Warning: spoilers ahead. We've all waited a long time for a new BioShock, an even longer time for one overseen by Ken Levine, whose Irrational Games studio created the original 2007 sensation. On Thursday in Los Angeles, I didn't have to wait any longer. I got to play BioShock Infinite, from the start, on a PlayStation 3. I had my laptop nearby, and after admiring the game's intro, I cracked it open and decided to not-quite-liveblog my experience playing the game.
I did this back in 2011 for another game and figured I'd try it again. So what follows are my notes and ideas, typed out in real-time as I played, cleaned up a tiny bit for clarity so you can read through them.
Folks, the game is shaping up very well. There will be plenty of spoilers here, so if you want to go into the game knowing nothing, please move on to the next Kotaku article. But if you want to know how this game plays, come along for the ride. Don't worry. I left out a lot of cool stuff and really couldn't type out a 10th of the interesting stuff there is to see in the game's opening levels. Hopefully, you'll get to see for yourself when the game hits in February next year.
4.54pm, Thursday, December 6 It occurs to me that I've been playing this game for maybe 15 minutes and maybe should be live-blogging it. Not that I can actually liveblog it (I'm not permitted to publish my impressions until Friday morning), but I can record my reactions in real-time. The problem is that I'm 15 minutes into the game. I'm on the game's floating city now. The very cool intro has already happened. So maybe, before I go forward, I should just catch everyone up.
This is what you missed:
You begin on a row-boat.
Wait, let's back up more:
I'm the eighth floor of a fancy hotel in Beverly Hills (in real life, not the game). The royal suite, I think it is called. It's huge. I'm in a long dark room, sitting in a cushioned white chair in front of a flat-screen TV that's running BioShock Infinite on a PS3. There are three people to my right, all seated in front of TVs, same set-up as me. There are four people to my left. They're all games reporters or bloggers or whatever you want to call them.
There are a few people on the opposite side of this long room. Same deal. I think there are other rooms in this suite with people set up on 360s and PCs. There are PR folks and other minders. Folks from Irrational, the development studio… or from Take Two, the publisher, I guess (not sure, because I arrived late. Blame the traffic!).
I was given a choice of which platform to play. Any console version would do, I said. I was handed headphones and then a minder started the game up for me. Oh, before I sat in my chair I had to remove an action figure from the seat. It was new and in its box. I think it was for the game. There are also snacks on this table and I'm told there will be two dinners. Two! The event goes late.
Anyway, back to the game and what I played already. It starts in a rowboat. Off the coast of Maine. 1912. You're rowed to a lighthouse during a storm in an obvious nod to the first BioShock. Then you, alone, as Booker Dewitt, begin to explore the insides of this lighthouse. It's weird in there. The first thing you can do is wash Booker's hands in a basin that's in front of a sign that reads: "Of thy sins shall I wash thee." And then up some stairs you go, past a sign that says "From Sodom shall I free thee." There's more, but I can't go through everything.
Up you go and it gets creepier. There's a dead body, an easy puzzle, a lot of coins to pick up and then you're bolted to a chair, rocketing up to the floating city. Around this time, I was feeling quite pleased that I was playing a game in which I get to explore a floating city. That's almost enough for me.
I've been eating potato chips while typing this. Chips from a bag that was in a bowl next to the TV. This means that I didn't have the bag in the bowl anymore. And apparently THAT means that the hotel staffer who asked me if I wanted a drink before (there's an open bar here, the better to preview this game, I guess) and to whom I said, "No thanks," came over to my personal snack bowl while I was typing this and put a fresh bag of chips in the bowl. I don't know whether to be a) impressed at the service here, b) offended by the implication that I'm greasy enough to grab a second bag of chips or c) ready to pull back some curtains here and find out if this whole thing is an elaborate Shawn Elliott brand-ingratiation experiment.
But... back to the game. First impressions of the floating city of Columbia is that it is crazy-religious. Booker's in a church of sorts. There are people in white robes, lots of psalm-like praise written on the walls, all of it referring to a Father Comstock. Wandering through this, I would find a batch of people in white robes awaiting baptism. You accept baptism and damn near get drowned. Then something happens that seems to be a flashback but is maybe also a flash-forward. And then… you/Booker are waking up somewhere sunny in Columbia in front of statues of Jefferson, Franklin and Washington. The statues make it look as if those three guys were saints or religious figures. People are worshipping them.
