E3 2011: Bioshock Infinite impressions (in brief: it looks astounding)
Last year's Bioshock Infinite reveal was spectacular, an introduction to the fascinating flying world of Columbia so immacuately choreographed that people doubted whether it was actually being played at Gamescom, or whether the guy with the controller was just finger-syncing.
This year's demonstration was the exact same way. It looks so stunning, so dramatic, action-packed exciting, that it feels like it's either going to be inhibitively scripted or that the illusion will break as soon as the player decides to toodle around rather than look where they're supposed to.
On the other hand, it's dramatic, action-packed and exciting. Every corner of the world is packed with detail. It's funny. It's better written than anything else I've seen at the show. The characters have real character. If it does turn out to be little more than a scripted rollercoaster ride, then I'm glad it's through a world that looks like this. I've included my frantically typed moment-by-moment of the presentation below.
First, a little background. Designed by Ken Levine, he of the original BioShock, Infinite uses some of the same principles to explore a different world. Instead of a city at the bottom of the ocean and a story that explores objectivism, it's a flying city, held aloft by balloons, and a world defined by early 20th century ideas of American exceptionalism.
There's an off-putting 1:1 ratio in all of the elements that made the original BioShock great. Big Daddies are gone, but there's the Songbird, a flying, robotic protector for Elizabeth. Plasmids are gone, but there are bottled vigors in their place, gifting you similar abilities.
The player is Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent on a case to find Columbia - lost for years in the clouds - and to rescue a woman named Elizabeth. The Songbird keeps her locked in a tower, and is programmed to feel betrayal should she escape.
Which is exactly what Elizabeth has done, with your help, as the demo begins. Since breaking free, Elizabeth has discovered she has powers that she doesn't understand and can't control. Booker is taking her to meet one of the Founders, about whom we know little, but who apparently should be able to provide answers.
Booker and Elizabeth head into a shop called Major's Notions, Sundries and Novelties. It's filled with clutter, random pieces of tat, and extremely colourful.
The first really different thing here is that Booker, the player character, talks. And often. He talks when you pick up a weapon in the store. He has great banter with Elizabeth. At one point, she calls Booker over, and when you turn, she's wearing a novelty oversized Abraham Lincoln head and doing doing impressions. It's all just lovely.
Which is when the heavy breathing starts. Elizabeth hides behind a desk, and Booker does the same. The Songbird is outside, looking for the two of you, and beaming coloured lighting into the room for his massive, seeking eyes. There's stuff in the audio that's like the smoke monster from Lost, a messy mechanical terror.
The songbird moves off, and Elizabeth peeks through the door. "Promise me," she says. Booker cuts her off. "I will stop him." "No. That's a promise you cannot keep. Promise me, that if it comes to it, you won't let him take me back." She's wrapped your hands around her neck as she talks.
You move outside, and the city is bright and beautiful. It strikes me that the closest analogy is another, real world paean to American exceptionalism: Disneyland. It's a flying Disneyland, clouds wafting between the floating streets.
The next weird thing: Press X to euthanize horse.
Elizabeth has found a dying horse in the street, and she wants to use her powers to bring it back to life. "It's just an animal." says Booker. "It's too powerful, we won't be able to stop it."
"I wasn't asking for permission," she says.
Booker doesn't just talk, he has a personality that is his own. It's slightly jarring - I'd quite like the horse to not die, but my representative in this world feels different. But it seems worth it for what is gained: conversations that reveal character, and not just plot. It's worth it just for making Elizabeth a living part of the world, and not just a speakerbox standing behind unbreakable glass. The conversations the two have make the whole adventure feel like Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood, or Nick and Nora Charles.
We don't find out how Elizabeth would react if the player had followed that button prompt, though, as the player in this instance doesn't press it, and Elizabeth starts to use her powers to open a tear.
As she does, Columbia is painted over with a different reality. It spreads out along the ground from where Elizabeth crouches, and then surrounds them both. Her first attempt paints the world around us as a beautiful garden, before we snap back to Columbia. She tries again and, this time, the world becomes a city street. And not a street in 1912, but much later. A cinema on one side of the street is showing Revenge of the Jedi, which was the original title for Return of the Jedi.
A car streams down the road toward Elizabeth and just before it hits, she snaps the tear closed again. Booker and Elizabeth are back in Columbia. The horse is not.
From here, they move up some steps, and emerge into larger city streets. There are more balloons visibile in the distance here, and massive posters for an orgnisation called Vox Populi. The streets are cluttered with debris here, and fights are breaking out. Booker points a gun at someone to drive them away when they're eyeballing Elizabeth.
There's a lot of colour. Streets are draped in red banners, on to some of which a woman's face is being projected. I couldn't quite hear what she was saying, and then Booker and Elizabeth entered a town square centered round an large, golden statue.
There's a small crowd here. A man is about to be lynched, accused of crimes he denies. As soon as people see you, though, they start screaming. That's Booker! Combat explodes. Multiple people start shooting you at once, and one man starts cranking an enormous megaphone device. Booker kills him before he can get it revved up, but there are explosions and bullets and soon, Booker and Elizabeth are pinned down.
Here, we get a glimpse of another of Elizabeth's powers. She's able to magic into existence different objects, and with clouded representations, gives you a choice of three here, one of which is a new door in a wall, another of which seems to be a train. Booker selects the train.
By this point, events are happening in the demo too fast for me to note them all down. Booker uses magic to make things float and Elizabeth smashes a trailer through them and you jump on to the rail and you're skyhookingaround. You're speeding past so many posters and bits of art. There are other guys chasing you, speeding by on the rails, swinging between them, leaping, chanting. It's so pretty. The clouds. Another person cranking the big megaphone thing, and this time a flare is fired into the air.
Which is when the airship arrives. Apparently, this isn't a scripted thing. It's a boss. It's a Big Daddy as a zeppelin; a patrolling airship you can climb aboard and blow up from within.
You ask Elizabeth to create a turret, and she can't do it yet. It's too soon since her last magic use. The airship starts firing at you, dozens of rockets smashing into the ground and walls behind you as you're again leaping between the rails. Again, it looks scripted, but it's not, just tightly rehearsed. It's thrilling to watch. I want to explore this world.
Evventually, Booker gets high enough that he can leap on to the airship, shoot his way inside, and blow up the engines within. It quickly catches fire, and Booker makes a hasty escape by jumping out and into the clouds, being lucky enough to land on one of the skyrails.
Elizabeth comes over to you. "Booker, that was amazing."
"Good, because I don't think I can do it again."
Which is when the Songbird arrives and hurls you through a window, into the top floor of a building. The Songbird is pitched as a controlling, abusive husband, and he's really, really pissed at you. It tears off the roof of the room you're in and thumps down inside, and is about to crush you when Elizabeth leaps in to stop it. Songbird gently pushes her aside and returns to end you whe she yells "I'm sorry!" He softens, and she asks to be taken back, back to the prison she earlier described as being worse than death.
She reaches out to you for a second as she's carried away, but your hands never quite meet. And after a second's pause, Booker dives out the gaping hole in the building, off the floating island it sat upon, and back on to the skyrails in pursuit.