Dreamworks have conditioned me to be very, very wary of anyone who wants to remind you that they’re the creators of anything. It often speaks of the work not standing up on scrutiny, or of fears of their work being inadequate to hold your attention on its own. In many cases, it puts your signature at the beginning of an experience, and can make it clear to people what they will see, before they start. If your signature is a style of whackiness, or off-the-wall thinking, or brilliant music, or technological innovation, not one of these things is a problem, but when your signature is a twist…
Well, you might just be setting yourself up for a fall.
Bioshock Infinite is the third Bioshock game, despite just how badly the people involved in the project seem to hope you haven’t played or heard of Bioshock 2, and makes numerous decisions to differentiate itself from Bioshock and Bioshock 2. In some cases, those decisions are a net positive – after all, the multiplayer component of Bioshock 2 was a superfluous tumour at the best of times, and Bioshock did have a number of plasmids that made the challenges of the game a joke.
This review is going to attempt to answer the question ‘should you buy it?’ without talking about spoilers for characters, the plot, or the settings, all of which will limit what I can talk about for obvious reasons. Breaking the game down into its largest pieces, this presents us with three basic things to talk about. The game’s aesthetic choices, the game’s design as a game, and how the game compares to its predecessors.
Sights and Sounds
Let’s get this one out of the way, because Bioshock Infinite is fucking gorgeous. It is a goddamn beautiful game, with varied, interesting environments, beautiful visual effects, an absolutely breathtaking soundtrack full of wonderful audio and excellent voice acting. Every single character has impeccably chosen voice actor, and I say that as a player who normally resents voice acting in games. That’s not even the best audio in the game – I think that there’s a short stinger of four to eight notes that is remarkably distinctive and has the exactly desired psychological effect.
Columbia is a wonderful composite of Americana, full of things that conjure in many ways the worst excesses and self-congratulatory wank that America’s most tasteless indulge. It’s basically a Leave It To Beaver Collector’s Plate, as designed by Glenn Beck. Even as it’s tasteless, though, it’s amazing! Bright colours, high contrast, simple use of shapes to define designs, it’s everything that (for example) Darksiders isn’t. Characters have a variety of different body shapes, taking the lessons of Disney, with major, prominent figures having large, expressive eyes, and motions that are exaggerated to make them expressive without seeming pantomined.
Everything, everything in this game, visually, is splendid. Enemies go through visual evolution, wearing different clothes to reflect the change in their circumstances. Colour is used to highlight factions, interface elements are introduced cleanly, and the contextual controls even use an appropriate word choice. I’ve said it once, but I repeat it again: the aesthetics of Bioshock Infinite are absolutely beautiful.
The Play’s The Thing
And then with that glowing, unvarnished, unqualified praise comes the inevitable release of the word ‘but.’ Before I get into that but, big and hairy as it is, I do want to set aside the mechanical implementation of Elizabeth, and the character with which that mechanical entity is shown. She moves with your path, she is never in the way in combat, she has fantastic timing to keep you going when you’re running low on supplies but doesn’t provide so quickly that you can just rely on her. Fine-tuning her had to be a challenge, and the few odd moments she provides – teleporting ahead of you into rooms – are rare and eventually show up in the later part of the game. One of her special abilities is not very well implemented, though – and I’ll talk about that later, perhaps in another article. Nonetheless: Elizabeth, the escort character and mechanical advancement entity, is in her own little protected bubble and is exempt from the subsequent harrhumphing.
Bioshock Infinite, ignoring story, is a game with some deep flaws. Those flaws are the worst kind of flaws, too, because a game can be ugly, or obnoxious sounding, or badly voiced, if it’s fun. The problem is that in Bioshock Infinite, at numerous points when I realised that goals were further away from me – that classic moment of in true System Shock 2 style, I arrived at my destination only to find the door locked and realised I had to sidetrack to another goal in order to continue what I wanted to do – when I was sad, my shoulders sagging. This feeling, this Oh-Now-What ennui washed over me not just when I encountered those locked doors, but also when even particular enemies showed up.
