Bioshock Infinite is one of our most anticipated games of next year. It's the "true" sequel to a shooter that set new standards for world-building, while somehow finding time to knock the whole concept of interactive storytelling sideways.
Where many sequels struggle to break new ground, Infinite is quite wonderfully daring, swapping the dank claustrophobia of an undersea facility for the queasy, wide-eyed thrills of a floating city. "Blue sky thinking"? You bet. And yet, it's a game I can't quite get behind. For everything I like about Infinite - its purported Crysis-esque degree of combat adaptation, for instance, where heavily armed genetic mutants zip across daunting blue emptiness aboard rattling "skyrails" - there's a vague unease, a pricking of my thumbs, a sense that this particular hype-train's running on empty.
Many of my worries centre on Elizabeth, the super-powered damsel you're sent to Columbia (the aforesaid floating city) to rescue. Speaking to Jonty in the latest issue of OXM, Irrational Games boss Ken Levine called her "the most complicated thing in the game", describing how her actions and dialogue options will alter depending on the situation.
He gives the example of a papier mache Abe Lincoln head - if circumstances are right, Elizabeth might pop it on and joke around with player character Booker DeWitt. Impressive stuff. But Elizabeth is also a puppy-eyed cherub with cleavage deep enough to anchor a dirigible, and while I try not to be the sort of writer who knee-jerks his own shoes off at the sight of bare flesh, this gives me pause. Where did Elizabeth learn to dress like that, Levine? It's frightfully windy in Columbia. Wouldn't a nice solid boiler suit be more appropriate?
I worry that Elizabeth may be eye-candy masquerading as intellectual substance, or at least eye candy that sits uncomfortably alongside intellectual substance. That makes me an idiot, probably, as it flies in the face of everything Ken Levine's ever done. (It also makes me an idea-thief, as I've just remembered that Matt expressed similar opinions to the office at large a few months ago.) Still, glance at the cover of this month's Edge, and tell me you don't experience a few dubious tinglings.
Elizabeth has a friend, Songbird, a monstrosity of leather, glass and metal that immediately prompts comparisons with the first game's Big Daddy. Songbird would do anything for Elizabeth, up to and including ripping Columbia apart to find her. Once her protector, he's now her jailor, and a serious thorn in Booker's side.
In other words, he's a persistent boss monster, and like all persistent boss monsters, his main job seems to be: appear out of nowhere, cause a big hullabaloo and vanish once a certain damage threshold has been crossed. In other other words, he's hardly a novel prospect, not even within the Bioshock franchise - Bioshock 2 (co-developed by sundry 2K studios, Digital Extremes and Arkane Studios) tried the same trick with Big Sister. It paid off that time. Will it pay off again?
Together, Elizabeth and Songbird represent an expansion of Bioshock's original AI pair, a building-out of procedural partnership into full-blown narrative. The results could be stellar... or they could amount to a rearrangement of that haunting conceit, now with added mammary gland. I don't doubt the game will be interesting either way. Are you nurturing any related concerns?