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Infinite doesn't wait until its conclusion to horrify you with harsh reality.
Barely forty minutes into the game, it hits with all the sudden shock of a baseball to the face with a scene designed to provoke a strong reaction.
Irrational's got stones to introduce a heavy issue with such volatility. Whether it's got the ability to make a concrete statement beyond initial shock value is much more important, lest the moment in question turns out to be merely a water cooler moment in a game with so much promise.
We spend five minutes on sodden earth below, then five hours on Columbia soil. From the moment we're rocketed skywards from a rain-lashed lighthouse into Columbia, the city in the sky, up to the point of the demo's close as we defend ourselves from attack by a robotic George Washington (seriously), this alternate history thriller's as interested in unsettling questions about racism and religion as it is a rollercoaster of high adventure.
Toto je reklama:
During a brief introduction to the demo, Inifinite's Creative Director, Ken Levine, notes a key difference between Columbia and its deep sea predecessor: where Rapture was a graveyard ready for archaeological study, Columbia is ripe for anthropology. The floating city houses a thriving society at the height of its candy-coated decadence. The bright primary colours, blue skies and caring citizens of Columbia can't hide the sense of wrongness you feel instinctively on setting foot on it: thirty-nine minutes later you realise it's Heaven only for those the right skin colour and privilege. Your suspicions may be vindicated, but the realisation causes the heart to skip a beat.
At that point you're soon in familiar BioShock shooter territory. The core experience is by the numbers - Irrational have more important things to show you, so there's little deviation on the formula; tradition mapping guns to your right shoulder buttons, Vigors (Columbia's own Plasmids, treated as parlour tricks rather than injected addictions) to the left.
Early on at least, Vigors play more supportive role, offering momentary distraction or capture of enemies, giving you time to weigh in with weaponry. Vigors have a secondary setting, hold and release rather than tap setting a trap to be triggered once enemies pass over. Devil's Kiss erupts a volcano of fire, Bucking Bronco slams nearby foes in the air. Purchasable upgrades widen the damage area, or, with Murder of Crows, turning downed attackers into traps themselves.
Toto je reklama:
There's no slow scaling weapon discovery; your two gun limit will see rifles, shotguns, RPGs and sniper rifles rotate through it in the opening hours. Swap-out points are generously located around the city, though the expensive, and extensiveness of upgrades with the likes of power and clip size bought through vending machines suggests you'll need to choose and stick to a small pool of favourites. Bodies and environments can still be looted for supplies.
Combat extensions beyond that are unique to Infinite and Columbia; skylines can be used to navigate between floating city blocks and they introduce aerial combat (on rails) through use of a magnetised sky hook acquired early on. Aim at any close-by enemy and with a quick button tap you'll leap on them. You can fire and iron sight as you travel, and point at a landing zone as you pass - walkway, roof, enemy head - to launch back down. The hook's used for some brutal melee finishers as well.
The other new mechanic in play involves ‘Tears'. These are rips in the fabric of reality that offer handy items from another plane for tactical use in the realm you inhabit. It's a function performed by Elizabeth, under your direction. Along with tossing you ammo or health packs during combat (and cash found when not), hazy grey spots around the level can be aimed at and then you can instruct your companion to materialise any equipment on the spot.
It's an essential battle component; we're able to pull health packs, sentry turrets, hang spots for our sky hooks and more into our current location. The idea here is to gift the play with quicker movement around a battleground, and reinforcements against superior numbers. We were only able to see two examples of the ‘Tear' mechanic; at the end of the longer demo, and a separate shorter demo we play at the event's end against Columbia's own version of a Big Daddy, the Handyman.
Introduced as a sympathetic creature in the story, these Frankenstein creations of the sky are terrifying in battle. Big Daddies were slow, lumbering, capable of surprising charges but that were signalled early on. Here, you just get glimpses of the creature as it leaps and runs. Panic sets in. Your run's hardly a jog, meaning you're always outmanoeuvred.
Then, there's Songbird, the winged colossus that protects Elizabeth in the prison that you rescue her from (Rapunzel allegory filtered through scientific jargon - her quarters are full of one-way mirrors so she can be observed, quarantine signs warning of the 'specimen' within. Columbia's revered lamb is actually an experimental instrument). Songbird is star of a breathless escape set-piece as the giant robotic avian creature flashes in and out of clouds after you as you sky line back into the city.
Elizabeth and Booker DeWitt's relationship is another key theme of the game. The studio's spent a lot of time in designing your companion after her public introduction at last year's E3, Levine explains. That debut showed someone much more aware of the gravity of their situation than the girl who shows wide-eyed wonder at everything during your escape through the city. We expect one hell of a character arc.
Booker differs from the silent protagonist of Rapture; if Elizabeth's Rapunzel, DeWitt echoes the Western gunslinger with tortured past. He's here on a kidnap mission rather than a rescue, and is unfazed by the technology and sights he sees. Much of our wonder, dashed by frantic firefights and realisation of Columbia's true face, is re-established through her eyes.
If new consoles are announced next E3, Infinite at least sees out this generation out on a visual high. We should be cynical to the trick of pod tracking through a cityscape at game's start. Instead our heart rate spikes. This is a stunning game to look at, weather effects and natural lighting more powerful than the artificial cousins in Rapture.
Design-wise Irrational must have had fun implementing the logistics of the environment. Huge thrusters and balloons can be seen jutting out of the base of city blocks. Commercial districts have docking schedules with other city areas, islands clamping together with Tetris-like precision, a city restructuring as you walk by.
There's still linearity to our direction, though districts have wider areas worth exploring, and deviations from the critical path will expand the further into Coumbia we go. Optional side-quests - locked vials in need of a key - suggest backtracking will be a possibility.
But wherever we find ourselves, we extensively catalogue everything: signs, conversations, key words. Bioshock delivered an endgame twist that made us re-evaluate everything we'd experienced until then. There's definite sense there's something more going on here, and theories are already circulating. What's the significance of the recurring couple who aid you? The near-death dream sequences that flash you back to your office? Is this all a dream, a virtual reality sim?
But it's story that will make or break Infinite - both the show of the studio's hand at game's end, and whether it handles its subject matter within with a clear message. You can breeze through the game without sight-seeing, without reading into anything. Treat it as a shooter and it'll be a quicker, less rewarding experience. The story's centre stage here, and everyone's watching for the final bow.