When Ken Levine and Irrational Games sit down to create a new world, they really create something new. They also take as long as they need – to the dismay of their rabid fan-base.
Irrational's first Bioshock is a textbook example of one of the most vivid and alive environments in gaming today. The underwater dystopia of Rapture created by the enigmatic but unhinged Andrew Ryan transcends mere corridors and becomes a character in its own right.
Making the world feel tangible also gives huge weight to the story and forces players to examine their intentions when the evidence of the previous inhabitant's hubris is so obvious and confronting.
The second Bioshock revisited Rapture, and because of it, lost much that made the city so unique. The world felt played-out, as if Rapture's secrets had long since been unearthed, so Irrational have taken an exciting new route for their next game, Bioshock: Infinite.
Irrational Games seems to have little desire to rehash ideas in the name of commercial success, and while Bioshock: Infinite shares a name and a similar examination of xenophobia, progress in the face of morality and questions of individual freedom, Infinite will make a mark all of its own.
I got to sit down and fight my way through the first few hours of the game to see how far Bioshock has come.
It would be remiss not to start with a description of Infinite's new world. You are Booker DeWitt, a mysterious man sent to the city of Columbia with one directive from a mysterious source: "Bring us the girl to wipe away your debt.”
A familiar opening sequence will titillate returning fans, but there's a difference. This time, you're shot far up into the sky to land on the floating, steampunk-esqe city of Columbia. Columbia is a ramshackle collection of floating city blocks powered by anything from balloons to propellers, and your first view of it easily eclipses your introduction to Rapture.
Columbia is easily twice as impressive as Rapture and the technology behind the world has come a long way from the murky dread that the underwater city invoked.
This time around, everything is lit with a bright, jovial light that belies the growing unrest that is fracturing the city. During the first half-hour, depending on how dedicated you are to exploring, there are absolutely no gun-fights. The city seems too perfect, with children playing in the street, a fair in progress (which players should explore) and a barbershop quartet floating past on a small barge (amusingly, covering 20th-century songs).
But it all comes undone when Booker wins a raffle and is asked to throw the first stone at a tied-up interracial couple.
Suddenly, the world doesn't seem so pleasant, the citizens start jeering and egging you on, and depending on your choice, things can go to hell in a hand-basket very quickly.
To their credit, Irrational have not shied away from the contentious issues of race and xenophobia that existed in the early 19th-century setting they've chosen. Both Rapture's creator Andrew Ryan and new antagonist Father Comstock attempted to create their view of a perfect city, but when their idealism isn't enough to counteract the greed and individualism of their peers, they turn into a mockery of their original plan.
In the first few hours at least, the contrast between your first impression of the city and the details that soon come to light is as entertaining to uncover as the main storyline.
Frankly, watching Ken Levine's team at Irrational do what they do best and create a living, breathing world is a delight to behold. The city could be considered a well-rounded character in itself. The first impression of peaceful tranquillity soon gives way to a vision of a cracked dystopia, and the civil unrest that has been bubbling under the well-groomed surface, waiting for Booker DeWitt to blow it all open with a well-placed bullet.
But Bioshock: Infinite doesn't just rely on lofty ideas to propel you along – there's a fair amount of entertaining combat to whisk you through the story as well. Players of the first two Bioshocks will be immediately at home. While the weapons are redesigned they feel very familiar, but as before they are but a means to an end and the game-changing plasmids make their triumphant return.
Now called vigors (as Rapture and Columbia exist in the same universe but have no relation) the all-new system of powers is as entertaining as ever. While my time with the game only uncovered three of the collection of new vigors, “A Murder of Crows” is surely set to become a fan favourite. Being able to summon a flock of man-eating crows to attack and distract your enemies just doesn't get old. The traditional fire and electricity powers return but with new skins and upgradeable perks along with a variety of new ones for players to discover.
