The trailer teased a return to the underwater failed Utopia of Rapture, first seen in 2007's "BioShock." But last night, we saw "BioShock Infinite" in action, a live demo. This next big thing from Ken Levine's Irrational Games is something different.
This is the "BioShock" of a floating city, of America in 1912, of a helpful damsel in semi-distress and of something called the Skyline.
"The time for silence is over," said Ken Levine, creative director of Irrational Games to a room full of reporters at New York's Plaza Hotel on Wednesday night, seconds before the "BioShock Infinite" trailer began. We were a controlled audience, our laptops and cell phones confiscated before we entered a small ballroom and sat in front of the stage and screen from which Irrational would show its new project. The news vans outside the hotel had not been there for "BioShock Infinite" but for controversial Democrat Congressman Charlie Rangel, whose birthday party was one story above and whose House ethics investigation is ongoing.
Levine's team is one of the most acclaimed and secretive in game development. Since the '07 "BioShock," which they made in partnership with 2K Australia, Irrational gave no hint about what they were working on, no clue that they were making another "BioShock." They were not involved in this year's "BioShock 2," which was created by several sister studios and was set in that undersea city of Rapture. But Irrational, which had, for a time, been known as 2K Boston, is indeed back on the "BioShock" franchise. Wednesday night they debuted their new trailer — shown above — which briefly teases the notion that they were back on the virtual ocean floor.
Their trailer begins with a camera swoop across what appears to be ocean bottom, past an iconic "BioShock" Big Daddy. But that's just a trick, a look inside the fish tank of a man on the place where "BioShock Infinite" is really set, the early-20th century airborne crumbling metropolis of Columbia.
A 19th-century 'Death Star'
What I saw — and what you can see in the trailer — was the first glimpse of a game shrouded in years of secret development and now scheduled for a 2012 release on the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
The trailer signaled that "Infinite" is a first-person return to the style of idea-driven historical science fiction of "BioShock," but set in the skies. Later, Levine would tell me that the game is thematically tied to the work he did in first "BioShock" in that it is another game about a strange and yet strangely familiar place as well as about expressive, variable gameplay. He doesn't call it a prequel though and drew no narrative connections between the "BioShocks" we have played and the one his team is making. "I don't want to think about that," Levine said to me. "I don't think it's particularly constructive to have that conversation."
After the trailer unfurled "Infinite"'s world, Levine began explaining the game to his audience. "Infinite" is set in the early 1910s. Its main setting is Columbia, a city that floats on balloons and drifted across an ascendant United States, showing the accomplishments of a post-Civil War America ready to express its idea of excellence.
"Something terrible happens," Levine said, establishing the stakes and the mystery. Columbia proves to be something worse than a beacon of prosperity. "This is not a floating world's fair. Columbia is a Death Star." In the lead-up to the events of "Infinite," Columbia is embroiled in an international incident of unspecified horror and then disappears into the clouds. Our character, a "disgruntled former Pinkerton agent" named Booker DeWitt, is contacted by a mysterious man who knows where Columbia is. In that city, DeWitt is told, is Elizabeth, a woman who has been raised there and who the man wants rescued. DeWitt accepts the mission, which will be ours as a player: to rescue Elizabeth and, with her super-powered help, get out of the patriotic-turned-violent Columbia.
"Infinite" in action
We were shown a live gameplay demo to get a sense of how "Infinite" will play. The demo was paced for action and was as heart-racing as a good sequence in the campaign of a "Call of Duty." If you've played the "BioShocks," as I have, you'd spot the potential for dynamic gameplay. Guns go in your character's right hand. Powers are on the left. The gameplay sequence began with DeWitt walking up one cobblestoned street of Columbia. A floating bell tower teetered and then collapsed in front of him. Up the street, he passed a woman sweeping in her doorway while the building behind her blazed. A dead horse was in the road, being pecked by birds. Columbia's a weird place.
Columbia looks American, particularly a style we might call, kindly, American Obnoxious, though Levine describes it more technically as an age of American Exceptionalism. It was built, in the fiction, at a time of swelling U.S. pride, when the inventions of electricity and radios and the progress of the American people could, theoretically, spawn a floating city that waves the flag and, more distressingly, exhibits imperial racism.
DeWitt walked past flags with 48 stars that flapped near posters pumping the slogans "For Faith, For Race, For Fatherland." Columbia's patriotism is off-the-rails jingoism, its citizens taking gun rights to the extreme. A man preaching politics from a gazebo stood near signs that warn "they'll take your gun" and barrels full of rifles from which, you can indeed take your gun.
When the Irrational developer controlling the "Infinite" demo had DeWitt take his rifle, the pontificating man in the gazebo scowled. His eyes and mouth started glowing and a fight began. For a moment, the fight pitted DeWitt's scoped rifle vs. this combative man and a swarm of crows — well, a murder of crows, to use the proper term. Murder of Crows is also the brand name of the bottle from which DeWitt later drank in order to obtain the ability to send out his own angry birds.
We were shown other powers. Deeper into the demo, during a combat sequence in a bar, DeWitt appeared to use telekinesis to pull a shotgun out of a man's hands. The gun floated in front of the man, pointing at him, shot him, then zipped into the grip of our hero. That same power was used to stop a football-sized shell in mid-air, rotate it and fire it back at the turret from which it came.
Aside from the splendor of a floating city populated with angry patriots, the newness to the "BioShock" series presented by "Infinite" are the roles played by Elizabeth and the Skyline, the railways connecting Columbia's floating districts.
