BioShock Infinite PC Hands-On: Give Me That Old-Time BioShock
It all starts with a lighthouse.
BioShock: Infinite doesn’t mess around. It’s channeling everything you liked about the original BioShock, and it’s channeling it hard. A strange arrival at a lighthouse. A descent (or in this case, ascent) into a wondrous new world. Strange ideals that serve as foundation of that world, and which help turn that world hostile as the player works to explore it.
Playing through the first two-and-a-half hours of BioShock: Infinite at a preview event in Beverly Hills, it’s obvious that Irrational has worked hard to make sure that the experience of the original BioShock echoes through Infinite in fundamental, subtle ways. This is an alternate universe of that first experience, perhaps, and Infinite not only benefits from all those great moments borrowed from its predecessor, it actively works to one-up them.
The opening of Infinite has players taking on the role of Booker DeWitt, former Pinkerton agent with a past and a debt and a job to do to help him escape both. He finds himself in a rowboat with a man and a woman who spend the duration of the trip arguing, albeit with great wit, before dropping him at a lighthouse. There, he discovers a body with a note attached urging him forward, and eventually, a small rocket with a chair in it that straps him in. It’s all a lot of weirdness, but before long, Booker is drifting into the immense floating city of Columbia, and we’re immersed in the sort of Rapture-like mysticism and weirdness that no game has really captured since 2007.
Under the Surface of Beauty
Columbia is a vibrant place, but as soon as we land on its floating metallic shores, we realize that it’s a foreign country — a bizarro-world version of America. Here, a strange religion is rampant that worships Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin as its Holy Trinity; its Christ is The Prophet, a man by the name of Comstock who’s in charge of the city. Columbia features its own entire creation myth, with its people referring to it as New Eden, and its leaders driven by divine right to oppress whomever they choose.
But though Columbia is a fantastical place, it’s also one that isn’t quite right. Booker spends the first moments wandering the streets and getting acquainted with the place, in search of a girl he has been told to find and return to the surface. But all through these moments, his perceptions of events are suspect. He goes unconscious during a forced baptism before he can enter the city; he sees strange, flickering objects that seem to change shape under his gaze; he recalls his private investigator’s office when he blacks out, on more than one occasion; he encounters that same man and woman from the boat (apparently brother and sister), who berate him with the same tongue-lashing wit as before and who seem to keep cropping up in new place and new roles. Clearly, something is amiss.
But there’s not much time to worry about that. First, Booker has his first encounter with a “Vigor,” Infinite’s version of Plasmids, which allows him to gain control of nearby machines. He wanders into a yearly fair, and then into its main event, a raffle. He finds himself winning the main prize — the chance to throw the first of a bin of baseballs at a roped and bound interracial couple, being punished for their perceived transgression. My Booker opts to throw the ball at the announcer (he gets the option, but the outcome is the same no matter what he chooses), and is branded as the False Shepherd, the Comstock religion’s villainous character.
A lot of time is spent with the insipid undercurrent of racism that pervades life in Columbia; it’s a part of everyday life, giving you a sense of the underlying atrocities taking place in the city, and it’s a primary driver of the story and the actions of many of the characters. There’s a whole Ku Klux Klan-offshoot order of raven-worshipping racists charged with preserving racial purity that you encounter, and several black characters, relegated to servant roles like cleaning bathrooms and shining shoes, discuss life in Columbia openly in their audio journals. The game suggests that the Vox Populi revolutionary movement is mostly made up of minorities like those of African and Irish descent. This is probably the most frank, deliberate and pervasive dealing with racism in a video game ever, and it’s both refreshing and intriguing, in the same way that BioShock’s dealings with exceptionalism, social Darwinism and Ayn Rand philosophy gone wrong were interesting.