“Really, there’s no game that’s quite like a BioShock game,” Ken Levine tells us with just a hint of a wry smile. Of course, as the founder and creative director of the studio that developed the original BioShock, and is now hard at work on 2012’s Infinite, he’s entitled to be rather proud of his efforts. but he’s not being boastful.
“I think what excited people about BioShock was that it was a surprising experience they were completely unprepared for,” he explains. “And Infinite is, to me, about re-inflating that amazement and that wonder of ‘What am I seeing here? What the hell is this?’ that you had the first time you played BioShock.”
And certainly, when the floating city of Columbia was unveiled, that same sense of awe we felt when we first caught a glimpse into the deep water dystopia of Rapture rushed through our veins once again. It’s a spectacular setting and the injection of colour is in refreshing contrast to the dark and murky surroundings of the previous titles.
Built as a testament to the technological prowess of a United States of America taking its first steps on the world stage, Columbia was supposed to travel the globe for all to marvel at. But it held a terrible secret: it was actually a battleship in disguise and, through events you’ll no doubt discover as you play through Infinite, the city is forced into hiding in the clouds and civil unrest breaks out between warring factions about how Columbia should be run.
In the middle of it all is a 20-year-old girl called Elizabeth, imprisoned on Columbia since she was five but host to some remarkable powers. “She’s at the centre of everything,” says Levine – and it’ll be your job to save her.
Irrational passed on the option to get involved with BioShock 2, but Ken still sees the franchise as having an identity, and when it came to designing this bold new world for Infinite he says that there are very clear parameters.
“It takes place in a strange, fantastic, insane but also strangely grounded world – it’s a world you feel people might actually live in. That there are actually places where people went to work and lived their lives, other than to be there for combat experience. BioShock is about a place that feels real and believable.”
Not only that, but it’s one in which you can see for miles, and the desire to explore every square inch of it is almost overpowering for seasoned fans of the franchise.
“The other thing about a BioShock game is that it has to have a player with a toolset,” Levine continues. “Players have got to have a lot of choice about how [protagonist Booker DeWitt] drives the action, about how he fights the combat, about what his character is and how his character grows, the powers he has – those are the two really important elements. Everything else we thought was up for argument.”
While there’s a lot that’s new about Columbia, you can be sure that there will still be a lot that’s familiar about BioShock Infinite. You take on the role of former Pinkerton Agency detective Booker DeWitt, “a mild man who may have a bit of a past but he’s known about town as a man who can get things done.” And for that reason you’re sent to Columbia to find the recently escaped Elizabeth – “because that’s the kind of thing he does.”
It all sounds like a pretty straightforward ‘boy saves girl’ scenario, which is exactly as Levine intended. But, as with all BioShock titles, there’s a heck of a lot more information for you to seek out and unravel as the game progresses. However, this time around you’ll have Booker himself calling the shots as you’ll actually hear the lead character speak, and it’s his relationship with Elizabeth that will ultimately sculpt your immersion in the game.
As you’ll no doubt have noticed, Booker doesn’t waste much time tracking down young Liz and, as well as being one heck of an AI sidekick with her extra powers, she also has several other roles – not least offering both dynamic and passionate commentary on the action.
“We’re building an AI system where she’s actually aware of the situation around her.” Levine explains how she’ll warn you of enemies and can even rush around and gather up ammo and loot should you be running low during a firefight. “That’s not a scripted event, that’s her reacting to the tactical situation as it unfolds. I think there’s a lot to Elizabeth and what she can do that we haven’t demonstrated yet.”
The relationship between the two characters is certainly intriguing and a far cry from the hands-off approach to storytelling previously seen in BioShock. “Honestly, we’ve cheated with the audio in the previous BioShock game,” admits Levine.
“There’s always someone over a radio or behind a window and I’ve always found that a bit… um… necessary in terms of our development process, but a bit unsatisfying. So we really wanted to make our characters central to the experience.” He’s certainly got our attention.
As noted, the core action of BioShock Infinite remains familiar in many ways, but that’s not to say Irrational isn’t mixing things up an awful lot. Once again you’ll be able to dual-wield a standard weapon with a variety of special powers. “I thought we were only scratching the surface in terms of the game dynamic,” Levine tells us.
“I’m really pushing it because there’s so much opportunity. We don’t need to radically reinvent the wheel but you were limited in BioShock 1 by only having eight weapons on a radial dial, and we’re adjusting it so you can have more than eight.” And in terms of your routine armoury, a pistol, machine gun, shotgun and sniper rifle have been seen so far – along with a wrench for melee smackdowns.
The Plasmids of old are gone, replaced this time with the seemingly similar Vigors. The main change they bring is that they no longer rely on the need for Eve, which Levine says forced the Plasmids in BioShock to be relatively balanced. In Infinite, the Vigors can vary greatly in power but are restrained by the number of times you can use them.
“Therefore you could have a much more powerful Vigor that has a round or two in it, and you can have a less overwhelmingly powerful Vigor that has 30 rounds.” You’ll also find the old Gene Tonics replaced by upgrades called Nostrums. The specifics on those have yet to be unveiled, but the basics of extra strength, damage resistance and so on should all be covered among some more creative bonuses.
Obviously the big question about the Vigors is just what new toys we’ll have to play with. The preview footage released a while ago was somewhat disappointing in that it showed Booker using both electricity and telekinesis, two staples of the franchise. The only new Vigor was the Murder Of Crows that you can first see used against Booker as an old man employs it to send a swarm of crows to attack him – only for Booker to later kill his assailant and claim the Vigor for himself from next to his fallen corpse.
