Review by Great_Khan
"World building out, plot building in"
Bioshock Infinite is an odd game, it's both a retread of what Bioshock had already covered and a complete flipping of the concept. On the first count, the game still attempts to take some kind of stupid and extreme political view and demonstrate exactly why it would be doomed to fail, and dumps it in some traditionally inhospitable location in the early 1900s. It still plays as a largely on rails shooter, it still has the same set of powers, it still has many of the same weapons, the game in general feels very much like a continuation of the first game, rather than a cash in with a few tenuous links. On the other hand, it's taken the paper thin, weak story and characters of the original and given us a constant companion, sprawling plotlines involving multiple political factions and characters, time travel and multiple universes. No one could claim Irrational didn't try for greatness here, however you could say they didn't succeed, at least not fully anyway.
The big failing here is the world building going on here, it's just not very good at all. Like the undersea world of Rapture, Columbia is a old timey yet futuristic fantastical world, so like that city it has the potential to be very cool. Sadly however, through a mix of poor thematic direction, a lack of details and the unfulfilling nature of the few that are given, and a few questionable gameplay choices it really doesn't pull it off. What's worse is they don't just mess up the world building side of things, they spend three quarters of the game focusing on it too, incorrectly thinking it's where their strengths lie.
One of the traits they tried to copy from the original was the "political" theme. Obviously Bioshock took aim at Ayn Rand and Objectivism, and while it was pretty ham-fisted and shallow satire, it was at least consistent. It correctly went about showing various characters, dead and alive, taking the concepts to their logical extremes and showing how any large scale adoption of the ideas would fail (Acrobat psychopathic drug addicts and child gene manipulation, obviously), and was internally consistent enough to drive the world and subplots efficiently. Bioshock Infinite however doesn't really know what it is. Obviously the target was a sort of highly conservative, American exceptionalist, capitalist, racially "pure", and heavily Christian thing, but they don't really stick to it all that well.
Now while some of the more negative reviewers of the game, myself included despite the friendly overall score, have complained about how vigors don't make too much sense in the world and whatnot as a basic example of how the game is broken thematically, but I'm going to let that pass. Gameplay and story dissonance is not a new thing, and suddenly holding these developers to a standard literally no other company has ever been expected reach on this front seems a bit hypocritical. If we're going to say it makes no sense for elitist, patriarchal folk to try pervert their DNA for more power when it results in the primary gameplay mechanism of the game, we may as well complain it makes no sense for me not be able to shoot through any door with a rocket launcher, or it makes no sense for people to handle multiple bullet wounds and not lose bodily function, or how it makes no sense a largely peaceful populace controlled by the fear of God himself would need a military force a hundred seventy-four times larger than their civilian population. It's a valid, but nitpicky complaint which doesn't really leave me unable to appreciate the game world, and (theoretically) the upsides to the gameplay side outweigh the negatives to the story side by a large margin. However, dissonance and confusion within the story and world itself is less forgivable.
Despite fleeing the United States due to a lack of piousness, a lack of pure freedom, excessive government intervention, and a lack of xenophobia, the world of Columbia doesn't really follow through with it too much. I mean, sure they're still racist enough to make a klansman blush, and there are posters up saying guns for everyone, and the game forces you to get baptized 35 seconds after reaching the city, but it doesn't really come together all that much. Basically the way society functions is more of a cult based around the creator of the city, Zachary Comstock, and all these other aspects of their political and cultural build up are quite secondary. Maybe they were scared of angering Christians, but after that first minute, God and religion basically aren't touched, instead all the worship and idolisation is built around Comstock and his "prophecy". It ties in with the plot alright, particularly the prophecy stuff, but it really it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for the themes and ideals they try to examine and/or lampoon. These people fled the country they loved so deeply and passionately, and for all intensive purposes the world at large because the world below is worshiping false idols and not being pure enough... so they go worship some other religious figure instead.
Sure I guess they'd be pretty fond of their prophet who has given them this wonderful opportunity to be floating bigots with as many guns and basically-slaves as they want, so I can let it pass I guess. And while I'm being nice to the thematic and satirical factors, Finkton's total market domination and subsequent manipulation of all business on the floating city is quite effective in lampooning and shaming the libertarian views on total business freedom. Some of the little jokes on it are funny and cutting, such as vending machines excitedly exclaiming "Who needs competition when you have quality!!!" or prerecorded propaganda designed to make workers pleased with being manipulated and underpaid for the greed of the rich and elite, and how they shouldn't even want to be anything more. It's very heavy handed no doubt, but effective and entertaining enough. That section of the game is very well done and further shames the confused mess that is the rest of it.
