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Exorcising demons with blind faith in BioShock Infinite

Xav de Matos, @Xav

Sat aboard a rowboat, listening to a man and woman bicker at each other as a harsh, dark storm masks the approach to a solitary lighthouse. This is how BioShock Infinite begins.

The man is Booker DeWitt, a hired gun sent to take a young woman named Elizabeth from her home. He knows nothing of the place his target resides, but he blindly executes his orders under the assurance that the whole of his debts will be forgiven if he is successful in his goal.

"Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt," the game hammers into players throughout its first two hours. As DeWitt has faith these promises will be kept, the player blindly follows, unclear of the mess the former solider has stepped in to. Though we, as the player, have no idea what this debt is or how it was accrued, it soon comes into focus how substantial it must be.

Gallery: BioShock Infinite (12/07/2012) | 8 Photos

Climbing to the top of the lighthouse, more notes remind DeWitt of his blind mission. One note strikes a particularly dark chord: tacked to a bloodied dead body near the top of the structure, a paper warns DeWitt that the fate of this deceased unintentional courier will be his if he fails. Atop the lighthouse, after DeWitt strikes three bells, a red light flickers throughout the sky like lightning, accompanied by thunderous musical tones. The sequence ends with the top of the lighthouse transforming, a chair now in place of the beacon. This is the entry to Columbia, a city above the clouds first crafted in 1893 to highlight American exceptionalism. When DeWitt sits, he is immediately locked into the seat, the room transforming around him into a small rocket vessel. Seconds later, a clueless Booker DeWitt is sent skyward towards Columbia.

BioShock Infinite's opening is similar to 2007's BioShock in many ways. Both games feature a hero unsure of what he faces, both leave harsh realities behind, and both enter a world built on a foundation of wonder. Columbia is a marvelous place, identifying its core values and ambitions as soon as you're introduced. It is, like Rapture was, a central character of the story.

But Columbia's ideals aren't built upon the pillars of objectivism; this is a world built upon a foundation of faith. The city in the sky's founder, Zachary Comstock – whose appearance has been dramatically altered from his original reveal to that of an elder, bearded man – is thought of by Columbia's citizens as a prophet close to God. Though the city was a proud member of the union, Comstock felt America was turning away from the ideals of its forefathers, and eventually Columbia escaped into the clouds to craft what Comstock calls "an even more perfect union."

Exorcising demons with blind faith in BioShock Infinite
Religion is at all corners of BioShock Infinite, as are a host of other concepts that cross generational lines. From the moment DeWitt's shuttle launches beyond the clouds and sees the paradise of Columbia – complete with an angelic musical score – to his exploration of the city's scripture-laden 'Welcome Center,' featuring stained-glass recreations of Comstock's arrival and rise to power, it's very quickly clear that much of Columbia is enraptured by draconian ideals.

Though the cloud city claims to have a stranglehold on perfection – with some referring to it as being "as close to heaven" as anyone can come to until Judgment Day – Columbia is an unkind place to minorities. One area of the city is dedicated to the bravery of John Wilkes Booth, who Columbia's population says rightfully murdered the man responsible for the wrongful emancipation of the union.

Upon entering the city, after being forcefully baptized for permission to enter its walls in his secret search of Elizabeth, DeWitt wins a raffle which awards one "lucky Columbia citizen" the right to throw a baseball at an interracial couple.

But this choice, and the game gives you the option to hurl the ball at them or the announcer giving you the prize, is cut short when the authorities notice the letters "AD" seared into DeWitt's right hand. According to the prophecy of Father Comstock, a false shepherd tasked with stealing the city's innocent lamb – the miracle child of Comstock and his wife, and the basis of much of Columbia's religious faith – will bear that mark.

"The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist." - The ominous quote that introduces BioShock Infinite

This is where things spiral out of control for Booker DeWitt. Immediately the hired gun pushes an attacker into the spinning Sky-Hook of another adversary, shredding his face and leaving him bloodied and dead on the ground. Grabbing the hook, DeWitt can now melee attack foes before he gets his hands on a pistol.

The first ability DeWitt earns is Possession, earned by drinking a "Vigor" for that skill. Initially this power allows DeWitt to make mechanical objects favor him, be it having a vending machine spit out a pile of coins or turning a turret against his attackers for a short time. That ability can eventually be upgraded to allow for the possession of humans, who fight alongside DeWitt before committing suicide once they snap back to reality.

New weapons and abilities are doled out quickly within the game's first few hours. Quickly DeWitt battles mini-boss-style enemies that give him Vigors for Devil's Kiss, a fire ball ability, and Murder of Crows, an ability that gives him control over a swarm of attacking black birds. At any given time, DeWitt can swap between his last two selected abilities, giving players chances to quickly swap powers and chain attacks in the heat of battle, rather than being forced to select an ability from a radial menu (which you can still do).

