My first glimpse of Columbia, the floating city where Irrational have set their follow-up to BioShock, is of a sneering caricature of a Mexican face, reminiscent of racist US propaganda from the turn of the last century. Then the camera pans to a similarly twisted Asian face. Finally, it pulls back to reveal that we're looking at a mural of a heroic George Washington, chin up, perfectly lit, surrounded by these sketchily drawn foreigners. Below it, the words 'It Is Our Holy Duty to Guard Against The Foreign Hordes.'
Columbia is more than just a city: it's a floating World's Fair, travelling from country to country on vast hot-air balloons, a shining example of American endeavour. Beautiful colonial buildings hang in the void, tethered to each other by travel rails, parting clouds as they glide. It looks peaceful, but it's a façade. Following an unexplained international incident, Columbia's true nature is revealed. As Irrational's creative director Ken Levine puts it: “it's a DeathStar.” Columbia disappears up into the sky, and becomes a twisted symbol of what it once was. Years pass, countries fear its arrival, but it remains hidden from public view. Like Rapture, the ocean-floor hugging art-deco neighbourhood from the original BioShock, Columbia is another city cut off from the world, a place where an idea has festered, infecting the population. Here, American exceptionalism has twisted into evangelical xenophobia.
It is 1912, years after the city vanished above the clouds. You're Booker DeWitt, a disgraced former Pinkerton Agent (19th century detectives and skull crushers). He's been asked to find a missing woman, Elizabeth. She's in the sky. She's on Columbia.
At the game's announcement event in New York, I asked Ken Levine how all this fits into an Ayn Randian world of Big Daddies, crushing fathoms of water and notions of free will? How can this possibly be the same universe that the original BioShock was set in?
“There are two things we think are essential to a BioShock game,” he said. 'Put away all the things with Splicers and Little Sisters and all these... they're important, and in Rapture they were important to BioShock, but they weren't the centre. The centre was being in a world that is amazing and weird and strange and fantastical, but also grounded in the human experience and believable, and then exploring that world.
“The second thing is having a huge suite of tools and a huge range of problems coming at you, and you determining how to deal with these problems with your set of tools. To make a game and have those things – and we weren't done with those ideas – and to put it in another city and not have it be a BioShock game would not be, I think, really honest.
“It is a BioShock game. BioShock has never been about Rapture, it's been about those two core ideas.”
So while there are plasmid-like powers and metallic, groaning beasties to fight, Infinite is looking like a clean slate on which to write 'fuck everyone' over and over and over again.
The demonstration continues. A robot horse drags a cart along a cobbled street, passing Booker.
One of the reasons BioShock Infinite is taking so long to develop is that Irrational are rebuilding everything from the ground up. Or in this case, from the sky up. Their new tech allows every building to float independently. A colonial building, gorgeously white, on top of an airbag, pitches forwards, thumping into the road. The bell on top clangs to the ground, swinging towards Booker. Columbia is broken.
Booker continues through the streets, passing a building engulfed in flames. A woman sweeps in the doorway, framed by the fire. Columbia is all the creepier for setting scenes like this in bright daylight. Ken Levine's touchpoints, he says, are an imaginary July 4th, 1900, with hopeful, perfect blue skies, and the films Blue Velvet and The Shining.
The first dead body I see is a horse still attached to its cart, slumped on the ground and being eaten by flies. The feeling here is that, once again, the infrastructure has collapsed and insanity is taking hold. Not as badly as in Rapture, at least not yet. But you can feel a breakdown coming.
As Booker steps over the horse, a voice swells from a garden. “The needs of our great city of Columbia must come before the desire of any foreigner, whether they be enemy or friend. For I have looked into the future and one path is filled with amity and gold, and the other is fraught with the perils of a hostile and alien world.”
Booker enters the garden. He passes a man sitting on a bench, surrounded by birds, and approaches the speaker. This is Mr Saltonstall. He's preaching to no one, dressed in a suit that looks like it was made out of the American flag, surrounded by placards warning about the theft of your guns.
