Sunday, April 7, 2013

REVIEW - BioShock Infinite.

"Go then, there are other worlds than these."

Is BioShock Infinite a rich and compelling experience, luxurious in its thoughtfully-designed, deeply immersive world and narrative?  Is it a retread of structure and mechanics, with some gameplay redesigns that seem like better ideas than they actually are?

Yes it is.

Like BioShock 2, Infinite has some infinitely large shoes to fill - for what could compare to being introduced to the underwater dystopia of Rapture?  That bathysphere ride, man!  The atmosphere.  The architecture.  This pervasive sense of the city's hope as you pick your way through the corpses and rubble of its aftermath...

Many of us had hoped that BioShock 2 would permit us entry to the heyday of Rapture, when all the machinations of the city continued to hum along in the background and we could explore it at the peak of its idealized zealotry, mixing with its still-mostly-sane populous - and Infinite answers that desire, allowing us to play tourist in another impossible city as ex-Pinkerton thug Booker DeWitt just before (and while) the shit hits the fan.

As with BioShock, Infinite's narrative is an intellectual exercise.  The game quickly introduces one to the concept of existential absurdism via a row-boat ride with Infinite's own variation on Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and is always certain therafter to give the player just enough time to become fully immersed again before presenting us with the classic coin that never lands on tails, and reminding us that we're merely characters in a play someone else has written - with destinies and backstories we know not of.

While Infinite certainly has its twist, Irrational doesn't allow its narrative to go off the rails in the third act as they did in BioShock - the ending comes along at the right time, and we're not obliged to continue playing the game for another four hours afterward - but the environments and themes you explore on your way towards it too-rarely echo the themes and tones of the game surrounding it.

The player is very quickly introduced to the vicious racism and class warfare of Columbia, for example, but even so, Infinite spends a great deal of its latter half reminding us again (and again, and again) what jerks moneyed people are and how downtrodden the poor are - delving deeper into the machinations of Columbia instead of using this time to further flesh out the themes of the surrounding game that just happens to take place in the city.

It's sometimes as if sections of the game were left over from an earlier design phase, when all the quantum mechanics and existential weirdness hadn't been added yet.  When Columbia was as much of a character and presence in Infinite as Rapture was in Bioshock - which, I suppose, is possible. Remember the dozen-or-so minutes of gameplay they showed back in 2011?  Where Booker catches a cannon shell with a vigor power, and pulls a shotgun from a man's hands with another?  That sequence - and that vigor - don't appear in Infinite's final version.

One wonders how many themes and Columbias and little narrative arcs they had planned, before settling on the twelve hours worth we ended up with.  The point being, not all that they kept in matches up with the rest.

Is it ironic for a game about existentialism to not know entirely what it is, either?

This is nit-picking, of course.  Infinite's world, story, presentation, warbling tone and most of all Elisabeth are light-years ahead of the rest of the industry, as a general rule, and it is only in comparisons to the equally high-minded BioShock that it suffers at all.  Compared to any other first-person shooter made by any other developer (and this is the important part, now:), BioShock Infinite is a tour-de-force.

Perhaps Infinite's single greatest trick is that it manages to delight, inspire and surprise despite how much of a structural re-tread it is.  Now as then, your first view of the city is breathtaking - except, this time, your player-character blurts out (a perfect) "wha-?!" when they see it - echoing the player's own slacked jaw at their first sight of Columbia.

The game's most obvious and original strength, though, is easily Elisabeth.  An AI companion in the vein of Elika, who is mechanically more of an extension of the player-character than a separate entity.  What's most lovely is that one will often forget to think of her as either.

Introduced as nothing less than a Disney princess (complete with a lot of graceful physical over-acting as she swoons over pictures of Paris, locked away from the time she was a little girl in her prison tower), Elisabeth quickly settles in to the atmosphere of your play experience.  One quickly forgets she's AI, because she never walks into walls or gets herself killed - never makes any mistakes, really - and more often than not has a believable reaction to the insanity that surrounds her.

A walking source of exposition, Liz is always pointing out valuable lock picks or gear items you may have missed and asking just the right questions.  (I actually found myself thinking "thanks, Liz," more than once.)  Her animation, expression and tone change over the course of the game as our little girl grows into a fierce and vengeful woman - a great job of a character, and far more successful than Crystal Dynamic's attempt to humanize Lara Croft last month.

She's well-presented, well-written and well-acted - it's hard not to fall in love with her when she tosses you a fully-loaded Hand Cannon just when you ran out of ammo - and she seamlessly adds to your skill repertoire and combat options, as if she's as much of a player-character as Booker DeWitt.

When you come to a lock that needs picking, just tap square and she trots forward to sort it out.   Instead of coming across turrets or vending machines to hack (as in the Bio- and System Shock titles), Elisabeth creates them out of thin air to assist in combat - simply hover your cursor over an available item and she'll pull it into reality.

This streamlines and simplifies many of the 'Shock games' classic mechanics - done in service of Infinite's far faster-paced combat, which never achieves the slick, polished appeal of BioShock 2.

Bucking Bronco Vigor - very salt-efficient and effective. 