First things first, the movement and controls are relatively standard, with only two deviations from what I consider ‘the norm.’ Rather than your melee weapon being a selected item, it’s always accessable, ala Halo, with its own button, and the ‘run’ button only accelerates you forwards, and only lets you deviate to the sides in a small cone. You can’t make fast, running, whip-around turns, throwing momentum to the wind. Both of these controls put me more in the mind of my only real experience with modern military shooters, Spec Ops: The Line. Now, I understand that these controls are valuable for a feeling of realism, and they both owe their origins to very well-regarded games. I don’t think they fit this game very well, particularly because the melee attack is very slow, and doesn’t even one-shot kill the weakest of enemies. In Halo, the melee attack lets you intersperse in your timing-based attacks with an elegant flow.
This movement comes through in combat, though, where Booker moves just slow enough that combat feels plodding. You can’t dodge to the side effectively from shots. You have to move to prevent fire, and duck under cover to maintain your health pool, but that movement has to be proactive rather than reactive. While that sounds admirable as a different direction, it works out poorly. When you have to predict semi-random events, and time around the reloads of enemies, in a large, loud, chaotic environment, the moving variables make that prediction as good as random.
Levels are also structured more like a modern military shooter, with combat arenas interspersed with walkways. You heal up, you move on to the next area. Movement around these areas is mostly limited, some cover is present, and you usually can’t advance without clearing the areas out. What’s more, things that complicate these battlefields disappear – when there are workers around, they poof out of existence the second shots get fired. This design, with fights of varying, particular scales separated with travel and recovery, is a design I think of as ‘fightbox.’ In Modern Military Shooters, encountering these scenarios makes some sense, because military operatives try to establish killboxes, in which to limit other people’s movement. To have these situations crop up over and over again in a supposedly-organic city, detracts from the verisimillitude. It also becomes very repetitive, especially when you have to travel through locations you have cleared. There’s one narrow chokepoint you travel through three times, and each time, there are new snipers and new troops in the area to fight through, just waiting in that area for you to turn up. This isn’t unrealistic, but it’s dull. You’re effectively having the same fight three times. Adding special enemies to the engagement doesn’t help either, because the special mobs are almost all boring.
The special mobs are essentially an enormous hit point sponge you have to run away from at all times and hit in a small, easily protected part of his front, a smaller hit point sponge who you have to run around behind after stunning, a normal sized hit point sponge that throws area-effecting fires around, and a enemy that teleports around. Now, each of these enemies has the same basic mechanic: Score some hits, then move around trying to avoid a counterattack. All that seems to vary is just how many hits you have to score. Each enemy’s mechanics make them tiresome to fight. The enemies aside from this? They’re all very samey, mechanically, which is a shame, especially when such work was done to make them visually distinct as the game continues.
Of course, enemies having too many hit points is just an arbitary way to consider the other side of the same problem: The weapons and powers you use lack for impact. The vigors – this game’s variant on Plasmids – have a hard time dispatching anyone, and are mostly useful for controlling individual targets and then dispatching them with a good old fashioned gun. In those situations, I found myself usually just opting to use the gun in the first place. If you like a particular gun, though, you can’t get too attached to it, because Booker can only hold two guns at once. He can carry ammunition for all those guns at once, but only two guns. Some noise is made, in the hardest mode of the game, about a need to specialise in the guns that matter most to you, but don’t kid yourself: Your ‘favourite’ gun is going to be the nearest one with a decent bit of ammunition right now. And it doesn’t really even matter much – most of the guns feel very similar to one another.
Mixing up these fightbox-travel sections are a few set-piece battles, fights designed to focus on some special one-time event. Sadly, these set-piece fights are really just other fightboxes, though. The final one is definitely the best, and has the coolest special gimmick to it, and that just casts into comparison how dull the others are. The vilest offender is one whose special gimmick involves an enormous hit point sponge – and then it makes you do it three times. Each time, the fight is exactly the same, with no variance on mechanics or playstyle!
