Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Columbia's Call

Yeah, you knew this was coming.

With the gameplay footage for BioShock: Infinite finally revealed for all to see, it was only natural that I’d have some things to say about it. But surprisingly, for me at least, it didn’t inspire as strong a reaction as I was expecting, instead piquing my interest for what is to come but leaving me satisfied that I can forget about the game until its release in 2012 -- I don’t think I have ever had that feeling about a game that I’m highly anticipating.

When the footage starts and it seamlessly transitions from what appears to be a picture into the perspective of player character Booker De Witt looking at a banner, I couldn’t help but sit back and just watch the footage on its own terms, letting whatever was demonstrated occur and not caring too much about what I may or may not think. Approaching the footage so casually was a smart thing to do as it meant I could just enjoy it for what it was rather than analyse it for what it could be -- something I won’t know until the final product hits. I chuckled when I saw the mechanical horse trotting down the path; watched in awe at the large, looming tower in front of us, clearly damaged and about to collapse, the birds chirping in the background an amusingly cheery contrast to the destruction. I pondered quite why someone would be sweeping while the surrounding building was on fire; I viewed with interest as I saw various posters, features and elements of Columbia pass by as the demonstration continued, curious as to what they could mean in the context of the game. I smiled with delight as I realised that the characters seemed to not only be more varied than in previous BioShocks, but also a lot more disturbed and insane, reminding me -- strangely -- of Zeno Clash’s unique inhabitants. And I didn’t know what to think when the Skyline was used for transportation in pursuit of an enemy, though was happy to know that it wouldn’t be a passive ride from one place to another and that combat could take place during momentum. I appreciated the fact that upon entering the bar, the denizens weren’t hostile, and then laughed when the shotgun was turned against its original owner. I recognized the strong BioShock elements in the combat scenarios that occurred afterwards, seeing Infinite’s interpretations of everything from Telekinesis to Electro Bolt and beyond, curious about the new dynamics that would be offered by the cooperation with Elizabeth. I was reminded of the Brute Splicer when the Big Daddy-esque figure appeared, then the Big Sister when the cry of Elizabeth’s pursuer, Him, was heard.

It was there the trailer ended. I was impressed to be sure -- how could I not be with such a fascinating and intriguing idea for a game setting -- but also quite nonplussed: here is a game with a city that is the complete opposite of my beloved Rapture, contains familiar elements from the two previous games, and appears to be trying new things both in narrative terms and with the characters that drive it. It’s a game that should and does appeal to my tastes supremely well, but still seems so vague that I just can’t get on board the hype train yet. Perhaps its distant release date correlates with this feeling but either way, my response to the footage was positive yet subdued.

But enough about my response, what did the trailer show that I’m personally interested in?

The first and perhaps predictable aspect is the game’s space, Columbia. I spoke briefly about my thoughts towards it when the game was first announced but now that I have seen it, I’m excited. It still appears to be quite linear, with each building and surrounding areas seemingly limited by the fact that something can only be so big when it is floating in the sky. The fact it’s amongst the clouds, though, gives it a sense of openness that the confines of the Pacific Ocean couldn’t, despite Rapture’s sprawling metropolis always plainly in sight. The aforementioned Skylines open Columbia up even more, traversal around the city seemingly interactive rather than segregated by Rapture’s districts and its bathyspheres or the Atlantic Express. Whether these are interactive or not, whether combat takes place during travel or not, is almost irrelevant: instead of exploring room by room as you would in Rapture, in Columbia, you can do that and go and visit that building in the distance. Instead of being teased by what could be, you can instead go and investigate at will (seemingly) and for someone who really likes exploring and just being in a space, that’s extremely enticing.

Another thing I noticed was the way the sky got darker as the footage progressed. Sure, that was aided in part by storm clouds Elizabeth summoned to help Booker in combat, but even so I thought it was getting darker which suggests to me that Infinite will have a day/night cycle. It’s a small thing and probably won’t mean much for the game other than the opportunity to view Columbia in a new light (literally), but it’s a welcome and appreciated feature after the artificial light that permeated Rapture. As an extension to this, the fact that Columbia exists amongst the clouds leads me to speculate that it’s also quite plausible that there would be some kind of weather system in the game, either scripted or dynamic. If I’m right then that is also awesome as I think it’d be great to be overlooking the city as the sun slowly disappears and a thunderstorm rolls in. Aesthetically, the setting opens up a lot of possibilities that Rapture just couldn’t have: a nice contrast to the ubiquitous but beautiful ocean surrounds.

It also comes across as more natural, the aforementioned birds just a small example of what we might be able to see. It did seem odd to see a horse up there, as well as hear the sounds of a barking dog -- though if humans can live up there why can’t animals? -- but plateaus littered with trees, fountain displays and visible farmland below will provide a nice ambiance that, again, Rapture couldn’t have.

Last but not least, I’m intrigued by the game’s narrative. Obviously the footage doesn’t reveal much other than particular hints towards how characters might be or why they may behave the way they do, but even so I’m interested in the game’s story because of the new dynamic the duo of Booker and Elizabeth will bring, as well as the fact it is set well before the rise and fall of Rapture. Columbia is clearly heavily influenced by American ideals and culture, its purpose to extol the virtues of the country internationally, but it’s not all that meets the eye, either, and I’m definitely eager to learn more. Combine that with the idea that the game is set around the same time that cars, film and other things were enjoying their infancy-- not to mention around the same time that Red Dead Redemption’s Wild West epic took place -- and you have a baffling but blissfully enticing set up for a story that, for now at least, really could go anywhere. Columbia, the residents who call it home, the ideals and emotions it’s based on and what our role within it will be, is a mysterious city with the same allure that Rapture once had before we entered it for the first time, and when you think about it, it’s rather amazing that Irrational Games have managed to captivate us like that not once, but twice.

So overall, BioShock Infinite is a game that is at once foreign and familiar, mysterious and mesmerizing, and something to get excited about, just like Rapture and the original BioShock was way back in 2007. The wait may be long and arduous, the many other amazing games that will release during that time will be quite the distraction, but when it’s time to enter Columbia I’ll be ready. Will you?

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