Let's take the lady first. Elizabeth is a skinny-waisted, dark-haired, cleavage-showing damsel who is sometimes in distress and sometimes the key combat support. She is not controllable by another player. She is a computer-controlled ally and she is not, Levine told me, ever supposed to feel like a nuisance, a video game "escort mission"-style hindrance. She is instead, he said, a character, one who will enable the type of in-the-midst-of-gameplay dialogue-driven storytelling seen among the characters of Valve's "Left 4 Dead." She is also a power amplifier, if the player chooses to accept her assistance. And she has her limits.
In one moment of the demo, Elizabeth was placing a storm cloud over the heads of a crowd of gun-toting men; DeWitt blasting forth with electricity to ignite a storm of lightning on the crowd. In the next she was struggling to her feet, falling behind, nose bloody. "When she helps you, it takes a toll," Levine said in a canned print interview supplied by Irrational. "You're not a super hero and she's not a super hero, and you're both up against a very difficult challenge that pushes you to the extremes."
Later, there was a robot or a man in a robotic suit on a bridge menacing DeWitt and Elizabeth. The lady was able to zap an orb high on its suspension tower. DeWitt was able to bring it down on the robot-nemesis' head. The middle of the bridge collapsed. As Levine later told me of Elizabeth's gameplay significance, "She is there to enable things that are of a scale that you just couldn't do in 'BioShock' 1." With the bridge out, a robotic bird swept in, ending the gameplay demo.
The other distinct gameplay element in the demo had been what Irrational calls the Skyline. These rails are ostensibly used for sky-trains that travel from room to room and from one city block to the next. But in the demo, they were used by people. That pontificating political man from the gazebo had grasped for one during his fight with DeWitt and zipped along it well out of reach and then back in for a melee swipe. DeWitt could grab onto one as well and zip down its line, to speedily get from one place to the next, and to, presumably, escape, dash toward or even flank his enemies.
In our interview, I asked Levine if it would be right to think of the Skyline as "Infinite"'s Warthog, the "Halo" vehicle that changes the famous Xbox series on the fly from an on-foot heroic slog of a first-person shooter to a rushing driving-based war game. He liked the analogy and said that the rails in Infinite are not a mere "Ratchet & Clank"-style mode of conveyance.
I saw a gameplay parallel between the Skyline and the rails that connect floating sectors of one of the main worlds in Retro Studios' "Metroid Prime 3: Corruption." But in "Infinite," the Skyline network appears to be so complex that it seems likely to function less as a limited-use means of conveyance and infrequent combat, as it was in "Metroid," and more like an additional tactical option added to the already-variable arsenal of "BioShock."
A real character
During his address to the press, Levine said that players of Infinite would feel as if they were playing a specific character. The hero of the first "BioShock" had an important relationship to other characters in that game, but he was, in terms of expression, a blank. Booker DeWitt won't be. He will feel like a specific guy with a specific story, Levine said. In the canned interview, Levine said of DeWitt: "He's known as a man who gets things done... for a price."
Levine still wants players to feel like they are conducting the actions in "BioShock." He uses variations of the word "expressibility" many times while explaining a "BioShock" game's prime elements. Players will still be able to decide how to fight through each conflict in "BioShock Infinite," using whichever powers, weapons and team-up moves with Elizabeth that seem best for them. But DeWitt will feel like a specific role we've played, Levine told me.
It appears that we are also going to be encouraged to think of the people of Columbia as a collection of individuals. Levine said that Infinite extends the idea shown in "BioShock" that not every character who you come across in these first-person shooters is a violent enemy. "We showed that idea of 'neutrality' in the demo," he said in the prepared interview, referring to the gameplay sequence we were shown. "When you walk into the bar, the guys there just look at you. They don't attack right away, which is very deliberate... [W]e thought 'wouldn't it be great if you walked into a room in this game and you didn't necessarily know the dispositions of the people in it? Are they going to sit there? Are they going to attack you? What might set them off?' We really wanted to have a notion that not everyone in the city was automatically hostile towards you. Instead it has more of that 'Wild West' feel where you walk into a bar with your hand on your pistol and you're not sure what's going to happen to you."
Of course, for the sake of presenting an action-packed demo, things got ugly in that bar quickly.
The floating mysteries
"BioShock Infinite" is at least 16 months from completion. We won't be playing it until 2012, a century past the year in which the game is set. In the interim, more will be revealed. The Skyline, for example, will be a focus of a future showcase for "Infinite," according to Levine. It is that important. Levine was non-committal about multiplayer, saying only that it would make sense to have some for the game if Irrational could think of something special. He would not divulge the reason for the word "infinite" in the game's title, teasing only that it has significance. "The name has meaning," he said.
After three years we finally know what Irrational Games is doing next. And we know the future of "BioShock," which is an all-new past.
"BioShock Infinite" manages to seem both novel and true to certain core systems and gameplay values introduced by the 2007 original. It is a potentially "Final Fantasy"-style sequel that may not have narrative connection to its predecessors (remember, they're not saying) but appears to be a spiritual continuation and advancement. Setting a "BioShock" in the sky makes the game appear to be more expansive, its gameplay possibilities broader.
A vibrant and bolder "BioShock" is coming, with more extraordinary action than we've seen before and more complicated storytelling, all set on a maverick construction of American ingeunity where we've never played before.
Catch up with Stephen Totilo on Twitter at @StephenTotilo.
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