Sometimes, though, sometimes, the game gets it right. There’s a sequence where you get to hop from hook to hook and take out targets on the ground as you go over them. There’s another firefight where you have an enormous railing arced around the battlefield, and you can have riotous fun zooming along on that rail, shooting things on multiple levels, changing direction sharply, and that fight is a lot of fun! It’s strange that a game I’m accusing of being linear is at its most fun when it’s literally on rails, but that is the paradox of the game, I suppose.
The Ghosts Of Bioshocks Past
Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite are definitely full of interesting parallels, some deliberate, some coincidental. It’s worthwhile, then, comparing the way the two games differ. Bioshock‘s interface was mostly predictable and clear in how it behaved. There were very few context-sensitive commands, and the game nonetheless presented you with a few situations where your pre-existing actions could demonstrate some very basic form of choice. It also had almost no cutscenes where control is explicitly removed from the player – one at the beginning, one in the middle, and one at the end, each one used very effectively. By contrast, there are numerous points where cutscenes take command of the experience. I don’t think that’s for good or ill – I feel that being anti-cutscene is a modern artifact and an unrealistic expectation, personally.
The larger difference is how much Jack (the protaganist of Bioshock) differs from Booker. Booker has a backstory, a character, and undergoes development. He’s interesting and well-rounded, while Jack was more of a surprise meant to jar the player through expectations. This is of course ignoring subject Delta, the protaganist of Bioshock 2, who was also silent, which was a bit of a shame considering how interesting those long, slow whalesounds that the Big Daddies used could have been as a form of expression. Nonetheless, Booker’s narration is very, very good – he expresses his own desires, his own opinions, and through his conversations with himself and with Elizabeth neither overstates himself nor insults the audience. He’s no Rufus (of Bastion) – but he is still quite an effective voice in the game, and he adds to the story.
There are a few reviewers complaining about the way the game could have been, based on the earlier trailer footage, but I also find that hollow. You can’t really hold a developer to older versions of a game that may have been produced, and that feeling will only disappoint. Your imagination will always excel compared to the ideas that others offer you, especially when those ideas have to be realised through media that has to be paid for.
Yahtzee once said that Bioshock‘s flaws didn’t make it a bad game, it just made it a game that was shallower than advertised, and that criticism fell just as readily upon Bioshock 2. It’s almost like Ken Levine’s career is itself some sort of loop, where he keeps on trying to fix the things that weren’t right about System Shock 2, or perhaps, some earlier proto-work whose glory still has not yet been realised. I fear that’s the case here.
Bioshock Infinite is a modern classic and should be held on the same high shelf as Spec Ops: The Line for its impressive storytelling, its wonderful use of visuals, the way it tries to tell an interesting and different story, but just like that game, it is flawed as a game, and from time to time, it is dull. Play it, definitely find a way to experience it, but for this game to be held up as a ‘best’ feels premature. It lacks the biting, brutal message that underpins Spec Ops: The Line. Its message is instead about writing itself, which feels self-congratulatory and makes it a weaker work overall, whose failings cannot be forgiven for its brilliance.
Buy it if:
- You were an avid fan of the previous Bioshock games.
- You want to see big-idea storytelling.
- You’re a fan of beautiful games with a lot of visual panache.
- You enjoy character-driven story arcs and want to watch two characters undergo distinct, meaningful character arcs.
Avoid it if:
- You’re sensitive to topics of parental neglect, abuse, religious or racist themes.
- You need a game to keep you entertained every minute.
- You need a game that is better than Bioshock.
- You’re Glenn Beck.
Deeper Into the Pile
This is the first time I’ve really wanted to explore more of the game in my writing, so I’ve written three further articles on this. Here:
Note that these are very spoilery!