The original BioShock might just be my favourite video game of all time. At the very least, it is probably my most beloved single-player shooter ever. Its incredible art direction, immersive atmosphere, and complex and mature narrative are topped off by interesting game design and progressive FPS dynamics. The direct sequel – BioShock 2 – fell well short of the original’s critical heights, with popular consensus agreeing that this was due to creative mastermind Ken Levine’s absence from the project. So when BioShock Infinite was announced, and it was confirmed that he was back at the mantle, the world of video games took note, and we have been watching closely ever since.

A couple of days ago I was lucky enough to get some hands–on time with the Xbox 360 version of BioShock Infinite, thanks to local distributor Megarom, who kindly invited us to come in and take it for a spin. My overall impression after spending about an hour with the game is that it feels like something special. It’s rich in character and depth, the world of Columbia is steeped in history and culture, the combat is fluid and engaging, and the entire package oozes heart and soul. This is Ken Levine at his best, and it is BioShock as fans of the original know it.

When BioShock Infinite was revealed, and we discovered that, unlike previous games in the series, it was set in the clouds as opposed to on the ocean floor, we were all surprised and many were even puzzled. The story that weaves its way through the first two games does not seem to touch anything in BioShock Infinite; the characters are all new, and obviously the setting is completely different.

But having said that, it’s still totally BioShock. The game delivers many of the same things that made me fall in love with BioShock. It’s all about broad ethical and social interrogation. The first game allowed us to imagine a Utopian ideal, in which a small, elite population embarked on a journey into a new world not encumbered by some of the hard-line ethical boundaries that govern western civilisation. It then showed us this world collapsed, and told the story of how one man’s madness drove an idealist social system into chaos, but all the time it pointed to the idea that this breakdown was always inevitable. BioShock Infinite looks set to tell its own complex story that is in many ways very similar, but with its own broader ethical touch-points.

There are also more obvious similarities, such as the user interface and even sound design. For example, the game takes place in a similar era to the first two, and so the music you encounter is familiar. Also, the idea of being an outsider discovering a new city, with its own social boundaries and laws, runs parallel to what we experienced in BioShock. Then, the thing it has most in common with both its predecessors is actually its gameplay. It’s difficult to describe, but if you’ve played a variety of first person shooters, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. When you play it, BioShock Infinite just feels like a BioShock game. Your movements have the same balance between fluidity and rigidity as the first games, and you are also given a mixture of guns, special powers and melee weapons which allow you to tackle various situations in unique ways.

But then, despite these similarities, it feels completely different, which I think might turn out to be BioShock Infinite’s true genius. Whereas the first two games played out in dark, claustrophobic environments, BioShock Infinite puts you in the sky. Columbia really is a “city in the clouds”, and by that I mean it is massive, and everything feels extremely spacious. Also, in BioShock you arrived long after the party was over, and the utopia had fully collapsed. When you arrive in Columbia, things seem alright, although there is an overriding sense of tension – but this might be because you know what is coming. While Rapture had collapsed when you arrived, you catch Columbia just in time to watch it fall apart.

Like Rapture, Columbia is crammed full of content relevant to its history. The more you explore, the more you will learn about the city and what it was intended to be. You will also become aware of the dark shadow that it casts, as issues of classism and racism begin to poke through its beautiful veneer.  The people’s discontent becomes apparent, and so does the degree of oppression with which its leaders maintain control.

Unlike BioShock, which didn’t have an obvious and direct narrative, BioShock Infinite drops you in Columbia with a very specific objective: to rescue of a woman. You play Booker DeWitt – a washed up ex-soldier and Pinkerton detective with a variety of vices, including drinking and gambling. His gambling debts are what got him here, and his only shot at clearing his name is to rescue a woman named Elizabeth. I won’t go any further than that, because honestly, the story is intriguing from the outset, and is best experienced from a position of knowing very little. Needless to say, Ken Levine is a master of storytelling, and BioShock Infinite looks set to deliver admirably in this department.

In the presentation that preceded my hands-on time with the game, there was a focus on the importance of Elizabeth’s role in BioShock Infinite, not only from a storytelling point of view, but also in terms of gameplay. Once you have rescued her, you need to get her off Columbia, and so she becomes your sidekick. She will assist in combat by throwing you ammo, health packs and even money, as well as reviving you, and occasionally using her own special abilities, such as “Tear”, which opens a rift in space and time and allows you to gather useful objects from a distant location. This is another of BioShock’s contrasting points: the previous games had you exploring dead space all alone, but you will spend a large portion of BioShock Infinite playing with an ally. I didn’t get much time in with Elizabeth, but I predict that how well she has been implemented into the game design will be one of the determining factors in BioShock Infinite’s success.

So in case I didn’t make my general point clear, after playing it, I’m super excited for BioShock Infinite. It takes the fundamentals that made the first game a classic, and executes them in a totally unique way. It still feels like BioShock, but it’s also completely its own new thing, and I can’t imagine having asked for anything more.

BioShock Infinite is out on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 26 March.

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