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E3 2011 Preview: BioShock Infinite

By Jeff Buckland, 6/13/2011

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Many gamers were completely floored by what they saw as a surprise hit in BioShock, but those few of us who had played Irrational Games' previous masterpiece, System Shock 2, knew what was waiting for us. Many gamers had wondered whether Irrational would pick up where 2K Marin left off with BioShock 2, but as we now know, they wanted to innovate all over again. BioShock Infinite transports us to yet another fantastical dystopia with an entirely different cast of characters and premise. It'll still include hard-hitting first person shooter action and some very cool pseudo-magic powers, but those are just about the only things that BioShock Infinite has in common with Irrational's previous blockbuster.

It's 1912 and the setting is Columbia, a city in the sky built by the American government in 1900. Columbia is a floating world's fair held up by hot air balloons, one that was intended to be a sign of American exceptionalism and ingenuity. The idea was that Columbia would travel the globe to show American technological dominance. It was revealed, however, that the city was armed to the teeth, and it fired down at a crowd during the Boxer Rebellion and killed many innocents, so the US government has outcast Columbia, disavowing any connection to the city, and things have gotten... worse in the city since then. The Founders, the original ruling class, are led by a xenophobic man named Comstock. He wants to purge Columbia of foreigners, and a rebellion named Vox Populi has sprung up to resist him.

You're playing as Booker DeWitt, an ex-Pinkerton agent. He's a mercenary now, and he's taken on a very lucrative job, but it's pretty dangerous: he is to find his way to Columbia and rescue Elizabeth, a woman who has been trapped in the city for the last fifteen years. She's being held by a massive metal eagle named Songbird, and as we picked up the hands-off demo that starts partway through the game, the player has managed to rescue Elizabeth. As soon as she leaves Songbird's tower, she gains all kinds of powers that seem like magic, and while our E3 demo only showed one of her major powers - the ability to rip open the visible dimensional "rifts" that are now appearing all around Columbia - this power is a doozy. In combat, she'll give you the choice of making cover appear, summoning a big box of guns and ammo, or even open up a new path for you to take and possibly escape through. In the story, she's fascinated but also terrified by her new powers, and she refuses to leave with DeWitt until she's figured them out. Your adventures send you back and forth between the floating "islands" of Columbia, and you'll meet (and often shoot) the warring tribes that have formed. Just like you'd expect from Irrational, the aim here is to deliver a gripping story along with intense FPS combat.

The scene that I found the most powerful was in an abandoned novelty gift store, where DeWitt is scavenging for equipment and Elizabeth is goofing around. Songbird has been out looking for Elizabeth since her escape, though, and he stops at the store to ruin the fun - our duo hides until Songbird goes away - but she asks DeWitt to kill her before letting her get taken by him again. With great facial animations and powerful voice acting, this scene really sold the emotional weight that BioShock fans will be looking for. Of course, there was another very memorable scene where Elizabeth sees a dying horse and tears a hole in a rift to save it, accidentally taking them through time and space into a 1980s city street where "Revenge of the Jedi" can be seen on a movie theater's marquee... but that doesn't last for more than a few seconds and they find themselves back in Columbia. That scene came completely out of left field and surprised everyone that saw it, and it makes me wonder just how many other scenes in BioShock Infinite will drop our jaws as well.

Remember how BioShock looked absolutely nothing like any game before it? Well, get ready for that all over again, because the world's fair, turn-of-the-century Americana vibe here is another setting that's been largely ignored by the video game industry. From the lofty architecture to the sight of years' worth of decay, everything here is brilliantly drawn, modeled, and animated in high-def. I think the demo was run on a PC, since the visuals were sharp enough for it to be at 1080p resolution, but I can't be absolutely sure. Still, the frame rate was smooth as butter as DeWitt used a hook to travel around the vast expanses of a visually stunning Columbia on the city's high-up skyrail system, and while he couldn't use any weapons while gliding around, the enemies certainly could - and the battle scene we saw certainly showed us a lot of foes down below. In the game's best battle scene, DeWitt endured the fire from many enemies below as he swung around to a very high rail, eventually dropping himself on an airship. Making use of the tonics and vigors (read: Plasmids!) he's scavenged, DeWitt is using several magic-like powers of his own to make short work of enemies, along with weapons like a light machine gun, pistol, shotgun, and RPG as well. A quick trip inside the airship, a few enemies dead (with an anti-gravity tonic that holds enemies safely in mid-air where they become sitting ducks), and DeWitt was able to bring down the airship.

At the end of the demo, our duo is about to head to Comstock's tower to find out about Elizabeth's newly-found powers. But the jig is up: Songbird's back, and this time there's no hiding. Elizabeth begs the metal creature not to kill DeWitt, and offers to go back with Songbird if he's allowed to live. It seems that in the short time they've been together, Elizabeth has found herself becoming fond of DeWitt. Songbird snatches Elizabeth and takes her back to his tower, and the demo ends as the player is left back at square one.

This game looks to be a must-buy and was easily one of the most impressive games on show at E3 this year, so be ready to set aside sixty bucks for BioShock Infinite's release on either PC, PS3, or 360 sometime in 2012.



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