Last week, I attempted to walk you through the E3 demo of "BioShock Infinite" using just text and a handful of screenshots...a challenging task for a game so overwhelmingly rich with detail and gameplay mechanics. By the end of the 20 minute demo, I had considerably more questions about the game than when I went in. Thankfully the game's creative director, Ken Levine, was happy to chat with me on the phone the other day to fill in some of those blanks.
THE BIG DIFFERENCE BETWEEN VIGORS AND PLASMIDS
In the world of "BioShock Infinite," vigors are like your spells. In practice, they work a lot like plasmids in the sense that you can drink a vigor and send out burst of ravenous crows (Murder of Crows) or lift enemies up into the air (Bucking Bronco). Until I spoke to Levine, I assumed that they worked exactly like plasmids, where the player would select which vigors they wanted and would have a pool of energy (or Eve, in "BioShock 1") which would allow them to be cast.
"The big difference we're doing is that vigors have, essentially, charges," explained Levine. "One problem we had with Eve is that all the plasmids had to be roughly equally as powerful as all the other plasmids because they all ran from the same Eve system. You basically felt like 'Well, if I fire this plasmid versus that plasmid, I can only get one round, where here I can get 50 rounds, but it's much less powerful.'"
He's basically saying that you couldn't have a huge, overpowered plasmid because, so long as you had a ton of Eve hypos, you could just keep on casting it and the game would become broken. In "BioShock Infinite," Levine's solution is to have a limited number of uses, almost like you're picking up ammo.
"What's nice about what we're doing here is that, because you're finding X number of charges of a vigor, you can have super, super powerful ones that have like one charge or two charges. And ones that are much less powerful, but have 30 charges or 40 charges. That's a really interesting development for us, because that allows us to do these huge, epic vigors where we wouldn't have that before. We couldn't balance that before."
He went on to explain that the number of vigor types you're carrying around is also limited. "The vigors function like the plasmids, but you pick them up more like weapons in a traditional FPS and they have a number of charges to them. So you go into combat and you'll have two of those available at any one time, but you can find more of those in the world. The same way you make choices about what weapons you carry around in 'Halo,' you're making that with vigors."
Which begs the question, where does the character customization come in? In the original "BioShock," much of your playstyle was determined by which plasmids you wanted to invest in. But if you're no longer investing in vigors, are you still building a character sheet or does "Infinite" just play out like a shooter with no permanent character choices? Worry not, that's where nostrums come in.
NOSTRUMS, THE SOUL OF YOUR CHARACTER IN 'INFINITE'
If vigors are similar to but not quite like plasmids, nostrums are similar to but not quite like tonics. If you'll recall, tonics in the original "BioShock" were passive upgrades for your character which would give you certain benefits. For example, one tonic might cause enemies to freeze when you hit them with melee attacks.
Nostrums are exactly the same, but the ways you encounter them are slightly different. There are two types of nostrums: stable and unstable. In the world of "Infinite," unstable nostrums are referred to colloquially as "potlucks." You might find a potluck in a crate or in a vending machine. Upon activating a potluck, you'll be given the choice of four possible character upgrades. Said Levine:
"You have to, at that moment, choose one of those. There's a thing in 'Heroes of Might and Magic,' if you ever played that game. That's where I was inspired/stole the idea from. You basically get to choose one of those powers, but you have to choose right then. Then that power goes in your character sheet. And you're making a lot of those choices throughout the game. That’s the direction we're trying to go. Give you a lot of choices that you don’t have to have that same kind of cumbersome management system because you're making the choice as it happens. As you find it."
He went on to explain that there are also stable nostrums. Unlike potlucks, there's no mystery to a stable nostrum. You know exactly what upgrade you're going to get if you buy it. But that knowledge comes at a price. Stable nostrums in a vending machine, for example, would be much more expensive than potlucks.
So, for "BioShock Infinite," nostrums are the primary way to make permanent changes to your character according to your play style. Unlike tonics, there's no need to equip or unequip nostrums. You don't have a limited number of slots. You just keep building them up, making those upgrade choices, according to how you prefer to play.
"Basically we have all the same systems, we're just presenting them a little bit differently, so you can have a lot more stuff," explained Levine. "'BioShock' didn't have enough stuff. Power stuff, character growth stuff. Game design-wise we wanted more stuff, so these are ways of going about getting more stuff. It opens the pathway to allow us to have more stuff, which was limited in the first game."