It's the bringing down this society which really feels messy though. Obviously, a society built around thinly veined slavery, elitism, and idol worship is bound to fail, and the idea here was to actually let you experience the downfall instead of just crawling through the aftermath. The creators decided to take the impoverished and vilified rise up against their cruel masters route, which is all well and good, but they also want you to remain an army of one; so they make the rebellion a bad thing too. The result is some kind of weird implied message along the lines of "being an oppressive, cruel autocracy is bad, but overthrowing this autocracy is just as bad". I mean sure, the rebellion does go a little bit too far eventually with the whole "genocide everyone" idea, and the murder of children, but Elizabeth and Booker are condemning the whole rebellion as barbaric and evil after seeing their first execution. I get that it's a bit harsh and all, but the game is gleeful about letting you explode employed mook heads with a chainsaw hook hand, while you attempt to hunt down and murder an individual you've never actually met across multiple planes of reality; it doesn't make too much sense having you moralize about the evils of excessive violence and justified revenge in this context.
Obviously this sort of stuff is only an issue when you sit back and think about it, and Bioshock Infinite certainly tries to make it easier for you stop you from thinking about it thanks to frequent immersion killing, a lack of entertaining details and tidbits about every locale, and from frustrating, intrusive gameplay. The immersion killers here are all around you, most noticeably that this city in the sky never really lets you feel like you're in the sky. Like the original game, Infinite is a rather "on rails" sort of game where you more or less head down corridors shooting things until your reach your next objective. Reasonably open corridors no less, and these corridors often have central hubs which make you feel like you're exploring the stretch arms of something greater; but basically you've got a single path you have to take, and you can't really bypass any of these paths or approach events out of order. In Bioshock 1, that was perfectly fine, it was by design a claustrophobic, suffocating world where this felt quite natural, Columbia is the opposite. It's open, it's free, you can feel the wind in your hair and travel along connecting railway lines at rapid speeds and leap off them to platforms hundreds of feet away; as a result you feel absurdly restricted by the linearity of your paths here.
What's more, it seems to taunt you with fake images of wider roaming and unusable opportunities to really explore this world. I'm sure I'm not the only one who within a minute of gaining free movement around the city saw a house floating by the bridge on which you stood and tried to leap onto it, only to have the game automatically reset you to your jumping point when you were mere inches from the ground... And then tried again like 12 more times just to spite this damn game for ruining its genuinely impressive opening. This isn't a particularly large drop either, you make dozens of jumps in-game which are longer, hell I'm pretty sure real life me could handle a drop that big with nothing more than a broken ankle, it's particularly frustrating.
The skyline jumping technique has the same effect too. You can't just jump off a skyline willy nilly when ever you like, the game has to specifically offer you a landing point, then you can chose to leap to it. The does have the upside of making it impossible to misfire a leap and go flying off into the abyss, but it means that the game can pick and choose where you're allowed to jump to. As such, the game has many clearly reachable, flat surfaces on buildings you pass by which easily within range which the game decides it doesn't want you reaching. Their restriction is obvious and highly damaging to what should be an enthralling experience. These unreachable things are all over the place and serve as nothing more than to remind you of how directed and narrow your path is, and why they don't just keep these temptations away from where I can reach them, like most of the massive sections of floating city you can see in the background is beyond me. Why put things within my reach if you're just going to lock them away?
Likewise, as the "one and a half seconds in the air then reset" thing implies, you can't really fall off Columbia. If you fall off the side, the game resets you before you get to feel the real sensation of plummeting to your doom, they really passed up an opportunity to really make the city feel like it was in air. And as I said, you can't jump off the skylines whenever you like and land where physics tell you, which I admit makes the game much easier and less convoluted, it never makes those edge-of-your-seat, wild rides through the great open skies ever feel very exciting and dangerous, it's basically a train ride.
The characterisation of Booker also helps break the immersion for this aspect of the game. Through the very long, very uninvolving portion of the story which revolves around the society and its infighting, Booker is a terrible character. I have no idea how it's become a bit of stock character of late, but the not-caring-about-the-story-he's-in focused purely on the job badass is freaking terrible. This sort of thing has been popular in the recent "gritty reboot" trend and it's just the worst. I guess pointing towards recent Rockstar efforts is the easiest place to look, since it's all they've done for a while, but Booker is a bit like John Marsden from Red Dead Redemption without the charm and sense of humour. He's in a situation where he's an integral lynch pin in the development of a civil war, and aaaaaallllllllll he keeps going on about is how he doesn't care and that he's just trying to do his job and achieve some other goal. I don't see why having the game constantly remind you "This stuff doesn't matter to me, why should it matter to you" over and over again has become a popular thing, because it really leaves me feeling hollow towards the elements of the story the character wants to ignore.
