Bioshock Infinite preview: cheery, sunny, and unsettling

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.

Dapper Dan

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.