This isn't just "more BioShock." Far from it. Instead, it's an experience that soars up, up into the bright blue skies over patchwork fields and farmland, the oppressive gloom of Rapture giving way to the space and light of Columbia, unfettered individualism replaced by rampant Nationalism, claustrophobia by vertigo. In many ways, BioShock Infinite is the opposite of its predecessors.
Yet some familiarity remains. Instead of taking the literal approach to a sequel, Irrational have stripped back BioShock to its thematic core. In doing so they reveal a game that promises to explore philosophies and morality in a way that makes paragons and renegades seem like child's play.
Columbia is the setting, a floating city kept aloft by propellers and hulking airship envelopes. It's a stratospheric celebration of human technological endeavour, signifying America's pre-War belief that industry and invention could save the human race. But, just like Rapture, it was an experiment that went horribly wrong.
Columbia was weaponised, covered in artillery and turned into a airborne aggressor, exporting American ideals on a global scale. The cause of a catastrophic international incident, Columbia disappeared, never to be seen again.
Which is where you come in. You are Booker DeWhit, an ex-Pinkerton agent whose actions proved to be too extreme even for that nefarious organisation. Years after Columbia's disappearance, DeWhit is approached by a mysterious figure and hired to track down a woman called Elizabeth. Bet you can't guess where Elizabeth is.
Of course you can. The shady figure promises that he can get you there. But reaching Columbia is the easy part. Rescuing Elizabeth and escaping from Columbia's grasp is the problem.
Elizabeth is massively powerful, capable of devastating kinetic and elemental feats. She's no damsel in distress, no Princess trapped in the castle, despite what the trailer might suggest. She's trouble, the key figure at the centre of a conflict that is tearing the city apart. Combining your powers, you must escape before Columbia implodes.
For the opening seconds of the demo we were shown at GamesCom last week you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into Albion, the cobbled streets and summery sky immediately reminiscent of the chocolate box Fable series (albeit significantly ramped up, graphically). But that passes quickly.
Unable to use murk and shadows to create unease, Irrational have instead turned to The Prisoner, Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet for an ever-so-slightly surrealist, yet deeply unsettling tone.
A mechanical horse slowly screeches past, dragging a wheel-less barrow, a housewife brushes her front steps seemingly oblivious to fire raging through her home, a horse carcass rots in the street, a towering cathedral comes loose of its balloon moorings, ripping though the streets below. Yet all the while calmness pervades.
Disturbing the silence is Saltonstall, a politician of some kind, holding court like Andrew Ryan to an audience of precisely no one, spitting an endless racist diatribe. "For the fatherland!, he belows. Hearing the voice in the distance, DeWalt approaches. Saltonstall continues his maniacal manifesto, seemingly unaware of any company.
Until he turns in close-up, screaming, face contorted in rage, a terrifying, twisted caricature. He unleashes a storm of crows, BioShock Infinite's equivalent of Plasmids. That's when the action begins. From then on in it's hard to keep up, a delirious tumble that takes in screeching aerial-rail combat and an angry, shouting, swarming, shooting mob. It's overwhelming, in all the best ways.
Coming to your rescue, Elizabeth makes her first appearance. Pretty, yet slightly sinister, she subverts the hyper-sexual heroine archetype, despite her ample cleavage. It's fascinating to imagine what direction Irrational will take her in, but the nagging suspicion is that she's connected with the Little Sisters. Too obvious? Maybe.
As the running battle ramps up, Elizabeth reveals her elemental powers, summoning clouds above the mob's head, cracking lightening down upon them. Later, she melts cutlery and tin into a fizzing bomb and you blast it out into the crowd, the enemies and environment simultaneously disintegrating.
But there's no respite. On it goes, the odds stacking up, the enemies taking on increasingly monstrous forms. The Handyman appears, that Frankenstein's monster of spare mechanical and biological parts. Immediately you imagine that the beating heart visible through a porthole in its chest is a weak spot, but that's not the case. It doesn't appear to have a weakspot.
Instead, Elizabeth and DeWalt combine once more to knock the monster from a collapsing bridge, its giant mechanised hands scrambling for grip. It falls, tumbling down to the picturesque fields far below. But you get the feeling there's more of them.
The demo climaxes with the arrival of a further clockwork horror. A griffin of sorts, a robot created with the technology of a distant century. Metal and wires and cogs and screws. Science and technology to save the human race? Not here. Not now.
As the lights lifted following our demo, there was silence. Usually, the end of a demonstration gives way to chatter, questions and developer proclamations. Not so with BioShock: Infinite. Instead, the congregation sat, speechless. Dumbfound. And that's not hyperbole. When Irrational release the footage, you'll see for yourself. 2012 seems like a long, long way away.
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