Bioshock Infinite PS3 hands-on: A question of faith

Are you afraid of God?” “No, but I’m afraid of you.” The opening words of Bioshock Infinite on PS3 make it clear that the latest instalment in the revered series has a religious focus, and it doesn’t take long to realise just how much the concept dominates the floating city of Columbia.

Bioshock Infinite PS3 preview

Private investigator Booker DeWitt – the lead man in Infinite, which I’m finally getting to play more than two years after it was announced in August 2010 – arrives there by being blasted upwards from a lighthouse. And if those echoes of the Ascension weren’t already clear enough, his first steps on not-so-solid ground are taken within a beautiful, candle-lit church.

The space is filled with glorious music and flickering light, as well as quotes from sacred texts and portraits of one Father Comstock, a bearded figure whose presence looms large over the city – and a man whose child, so the writings tell us, is the key to the tale about to unfold. Discovering Voxphones (replacing the original game’s Audio Diaries) reveals some backstory, but the atmosphere comes mostly from that soaring audio and wonderful lighting, epitomised by a large stained-glass window that features Comstock front and centre.

Venturing further inside, Booker comes across a huge flooded chamber, hooded figures marching solemnly down watery corridors. A sermon is in progress – a sermon that Booker, whose atheism quickly becomes evident, interrupts in order to gain access to the city proper.

It turns out that the entrance fee is slightly steeper than ‘£2 guest list, £5 after 11pm’: our man must be baptismally cleansed before being allowed to enter cloud town, a dunking that causes a black-and-white flashback to when he was given the task at hand. That task being to find the girl and wipe away the debt. The specifics of said debt aren’t yet evident, but presumably the need to clear it is more pressing than Booker preventing his sofa from being repossessed after two missed payments.

Tackling religion in any medium is risky business, especially when it’s being dealt with in the cynical manner of Bioshock Infinite. Were there ever any concerns about choosing to make it a focus of the game? “We had a similar conversation about Bioshock 1,” says the series’ head honcho Ken Levine. “It involves infanticide, and I don’t think there’s a larger taboo in the world. My feeling is: if it’s true to the story and you’re telling something that you think is honest, then everything has a place. As long as it’s honest and not just there to be exploitative. For me, it was one of my challenges, figuring out the appeal to people.”

It’s clear Infinite is coming from a point of religious scepticism rather than acceptance, as the sinister consequences of a city built upon faith quickly become evident. Columbia is hosting a festival to commemorate its founding, complete with funfair games and a raffle as the main event. Yet where raffle giveaways might typically be a spa break or a prize milking cow (depending on how rural the location), here the victor is given the opportunity to throw a baseball at a pair of lovers. Why? Because the racial diversity of a white Irishman carrying on with a black woman isn’t tolerated in this particular floating city.

Before this flashpoint is reached – and it’s the moment when the city’s guards turn on Booker and all hell breaks loose – what must be celebrated without reservation is the richness of the world Irrational Games has created. Going hands-on for the first time gives me the chance to explore at leisure, and things immediately feel alive. In large part this is down to the reams of NPC dialogue that can be overheard – in fact, Irrational claims that there’s more chatter in the opening hours I played than in the entirety of the first Bioshock.

People discuss the fair, Father Comstock, the city’s ideals… and then a barbershop quartet floats by, singing an a cappella version of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows. Which, for those of you who’ve been paying attention, is hardly a coincidence. The feeling of life is also partly down to there being, well, life around me. Whereas Rapture was populated mostly by fizzing electric wires and abandoned, flooded rooms – with the odd masked lunatic wielding a wrench thrown in – here there are normal citizens living their normal lives, children eating candyfloss, and happy teens playing fairground games.