Booker's mission is ostensibly to find a woman named Elizabeth, but clearly he's also going to have to find out why everyone in this place seems like a freak.
5.09 I am ceasing typing and am now going to play some more.
5.11 I forgot to mention that I already found an audio log. Voxophones, I think they're called. And I just found a Kinetoscope video as well. There are lots of characters who chatter about the world of Columbia even in this first town square I'm in. They all seem to love their Prophet, Comstock. Other floating islands of the city hover in the distance. The skyrail that links them is ferrying freight. And here in the real world, I'm realising that the one thing they didn't provide us with here is a napkin. I'm wiping my hand on my sock and am properly ashamed. Back to the game.
5.18 Taking a moment here to rave about the game's "Bee" Sharp Quartet, and this isn't just the free potato chips talking. Columbia, just a few minutes in, is a really interesting game world. It's got what Rapture had… tons of interesting things to look at that hint at the culture of the people who live here. But it's so much more populated and denser with signage and activity that it's almost sensory overload. I feel like I'm on vacation in a really interesting place... a place where the lady I walked past at the restaurant was muttering about whether her waiter had an accent and where a singing quartet floats into the scene on their skybarge or whatever it is.
Man, the guy to my right is ahead of me in the game. (Is it Rey Gutierrez of the PlayStation blog?) He's not typing! Damn him. Must catch up.
Oh, but do you mind if I note that there are lots of hummingbirds in the game? I like that.
5.22 Just searched a barrel. There were some coins in it.
5.31 The chip-bowl-filling hotel guy just said the buffet is now open, but I want to play more. I just explored a carnival that let me do my first shooting in the game — in a carnival game that encourages Columbia citizens to shoot targets that look like the Vox Populi, the faction that all the people around me in the game seem to hate. I also grabbed my first… tonic? The equivalent of a Plasmid from the other BioShocks. This one, called Possession, should let me get machines to serve me. I used it on an animatronic figure who was barring my way through a gate. I zapped him (L1) and he opened the gate. But I then doubled back to a vending machine that I couldn't use before. I zapped it and it coughed out some coins. I'm in a carnival… I got money. It's like a… circus of value! (Ok, that's a stretch. Sorry.) Time to play more.
5.35 Just met two weirdos (in the game) who made me flip a coin. No clue what that was about.
Good use of kids in this game. Makes the game world more believable. There are kids all over the city. I just came across two who are playing hopscotch. They have a doll of Songbird — that's the big weird creature that has appeared in earlier BioShock Infinite demos. [Note: I included a picture here of Songbird for those who don't know the reference; he didn't appear in my demo until later, briefly, when I found Elizabeth. He's protective of her and seems to be this game's ultimate Big Daddy-ish enemy.]
5.39 Lots of linear, interesting world-building. I'm ostensibly just making my way to a big winged statue where I'll supposedly find Elizabeth, but at every turn there's more world colour. For example, I see a 12-story building in the distance. It's floating on its own small airborne island and has two massive floating balloons of Franklin and Washington near two of its walls. There are two cops on the big island I'm standing on. They're talking about going after the Vox Populi.
A fellow games reporter just stopped by to chat with me while I was typing this. He's on the lookout for signs that we're being hoodwinked in the game. "That Beach Boys song," he said. Oh. The one the barbershop quartet was singing? I, um, didn't realise that was the Beach Boys (but it did sound like the song at the beginning of, what was it, Big Love?). What's that mean? This isn't 1912? Mind blown! Or I don't know. Back to playing because the guy to my left has a gun (in the game!) and is setting things on fire. Playing onward!
5.46 Oh crap. Booker is now participating in a raffle and pulled the number 77, which… I'd been privately warned I didn't want to get. Uh-oh.
5.47 Yikes. I just made a choice and I'm getting arrested. I'm …
5.48 Had to stop typing there because I was getting my butt kicked. I resisted arrest, wound up bloodying some cops, grabbed their skyline hook thing. Immediately forgot which button was melee, started running in circles and was killed. Looks like you can be revived but, when you revive you… nuts I missed the text prompt that explains the respawn system. I'll have to ask.
After you die, you are revived with some health, not all. You are docked some in-game money. And your enemies recover some, but not all, of the health they lost while you were fighting and being killed by them. You revive in sort of a dream state, come through a door and resume close to where you croaked.
