When Irrational Games revealed BioShock Infinite last year after three years of silence, the game’s colorful and controversial world left many gamers breathless with anticipation for more info. Now we’ve gone another nine months without any new info, but a new 10-minute live demo proves that the original video was barely scratching the surface.
As the demo picks up, main character Booker DeWitt steps into a shop full of patriotic tchotchkes with Elizabeth, the young woman he’s been hired to rescue from the troubled floating city of Columbia. As the two pick through the piles of junk in the store, Booker is able to loot items in a manner similar to previous BioShock games. Be prepared to once more open every cash register and cabinet that you come across in your attempt to fill up on random items.
After exchanging some quips, Elizabeth and Booker find themselves in sudden danger. The building shakes, and a gigantic creature appears at the window with a shriek, placing a single open eye against the glass. This is Songbird, the flying menace that was referred to only as "Him" in the original BioShock Infinite gameplay demo. While it’s difficult to tell what exactly Songbird is, its huge eye operates like a floodlight shining into the room. The duo hides behind a desk to avoid notice.
After sweeping the room several times with its blinding eye, Songbird takes off, its harsh cries echoing through the city. Booker attempts to rouse a clearly shaken Elizabeth. "Promise me," she whispers. "Promise me that if it comes to it, you will not let him take me back." She places Booker’s hands around her throat suggestively. Off-screen, BioShock mastermind Ken Levine explains that Songbird has been Elizabeth’s "jailor, her only friend, and her guardian" since she was five years old.
Booker pulls his hands away. "It won’t come to that," he responds.
The two exit the shop, entering the overly bright yet disturbingly empty streets of Columbia. Elizabeth has asked Booker to help her find Comstock, the leader of the ultra-nationalistic Founders and the one person in Columbia who may be able to help her learn to control her powers. Elizabeth hums "Hush, Little Baby" as she wanders absentmindedly around a corner. Booker rushes after her. She has discovered a dying horse. Booker aims his gun at the animal, intending to put it outs of its misery, but she stops him: "Wait, there’s a tear."
The reason that Elizabeth is so important -- and presumably the reason she’s been locked away in Columbia for most of her life -- is her ability to manipulate these so-called "tears." These rips in the fabric of reality are visible to everyone in Columbia, but only Elizabeth can put them to use. Her powers allow her to open a tear and briefly tap into other potential realities, bringing them into existence in Columbia.
In the case of this horse, Elizabeth concentrates hard, and for a few seconds the horse springs to life along with the grass underneath it. Then, suddenly, she loses control and the scene surrounding Elizabeth and Booker changes entirely. They’re on an empty asphalt street. Lampposts light the road, and a movie theater nearby advertises a showing of Revenge of the Jedi. An ambulance comes screaming down the road toward them. Booker shouts for Elizabeth to close the tear, and she pulls it off mere seconds before the two are run down.
In addition to putting the duo into dramatic situations like this, tears will have a direct impact on gameplay. Later in the demo, as Booker faces down a legion of Vox Populi thugs, he notices a number of tears. Obviously the extent to which Elizabeth can control her powers are limited, so he’s only able to choose one of the three tears to bring into reality: a large piece of cover for the shootout, a barrel full of guns and ammunition, or a door that Levine explains could lead away from the fight entirely…or to even greater trouble.
Speaking of the Vox Populi, if you thought the original BioShock’s critique of Ayn Rand and Infinite’s over-the-top jingoism of the Founders meant that Irrational Games is only looking to comment on ultra-right wing politics, this new faction is here to prove you wrong. Beginning life as a workers’ rights movement, the Vox now stand in opposition to the Founders, taking an opposite but equally extreme stance. They believe in the socialistic ideal of everyone sharing everything, which eventually comes to mean that everything should belong to them. As one fanatic screams in the demo: "Your homes are ours! Your lives are ours! Your wives are ours! It all belongs to the Vox!"
Booker’s first lengthy fight with the Vox Populi in this demo also shows off more of one of the unique gameplay features that was revealed in the first video: skylines. These rollercoaster-esque railways connect the many floating platforms of Columbia and provide a quick route for traversing the environment during a heated gunfight.
Watching Booker jump from line to line in first person is dizzying, and I wonder how easy it will be to pick up on where each track is taking you while you play. Irrational is aware of this concern. Director of product development Timothy Gerritsen tells me that the developer "wanted to kill that feature three or four times." He says the team spent a lot of time fine tuning it to make it easy to approach without it coming off as completely on-rails. "It’s all about giving the player options," he explains.
One of the options skylines provide Booker is the ability to make his way over to a giant security blimp that begins bombarding him with missiles during the battle. Once onboard, he blasts his way below deck and blows up the engine before jumping off. Levine informs me that the blimp could also be taken out with a rocket launcher or other high-powered weapons from the exterior, but the method seen in the demo seems to provide a quicker kill.
As the demo nears its end, Booker and Elizabeth escape from the Vox Populi but are confronted by Songbird once again. The massive creature knocks Booker to the ground, lets out a powerful scream, and raises a claw, preparing to kill the helpless hero. Elizabeth throws herself in front of Booker and screams, "I’m sorry!" The apology apparently reaches the creature as it stops, looking quizzically at the girl. "I shouldn’t have left," she says. "Take me home."
Songbird acquiesces, grabbing Elizabeth. She reaches a desperate hand out to Booker as she is ripped into the sky and away from him. According to Levine, this whole section is approximately a third of the way through BioShock Infinite, but clearly Booker’s journey has only just started. It makes me wonder what other amazing secrets Irrational is still hiding about its game and the world of Columbia.