All of the fire-power in the world wouldn't mean a thing if you didn't feel something for the characters. In Bioshock 1, fans will remember you played a mute, blank slate. While this was vital to the story (a nice change: we're looking at you Half-life), it left much to be desired in the characterisation department and made players rely on secondary characters and the brilliant setting to immerse themselves in the world.
In Infinite, Booker DeWitt is as vocal as a fish-out-of-water detective could be, interacting with NPCs and commenting on his surroundings.
The crux of the game's emotional immersion comes when you finally meet the girl you were sent to Columbia to retrieve, Elizabeth. Kept in an imposing tower in the middle of the city and guarded by a monster, (you can practically taste the fairytale) it's no mean feat to rescue her. Once you do, however, the mission no longer feels like you're retrieving an object, as Elizabeth is an innocent and endearing character, and this prompts indecision about delivering her from one captor to another. This is in no small part due to Courtnee Draper's voice-acting and Irrational's writing, but Elizabeth never feels like a burden, and her imperilled innocence is the perfect foil to DeWitt's gravelly demeanour.
As is often accepted in gaming circles, escort missions are the tool of the devil and should be stricken from modern gaming as soon as possible, but Infinite may make me happily eat those words. Elizabeth never feels like the burden you would expect her to be.
When she's not offering new insight to the story or questioning DeWitt, she's finding ammo and health kits for you. She will even collect money you've missed or comment on possible secrets you overlooked. During combat, she doesn't attempt to be a hero like many AI-controlled companions and absorb all the bullets with her face, but hides and offers her ability to pull environmental elements from different universe whenever you should need.
This power is a vital aspect of Elizabeth's story and the reason for her imprisonment. I won't go in to more detail, but suffice to say, attempting to find the reason behind her abilities is as intriguing as the many times she misuses her unchecked powers (Keen-eyed players may be able to spot the reference to our universe existing parallel to theirs).
One of the most endearing images from the original Bioshock games is the Big Daddy trailing a Little Sister (a massive diving-suit-wearing, genetically engineered monstrosity rabidly protecting his grotesque but innocent child-like charge).
For Infinite, there needed to be an equivalent beast to become the face of the game. Well, instead of stopping at one, Irrational have created at least three that I've seen.
The most intimidating of these is Songbird, Elizabeth's protector and jailer. He is a giant, mechanical bird of which most residents of Columbia live in fear. Dedicated fans will be able to find pictures of him on the internet, but those not wishing to spoil the surprise will enjoy the slow tease as you're gradually introduced to him through the first act.
Other fantastic monsters include a huge cyborg with a human head and heart and a mechanical George Washington that is as absurd as it is dangerous. A perfect example of the same tack that Irrational applied to the Big Daddy in Bioshock 1 has been used here: that is, the ability to let them live, or to kill them, as they are ultimately tragic monsters akin to Frankenstein's.
When you first encounter the hulking cyborg he is being used in the fun fair as a side-show exhibit, shying away from the flashing cameras of shouting reporters just like King Kong. When you run into him later, this small scene changes his image, not to make him a faceless enemy but a tragic figure. It just goes to show how a small amount of effort on the part of Irrational can change the whole perception of an enemy and elevate him from mere cannon fodder to a character people will surely be cosplaying for years to come.
The combat in Bioshock: Infinite returns as strong as ever, but fans of the series know that that is only a fraction of the appeal of these games. The story, even in the first few hours, sets up many exciting mysteries and inevitable twists to be uncovered. Something is rotten in the state of Columbia and Booker DeWitt has put his foot firmly in the middle of it.
Even ignoring the combat and the story, the world Infinite inhabits is as exciting as it is complex and adult. Irrational has tackled issues that many studios would never dream of for fear of backlash. But the designers don't approach this material lightly, and their dedication to an uncompromising image of misplaced American idealistic industrialism is as fascinating as it is unprecedented.
While we are far too early into 2013 to make a call about best games of the year, I would be surprised if we don't find ourselves ushering in 2014 and thinking fondly back to March 26, when we all get to lose ourselves in Columbia's beautifully ominous clouds.