This also amplifies the messy thematic elements; the game tries to show us how vile institutionalized racism is, how an entitled, overly pandered to upper class is cruel to all who could threaten their power or lessen their dominance, but every time the game tries to make its points Booker tries his hardest not give a damn about them. In addition to all this he talks to himself like a moron since he doesn't have a radio voice over/helpful companion telling him what to do during the early stages which seems silly to me, and the fact he only knows how to operate buttons by trying to punch them the rest of the way into orbit seems cartoonish, but those last two are obviously extremely nitpicky.
So you've got a thematically confused world which keeps reminding you you're in a video game with a disinterested protagonist, surely at least it'll develop its society and locations with the same care as Bioshock right? Right?
Well it tries a bit I guess. Despite the presence of zeppelins and airships and giant propellers everywhere, the game does explain how the city floats using quantum mechanics and dimensional manipulation, but it doesn't really give us too much detail as to what makes the city click. The original game explained how undersea forests were designed, how all the systems were maintained, how the plasmids were invented and harvested, how the social circles functioned, it really did delve right down into the basic details of every little thing the game showed you. Infinite doesn't. It has the tools to do so, but it doesn't. There are voice recordings scattered around all over the place, and little old timey video boxes which show you bits about the city, so it really should be able to give us a suitable amount of little tidbits to make this feel alive and functional, especially since we're actually seeing it alive and functioning, but alas it doesn't.
This is simply because all the voice recordings discuss virtually nothing but plot developments, which is all well and good, but since the plot puts the brakes on for two thirds of the game so we can watch the city develop and fall apart it means they just to just repeat themselves over and over again. For instance the concept that the prophets wife was murdered by him for not believing his stories, and the murder was pinned on a black maid who then started a resistance movement takes something like 12 thirty second voice recordings to make clear. You've got a few to show that she died, a few to show it was an unexpected death, about four to show that she distrusted Comstock, one to show they blamed Daisy Fitzroy for the death, two or three to show it was a set up, two or three to show Fitzroy was angry and was going to take revenge. It repeats itself and moves insanely slowly, it's pretty painful to sit through.
In addition to putting together these larger pieces of history and extra little tidbits about the plot, while ignoring how say, a beach waterfall 20,000 feet in the sky works, the voice recordings tend to fall back on two things; saying that everything they've developed was stolen from the world of Rapture, or being abstract, confusing nothings which exist purely to make you go "wow, that's what they meant" on a second play through, once you know how it all turns out. The former is always diappointing and unfulfilling since nothing you learn is ever very interesting, the city itself has no real developments of it's own, everything is stolen by people looking through tears. I guess it successfully explains everything to a point where you can't nitpick it for internal consistency, but it doesn't give any real life of it's own to the city or it's people. The later is a bit conflicting, obviously, having all these things which make no sense suddenly being poignant and full of subtle hints is really, really cool, but on the other hand on that first play through they are completely meaningless and are supposed to be . So it ends up being that where actual content and world building could have been, clever yet meaningless meta-commentary exists instead.
The little video boxes at least cover the city rather than just the plot, but they're too old fashioned and minimalistic to provide any details beyond "We like the prophet", "The city can fly" and "The one manufacturer in town employs Irish people". So really they're hideously boring, factually useless and wear out their quaint early 20th century charm in about 45 minutes.
It's entirely plausible they didn't bother with too much of this because they realised all this backstory writing junk was going to be obscured by a few hundred Hindenburgs worth of mooks to blow up. The amount of genuine combat in this game is insane. You'll be blowing people up, smacking them off sky platforms, possessing them and making them shoot themselves in the face and engulfing them in murderous crow swarms in almost endless waves, partially because they've tried to modernise a little bit. Infinite now has regenerating shields and a two weapon holding capacity, this means that the old survival horror style nursing of your health through personal, intense combat has been replaced by just swarming you with streams of constant, merciless gunfire. Bioshock 1 pushed its pretty simple combat system to the edge of what was enjoyable with its duration and reasonably frequent encounters, Infinite doesn't just cross that line, it straight up crashes a zeppelin into the line then steps through into an alternate reality where the line never existed.
