E3 2011 – BioShock Infinite Looks Great, But Also Like It’s On Rails

The more I see for BioShock Infinite, the more torn I am about the game.

On the one hand, it looks simply phenomenal, and the gameplay demo I saw at E3, which was eyes-only and included no hands-on time with the game, reinforced and amplified that feeling again and again. The game is beautiful from a graphical standpoint, and the impression I’m continually getting is that the increased emphasis on character and story — specifically the relationship and interaction between protagonist character Booker DeWitt and his companion/ward/rescue target, Elizabeth — is deep and engaging.

But I fear for actually playing the game. As whiz-bang cool as it appears to be, especially with all those roller coaster tracks coursing through the game that you can fling yourself between, much of what I’ve seen so far suggests that you need to be in a particular place at a particular time, looking at a particular thing, for the experience to work correctly. That’s an awful lot of control that doesn’t seem to be in the player’s hands.

The Bioshock Infinite demo at E3 included a lot of images and information we’ve seen from trailers, but with a whole lot more context worked in. It begins with DeWitt, whom the player controls, walking with Elizabeth on their way to reach a place called Comstock Tower. As we’ve been told by Irrational’s Tim Gerritsen, Elizabeth is a prisoner in Columbia, BioShock Infinite’s floating city in the sky. She’s being held captive by that huge mechanical beast known as Songbird, the Columbia equivalent of a Big Daddy, and she has been a captive for more than a decade. During that time, Songbird has been her jailer as well as her only companion. DeWitt is there to rescue Elizabeth, and Songbird is in constant pursuit of the pair as they try to make their escape.

Off to See the Wizard

But there’s another caveat to the situation. Rather than just take Elizabeth from Columbia right after rescuing her, DeWitt and Elizabeth are on a quest for answers as they move through the city. Elizabeth has a curious power: She can actually tear holes in reality. Rips look like flickering objects, and when Elizabeth interacts with them, she can actually merge Columbia’s world and other times and places. With no idea how she came by this power or how to control it, Elizabeth isn’t willing to leave Columbia without answers, which is why she and DeWitt are seeking out Comstock Tower. They hope the answers they seek will be there with Columbia’s founders.

We find DeWitt and Elizabeth about a third of the way through the game, moving through a market section of the city called Imporia. Light streaking in through stained glass windows is striking as they enter a general store, where weapons and ammunition are prevalent (Columbia takes the American ideals enumerated by the Second Amendment extremely seriously): as are toys, fireworks and lots of red, white and blue. All the while, DeWitt and Elizabeth are conversing — it’s a stark contrast to Irrational’s last BioShock offering, in which the protagonist was silent. Here, DeWitt comments on objects as he picks them up, like the pistol and ammo he takes from a shelf, and he’s in constant contact with Elizabeth, who plays with objects and at one point puts on a mask reminiscent of those worn by the splicers in Rapture.

Elizabeth’s character, it seems apparent early on, is childlike despite her age. It makes sense, given that she’s been a captive for so long. Now with DeWitt and free to do what she wants, she comes off as almost abnormally happy and playful given the circumstances.

That all changes in an instant, however.

A thud from outside. Elizabeth ducks behind something, suddenly very afraid. DeWitt walks toward her, asking what’s wrong — when a beam of light pierces through a hole in the wall, an eye just behind it. DeWitt ducks down as the beam of light sweeps over the room again and again. It’s Songbird; he’s searching.

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