I'll talk about it at length during this Tuesday's podcast, but I want to make sure to call attention to BioShock Infinite. That feels a little weird, because I'm typically not the person to gush about trailers and carefully controlled demos, especially for games that are probably at least a year away. But after getting a second look at the game that focuses more on how the moment-to-moment gameplay in Infinite may unfold, it's been very easy to get excited. The characters and their motivations appear to be fascinating. The world, even though we've only been shown carefully selected portions of it, looks absolutely gripping. And the gameplay, rooted in at least some of the first-person shooter conventions that often feel like they're driving the entire industry these days, looks to offer some player choice and potential options that both fit with the core concepts of the game and could be a whole lot of fun, too.
Of course, I should take a step back and talk about exactly what we've seen so far. Both of the sequences that Irrational has shown have been live gameplay, but they're carefully planned slices of BioShock Infinite. They're idealized notions of what they're aiming for that, while planned for inclusion in the final product, might not work out quite as well as they appear. That's not unusual. Most games are shown off this way at one point or another. I guess I just need to try to keep one toe firmly planted, just in case it all falls apart in the end. Giving yourself over to unreleased products and polished-up demonstrations is a great way to find yourself disappointed by every game ever released. But let me get into the demo itself and stop wasting your time with all this hand-wringing. The bottom line is that if BioShock Infinite is as cool as the two demos I've seen make it out to be, it's going to be the sort of game that wins awards and is spoken of in hushed tones for years to come. But they're still scripted demos.
Part of the reason I feel so strongly about Infinite is the potential shown in the relationship between your character, Booker DeWitt, and Elizabeth, the girl with the otherworldly abilities that you're sent up to Columbia to find and extract. To hear Irrational discuss Elizabeth's arc, she'll grow over the course of the game, becoming more confident in her abilities and more powerful, too. But the E3 demo shows her in an earlier, more fragile state. She's still not entirely sure what her powers are, let alone how she can use them to her advantage. But that doesn't mean she's helpless. In fact, her specific brand of power seems to be one of the most helpful things in the entire game.
To get specific, Elizabeth is able to call in things from other times or... dimensions? Planes of existence? It's hard to know the true extent of what's happening, but around the world, you'll see blurry, static-y objects that don't currently exist in your time, but you can get your little lady friend to call them in for you. So, in one encounter, you might whip around and see several out-of-phase objects, like a barrel full of guns, a mountable turret, and a sky tram car that's slowly making its way in your direction. Elizabeth's power isn't infinite, so she's probably only going to be able to open a tear and bring in one of those objects. This forces you to make a choice. Do you need more guns? Perhaps that turret would be good against the zeppelin that's currently firing tens of missiles in your direction, though. But the tram car--which is what was selected in the demo we were shown--warps into being just in time, causing it to slam into a few guys that are currently headed your way. Making these sorts of choices and selecting which tears to open and when seems like a key part of the gameplay.
The other thing that blew me away about how BioShock Infinite looks and behaves is the size of the environments and how easy it can be to get around them. There are tram rails running all around Columbia, and everyone seems to be armed with a handy hook that lets them hook up to the rails and scoot around the city. You'll be able to fight while on the rails as well as jump from one to the next. All of this happens at a breakneck speed, lending the action a much, much faster style than BioShock ever had. This bit also left me a little concerned, as it seems like it could be tough to keep track of where the rails are, especially when you're doing something like, say, hopping off of a burning zeppelin before it blows up or crashes. Little markers appear on rails and other surfaces as you look around the world, giving you an indication of where you'd land if you hopped off of your current rail. All in all, it looks like a really neat way to move around the city that also creates some exciting combat opportunities along the way.
Oh, and you can also totally launch crows out of your left hand. Tricks like those come from the consumption of vigors, which are Infinite's rough equivalent of plasmids.
But lets get back to the characters and the world that surrounds them. One of the interesting things I noticed in the demo is that every single citizen of Columbia isn't automatically looking to kill you. You're thrust into the middle of a brewing battle between the sky city's two factions: The Founders and the Vox Populi. The morals of the situation aren't especially clear, and Elizabeth doesn't seem to act as any sort of moral compass, meaning she apparently won't stand there and attempt to get you to do "the right thing." In the end, your goals are to escape the city. So when you stumble upon an execution that's just about to happen, you can stop it in a couple of different ways... or you might just want to keep a low profile and move on. In the demo, the player chose to shout out and call for a stop to the proceedings, which immediately erupted into the violent encounters and zeppelin fight I talked about earlier.
Elizabeth wants to understand her powers, and in the demo, the idea was that the duo was on their way to see Comstock, the leader of the Founders, with hopes that he'd be able to fill in some gaps. Along the way, you discover an injured horse. Elizabeth is convinced that she can use her abilities to open a tear and heal the horse, and this is where BioShock Infinite takes a wild, unexpected turn. She manages to open a tear around the horse that engulfs Booker and herself, as well, but the tear appears to be some sort of portal to the early 1980s. All at once, the characters were on a dark city street, with a movie theater on the right showing "Revenge of the Jedi" on its marquee while a Tears For Fears song plays. A cop car is screaming up the street in their direction, sirens blaring, and Elizabeth manages to close the tear before she and Booker are run down. What the hell, right? I mean, I saw it, and I'm not 100 percent sure what happened. But with the potential for time travel thrown into Infinite's list of tricks, it feels like anything's possible. And consider this: If Irrational is willing to tease that ability now, this far ahead of the game's retail release, what other left-field moments is it holding back?
When you encounter Elizabeth, she'll be escaping a tower, where she's been living out her young life in a Rapunzel-like fashion. She's compelled to remain there by Songbird, a big, mechanical-looking bird-thing that very much wants to put her back in the tower and kill Booker along the way. The demo ended with Songbird recapturing Elizabeth and flying off. Booker, naturally, jumps off of the building, catching a tram line and giving chase. If you had to start drawing comparisons to the original BioShock, the Songbird/Elizabeth relationship bears at least a superficial resemblance to the Big Daddy/Little Sister dynamic. The true nature of that relationship is one we'll have to wait to see.
I've reached a point with BioShock Infinite where I know everything I probably need to know. The game looks exciting and fresh, with good ideas about how to integrate conversations between Booker and Elizabeth directly into the game without breaking away for cutscenes. The action looks fast and wild, with the potential for a lot of different options and ways to approach combat and non-combat situations. Also, you can totally shoot crows out of your arm.
For more on BioShock Infinite, listen to Tuesday's podcast and check out this interview with Irrational's Ken Levine, which we shot back in September.