5.54 OK. Now I'm playing a shooter. I've got a pistol. I'm using my Possession power to get a turret gun to shoot for me. I'm dodging enemy cops. And I found something I'm not crazy about: numbers are flying off guys as I shoot them. What is this, Borderlands? Oh, and triangle is melee. Good to know! [UPDATE: Those numbers can be turned off.]
5.59 Killed some dudes. Went through a gate and fought an incendiary enemy. Killed him. He dropped a Vigor (not Tonic). I drank it and now I can fire fire. Actually, "With Devil's Kiss equipped, press L1 to throw a fiery grenade. Hold and release L1 to create an explosive trap." Got it?
6.01 Awesome. This game's exploding barrels are full of fireworks, so you get shrill noises and red-white-blue explosions when you shoot them. The fire grenade was a success. It made a group of bad guys sweat out a lot of numbers.
6.09 I'm in very cool heated gunfights now, using my skyhook thing to grapple from floating island to floating island and strike down on guys (feels like a hybrid of first-person grapple-beaming from Metroid Prime and the attacks from above of Arkham City). I grabbed a machine gun for Booker's right hand. For his left, I am juggling between the fire-grenade Vigor and the Possession one, the latter of which I'm using to turn enemy turrets to my side. But the reason I stopped to type this is to say that I just killed an enemy who looked like Aztek: The Ultimate Man. Most of you will have no idea what I'm talking about without using Google. Those that know without Googling, I salute you.
6.11 Forgot to mention that I'm now being called a False Shepherd (Well, of course! My voice-actor sounds nothing like Jennifer Hale. Anyone laughing? No?). I also met that coin-flip couple again and they gave me a regenerating shield. I sort of have no idea what's going on in this crazy floating city. Things seem demented. This is a good thing.
6.12 Amazing line from the person in the game who is squawking alerts about me as the cops keep up their pursuit. Let's see if I got this right: "The false shepherd is either a mulatto dwarf or a Frenchman with a missing left eye, no more than four foot and nine inches." Um. That ain't right!
6.13 I got distracted by a side quest (find a key to a trunk). I met a man who said he was not like the others ("I'm a progressive!"). I killed him. I'm back on the main path (the game is mostly linear so far). And I've now heard the dwarf line three times.
Ken Levine's agent just stopped by to say hi. Hi, Ophir!
Back to the game.
6.23 Aw. Game froze. And I was doing so well. We were mid-firefight. While they're re-booting this preview build, let me say again: this feels very BioShock. I've got health and mana ("salt") to manage as well as this new regenerating shield. I can make any of the meters managing them bigger with items I pick up in the game world. I expend different amounts of salt as I fire off different Vigors (Plasmids). I can swap Vigors in Booker's left hand and guns in his right. I can scavenge corpses and containers with the rapid taps of the square button and am perpetually picking up health and salt items that are refilling their respective meters. I'm in lots of gunfights, juggling different attacks.
The main difference so far is this skyhook grapple ability, which is letting me leap to points in the air, hang, switch to a new one and dive down (no sliding along skyrails yet, but I think that's coming). The whole dynamic of having Elizabeth with you, having a smart computer-controlled, adapting character with you — the big idea of this game that I'd heard was the thing they were struggling the most to implement because it was such an ambitious idea — hasn't become part of this experience yet.
Oh, and of course the fascinating distinct place this game is set in feels very BioShock. One element from that game that I'm not seeing here? Moral choice along the lines of harvesting or saving the Little Sisters, rudimentary as that recurring choice was in the first game. I've made just one choice so far, and had a meter running while I had to decide. It was an interesting choice that challenged me to take the safe path of being just another Columbia bigot or the bolder path of rebelling. I suspect I'd have wound up in a fight with the police either way, so I'm not sure what the point of the choice is. So far, it's worth mentioning, the people I'm fighting against are big-time racists.
My game's been rebooted and I'm back to where it out-saved. Onward…
6.38 Just shot my way through an enclave of black-hooded bad guys who seemed to have a thing for crows. They were hanging out in a place where there was a massive, heroic statue of an armed John Wilkes Booth.
6.42 I just found my first piece of "gear". I can equip up to four pieces. They have stats effects, it seems. This first piece will give me a chance of regaining some health when I successfully land melee attacks.
6.50 Just finished a sequence in which I fought one of those black-hooded Klansmen-looking guys. This one guy had a coffin strapped to his back and some crows with him. I killed him, drank a Vigor left behind and now have the Murder of Crows ability. Like the other Vigors it appears to have two uses: it sends out some attack crows from Booker's left hand if I tap R1 but lays a trap of crows if I hold R1 and release.
