ken, he's sympathetic. “It's an intensely bizarre concept that you play a character – whether it's Uncharted, or this game, or even like an Indiana Jones movie – who's essentially a psychopathic mass murderer. You're fucking insane. I'm very aware of this issue... it's something we actually attempt to confront at some point.”
The other thing Infinite confronts, with surprising directness, is racism. I'm so used to games having some orc- or elf-based analogue for it that it's strange to see regular white-on-black discrimination so unflinchingly depicted.
“I didn't want a game that just had some racism in the background,” says Ken. “I wanted you to be engaged and confront those issues – in the same way we confronted you with what capitalism does when it goes to its maximum extreme.”
“In this game we think it'd be honest to deal with these topics, and these aren't topics we take lightly, and they're not necessarily going where you think they're going. This is not... I don't want to spoil anything.” Well, mission accomplished.
It's a very story-driven game – you're always heading to an excitingly new part of the city with a specific purpose. As far as I played, it never lapses into a formula, which gives it a sense of adventure and discovery that BioShock didn't always have. And the places it takes you to are what really made me fall in love with it.
I'm in a temple. Soulful gospel music echoes through the dark halls as I wade through knee-deep holy water. Spectacular statues sparkle in shafts of sunlight. A preacher's speech to his damp-robed congregation crosses the line from passionate to unhinged.
I'm on a beach. There's actual sand, and an ocean of sorts. I can still see Columbia in the sky... and after a moment I realise I'm still in Columbia. The ocean runs off the edge of this district in a vast, Niagara-style waterfall.
I'm in an exhibit, of sorts. A huge statue of Columbia's first lady catches beams of brilliant pink light, as plaques tell the story of her life. In the next room, a spectacular diorama has larger-than-life statues of dozens of soldiers tumbling off a cliff, a frozen snapshot of a massacre, shrill opera music blaring out of bad speakers to underscore the unmoving drama.
I'm in a mansion, old and gloomy. Stairs lead up. A banquet hall is to the left, and I see what looks like a butler in there. He's facing the wall. I walk around to get his attention, but he just stares blankly. I look at the table. It's piled with rotting food, and there are crows everywhere.
Even taking it slowly, these new places come at a rate and a density of detail that feels like sensory overload. Each one has that depth of story I described earlier: dozens of clues and hints and references and traces of people's lives and stories. And each one has an extraordinary visual design that makes you stop and gawp.
Most of them, of course, are also battlegrounds. At first, I didn't think much of Infinite's combat. Not just its videogameyness in a world that's otherwise so real; I also felt like I didn't have a lot of options, and you're fighting a crazy number of soldiers and turrets. There doesn't seem to be a good way to avoid getting hit.
It gets better when skyrails are introduced. Steel tracks worm their way through the plentiful empty space in Columbia, and your sky hook lets you launch yourself onto them and ride them like a rollercoaster. That, ultimately, is how you avoid getting hit. Taking cover usually just gets you cornered by someone you can't take on at close range, but hooking onto a skyrail and going full throttle makes you too fast to track.
From there, you can aim a jump to any of the various platforms and vantage points, pounce on an enemy with lethal force, or just stay on the rail until it loops around, to get an overview of the war zone.
Your set of abilities expands gradually, and the spaces you're fighting in get bigger and have more interesting stuff going on in them. So to get a sense of how it scales up, I asked to play a late-game fight.
The first thing I do is hop on a skyrail and take a tour: a bunch of heavily armoured soldiers are shooting at me from a central balcony, some more from a moving airship, and a half-robot giant – a Handyman – is stomping around below.
As I watch, he jumps onto the rail I'm on and sends an electric charge through it, shocking me. I stay on until I'm in a position to pounce on one of the armoured guys on the central balcony. My flying skyhook attack knocks him clear off it, but his partner fights back hard. My shotgun doesn't do much against him, so I try a new ability: Charge. I fly forwards and slam into him with alarming force, and he goes down.
I'm low on health, so I run over to some medkits – or rather, where some medkits could be.
Your companion, Elizabeth, joins you in combat, riding skyrails with you, tossing you ammo, and reviving you when you're down. But her most useful ability is to open a 'tear' – a potential rift in space that brings forth some useful object or feature. You can see all the potential tears in an area in grey fuzzyvision, and 'use' one to ask Elizabeth to make it real. She can only sustain one at a time, and by this point in the game, a big combat space like this has at least eight.
So I ask Elizabeth to open the tear in front of me, grab a medkit from the box that appears, and heal myself. I decide to try another new ability: Undertow. As I hold down the right mouse button, a tendril of water creeps out of my hand, curls around the arena, grabs onto the Handyman and sucks him in front of me. Oh, thanks Undertow!
I switch to Shock Jockey and electrocute him while he's wet, then ask Elizabeth to open a nearby tear that brings in a pool of water. I try to lure the Handyman into it in order to shock him again, but he has an annoying habit of jumping directly to me. He's pounding me to oblivion with his articulated fists.
I skyrail over to a high balcony to get away. A tear here handily contains a barrel of rocket launchers, so we open it and I grab one. Another tear has an automated turret, so I tell Elizabeth to open that one before we move on.
The Handyman chases, and is pelted by both the turret and my rockets as I ride away. He grabs the rail in both hands, but I'm wise to it this time: I drop down just before the current shoots through the metal. I hit him with two more rockets as he leaps around the arena, then use Undertow – intentionally this time. A snake of liquid seeks him out and pulls him to me, and holds him in place for a second. I use the time to back up a little, switch to Charge, and hold down the right mouse button. The moment he's free, I slam into him full force, and he crumples.
Late-game combat is still hectic, but you've got a lot of options and they're more satisfying than just shooting dudes with the bog-standard weapons. The constant skyrailing and leaping around make it fast, dramatic and acrobatic to play.
I'm glad the combat gets more interesting, but combat wasn't the most common complaint about BioShock – it was the ending. I ask Ken if he agrees that BioShock got less interesting after the Andrew Ryan encounter. “Yeah,” he says succinctly.
I ask if they've learnt anything from it, hoping for a post mortem. Instead, he jumps straight to BioShock Infinite.
“I would say that the ending of the game is the most ambitious thing we've ever done, as a company. It is either going to be something incredibly wonderful, or people are going to burn down our office... So I can't tell you whether people will like it or not. I can tell you it is absolutely different to anything you've seen in a videogame.”
It's the sort of ridiculous thing Peter Molyneux would say. But after playing BioShock Infinite, after coming away with an experience I can't fully express, and after thinking back to the scene in Andrew Ryan's office in BioShock 1... I half believe it.