Time has not been kind to the children of Levine, and in this context I mean the videogames under the Bioshock label, not the presumed flesh-and-blood entities that are resultant of a combination of gametes involving Mr Levine and whatever partners may have been involved. No, as for those entities, if you’re somehow, inexplicably reading this sentence, I would advocate not making any sudden movements around Dad, because he’s clearly quite terrified of you. The games, however, have been given something of an unpleasant beating in the course of history as it rolls past them. Bioshock 1 was successful enough to overshadow its sequels, but also kick off the ‘games as art’ conversation that helped push some of the recent scrutiny of games that are being talked about as art, and being at the crest of that wave, it wound up being scrutinised by more critical eyes than originally gave it all of its 10/10s. Bioshock was suddenly being looked at in the context of its simplistic approach to gender, its monoracial world, its violence-as-only-solution, it’s daddification-as-expression, and even as the game should stand proud for bringing this kind of attention for videogames, it does not look good in that light.
Bioshock 2 is a little bit lucky, actually; as the game’s worn on, the consensus about its bad multiplayer content is that it’s bad, and therefore, people stop talking about it as a feature to be considered, but rather, a growth to be excised. Bonus, the death of Games For Windows Live has decoupled Bioshock 2 from its worst practical element. On the other hand, now it has to look up on both sides to its big-budget brethren, which are either aesthetically superior or better writing, and as bad as Bioshock 2 looked in light of Bioshock, it looks even worse when it has to compare to the jaw-dropping aesthetics of the teaspoon-deep Bioshock Infinite. They even hit most of the same plot points and have a nearly identical conclusion.
What then, has become worse for Bioshock Infinite, though?
Well, the first problem is attempts to fix it. If you ran through the typical critical points about BSI, you’d get a list something like this:
- It’s not set in Rapture!
- Vigors don’t make sense!
- I can only carry two guns!
- Elizabeth is a Disney Princess!
- It doesn’t feel like a living city!
- Using guns and vigors alongside one another isn’t useful!
- Whhyyyy isn’t it in Raaaptuuuure?
Well, if this sounds like your master list of what’s wrong with BSI, boy does Burial At Sea: Part 1 want to be for you!
First things first, BaS opens with noir-style plunge back into the objectivist
paradise hellhole paradise hellhcity with an almost frantic plea. You open your front door and the first thing you see is the same slogan and bust that crested the entrance to Rapture up in the lighthouse. You’re then taken on a walking tour of an urban section of Rapture, watch Little Sisters being creepy, move linearly from A to B to C, then encounter a ‘puzzle’ that you solve by opening all the doors and finding what you were looking for in the last one. See? It’s not just all violence! Then there’s Sander Cohen – remember how cool Sander Cohen was, compared to Fink? Okay, rad, now let’s go to an isolated prison where splicers burst out of the woodwork in infinitely re-re-respawning fightboxes, and you need to flip six switches to flip the seventh switch and then boss battle. The respawning enemies force you to scrounge for goods more. You can carry any number of guns, and the ammunition for them is spread out more, forcing you to be more careful about which you favour, and you’re more fragile, so you’ll die and lose money. There’s optional pickups and areas you don’t have to explore, which are sort of like secrets.
It’s harder, it’s in Rapture, you’re encouraged more to use guns and vigors together, and you check out the fantastic city of Rapture as people make small talk about current events. Everything’s fixed, then, right? Game’s the same, just better, right?
Without getting into the spoiler territory, the plot of BaS is bad, bad enough to surprise me. Standing in my kitchen, trying to think through why it went the way it did, I could only come to the conclusion that it A. came from the Dr Who school of time and space travel, and B. wanted to explicitly contradict the previous game’s established story, and finally C. was more interested in supplying a ‘twist’ than it was in providing a plot. Shock over substance ! When you scratch at the surface, you find the same problem all the way down. You have to value ammunition more, but the guns still aren’t fun to use. The time spent explaining the
vigors plasmids vigors NO REALLY THEY’RE PLASMIDS makes no sense where you find it – and how – and just seems to be about justifying further use of the aesthetics of bottles being drunk. The guns have new models, but still feel awfully similar and similarly awful. Finally, without spoilering things, the entire handling of Elizabeth is inconsistent at best and gross at worst. This isn’t a fix.
This is Cargo Cult Game Development. Repair superficial things and hope that fixes the deeper, fundamental problems the work has.
Buy it if:
- You loved Bioshock Infinite‘s mechanical aspect.
- You want to be ‘surprised!’ with a ‘twist!’
- You want to explore the opening area more thoroughly than a ten minute Let’s Play video can let you.
Avoid it if:
- You feel the plot of Bioshock Infinite has some inherent integrity.
- You want to explore Rapture as a living city.
- You want an experience that will solve the larger, systemic problems of Bioshock Infinite.
I was talking about Bioshock Infinite‘s problems, right? Ignoring that it was a framing device for the BaS review, I’d like to return to the point very briefly. BaS addresses, and can only address, its own internal content, and the mechanics of the game. While you can experience the feel of how BaS plays, and imagine if the original game played more like that, you can’t take dialogue from one and transplant it to the other. You can’t compare the small, narrative slice that BaS part 1 represents to the flabby, undisciplined mass of Bioshock Infinite. These are areas that BaS can’t touch. What, then, is made worse in Bioshock Infinite with time to consider it? Didn’t I spend thousands of words considering Bioshock Infinite? Mostly it’s a calcification, as further from the ‘event’ of its appearance becomes more important.
Bioshock Infinite is shallower than it thinks it is, it’s more static than it thinks it is, and its supposedly urbane ‘both sides are bad’ analysis of the Vox Vs Founders fails to recognise that half of that equation owned and oppressed the other half. In a game that strives to be ‘about’ something, its narrative is barely more complicated than a typical Fox News take on things. “Yes,” it says, “Racism, systemic oppression, the coercion and beating and mind-warping of our people in the poor underclass, the dehumanisation and destruction of our culture is quite bad, but, well, let’s not go overboard.”
Hang On, Again
I’m led to believe part two of BaS will feature Elizabeth as a playable character. That has me interested and excited and hopeful, though I can’t for the life of me explain why. Despite that, the shortness of this first section of BaS and its rubbishness convinces me there is no reason to bother with it. Just wait for Part 2 and see if it doesn’t suck ass.