BioShock Infinite hits the heights in our hands-on preview

From star-spangled banners to gargantuan statues of the Founding Fathers, BioShock Infinite's spectacular setting is awash with the trappings of the land of the free.

As I'm ushered into the classically Victorian hotel library chosen as the scene for my hands-on with BioShock Infinite, the juxtaposition between room and game could hardly be more at odds. The venue's quintessentially British decorum clashing with the American vitriol of Irrational Games' latest work.

Indeed, from star-spangled banners to gargantuan statues of the Founding Fathers, Columbia – Infinite’s spectacular setting is awash with the trappings of the land of the free. This being a BioShock title however, everything you see has an element of malevolence to it – an early example of such being a pro-slavery lobbyist offering the chance to throw a baseball at a pair of bound serfs.

What more would you expect of a BioShock title? One of the flagship franchises in gaming, and a series lauded as much for its storyline and ethics, as its first-person shooter credentials. Where narrative is put to the fore and the cracks in society’s facade made ever apparent.

As BioShock and BioShock 2 plumbed the depths of the underwater city of Rapture – while discussing themes such as altruism and objectivism in a nod to Ayn Rand – it’s perhaps appropriate that Irrational Games have this time decided to take us to the skies. The aforementioned Columbia being a floating metropolis, America’s gift to the world circa 1900, made into nightmare by the American Dream taken to the very limits of exceptionalism.

So it is that I set off into Columbia, stepping into the shoes of central protagonist Booker DeWitt; himself a shady character, clearly in debt to some serious people as the discovery of murdered man, left as a message to him that he better obey his orders, attests.

It’s no coincidence that Infinite begins, like the original BioShock did (albeit via a plane crash), amid open water and the promise of salvation in the shape of a lighthouse. Previously, the lighthouse acted as a portal to the deep sea setting of Rapture. Here the only way is up, as I’m propelled on a collision course with the airborne Columbia.

This obvious change in environmental direction isn’t the only easily spotted difference either, as now our in-game avatar has a constant voice – and even a face that you’ll glimpse in fleeting reflections – of his own. A distinct departure from the largely taciturn Jack of the original, and a nod towards Irrational’s new thinking as they look elevate Infinite beyond its illustrious predecessors in more ways than one.

During the hour of playtime available to me the dividends of that decision are clear. DeWitt becoming narrator of his own adventure as he responds in the exact same way anybody would to stepping out into the bewildering, lens flare-soaked city of Columbia – a place where impossible simply doesn’t apply.

For the first 30 minutes of game time Irrational are seemingly content to simply amaze by sights and sounds alone as DeWitt ambles from one beautiful scene to the next, mingling with the city’s people as he goes. First being literally baptized into the city, next being halted by a closed barrier as a ticker tape parade floats on by.

In all honesty there’s such an abundance of scenes and dialogue to witness here that I feel like a troglodyte as I run through such content, ever conscious of my limited time with the game. Suffice to say that I’m already looking forward to a more sedate re-run once the game ships.

When this initial quiet inevitably gives way to action the sudden change is a shocking one, tranquility giving way to graphic violence in such quantity that it can only really be described as ‘gratuitous’. When I state that DeWitt’s first weapon is a motorised blade – perfect for decapitation – then you can no doubt begin to form a picture of your own. Even Call of Duty was never like this.

The change of pacing ratchets up significantly here too, as suddenly the whole city is on your tail as police glide in via Columbia’s roller coaster of a transit system and automated turrets keep you continually on the lookout for cover.

Once in possession of a gun the usual core mechanics of the FPS come into play, meaning less of the close-quarters combat (and resultant gore), replaced by strafing before returning fire. Of course that’s not the whole story here however, as plasmids make a return too (here known as ‘vigors’) – they being the body-augmenting cocktails that allow you to hack machinery, influence foes, launch molten lava and even form a protective shield around you a la Halo’s Master Chief.

Not shy of letting you explore your powers Irrational have scattered their environment with enticing options for the attentive gamer. Oil spills, for example, can be ignited, turrets can be hacked and so on. It’s a flexibility that only Arkane Studios’ Dishonored has demonstrated in recent times, and a refreshing change from the linear flow of the standard shooter.

The rotating blade used to slice your enemies is also your means of navigating the heights of Columbia, as you hook onto the interlaced roller coaster rails with a button press. With the police still in pursuit I moved from one track to the next, before shooting through a loft window and dropping down into the house below.

Apparently I was the only person to have chosen this particular route all day, according to Irrational’s Mike Soden who was there as my guide – an impressive example of the freedom of approach and the consideration of the different ways in which people play.

After my first half an hour of sight seeing, and second half of running for my life, I return to earth excited by what I’ve seen and eager to experience more. The open world of Columbia stands in stark contrast to the much more claustrophobic Rapture and the combat on show in Infinite feels all the better for it.

Misgivings over the all-American setting might put off some; particularly those not convinced of the virtues of the good, ol’ US of A. But in truth there’s perhaps more here to wrangle US citizens, as American ideals are put under the microscope and the country’s dirty laundry aired.

It also remains to be seen just how thought provoking a game Infinite will be, with much depending on whether the first hour’s lofty approach is representative of the whole. What is for certain is that the gruesomeness of its combat, suggesting that however philosophical it might be, this still won’t be the game to speak across entertainment genres… though the same surely won’t harm sales amongst dedicated gamers.

BioShock Infinite will be released for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC on 26 March 2013.

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