It's certainly big and bombastic, but Infinite's combat lacks the often thoughtful and strategic appeal of the last two BioShock games, where most enemies came at you with blades and clubs, and whether or not to get into scraps with larger foes like Big Daddies was left up to the player.  Here, Elisabeth will point to the sky, shout "Handyman!" and you'd better just be ready.

One wonders if Infinite's combat - which isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination - is simply the result of putting the egg before the chicken.  Infinite's design has its sights set on gunplay that constantly encourages the player to make on-the-fly choices, the goal of which is a series of exciting near-scrapes - you run out of ammo for your favorite gun (Booker can only carry two), and so you snatch up a Barnstormer RPG at just the right moment to turn the tide.  You're facing down a fearsome Motorized Patriot, but without the Shock Jockey ability you can't get behind it to aim at its vulnerable gears - until Liz tosses you a full vial of Vigor-powering salts just in the nick of time.

The game, in short, expects the player to be constantly switching out their weapon  with those dropped by enemies and altering their strategies on the fly in order to adapt to any scenario.  Unfortunately, completely counter to this philosophy, Infinite doesn't enjoy the wide-open character customization of its predecessors - demanding instead that the player commit themselves to hugely expensive upgrades for particular guns or particular Vigors - upgrades which cannot be re-specced once chosen, unlike the Tonics of previous games.

So it's a game that demands the player lock themselves in to favoring certain weapons or certain strategies, and then expects the player to still have fun as the game stops providing you with ammo for the guns you've spent thousands of dollars upgrading, or with enemies that may be immune to the Vigor you just blew your savings investing in.

It can be very frustrating - particularly on the harder difficulties, which all but deny the player any opportunity to enjoy the sense of power and freedom the 'Shock games are known for.

On the normal difficulty setting, though, it works really nicely.  Enemies are still a threat, but your arsenal (and ability to upgrade yourself) are so much more potent in dealing with them that the action is far more successful.  You can't help but feel pretty badass when you come 'round a corner in a dark alley to find a pair of toughs chatting about how bad they're gonna' kill you, and then throw crows at them.

Throwing crows at people never gets old.

Like BioShock 2, Infinite isn't perfect - but it's almost nice that its strengths lay in different areas.  If we'd prefer a BioShock with gentle emotional honesty and slick, strategic, comfortable gunplay, there's always 2.

If we instead prefer our BioShock games to boast scale and imagination and a ridiculous budget, Infinite is the frontrunner. It's another hugely ambitious exercise from Irrational games - both in design and intellectual reflection - and while it's not always successful, it gets far more right than it does wrong.

Sure, sometimes the animations are guilty of major over-acting (the boy with the orange - ugh!).  Sure the changes to the gunplay aren't as successful as one would like, and sure I would have preferred my time in Columbia to be a bit less hurried, with more opportunities to lazily explore the city and discover the cool side-narratives (the little Cree boy with one leg was my favorite) - but let us not look a gift horse in the mouth.

Exploring an insane city in the clouds, delving in to such heady thought experiments as existentialism and quantum physics and, well, throwing crows at people?

Pick all the nits you want, that's still pretty damned awesome.  High-minded, creative escapism of this caliber is what video games are all about.


  1. I really appreciate your review -- it articulated many of the complaints I had with this game. It's a wonderful game worthy of much of the praise its receiving, but most other game review outlets ignore the flaws that you brought up.

  2. i'll see your point about it's underdeveloped themes and raise you this spectacular blog post:

  3. One quick comment about the combat: it does not encourage on the fly tactics changes because Elizabeth drops ammo on you every time you are about to run out. It sabotages itself by being nice.

  4. Elisabeth will toss you a single clip or so for whatever weapon you were holding when the prompt comes up - enough to save one's bacon for a second or six (or sometimes end a fight) - but not enough to allow the player to choose two weapons and always have an ample supply of ammo for them.

    I kinda' feel that Elisabeth's help is more about facilitating aggression... Hang on - context :

    It's not mentioned in the review, but one should point out that during combat, if the player gets low on health, ammo or Vigor-powering salts, Elisabeth will toss the player a health kit, weapon or vial of salt, accordingly. Most of the time it works pretty well, but you'll occasionally find yourself getting ammo for the weapon you just dropped, or on the receiving end of a health pack when you could really use some salts. She doesn't do it constantly - once every forty-five or sixty seconds, perhaps.

    It goes without saying that sixty seconds is a long time when you're being trapped in a pincer movement by the psychotic, firearm-wielding denizens of Columbia.

    Elizabeth's somewhat-reliable help, I feel, encourages the player to go a little crazier with their powers and tactics than they would otherwise. Her dynamic assistance allows the player a bit of strategic breathing room - for if you find you've blown all your salts on trying and failing to get good results from the Possession vigor on an automaton, Liz may shore that up for you. More than anything, it opens a door for the player to explore and experiment with their combat powers and options.

    On the one hand, that works - particularly on normal difficulty. On the other hand, it directly contrasts and contradicts Infinite's strangely prohibitive specialization options - which lock you in to powering up and relying on one or two Vigors and two or three powerful, modified weapons.