After the fight, I poked around in the game's menus. Looks like all of my weapons and Vigors can be upgraded. Most of the game is streaming in, but I have hit a couple of loads. Those only take a few seconds. Tech-wise, the game is running fine. Not as stunning as, say, Halo 4 in terms of graphical fidelity, but stellar in terms of art direction.
I think the guy to my left just got to Elizabeth. And I have to break for an interview in a moment. And my computer's low on juice. Time to find a socket.
7.30 I'm back from a brief chat with one of the game's writers, Drew Holmes. He's been on the game since March and has worked with Levine and a few other writers to flesh out a lot of scenes, writing a lot more lines into the game world. The purpose, he told me, is to make Columbia "feel lived in" and, as opposed to Rapture of BioShock 1, make it feel like people are still living in it. He told me that the script in one particular level of this game is longer than the script of the whole first game.
If you think it might be a tad awkward to interview one of a game's writers while you are in the midst of playing the game, you're right. I knew that I'd be getting to Elizabeth — the game's other protagonist — momentarily, but not before our interview. So we had to talk around things. I asked him about how much of a sex object she is, since there's been some gawking at her looks and her low cut dress ever since she was first shown. Once you experience her story, Holmes told me, that kind of reaction may seem "silly." There's a lot to experience with her, a lot of story to absorb.
So the interview itself is a bit of guesswork and a chance to clarify. Ah, right. You can only carry two weapons at a time in this new game, to force the player to make choices. In the first game, the player could carry all their guns. Oh, I hadn't noticed until you mentioned it that the Vigors use up different amounts of Salt, moreso than the various Plasmids did in the first game. This too encourages players to strategise in combat.
We talked about the one choice I'd experienced in the game so far — whether to throw a baseball at a white man and black woman or at the person exhorting me to do so. I had a third choice: do nothing. The consequences of my choice weren't the things that happened right after, Holmes told me. The consequences are revealed much later. Choices like these will crop up in the game at unexpected times, he said, because the goal is to sometimes turn a scene that you'd normally just watch into something you're involved in. The team is "forcing you to think about the situations you find yourself in," he said. They want you to feel this world, its time period and the values of its characters. I like that.
Back to playing…
7.57 I upgraded my first Vigor. The Possession one can now possess people instead of just machines. They fight for me (with a green ghost sort of taking them by the shoulder as they do), and then they commit suicide when they're done fighting for me. I also got to use the more dynamic skylines for skyhooking. I was grabbing one of the rails that connects the buildings and floating islands of what is really an airborne archipelago. I was dangling from the rail and then swooping along… through… and around some of Columbia's floating city blocks. There were enemies to shoot down on the streets below as I did this. It was, as Levine long ago promised, like shooting a gun while riding a roller coaster. It was exhilarating.
Oh, man. The guy to my left finished. He reached the demo's end. I need to play more. I just escaped a burning zeppelin. Time to meet Elizabeth?
8.03 I think I'm failing to convey what a wonderful, freaky experience going through Columbia is. As Booker, I've been on the run for a while and the sense is that I'm the Number 1 enemy of the state or, more aptly, of a religious cult that has seceded from the U.S. and worships the memory of George Washington.
While I run and fight, Booker is occasionally being addressed directly by the head bad guy, Father Comstock. He is being blamed as some sort of false prophet. Father Comstock is taunting him, attacking him, forcing his followers to drop to his knees so he can then fly in on a skiff and harangue Booker. And now that I've escaped some of that and am approaching the tower where Elizabeth most likely is being held, I'm walking through weird chambers that are full of signs cautioning me not to talk to or interact with the "specimen".
It looks like Elizabeth has been some long-term experiment of this crazy cult. It's all weird. Who am I really in this game? What is Booker's deal? The intrigue here is great. Drew Holmes had told me that the writers of the game admired the series premiere of the TV show Lost. They loved how that premiere got its "hooks" in the viewer in so many ways and made people hunger for answers. That's what they've tried to do here, he had told me earlier. And he said answers will all be given in the game… if you explore deeply enough.
8.17 Found her. Hell broke loose.
8.33 Wound up on a beach, in a gunfight, got stabbed, had an argument with Elizabeth. I don't want to be too specific, because I want people who read this and then play the game to be surprised and to have as good a time as I'm having.
