Irrational Games finished the first "BioShock" in 2007. Since then, we haven't heard a peep from the Boston-based developer. After passing "BioShock 2" on to 2K Marin, many thought the "BioShock" brand had left Irrational and its creator, Ken Levine. Turns out, many were wrong. Irrational has been working on the next installment in the franchise, "BioShock Infinite," since 2008, and it's definitely not just another return to Rapture.
Welcome to Columbia
"BioShock Infinite" is set in the city of Columbia. It's a massive city in the sky, floating on hot air balloons and propellers. In the twisted timeline of "Infinite," Columbia was created by the US government in 1900 and revealed to the world at large (unlike the secret city of Rapture). Columbia was designed as a way to show the world the technological strength of America. Ken Levine describes it as the equivalent of the "moon landing of 1900." Basically the city would float around the world and show all the other countries how lacking they were compared to America.
Shortly after the time that it was launched, there was an international incident of some sort. Irrational isn't saying exactly what happened, but something went wrong and it was revealed that Columbia wasn't just a technological marvel, it was also a devastating weapon. Levine goes so far as to call it "a Death Star."
And then Columbia vanished.
Enter Our Hero, Booker DeWitt
It's been 10 years since Columbia disappeared in the clouds. Booker DeWitt is a former Pinkerton agent living in New York City who now acts as a fixer...someone who gets things done. He's no saint, but if there's enough cash on the table, he's your man.
One day Booker is approached by a mysterious man who needs him to find a girl named Elizabeth. Where is she? Columbia, of course. Thus Booker is somehow brought to the floating city of Columbia to find this girl and unravel the mystery of what occurred there.
Bring Your Sunglasses
Unlike Rapture, which was a dark, corroding, underwater metropolis, Columbia is bright and well-kept. Irrational premiered the game at the Plaza Hotel, which was extremely fitting, as Columbia is all about turn-of-the-century opulence. Rich wood, marble, cobblestones. It looks expensive just to stand in the middle of the street.
And damn is it bright. You see it in the trailer. Sun and blue skies act as a stark contrast to anything we saw in Rapture. But despite the atmosphere, there's a dark, sinister undercurrent in Columbia.
Patriotism Gone Wrong
If the main theme behind surrounding the first "BioShock" was objectivism, the main theme of "BioShock Infinite" appears to be jingoism. At the game's premiere, propaganda posters displayed racist stereotypes of other nationalities, with George Washington in the center, looking like a savior among savages.
This undercurrent matches real American beliefs at the time. Ken Levine read a quote from President William McKinley, talking about his decision to make the Philippines part of the US. It's basically the epitome of Manifest Destiny:
"When I next realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps I confess I did not know what to do with them...I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don't know how it was, but it came:
(1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable;
(2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable;
(3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and
(4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.
And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large map on the wall of his office), and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!"
That's Columbia. It's a society which believes that America knows best. Always. It's also a society in turmoil.
Opening Up The Gameplay
In speaking with Irrational, the gameplay focus behind "Infinite" is to open up the gameplay. The first "BioShock" was extremely claustrophobic, with tight corridors and passageways. Columbia isn't Rapture. Its wide streets and expansive vistas allow much more maneuverability in combat. In one sequence, the player used a rail system to dodge the incoming attacks of a mortar cannon being fired a quarter-mile away. That rail system isn't just a means of going from point A to point B, it's used throughout the game as an option for combat, moving from one floating city block to another to get the jump on your opponent.
Despite the more wide-open environments, there are still familiar "BioShock" tropes at work, here. In the midst of combat you can choose between a gun and and an ability at any time. In the case of the demo, we saw Booker pick up a sniper rifle and then discover a bottle labeled "Murder of Crows." Drinking the bottle gave him the ability to summon a cloud of crows to attack his enemies in surprisingly gory fashion. A lighting ability also made a brief appearance, as Booker, teamed up with the mysterious Elizabeth, was able to bring forth a massive storm cloud, electrocuting a dozen enemies at once. Telekinesis was the third and last power shown, and it was used to disarm a defensive bartender and toss the mortar projectiles back at the cannon.
In terms of enemies, it seems most of your foes will be normal citizens who have gone a bit bonkers from living on Columbia for so long. Again it's easy to see the connection to Rapture here. Even further, we got a look at one of the bosses in the game, which Levine calls "Alphas." The mechanical-human hybrid definitely brought back memories of the Big Daddy.
The demo closed out with Elizabeth warning that there's a bigger foe on the horizon: A massive, mechanical Alpha with wings and a beak, who swept down to the camera, which cut to black. The skies may be bright, but they're most certainly not safe.
Don't Hold Your Breath
This is vintage Irrational, creating a unique world unlike anything you've seen before. That's the good news. The bad news is that the game won't be releasing until 2012. I'm sure we'll see more from "BioShock Infinite" over the next year, but for the time being, enjoy the trailer and screenshots.