The year is 1912 and the world is, politically, a mess. This floating city - called Columbia - is no different; a microcosm of political schisms all its own seem to threaten its very existence. Into that milieu our hero (one Booker DeWitt) must stride, in order to rescue (or is that kidnap?) Elizabeth - a girl with extraordinary powers.
Columbia, it turns out, is less a large floating island on which a city is built and more a collection of independent, unconnected structures - including buildings, parks, and other (otherwise familiar) urban locales. They move independently of one another, too, alternately docking and then undocking to move on to another part of the city, in exactly the same way buildings in the real world don't.
Fortunately, other than jumping (which is also an option), or taking a ferry, there's a means of transport available that allows you to navigate around this extraordinary environment in a similarly remarkable manner: the skyline. By way of a skyhook, Booker and Elizabeth can jump onto rollercoaster-like tracks that permeate BioShock Infinite's preposterous principality, moving with great speed between different areas almost at will.
I say almost, because despite having now played the first four hours or so of the game, my experience is of a world that is somewhat constrained. You have more and more freedom as the game expands, but it doesn't pretend to be open world, either.
My session began right at the start of the game, a sequence you can see for yourself right here. If you're thinking, right off the bat, that the experience is wholly similar to the start of the original BioShock, be in no doubt that was the intention. It's immediately apparent that Irrational, the developer, is keen to ground players in that mindset, and it's not the only time you'll be reminded of their earlier work.
As you explore, for example, you'll find record players that feature character and plot exposition; small sequences that fill narrative gaps, explaining more about the world. It's hardly a new technique, having featured in many recent games, but it's nonetheless a welcome one; BioShock Infinite's world is detailed in the extreme and finding out more about it is a thrill you'll look forward to.
Unlike BioShock's post-apocalypse Rapture, Infinite's Columbia is alive and full of character. NPCs populate most areas, generally milling about and participating in all manner of carefree activity. Children frolic in the park, for example, chasing invisible insects or otherwise generally behaving in the way a child might have before Nintendo.
At one point, a flying ship, as part of an in-game PR stunt no doubt, descended to a nearby area for a seemingly impromptu barbershop quartet performance; the B-Sharps, as the group was known, quickly gathered a small crowd - including myself, as I opted to go and enjoy it, rather than continue to pursue my current quest. This whole experience, I later found out, was entirely optional and may even be missed altogether by a huge percentage of players. Rich? Textured? You bet; it was glorious, too.
Interestingly, the song the B-Sharps chose for this performance was by the Beach Boys - a band that's nearly 50 years from forming at the time in which Infinite is set. Is there some deeper meaning to this time dilation? Ken Levine, the game's creative director, isn't telling. Far from an isolated event, the choice of song is just one of many anomalies that hint at some sort of fundamental spacetime warp at the center of the narrative.
After exploring for a while, I found myself at a carnival of sorts, complete with sideshow events that I could actually play. Initially appearing as a particularly nice piece of set dressing, their real meaning was soon apparent: they teach you how to use the game's weapons. As tutorials go, their seamless integration is eloquently executed - no great shock, I'm sure, to any who are already familiar with Irrational's work.
In addition to an assortment of steampunkian firearms, the player is also soon able to weaponise themselves directly by way of unlockable psychokinetic abilities, called vigors. The first you experience, in the aforementioned carnival, is one called Bucking Bronco. With it, you can thrust NPCs into the air, making them especially vulnerable to your attacks or simply removing them from the fight for a short time. Like most of the game, it's clear that the inclusion of these abilities is to give players choices as to how they approach things, rather than simply replace the "rocket launcher" analog with hand-waving magic.
Things moved along at pace from this point, as Columbia's utopian (if religiously weird) world rapidly revealed the rotten core that lurked beneath its shiny exterior. Racism, much like the real world of 1912 perhaps, is a thing here, you see, and its existence ultimately delivers the tipping point at which the game moves from explore-em-up to the more traditional "kill them before they kill you" type. To clarify, there's still loads of exploring to do after this, but if you had planned to wander around and marvel at the sights forever, you're in for a shock.
The violence, when it occurs, is incredible in its intensity. Having just received the aforementioned skyhook, rather that set about traversing the marvelous city, the first thing you do with it is thrust it into someone's chest and use it to start ripping out bits of gore they had concealed in there. Blood flies with gay abandon; steamers of the stuff, bright red, splatters your screen, obscuring your view as your target writhes in pain. Heads are ripped straight off, necks slowly broken as you stare into your enemy's doomed expression.
They're going to get letters.
You soon find yourself in possession of a gun, too, and some familiar (but still superbly executed) gun-based combat then plays out. With decent accuracy at range, and a foe that's both smart (flanking you) and realistic (you can actually get away from them, and flank NPCs yourself) brings a refreshing level of reality to the tactics employed. Despite the allure of the vigors (which you don't actually have at this point), shooting things still feels good and fun (as sad an indictment as that might be on my mental state) - a solid endorsement, again, of Irrational's skill.
Every moment, whether exploring, shooting, or tearing down the skyline with nought but clouds beneath you is glorious to behold. Columbia, like Rapture before it, exists; you can feel it in your bones. It's so well realised it might as well be real, someplace, and its every avenue - impossibly floating as it may be - will become as ingrained on your memory as the place you actually grew up.
Irrational are on track to deliver another epic title.
BioShock Infinite will be released on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC in March.