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Bioshock Infinite combat trials: classic Bioshock action, without the claustrophobia

You've heard about the setting, but have the shoot-outs evolved?

Back around the time of the first BioShock, we predicted that the sequel would be set way up in the air. Well, we were wrong for BioShock 2, but it turns out if you wait long enough (five years) everything happens.

The gloss of the world has faded a little since the release of Dishonored, but this latest peek at the game has reminded us of what our hero, Pinkerton detective Booker DeWitt, and the woman he's been sent to rescue, Elizabeth, must accomplish: escape from a heavily-armed flying city called Columbia, which is in the middle of a civil war between the nationalist Founders led by Zachary Hale Comstock and the anarchist Vox Populi led by Daisy Fitzroy.

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Like the first two games, Booker has access to inhumanly powerful abilities: Nostrums and Vigors. Nostrums are permanent upgrades to his abilities, such as damage boosts against certain enemies, while Vigors are special powers with a limited number of uses. Thanks to the latter, there's scope for the same level of meddling with the AI's circuits as in the older game - you might possess a foe to serve as a temporary ally, for instance. Booker can also call on fanciful interpretations of period weaponry, like pistols and hand-cranked machineguns, but the more interesting elements come from Elizabeth's ability to warp in useful items from other universes, such as gun turrets and cover spots.

The travel system is just as spectacular, and decidedly handy when you're under fire. In many of the areas of the game, travel rails link the individual airships and floating city blocks, allowing Booker and his enemies to zip around the city at high speeds during combat. The Sky-Hooks which allow this also lend themselves to brutal finishing moves, somewhat reminiscent of the Lancer in Gears of War.

The residents of Columbia are surprisingly agile, as are four of the tougher mini-bosses: the iconic melee tank Handyman, the ghostly ally-resurrecting Siren, the human alarms known as The Boys of Silence, and the (deep breath) robot-tour-guide-dressed-as-George-Washington-with-a-minigun Motorized Patriot. They all pale, however, before the might of the city's alpha predator - the Songbird, Elizabeth's personal protector for the last 12 years. At one point the flying giant destroys an airship carrying Booker and Elizabeth, sending them tumbling back to the city.

It's still not clear who is building all these devices, or indeed who really created this city, but the results are fantastic to behold. Moreover, this time it feels like a persistent, lived environment, with townsfolk going about their daily business whilst Booker walks by - they fight (or flee) only if he attacks. Neutrals and hostiles don't appear to be sectioned off from one another, which means there's a risk of collateral damage if you're careless. We accidentally shot an unarmed home-owner during our hands-on, after breaking into his apartments to escape a mob.

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It's tempting to ascribe much of Infinite's prowess in battle to the input of Rod Fergusson, who joined Irrational as product director last August. Fergusson has spent the best part of a decade honing the Gears of War series to perfection, so it's safe to say he knows a thing or two about smart, exhilarating firefights. But to suggest as much would be to do Irrational's older hands a disservice. Besides giving us a breathtaking new universe, Infinite is an attempt to free up Bioshock's option-heavy combat - a shooter characterised by rollercoaster spectacle rather than dingy tunnel vision. We're looking forward to testing its mettle in full.

By Hilary Goldstein with additions from Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

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