One thing I do want to mention, though, is that it's striking how prevalent the issue of racism is in this game. So far it's all presented in literally black and white fashion: bad racists keeping black people down. There's no need for sympathy for the racists here, but there's also no apparent deeper message yet other than that racism is bad and that it's infuriating to watch the black characters in this game fill roles that are subservient to the main faction that's also trying to kill or capture Booker and Elizabeth.
9.10 Finished the demo.
I'd gone to the Hall of Heroes and was getting a hang (no pun intended) of skyline travel, which allows you to improvise your navigation through the game's outdoor areas.
Several battles inside the Hall introduced Elizabeth's ability to summon objects and structures into existence. Pointing at a "tear" and holding square might cause her to spawn in a turret or an ammo cache. I'm not sure why you wouldn't have her do these things. They help. She doesn't take damage during battles. She hides. And she can toss out helpful items like health packs, ammo or even useful guns. She's empowering. There's got to be a catch to her usefulness, but I haven't figured out what that is.
The Hall of Heroes level was striking in how it mixed intense combat sequences with trademark BioShock storytelling. Both BioShock games before Infinite told stories through the environment and through diegetic voicework. That's amplified in a world as vibrant as Infinite's Columbia. This sky city is both exotic and also coated in familiar Americana. The Hall of Heroes is a bizarre museum offering an alternate-world take on the Battle of Wounded Knee and the Boxer's Rebellion. Our protagonists, Booker and Elizabeth, are also talking about a lot of this stuff, making sense of some of it and adding more mystery. And through all of this, I wonder, what happened to Father Comstock's wife. She died? Oh, she was killed by the rebel leader? But what of this child she had? I find myself wanting to know so much more about this world and it's people. I am hooked.
9.17 I used to be worried about BioShock Infinite. Delays and news of studio departures can have that effect. Not any more.
9.32 I chatted with another of the game's designers. The limitation on the tears is that only one can be activated at a time. So a room that's set for battle might have a turret or an ammo cache or a higher vantage point that Elizabeth can generate into existence, but she can only phase one in at a time. The others have to be phased out.
A little more of my gut reaction to what I played: the game feels very smooth; its world has been built well and is more interesting than any game world I've been in in quite some time. Much of what was in BioShock before feels as if it has returned. But the scale does feel grander. The volume has been turned up. If the first game was mostly desolate and led by a mute character, this one is full of people and lively chatter. We even hear a lot from the character we play.
The game feels vibrant. It also feels linear, more than I had anticipated. From its description as a city comprised of floating islands, you, like me, may have expected a game that had more of an open world flow. I understand that backtracking will be allowed in this game, but the handful of hours of this that I played have felt as linear as the first BioShock or, to cite a roughly similar game, Dead Space. As the game pulls the player forward, you do find yourself in broader spaces. The "bowls" of combat seem larger, and the skyline allows you to grapple and flank enemies with a finesse that makes combat feel more player-authored, more Crysis and less Call of Duty. It's consistent with the previous BioShocks and is still clearly a shooter that funnels its player through its story, but, in gameplay terms, the action occurs on a slightly larger scale and with more room in which to play. There was a nice variety of enemies. As the demo was winding down, I was encountering trickier bad guys who required agile use of Vigors to defeat.
One note of lingering caution: I'm not convinced that Elizabeth is the fleshed-out cleverly-artificial intelligence that she was initially implied to be. She didn't seem to be reacting to things I was doing as Booker and her reactions seemed more canned. Interesting, but not exactly morphing based on what I said. I could be wrong or inferring things that were never promised. I didn't get to play with her at Booker's side for long, so I can't say much about how interesting or successful she is or if she's "merely" BioShock's Alyx Vance.
The best compliment that I can pay the game right now as that I wanted to play it more slowly. I wanted to explore its world and learn as much of it as I could. But I'm tired right now. My body's on east coast time and therefore it's nearly 1AM.
I wasn't going to lose sleep tonight if BioShock Infinite was a stinker. But I'm nevertheless happy that it showed so well.
It plays more like the old game than I'd expected.
It looks nothing like the old one, as I'd hoped.
Both of those are very good things. Be hopeful. They might nail this one yet.
BioShock Infinite is scheduled for release for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on February 26. Look for some brand-new BioShock Infinite gameplay footage tonight (Friday) during Spike TV's Video Game Awards, airing at 9pm ET / 6pm PT. We'll embed a stream for you here on Kotaku.