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BioShock Infinite: first impressions

Submitted by on Tuesday, 17 August 2010One Comment

“Keeping secrets is hard”, said Ken Levine, before unveiling Project Icarus to the world. Project Icarus is, of course, the very secretive project Irrational Games have been working on for last three years. It was finally shown to the masses the other day as being a new BioShock game called BioShock Infinite. Sure, another BioShock isn’t much of surprise, but some of the details blew me away.

Levine has urged everyone to re-evaluate everything we think we know about BioShock, and after watching the trailer (viewable just below) for the first time, it’s clear why he’s so keen to distance Infinite from past BioShock games. Irrational are, quite literally, reaching for the skies with Infinite, leaving the dank, underwater world of Rapture behind for the majestic flying city of Columbia. Levine describes Columbia as being a “shining city on a hill” and an example of “American ideals — Jeffersonian, Democratic ideals.” It’s vibrant, fully populated; very different from the damp mausoleum Rapture was.

Levine describes Infinite, on the US PlayStation Blog, as being very “Fourth of July, 1900.” It’s set in 1912 with the feeling of an “idealised America” in a city suspended in air. The view is that of a perfect summer’s day; very bright and colourful. Colonial architecture styles can be found around the city and Art Nouveau is the dominant style. It has to be said, Columbia looks very appealing, extremely welcoming to, and so not Rapture.

You play as Booker DeWitt, a free thinking former Pinkerton agent. He has a full back-story and can interact with other characters. He marks the second big departure from BioShock 1 & 2 because he is a fully developed character, unlike the main protagonists in those games. They were of a Gordon Freeman mould: empty vessels with no real personality which makes it easy for you to impose your own in the game. Infinite will be very much DeWitt’s game.

He’s in Columbia to save Elizabeth, a girl who’s been locked in a tower for fifteen years, since she was five. Elizabeth appears to be playing the archetypal fairytale princess character – helpless and in need of a hero. But this is Irrational we’re talking about, so it’s unlikely things will stay quite so fluffy – I can’t wait to find out what sorts of twists they have up their sleeves.

This is BioShock?

By now you should be noticing a general theme emerging: I’m struggling to talk about Infinite without contrasting it with previous BioShock titles. This is a problem for myself and some others because we associate Rapture with BioShock. They instantly became synonymous with each other on our first visit to the city and our second visit, in BioShock 2, only cemented these feelings. The idea that a third game won’t be set there is a difficult one to adjust to.

Rapture was such a unique gaming location. It’s the creation of the ultra-capitalist, Andrew Ryan. He had visions of a utopian society, completely amoral and free from censorship, but his utopia quickly turned into a terrifying dystopia where the few who lived became Splicers (read: abominable mutated monsters). There was something about Rapture that made it feel bizarrely believable. Maybe it was the art-deco, the mostly achievable technology, or that creepy feeling that this could be happening somewhere under the sea – with us land-dwelling animals going about our lives completely oblivious. It was a classic sci-fi setting.

Rapture was also rich in Gothic themes: the moral collapse of Rapture’s citizens, the human mutations, the terrifying atmosphere that could be cut with a knife, the sense that both being and place were being decayed, and obviously the stark moral and social degradation. Even the water itself felt like it had a supernatural air about it when it seeped in around you.

BioShock 2, made by 2K Marin (not Irrational), carried on where the first game left off by immersing us in the world of Rapture again. At the time of its release, much of the debate was on whether we needed another visit to Rapture as many thought the story had been completely told in the first game. It was true, there was a sense that BioShock 2 was unnecessary at the time, even though it was highly enjoyable. Still, I wonder if I’d be having less difficulty adjusting to Columbia if it wasn’t for that second trip. Irrational themselves clearly had no interested in returning; Levine believes they had said all they needed to with the first game. For Levine, BioShock is about much more than a setting:

“When we completed the original BioShock, we felt we had said all we wanted to say with Rapture, but we weren’t done with the idea that is BioShock. BioShock is so much more than a story of a single place or a single time. We had so much more we wanted to say.

There are two core principles for us that define a BioShock game. First, it has to be set in a world that is both fantastical and yet also grounded in the human experience. Second, it has to provide gamers with a large set of tools, and then set them loose in an environment that empowers them to solve problems in their own way.”

Levine’s vision for the BioShock series is very admirable, and it’s hard not to admire any team who have a passion for innovation and not playing it safe.

What about SkyShock Fantasy?

I’m certainly not advocating a return to Rapture – that story has run its course – but I’d have preferred it if Irrational had drawn a line under the BioShock brand. Infinite should have been the start of a new IP, it would have been better for Columbia as well. it’s setting has such amazing potential: it’s rich in a imagination, bright, colourful and full of life. When I went to Rapture for the first time I approached it with a clean slate, there was nothing for me compare it to. It’s not fair that Columbia has to compete with Rapture.

Infinite is living in a completely different realm from BioShock 1 ever did: it’s the world of fantasy more than science fiction; It’s an alternate history rather than a secret history. In many ways it feels more like an old fashioned adventure story. Levine has already compared it to the Wild West:

“The feeling we want is somewhat like the Wild West, where you go into a room and everybody has their hand on their gun because it’s a scary place. Part of your challenge in this world is figuring out who is a threat and who isn’t.”

Sure, there are similarities with Rapture. “Burdon NOT Columbia with your chaff”, says one poster. It depicts a woman holding a baby with the light shining on them as she shuns away another baby in the shadows. From this, It’s clear Columbia is a place with as much political and philosophical baggage as Rapture. No doubt, as more details are revealed, we’ll come across more similarities – some may even call Columbia Rapture-in-the-sky.

This would be unfair. Columbia is very different from Rapture, and it’s also completely different from any other world out there. For the nearest comparison I find myself drifting over to the world of Final Fantasy 9, albeit a Final Fantasy 9 that I’ve just made up in my head which had a darker, totalitarian subtext.

Brave new worlds

Despite finding it difficult to completely leave Rapture behind, I’m glad Irrational are pushing this new world upon us. I want to be amazed with a setting just like I was when I first visited Rapture, and I think no team is better equipped to make this world than Irrational are. I can”t wait to sample this fantasy setting and see Columbia’s colourful characters. It may even grow on me and make me forget about Rapture. Maybe this is the reason for my shyness: I’m saddened by the though of Rapture being superseded.

It’s early days yet, but Infinite is showing a lot of promise. There’s still lots for us to learn. What will the gameplay mechanics be like? What are Columbia’s politics? Who is DeWitt’s enemy? Is everything as it seems with Elizabeth? We may have a long wait for these answers because Infinite is not due to be release until 2012, but expect Irrational to drip feed us information over the next two years.

So far so good though; the setting is great, the concept is great and the visuals are stunning.

Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share on BioShock Infinite? If so, don’t hesitate to post them below…