The lights are on
When Irrational Games asked us to come to Boston for a preview of the long-awaited Bioshock Infinite DLC, I went in with some expectations. I was anticipating that the first pack would introduce a new character (and maybe a new companion), embroiled in a richly woven narrative. I also expected that we wouldn’t see the content go live for at least a few weeks. I was wrong all the way down the line.
The first Bioshock Infinite DLC, Clash in the Clouds will be out in just a few hours (12 pm Pacific on Steam and rolling out on Xbox 360 and PS3 throughout the day). And while it isn’t entirely devoid of narrative, the emphasis isn’t on character, and the concept of Columbia’s “setting” gives way to “level design.” This is an arena mode that focuses on guns and vigors, and as someone who found this the least appealing part of the Bioshock Infinite experience, I was a bit underwhelmed.
Clash in the Clouds offers four maps that evoke different areas of the campaign. The Finktown Docks, Emporia, the Boardwalk, and the lush town center all make an appearance. Each map features skylines and tears changing across the total 60 different encounters, which keeps the challenge high.
“If a wave was going to be trivialized by having the skyline in there, then we pulled it out,” lead game designer Forrest Dowling told me as an example. “In terms of the time spent in development before you stop and do bug fix, it was probably about 50-50. The first half was spent hashing out the spaces, like figuring out where the skylines were going to go and where we were going to place cover.
"The second half was spent making each wave really good, and figuring out which tears we wanted, what we wanted to do with skylines, etc. We did retune enemy and player damage a bit away from the base game, but I suspect that anybody but the most hardcore or systems designers would notice.”
The combat is certainly competent, using traditional arena and horde mode mid-round restock mechanics. After each brief bout, players are sent back to the staging area, which includes free guns and ammo, vending machines to upgrade arms and vigors, and an infusion (boost of maximum health, shields, or vigor-powering salts) or piece of gear. A pop-up discloses the next encounter’s “blue ribbon challenge” and enemy types, so players are able to prepare accordingly.
The blue ribbon challenges aren’t necessary to progress, but accomplishing one of these bonus tasks awards extra cash. These are varied and keep things interesting from bout to bout. Using specific weapons, varying kill types, executing only headshots, avoiding headshot and heartshots, and using the skylines (or avoiding them) are all examples of types of challenges I faced.
The only enemies that aren’t featured in Clash in the Clouds are Songbird and the Boys of Silence. In my time, I encountered soldiers, firemen, motorized patriots, sentry balloons, and handymen. Smart use of skylines and the available tears are crucial to success.
Clash in the Clouds offers different types of experiences to suit a variety of players. Players can continue on should they fail a round, but the blue ribbon challenge for that round and the leaderboard ranking for the entire run are forfeit. For those simply interested in working through the content, it’s a perfectly suitable option. The competitive among us will find plenty of meat on the bone, with a deep challenge to push through an entire map without failure.
Cash isn’t just used for upgrades, and Dowling wanted to make sure that players had something to do with their surpluses. Outside of the arena, the new Columbia Archaeological Society allows players to cash in for concept art, behind the scenes videos, the period versions of contemporary music, character models, and a neat surprise. There is a bit of narrative hidden in the gallery for players to find.
Thankfully, for those that are just interested in the concept art, videos, and music, one time through Clash in the Clouds should be enough. “If they spend all their money on every weapon and vigor upgrade, maybe they won’t have enough for everything in the archaeological society,” Dowling said. “If you just really wanted to focus on unlocking things, you could probably do it by the halfway point.”
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If you’ve got a season pass, Clash in the Clouds will tide you over for a little while. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but my love for Bioshock Infinite was in the narrative, not the action.
Additionally, beware of bugs. I was playing on the PS3 and encountered a freezing glitch that wiped my progress on the first map's encounter 14 of 15. A colleague playing on the Xbox 360 ran into a problem with the vending machine improperly recognizing a purchase, taking his money but not delivering the goods. These will likely get fixed, but as we were playing content only a day before release, it's reasonable to expect that people purchasing today might run into them.
Thankfully, the real meat of the extra content is coming in the final two packs. For more on that, read our preview of Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea.
Bioshock Infinite’s Clash in the Clouds DLC is out later today for $5 and as part of the season pass.