Enemies, at least in the beginning, are fodder, running directly toward DeWitt. Whether this is basic enemy-type A.I. idiocy or a reflection of the blind faith to stomp out the demonic false shepherd is unclear, though both explanations make sense. Though I did see some of the teased mini-bosses, the demo ended without my combating any of these tougher foes.

It's the Sky-Hook that stole my attention throughout the demo, though. The ability to travel throughout the world on rail lines at immense speeds, jump from one Sky-Line to another, and freely land almost anywhere in the world is wonderful. BioShock Infinite's unique method of traversal is fluid and exceptional. Before getting time with the game, Levine told press that this would finally be the moment where Irrational would prove whether or not it was "full of shit," citing comments from E3 2012 that asked how well the Sky-Line mechanic would work. Well, no shit here, folks. It's amazing.

Exorcising demons with blind faith in BioShock Infinite
Gunplay is still a question mark for me, though. Enemies take quite a few shots before they fall and often a foe's reaction to a bullet left me feeling like my arsenal lacked impact. This, however, may be remedied by purchasing upgrades – like damage boosters – for weapons after enough coin has been collected (when power is doled out in small doses, it's sometimes hard to cipher whether it's an issue or an intention).

Though I completed the demo on Xbox 360 – and it looked great – it's the PC version that has me excited. It's stunning, though I wasn't able to make any UI or field of view tweaks in the settings of this preview build.

BioShock Infinite smartly teases the concept of this extraordinarily important innocent lamb, who players will identify as Elizabeth. It takes some time before Booker DeWitt is paired with the woman, escaping to a closed-off area of Columbia where she is being held away from citizens of the city. It's her as an idea that the people of Columbia have fallen in love with, a miracle given to them by the prophet. Elizabeth, however, has no idea how important she is. As DeWitt approaches her holding area, the signs begin to shift, identifying her not as an important element in the religion of Columbia but as a specimen. To her captors, to her prophet, and to her protector Songbird, Elizabeth is a thing.

Elizabeth's ambition at the beginning of the game isn't to escape capture, reflecting instead her pure innocence. She wants to see the world. She dreams of Paris, something you learn when you first see her attempt to open a rift over an image of the Eiffel Tower, only to find herself stranded on a dark street featuring a movie theater presenting a French version of Revenge of the Jedi – a reference to the jaw-dropping moment first revealed during E3 2011.

Exorcising demons with blind faith in BioShock Infinite
Despite her innocence, Elizabeth is an essential part of DeWitt's advancement through the streets of Columbia. He can ask her to pick locks, chuck ammo, health, and coins she finds his way with the touch of a button, and open rifts in the world to phase in supplies, Sky-Hook points, cover and more. It never feels like you're dragging her to your end goal; she quickly proves her worth, despite reservations she may initially have to the choices a player might make and how cold-blooded your version of DeWitt acts.

By the end of the demo a lot of questions populated my notebook. After being knocked out a few times during the game, DeWitt flashes back to his office in the year 1893, where men can be heard pounding on his door telling him to take on the task of getting Elizabeth out of Columbia. His reluctance coupled with the happiness Elizabeth initially exudes when you meet her make me question exactly which side you should be cheering for. Are both DeWitt's employers and Comstock evil, even? What demons are Booker DeWitt battling that force him to take the assignment? Elizabeth herself comes with a host of questions as well, many of which I won't go into detail for fear of revealing too much. However, I do wonder how much are we really being told about her and her actual function in Columbia.

Also, at the end we meet a new character, Captain Cornelius Slate, who has taken over an entire section of Columbia and argues that Comstock – who claims to be a war hero – is a liar and cannot be trusted. This seems to be the biggest shift from what we once knew about BioShock Infinite. The struggle on Columbia is between those who adore Father Comstock and those who feel he is a false prophet – led primarily by a rebel group known as the Vox Populi – whereas the original demo pointed to a war between an establishment (led by a political powerhouse and its many founders) and a group of anarchists. In fact, we'll likely only see pieces of the E3 2011 demo spread throughout the game and not as one complete sequence.

Booker DeWitt has to employ blind faith in his mission, confronted by an army of Comstock followers under similar emotional and mental circumstances. And there's a blind faith that Booker and Elizabeth must employ in working together. But my faith in Irrational's next title is far from blind, as playing the first few hours of BioShock Infinite have only left me with a desire to continue forward. So, it is with this information that I choose to wait and continue to anticipate BioShock Infinite, which now launches on March 26.

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