Heading towards a lighthouse out at sea. It’s a very familiar feeling opening few moments for fans of the original Bioshock, with your character, Booker DeWitt, being rowed towards an isolated lighthouse by a bickering couple.
I’m really rather hesitant to discuss the game in such specifics that reveal anything but the grandest of overarching themes, because it absolutely feels like a title you should go into with as little foreknowledge as possible. Just as with watching Lost or any similarly mind-bending adventures, this has such a vast and deep catalogue of mysteries and wonders.
Certainly, there are a lot of parallels to Bioshock in the opening, and these parallels continue deep into the game. You still have a gun in one hand and a supernatural power on the other, though these are now Vigors rather than Plasmids, and deeper into the game you’ll battle with Handymen, who you might say are the Big Daddies of the sky.
Atop these core gameplay elements and all of the call backs to Bioshock for you to ponder over there are a huge myriad of differences, many of which seem to be the polar opposites of what went before. Some smaller changes are that you now have a recharging shield, and no longer hold a stash of extra health packs, but on a much grander scale, instead of the deep, dark claustrophobia of Rapture, you’re greeted by the beautiful open skies of Columbia’s flying city; from a dead city to one which is at times teeming with people that don’t simply want to kill you.
I sat down with Ken Levine for a few moments, and was able to pick his brain on a few topics, with this seemingly particular divide in themes something I asked him about. Was it a deliberate decision to be as different as possible?
“We knew we weren’t going to return to Rapture, and then it was a case of what do we want to do? It wasn’t a case of what we don’t want to do,” he said. “We were all really drawn to the time period, and the city in the sky notion was also very appealing. So we walked out of the first meeting on this game with the time period and the city in the sky. We were all ‘Yep, that’s it! Lets do it!’ and very excited about it. That’s very rare that the whole group of us gets very excited about something.”
Of course, he was very careful to always avoid discussion of topics which might lead towards revealing the games secrets. So when I asked about the similarities which held over, Ken replied, “I’ll say this, that these echoes are not just us being cute. They’re not just shout outs to the fans, that’s about all I’ll say about it! That’s not the way we work.”
A lot is the same or similar to Bioshock... So much more is very, very different.
Music and the noise of the hustle and bustle of the city surrounds you too. Bells peel as I walk and soak in the atmosphere, whilst a barbershop quartet floats over on an airboat to serenade a couple with a version of God Only Knows… hold on a second. This is 1912, isn’t it?
The pleasant atmosphere continues as you wander the flying streets, enjoying a celebratory fair that doesn’t last too long. All too see you’re plunged into all out combat, via an event surrounding the persecution of an interracial couple.
“It just came up, you know? When you’re working with that period and you’re doing research, it’s very hard to avoid it. One thing sort of dictates another thing,” Ken said on the matter. “I can’t remember when it came up, but it was a necessary part of telling the story.
“I think if your story is taking you somewhere, you never shy away from it, if it’s a genuine place. I think you shouldn’t run towards something that doesn’t fit in your story just to have it, but I wouldn’t shy away from anything. Why should games be any different to books, or movies, or anything?”
Having been discovered and branded as the False Shepherd by city-wide announcements, now everybody is against you, as you engage in a long running battle with the local law enforcement.
Fighting your way onwards, you start to come across the odd enemy who have Vigors of their own, whose powers you gain once you’ve defeated them. In fact, everyone who knows who you are is your mortal enemy in the early stages of the game, engaging in a kind of religious fervour, incited by the Prophet, Father Comstock, the leader of the city and the antagonist in this game.
Coming from Andrew Ryan’s rather Randian characteristics, Father Comstock’s character felt like another example of near total opposites. He uses his place as the leader of society, his seemingly actual ability to prophesize events, and his place as the religious head of the city to set the city against you.
“There are lots of kind of religion,” said Ken. “I mean, Andrew Ryan had a religion. It didn’t involve God, but it was a religion that he believed in, that it was the answer to everything. Comstock’s no different, just he has a belief in a supernatural force, and Ryan viewed himself as an empiricist. Their system is the answer to everything, and even though they seem to be complete opposites, they are very similar.”
