Friday, June 10, 2011

E3 Recap: BioShock Infinite: EFFIN HOT INDEED

I've never played any of the BioShock games personally. The closest I've come to the franchise is watching an esteemed editor of this blog play the first installment on his Power PC, and I remember being genuinely wowed by the smooth design, cool special powers, and creepy ambience of the underwater city of Rapture. I didn't have a next-gen system at that point, and thus didn't consider the game for myself. Repeat that line of reasoning for last year's sequel, BioShock 2. But today is a new day, where I have access to the necessary hardware to play the newest game in the series. And I had the good fortune to have my interest piqued by the very people who developed the game itself!

BioShock Infinite was originally (2008) set to be a big-budget studio movie with Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) at the helm. But his proposed $400 million budget and inability to dumb the mature content of the game down to a PG-13 rating insured the project's demise earlier this year. The new game version from Irrational Games and 2K Games is still going strong, however, and thanks to a boatload of hype and a super-sexy demo, is quickly becoming one of the hottest topics at E3 2011.

The screening room for the demo was modeled after a smoking lounge of the early 20th century. Dim lighting reflected off plush, red leather couches, all facing a cabinet of rich wood on which was mounted an anachronistic HD TV monitor. The room was packed with VIPs and journalists, so packed that even such entertainment heavies as Jon Heder had to settle for standing room only. Adorning the walls were authentic-looking posters for "Murder of Crows Vigors" and "Bucking Bronco Finest Vigors," which I could only assume referred to items in the game (most likely power-ups). A hush fell over the room as a PR rep warned us not to take pictures or film during the demo, and then turned the presentation over to Shawn Robertson, lead artist at Irrational Games. What he told us contains plot spoilers, but only up to about 1/3 of the way thru the game, where the demo takes place. If you want to be truly surprised by every moment, stop reading here, but know that my overall take away was TWO GIGANTIC THUMBS UP!

Shawn started us off with an overview of your playable character (Booker DeWitt, an ex-Pinkerton agent), the setting of the game (the air-city of Columbia, modeled after the American Ideals), and his mission in the game (protect the female protagonist, Elizabeth, from her former captor, a dastardly villain known as The Songbird). The action is set in a fictional version of 1912, where there is a conflict raging in the city between a conservative, controlling group known as the Founders, and a brutal, revolutionary force called the Vox Populi. He stated that this aspect of an ongoing conflict in Columbia contrasts with the events taking place in Rapture, where the conflict has already been decided. Or something like that? Not having played any of the previous games, I'm a little hazy on my BioShock history.

But despite my ignorance of the storyline, I was impressed with the level of depth into which our presenter was willing to go to explain the story before a 15-minute demo of the game. It gave me the sense that it was so much more than a showcase of awesome graphics and breathtaking cinematics and dynamic gameplay. I mean, it was all that, but you could tell that Shawn really wanted you to be emotionally invested in the characters and the story that he and his studio had created, even just in the demo. And they certainly picked an emotional 15-minute chunk of the game to put on display for us.

As I said before, the demo starts about 1/3 of the way through the game. Elizabeth is just discovering that she has some crazy powers (something about opening tears? As in tearing paper, not shedding tears), but she can't control them. Booker is leading Elizabeth towards Comstock House, where hopefully they will find some answers. Meanwhile, the Songbird is out to recapture Elizabeth after her escape attempt. We pick up on our heroes in a sundries store as they search for supplies.

After leading us through every corner of the painstakingly decorated store, Booker finds a pistol, some coins, and two bottles containing the two "Vigors" advertised on the walls. Just when it was all starting to come together, the ground starts to shake and strange psychedelic colors flood the store. It becomes apparent that the Songbird is searching for Elizabeth. After things return to normal, Elizabeth and Booker have a heart-to-heart. She takes his hand and tenderly touches it to her face, then puts his hand roughly around her neck as she makes him promise not to let The Songbird take her back alive. Apparently the torture she endured was worse than death, and she would rather die than return to him. Booker promises it won't come to that.

As they leave the store, our heroes come upon a wounded horse. Elizabeth tries to comfort it, while Booker admonishes her to leave it alone, but then she finds a "tear" on the horse's neck. As she "opens" more and more of the tear, the horse looks like it will stand up, fully healed, but her efforts keep failing. Just when you think you're about as confused as you can be about the magic inherent in the game, the tear fills the entire screen, and we're transported to a back alley in what appears to be the 1980s, in front of a movie theater playing "Revenge of the Jedi" (a little in-joke to all those Star Wars fans in the audience). If you're confused about what happened, I guarantee Booker and Elizabeth appear more so in the game.

As our heroes re-embark on their quest for Comstock House, they run into a lot of bad juju involving the Vox Populi terrorizing the residents. Booker's pistol keeps them at bay... until he tries to stop the execution of an innocent postman, and they all turn on him. Using a combination of his magical wagical powers and good old-fashioned firepower (also with the help of some of Elizabeth's unrefined powers), Booker takes out his enemies with style, until one of them manages to call in an airship for support! The already-impressive action intensifies, as Booker has to slide along a dizzying network of what looks like roller coaster tracks to make his way up to the reinforced dirigible and blow the sucker up from the inside. The whole audience was left breathless, as was Elizabeth.

That was amazing! 
BOOKER (out of breath)
Good, cuz I don't think I could do it again.

Just as our heroes are about to cross the bridge to Comstock House, they are attacked by a giant bird-creature (pictured above), who flies in and knocks the tar out of Booker. It becomes clear that this thing is either the Songbird himself or an agent thereof (OK, so maybe it's not that clear), and it means to put an end to Booker and take back Elizabeth once and for all. Just as the creature is about to deliver a crushing final blow to our utterly helpless protagonist, Elizabeth cries out, "I'm sorry!" The bird's fist stops mid-punch. "I should never have tried to escape. Take me back." With as much of a smug look as a mechanical bird can muster, it extends its hand, and Elizabeth dutifully climbs in. She gives one heartbreaking look back at Booker, the bird flies away, and we cut to black.

Woah! What just happened? Did Elizabeth resign herself to a fate worse than death to save Booker's life? Was she somehow brainwashed or something? How will Booker fare against such a formidable enemy? I honestly don't know if I'll buy the game to find out - I find it hard to pick such rich stories like this up at any point other than the beginning - but I can certainly tell you that if there was a movie, I would watch it, R-rating or no. But I also don't see how they could make a movie that does this footage justice for anything less than $400 million...