“When we looked back at the demo we were kind of kicking ourselves,” admits Levine. “It was like, wow, why did we choose to show the Vigors that are relatively similar to those in BioShock 1?” he sighs. “But, honestly, the vast majority are in no way the BioShock Plasmids.”
He’s in no position to start unveiling new Vigors to us, but he did explain how they’ll have more than one application this time. For example, you can now use Telekinesis to grab a weapon from an enemy and shoot them with it, and you can be sure that loads of other neat tricks will be coyly unveiled.
“Our commitment is that whenever we have a power that has some similarities then it will also have a wide range of different uses,” is Levine’s assurance. We can trust him, right?
BioShock Infinite Trailer
Of course, the ability to combine your powers with Elizabeth’s is another key feature of Infinite. You may already have seen the footage of her calling in a rain storm to douse a crowd of enemies for Booker to zap with an electricity bolt, or fashioning a pile of cutlery into a red-hot ball using her psychokinesis for him to then grab using his Telekinesis and fire into some previously covered foes, sending them flying.
“She basically presents the large-scale opportunities for you to trash the world in a way that was really not on a scale that was available to you in previous BioShock games,” Ken explains. You don’t have to use her, and her powers do drain her health for a short time so over-use is clearly to be avoided. But the sheer wealth of possibilities this throws up clearly marks BioShock Infinite out as being a far more varied and explosive combat experience than we’ve seen before.
The other interesting variation to your armory system is a far stricter control over your options. Whereas in BioShock you could pick up just about every weapon and Plasmid in a single play-through, you’ll have to make some concrete decisions in Infinite. Some of your Vigor choices, for example, will be locked in place once you’ve equipped them, and we’d assume the same applies for many of your Nostrum picks as well.
You’ll still have plenty to play with, but according to Levine it means that “there’ll be a whole bunch of powers you didn’t get to see the first time, which should encourage you to play through it again.” Replay value, eh? Always good, especially when it’s for more than just a slightly different ending.
You’ll also have a lot more freedom than in BioShock, though this is still no open-world adventure. Instead Irrational is applying the “hub and spoke” technique, citing the original’s medical level as an example: one central location but with loads of “nooks and crannies” for you to explore and loot at will. Yep, you’ll be robbing the place blind once again, so every drawer, cupboard and crate will have to be searched for ammo and rewards.
“That’s as much of the BioShock experience as anything else,” says Kenneth. It’s not just about filling your pockets, though, as once again there’ll be a stack of audio logs as well as “a kind of visual storytelling that we’ll use in places” for you to carve out that underlying backstory to discover what really happened in Columbia.
In terms of freedom, we were intrigued to know if you’d be able to pick sides in the Columbia conflict and team up with either the ruling classes or the rebellious Vox Populi, but things are never that simple. As with BioShock there will be people with similar ideals but different points of view – and those views more often than not come into conflict.
It does seem that the residents of Columbia are a lot less belligerently hostile than the Splicers, giving you a bit more of chance to soak up their mini-stories… before coating them in fire and blasting them with a shotgun. What you can be sure of that is that your actions will have more in the way of far-reaching consequences than before – and not in a clear-cut manner.
“None of our choices are just like the universe ends or the universe doesn’t end. The choices are going to be much finer graded than that. We want it to be through actions that are a little more ambiguous” – and you’ll have Elizabeth to pass comment (or “define the space”) on those you make.
BioShock Infinite The First 10 Minutes
There’s little doubt that Elizabeth is central to just about everything. Everyone wants a piece of what she has, but none more so than Him. A huge, 30-foot, robot-like winged creature, Him was Elizabeth’s guardian during her imprisonment, created solely for that purpose.
He’s Columbia’s ultimate badass, like four Big Daddies melded into one – and he’s driven by the single purpose of recapturing her and destroying anything that stands in his way. Intriguingly Liz sees her former captor as a friend, and your relationship will suffer if you attack him, so there’ll be a fine line between self-preservation and assault.
We haven’t seen much of Him in action, besides a brief cameo at the end of that trailer, though we suspect he’ll be handing you your ass on a plate several times before the final credits. But we doubt if he’s the main protagonist at play here. After all, someone created him right?
Given his odd love-hate relationship with Elizabeth, of which Levine admits “she obviously has some connection to Him we don’t yet understand,” we wouldn’t be surprised to see his allegiance questioned at some point. Either way, we’re looking forward to seeing him spread his wings a lot more in the future.
Besides Him, the rambling politician Saltonstall and the typically angry locals, the only other enemies of note so far are the Handymen. These humans are wrapped in exo-suits for added speed and strength and have huge hands (hence the name), as well as their hearts exposed in a glass tank in their chests – which is surely ripe for a one-shot kill.
These dudes look set to add that much-loved (and feared) Big Daddy element to your exploits around Columbia and should probably be approached with some caution. Or a decent supply of heat-seeking rockets.
Needless to say, while Infinite marks a surprising turn for the BioShock franchise and offers much in the way of new ideas and gameplay potential, there’s still an awful lot that should remain welcomingly familiar. It’s the BioShock way, according to Levine. “If it had to have a calling card it’s that you have to be married to the world, to discover the world and be a detective in the world.”
And as to whether Columbia’s world will be set in the same universe as Rapture, Levine was predictably evasive. He tells us that it has been decided but “it’s not the right time to talk about that stuff.” Still, even if Infinite doesn’t play out as some kind of prequel, we suspect that you’ll find a lot more subtle references to Irrational’s original masterpiece – and we can’t wait to start looking.
Wanna read more? Then 360 Gamer is available at all good newsagents