Is Saltonstall BioShock Infinite's caricature of the activist Tea Party movement in America? Not quite, according to Levine: “Those are not new movements in this country, those are recurring movements in this country and we started work on this before those things happened. Unsurprisingly, because these things come around every X number of years, you have the nativist movements, you have second amendment movements, you have things that are often combined, it's very, very common, and it occurs with some frequency.”
When Booker DeWitt grabs one of Saltonstall's weapons, it all goes a bit BioShock: Saltonstall's face glitches and flickers, his eyes glow and he sets his henchman, Charles, on DeWitt. Charles is the guy surrounded by birds. He launches a murder of crows at Booker, as Saltonstall leaps up and hooks onto one of Columbia's travel rails, which whisks him away. From amid the diving black cloud of birds, Booker manages to snipe Charles, who falls over the edge of the garden. Booker peers over the wall: the body has caught on a platform below. He uses his telekinesis power on it, and a bottle Charles was carrying swooshes towards him. Drinking it gives him his foe's power over birds.
That's interesting. Certainly easier than gathering Adam from the dead body of a little girl. (What, you saved the Little Sisters? Wimp.)
Saltonstall's invective echoes through the floating city, and Booker turns to look for him, affording me a wider glimpse of Columbia in the process. The buildings move gently in the breeze, cutting through clouds. Below is the checkerboard pattern of fields – a long, long way below. I want Booker to spend more time admiring the view, so that I can take in the remarkable world of floating buildings, teetering on dirigibles, and all moving independently of each other. But Saltonstall's escape, while cowardly, was also tactical. He's retreated to a big god-damned cannon.
There's a distant crump, mixed in with Saltonstall's threats, and a flaming ball arcs over the serene view. It crashes down near DeWitt, who grabs a hook on a travel rail. He's taking the Eddie Izzard approach of fighting someone with a giant gun: head towards them. He's whizzed along the track through the floating city, dangling with one arm free. Another of Saltonstall's men heads towards him, hanging from another rail. DeWitt swings a wrench at him and whacks him off the rail. He ragdolls into a building and drops out of the city altogether.
I suspect a lot of people will die as victims of Columbia's sky-high locale, which Levine confirms. “Verticality and movement is much more important to us. The goal is more than little inspired by the original Halo where you're in these dungeony sequences and then you're out and moving at 60 miles per hour. We wanted that variety because it's cool and it's exciting, but also it adds a lot more to your toolset.”
Booker swoops through a Parisian floating archway and lands near Saltonstall. The crazed political preacher turns and fires again, but Booker escapes... into a nearby pub. Whereas everyone was against you in Rapture, things aren't so clear cut in Columbia. The pub patrons, seemingly oblivious to the concussive cannon shots outside, ignore Booker's presence at first, at least until more of Saltonstall's men arrive and attack. There are way more of them than you'd get attacking you in Rapture, but this is tempered by Booker being able to dualwield his powers and weapons. He plucks a shotgun from one attacker, cocks it and fires it mid-air before it even reaches his hands. When he does grab it, he can blast away while also firing electrical bolts and unleashing his murder of crows to make an escape. He emerges onto the street, and Saltonstall is waiting. With a gun.
Saltonstall fires, nearly point blank. Booker grabs the projectile out of the air with his telekinesis and fires it back, sprinting away without looking to see if Saltonstall survived.
Still fleeing, Booker is forced to duck behind a train of wooden trucks. He seems overwhelmed. I'm starting to wonder if the game is unbalanced, when Elizabeth, the woman Booker has been sent to rescue, appears.
She's been trapped on Columbia since her childhood. It's not explained why you're here to get her, but it's clear her powers are a factor. As Booker cowers behind the train, she creates a localised storm above his pursuers: the blue sky disappears and the day darkens. “Hit it,” she shouts and Booker zaps the cloud with a bolt of electricity, launching the 15 men into the air, scorching them all with a hairraising blast of crackly power.
Elizabeth is present in combat to provide a different way of fighting. She can use her powers to change the flow of a battle, although you'll be free to ignore her if you have a different plan.
