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Bioshock Infinite hands-on: exploring the beautiful madness of Columbia

Log pays Rapture's successor a thrilling visit

How to put this diplomatically? If you're a dramatic kind of person who's prone to reading a narrative into any given series of events, then you might be inclined to see BioShock Infinite's development as "troubled". Release dates have been issued and retracted. Long-standing members of staff at Irrational have left to work on other projects, in two waves. As far as headlines are concerned, two waves is an exodus. Then, Rod Fergusson from Epic was recruited, which added a semi-hallucinatory side-narrative that BioShock was hanging up its grandest intentions in favour of going batshit with a chainsaw. Annoyingly, this idea was given spectral meat by images of Booker DeWitt plunging a whirling skyhook into the bloody neck of Columbia's police force.

Irrational's counter-narrative has been built mainly out of trust. It's been months since it's shown anything of the game, and this is the first time it's let us play any of it. This trust narrative hinges on a spectacular presentation at E3, which showed DeWitt zipping around the rail system, using an array of powers and gunplay to defeat enemies. Then, it announced a punishing 1999 Mode - that's the year Irrational's first game System Shock 2 was released. Mentioning 1999 is like invoking the old, angry gods. It was like Irrational was saying "you do remember who we are, don't you?"

BioShock is defined by its new worlds, and the first 20 minutes of a BioShock game are defined by how you get there. These are worlds built by fundamentalist visionaries: Ryan a turbo-capitalist, and Comstock a fundamentalist prophet. Entering these worlds is a mixture of dazzling spectacle and disturbing propaganda. Infinite starts modestly enough, in a rowing boat. DeWitt's being taken to his destination by an English couple. They speak in doom-laden riddles of thought experiments, and how one does not perform an experiment that has already failed. The chat is clearly for DeWitt's benefit, and you begin to feel like he's as much an audience member as you.

The references to the first BioShock are obvious. The box he's handed in the boat, the appearance of the lighthouse and the island, and the first words spoken to you in Columbia - BioShock Infinite winks so hard and regularly to existing fans that it begins to look like a nervous tic.
We ascend the lighthouse, past the body of a hooded and executed man, and some homely but threatening religious tapestries. A puzzle introduces us to the symbols of Columbia, and we start by ringing the cute bells at the top of the structure. 
The disproportionate response from the sky is overwhelming. Like the musical chatter between human and alien in Close Encounters, the sky honks like a colossal goose god, and the clouds explode into red. The sky city of Columbia isn't visible yet, but she's definitely up there.

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Man's ascent
The journey to Columbia is best experienced first hand, so we won't over-describe it. However, it feels just as much a process of indoctrination as the journey to Rapture. But this isn't capitalism, it's a utopia built on religion. This is the building of a new Eden, a desire to escape "The Sodom Below". The symbols of that Sodom, a bowl to wash away your sins, and those homely tapestries, suddenly feel petty when Booker's transport punches through the clouds. An angelic statue dominates the skyline, before we plunge into a waterlogged chapel strewn with floating candles and petals. Only after a compulsory baptism are we allowed to enter Columbia.

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