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E3 2011: BioShock Infinite impressions

CNET's gaming experts were impressed by their behind-the-scenes peek of BioShock Infinite. Why? Read on.

Now playing: Watch this: Game trailer: Bioshock Infinite

It takes a lot to excite three seasoned gaming writers independently at a single show, and it looks like Bioshock Infinite has pulled the trifecta. Big, bold, and highly hyped, Irrational and 2K Games' prequel to the Bioshock universe is undoubtedly one of the most exciting games at all of E3 2011. Here's why.

I'm rarely excited about E3 games. I hate genre repetition. I don't like the endless flow of shooters and racers and fighters, the summer-movie-cliche money-shot explosions, the tacky dialogue.

However, once in a long while, a game comes along that has a big imagination. So big that it seems to challenge the perceiver, and bend the mind. Consider my mind bent, because BioShock Infinite seems to get ever more bizarre, epic, and richly detailed every time I see it.

The E3 closed-door demo of the game is hard to describe. We couldn't play the game--we only watched a 20-minute controlled playthrough--but what we saw had the scope, drama, and surprise to rival most of Hollywood's output. Early 20th century floating isolationist city in an alternate steampunk universe. Psychic powers, mechanical robot birds, gangs of political deviants, roller-coaster rail systems--yes, check. There are also endless clever and creepy historical details akin to what filled the original BioShock, such as a decaying gift shop filled with presidential forefather marionettes, dangling their decaying limbs from the ceiling.

The whole experience feels like a madcap big-budget blockbuster with enough top-level smarts to hold the crazy ends together, like a Terry Gilliam movie with unlimited budget. Yet, it all feels oddly more loose and heartfelt than the original BioShock, especially when it comes to your character (DeWitt's) relationship to Elizabeth, his mysterious companion.

Games like these are rare; budget-size and creative expertise are rarely given this type of free reign, in movies or games. But the success of BioShock seems to have given Irrational Games house money to be freer in this sequel, and it's clearly running with it. I wish more developers had such courage or freedom. In many ways, BioShock Infinite is to BioShock as James Cameron's "Aliens" was to "Alien."

Irrational Games

It's tough to really put into words the amount of depth and exposition the team at Irrational Games is cramming into BioShock Infinite. Our hands-off demo showcased a roller coaster-esque action sequence that convinced us Infinite's open-environment would bring the title's scope and sheer magnitude to new heights. The confinements of Rapture clearly limited this type of ambitious chaos the first go around.

These details aside, perhaps the most intriguing element of Infinite its highly cerebral and erratic storyline. While we previewed this when we first saw the game last year, our most recent demo shines light on even more-complex layers of Columbia with different factions and sects battling within the floating city.

We've also been introduced to totally new concepts that we had no idea existed in the game. For instance, there seems to be a fair amount of parallel dimension play that the title's main character and his accomplice Elizabeth take advantage of in the game world. There was also a healthy dosage of what appears to be time travel, as during our preview we saw Elizabeth harness the ability to move certain areas of Columbia forward in time.

At times it almost seems like there's too much to focus on, with Infinite's massive universe and detail pulling our attention in dozens of different directions at once. We're up to the task, though, because in BioShock half the fun is uncovering the secrets and plot twists.

At an E3 filled with little surprises, we're beginning to think Infinite is one of the best in show. The title oozes originality, something we're constantly clamoring for. Infinite is simply on another level, both for its intelligent and compelling narrative and its innovative game play and baffling production value.

Irrational Games

Despite a reputation for vapidity, Hollywood blockbusters actually can have heart or a brain, as well as eye-popping special effects and big-name stars. Just look to recent hits such as "Inception" or "Black Swan" for an example. Video games, on the other hand (especially most of the trigger-happy ones on display this year at E3) seem almost allergic to anything that might go over the heads of what gamemakers imagine their ideal focus-grouped audience to be. What we're left with is an interactive medium uniquely capable of pushing the boundaries of narrative and storytelling, but almost no inclination to tackle big ideas.

One of the few exceptions we've run across is BioShock Infinite, which, on top of being a rollicking-looking action game with an inventive setting, actually pays more than lip service to some controversial themes from U.S. history, where the concept of American exceptionalism came into conflict with 19th century isolationism. In the alternate history of the game world, turn-of-the-century secessionists build a floating city to embody some kind of vision of an idealized America. This self-segregation inevitably devolves into civil war.

The historical and political themes got short shrift at this particular E3 demo, which favored action-packed sequences instead. But we've seen the game previously, and it indeed has quieter moments and plenty of historical context for those who know where to look. In this week's demo, it was interesting to see the allegedly more sympathetic side of this civil war, the rebellious Vox Populi, descend into mob rule violence while fighting against the city's ruling class (not that this ever happens in real life)--leaving the game's outside protagonist trapped between two unyielding sides of a conflict.

To be sure, this is still much more an action game than a history lesson, but it's pleasing to see some thought about big ideas going on in the game industry. The last major example we can think of was coincidentally 2007's original BioShock game, which provoked audiences with a retro-futuristic underwater world inspired by Ayn Rand and George Orwell. Hopefully we won't have to wait until BioShock 4 to see another example of big ideas making it into a game.