She's clearly a useful ally to have: as Saltonstall's men keep coming she shows off another of her powers. As she sweeps her arms in a wide arc, the tops pop off the little train carts, and every metal object in them rises up and welds together with a satisfying clang. She holds the ball above her head and Booker hurls it at his enemies with his telekinesis. It wipes them out.
Rest? Recover? There's no post-fight lull. A ratcheting, cranking noise breaks the briefest respite you could hope for. A Big Daddy has arrived. Except this oversized, half-man, halfrobot can't be a Big Daddy. It's similar to the lumbering giants of the deep, but it's something else, and currently labelled 'Alpha'. It looks like an oldtime barber gone wrong: on top of an exaggerated, frighteningly powerful body that houses a beating heart in a glass dome, there's a slightly confused, moustachioed face with pomaded hair. He looks sad, and Levine later confirms he wanted the creature to be crying during the attack. However sad he is, it's not enough for me to feel bad for him. Standing on the bridge Booker and Elizabeth were trying to flee across, he picks up a horse and tosses the whinnying thing at them. It misses, and Booker and Elizabeth team up again. She focuses her power on the bridge's overhead structure: it glows and weakens. Booker zaps it and it collapses onto the bridge, crashing right through it, catching the Alpha and dragging him over the edge.
Elizabeth collapses, bleeding from the nose. Booker says: “That was the one that was chasing you?”
“No, that wasn't the one.” She's staring over Booker's shoulder.
There's a huge metallic clunk. Booker spins around: settling on top of a nearby building is the gigantic, birdlike robot seen at the start of this feature. It screams and the demo ends.
I feel breathless. My initial worries about the linearity of what was shown are dismissed by Ken Levine. This was a brief taste, only ten minutes of a game so unfinished that he's still writing it.
“The way we work is when you see a demo, that's very representative of what the game's going to be. When we show a demo, we are very confident about this aspect, or that aspect. Until we're confident about something, we won't show it. You noticed we're not talking about a ton of characters in the game. Some of them are evolving; some of them are yet to be created. Like, when I first started showing BioShock there was no Anna Culpepper, there was no Dr Steinman, they didn't exist when I showed that first demo. They evolved. Though I had a medical level, I didn't know who the doctor was on that level, I didn't know that he was going to be, you know, putting up these paintings of faces that he was transforming, or exactly the nature of his insanity. That's all evolved.”
That medical centre sequence of the original BioShock is BioShock Infinite in miniature: structured as a hub, with 'spokes' extending into the world beyond. Each spoke, or in this case building, is host to some of the characters Ken is creating. Little dramas are unfolding there, until the player peels back the curtain midperformance, peering into the ghastly mess of people surviving in their own world, isolated from the crumbling nightmare outside.
Structurally it creates a place for Irrational to explore themes not often touched by games, as Ken explains: “I'm thinking a lot about how to make the characters in this game not just a paradox, or these people building something that is abstract, but how it relates to what we all go through in our lives on various scales. None of us are going to create a utopia, but we create little mini utopias in our lives, and sometimes we let those creations drive us, no matter what data presents itself.
“This is a new utopia. But it's fractal, right? So you have this large thing and all these things are reflections of it. I think that people are utopian by definition and that's why you get a lot of people who say 'well if we just did it this way, everything would be perfect and there would be no flaws', and that's just an endlessly fascinating topic to me. One of my interests in this is how do you go from Andrew Ryan, to Fort Frolic, down to the individual man with his wife and the book he's writing, and this and that, and how do you have that make a fractal expression rather than a broad expression? These little petri dishes of mini societies are interesting because cultures form, and they define and coordinate these intellectual principles, and it's interesting to dig into those.”
The game is a shooter first, and it'll always be about the accurate positioning of crosshairs, but every person you meet will have a backstory. Their role will be shaped by their beliefs; they'll make you wonder about how they got there. Bigger, bolder, BioShock Infinite already feels epic. It has its head in the clouds, but that's exactly why it's so exciting.