One of the elements that really opens up the gameplay as a whole comes in the form of the Skyhook, which let you latch onto the city’s Skyline system, a series of rails which sprawl around the city and arenas. It has a big and lasting impact on the combat, letting you zip around and attack enemies from every changing angles.
It’s as simple as looking at the rail and hitting jump to latch onto it. Whilst attached you can only use your firearm, but shooting has been simplified to let you lock onto a target. Better yet, as you dismount you can leap Skyhook first into an enemy’s face. It’s fast, effective and really lets you keep the pace of combat high, rather than hunkering down behind cover or hunting in corners for health packs.
But the Skyhook, art style and almost everything else pales in comparison to Elizabeth. She is absolutely the heart and soul of the game, touching almost every aspect of it with her character and abilities.
Rescuing her (or perhaps it’s kidnapping?) is the reason why Booker has come to Columbia. Well, I prefer to think of it as a rescue, given the circumstances under which you find her, locked away from the wider world up in her tower, almost like a fairytale princess.
It’s from that secluded upbringing that a lot of her character traits make sense. She is still very childish at heart when you meet her, and almost instantly after the exhilarating yet traumatic events of your initial escape with her, she’s gleefully distracted by the sound of music on a beach packed with people, and runs off to dance.
When asked about where the character of Elizabeth came from, Ken replied, “The only things that were there from the very beginning were the city in the sky and the time period. Things evolved along the way, and we had an idea for a companion, and then her story got more and more central.”
Elizabeth is so vividly characterised in the early moments that you know her for.
“I think the original idea was that we wanted somebody for the player to be interacting with, but she got more and more central. I wrote a bunch of stuff for her, and then we had auditions and cast Courtnee Draper. I think there was stuff in the E3 demo that was what we used when we were casting, and when I heard her do that she just completely was Elizabeth. It gets easier to write a character once you have an actor, because you write for their voice.”
As she matures over the game’s events, she’ll be helping you out in the game and combat by finding hidden items that you’ll find useful at certain points. You’re always the target of the enemies’ ire, so you only have to look after yourself. Run out of ammo? She’ll chuck you another clip. Need to unlock a door? She’s pretty handy with a lockpick, after having nothing to do for all those years. Fall in the midst of combat? You’ll awake moments later to see her patching you up so that you can rejoin the fray.
All of that is nothing next to her huge special abilities though. She can open up rifts in space and time, which is something I’m sure you’re aware of from previous coverage and trailers. Though her power is a cornerstone to the plot, her character and many of the large events in the game, it also comes into play during combat.
I played a snippet from much later in the game, with the city descending into chaos around the pair of you, facing off against one of the Handymen. As with battling a Big Daddy, my main strategy was naturally to just run away, using the Skylines to zip around to different parts of the arena, and shooting at the Handyman as he came after me.
Dotted around this arena of battle, though, were many fuzzy objects. All of these were elements which Elizabeth would be able to pull through objects from wherever it is her rifts head to, letting me refill my health or pick up heavier weapons to replace my totally inadequate guns.
But with a Handyman chasing after me, all of these possibilities were a total barrage on my senses. Coming into each arena of battle and being able to pick out what’s there to gain access too quickly is going to be key to succeeding. So as you move at pace from one place to another, you’ll need a keen eye to spot the best things for your play style, which Elizabeth can pull through for you.
Coming away from Bioshock Infinite just left me wanting more, especially as my demo ended after the long run up to a boss battle! As we all waited for our interview slots, everyone was just chatting about the game. Speculation was rife as to what everything meant, from the anachronistic music to the meaning of the symbol stamped on Booker’s hand, and all the other mysteries laced throughout the plot.
“We’re drawn to mystery,” Ken said on the matter. “We’re creatures designed to solve mysteries. Watch a baby play and what it’s doing is trying to figure stuff out. That’s what we do and there’s a joy to it.
“Columbia and Booker are just full of these mysteries, and a lot of the time when the going gets tough, they’ll keep you going forward. You’ll want to know what’s next.”
-Thanks to Ken Levine for taking the time to chat with us. Bioshock Infinite is scheduled for release on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC in March 2013.