The two weapon limit just exacerbates how frustrating the endless combat in here can be, they give you about a dozen guns to choose from, but limiting you to two severely limits your uses for them. Other than the massive boost to the number of mid range and long range enemies, Bioshock Infinite still plays as a pretty old fashioned shooter. You're not just fighting in a war against men with machine guns, you're also fight against various strains of hardy murderbots and well armoured assault units as well as snipers. The end result is that in any given firefight you're going to need to be capable of bringing down targets at close range, mid range, long range as well as hitting armoured units hard with explosives. This makes a two weapon set up pretty damned hard. It's not like a Mass Effect where they'll throw a heavy weapon at you any time you need to fight a giant robot or vehicle, you're expected to be prepared for that with one of your two weapons. For me at least I went around with either a Volley Gun or a Hell Fire at all times, as both guns allow for rapid fire explosive damage which can be effective against Patriots and Handy Men, while still having large enough clips to fight regular foot soldiers at close and medium range as well. On the other side of the equation I always had a Sniper Rifle, Carbine or Burst Gun handy due to their ability to strike at long ranged or medium ranged targets. While this Volley Gun and Sniper Rifle combo I used 90% of the time was effective for me in the game, it definitely didn't leave me any room to play around with the other weapons in the game which added to the boredom of the fire fights. If I took in an RPG to better kill robots, I'd be stuck with one weapon to fight close and medium range opponents with, so I couldn't use a sniper rifle, shotgun or heater (One hit kill blunderbus type weapon) in that situation. If I took in a shotgun or heater to better deal with close range targets, I'd need to sacrifice my explosive weapon to help with mid range and long range ones. The two weapon combo just restricted the already teetering on boring, overdone combat a whole further level and certainly didn't improve the game.
You can at least still use all your super powers at will, but like Bioshock, after a short while you'll have a few favourites sorted out and you'll never use the others. I personally tended to stick to Possession and fire ball throwing, I can see why people who liked to used shotguns or heaters could use the one which drags enemies right next to you, but not many of the others seemed too helpful. I'm not sure if it's just that I've finally gotten competent at console shooters after a lifetime of only playing them on PC, but I didn't really need to use lightning to shock opponents in place anymore, or it could just be that the new volume of gunfire pointed at you in any given fight makes freezing then aiming for the kill a non-viable option most of the time, who knows? Murder of Crows suffered from the same problems as the swarm of bees in the first game, namely that eventually too many enemies get too strong to really care about crow attacks anymore. I remember there being one which lifted enemies from behind cover which was entirely useless when you've got grenade launchers and upgraded fireball spread which reaches around corners. I assume Return to Sender was the same as before and remained useless for all bar the most specific of occasions, but honestly I don't even remember what the other powers did... I guess there was a charge attack one which killed one mook for the low, low cost of standing in the middle of all his friends shooting you from point blank range. If there are any more powers I don't even remember them.
Admittedly, every review I've read seems to pick a different pairing of two weapons and two vigors than I did, but the same result occurs. Every player picks the combination they like the most, and then never use anything else. Particularly the gun side is brought on by the two weapon limit, which always leaves you worried about not finding your preferred choice again in the near future, so players tend to just nurse whatever they happen to be carrying.
The final piece of boredom in the combat comes from Elizabeth. In addition to constantly recharging armour, she effectively keeps you recharged on your magic and refreshes your ammo automatically. Yes, it's helpful and makes sure you'll rarely be scrounging too hard for useful items, but it removes yet another sort of desperation from the action. Like how in most shooters these days you can hide and get health back, now you can hide and get completely rearmed and recharged while doing nothing. Going back to my "the player is usually unwilling to change what they feel comfortable with", this talent of her exacerbates this, why drop your favourite gun to try some random one when you'll get restocked with more rounds in ten seconds anyway? She also has the ability to create "tears" to other dimensions during a number of fights, which is useful for your victory but not really for the quality of the gameplay. I never found myself running from tear to tear, trying to get from items that are useful at any given time, instead I tended to camp near an ammo dump for any weapon I had to be using if it was near by, and then brought in drones to do all the work whenever I was fully armed. There is never too much thinking and planning to be done when using them, they're just a thing which sometimes can be a small help, or it can be a useless health pack, it honestly doesn't matter which in the long run. Finally, she is often out in the open and won't be noticed by guards if you remain hidden, and she's completely safe in combat regardless of whether she is standing in fire or has a giant robot land on here. Again, these are both helpful traits, but seeing it happening in plain view in front of you is quite immersion breaking, she's helpful, but that doesn't mean she's good for the game. Admittedly her role in the story eventually does make her presence worthwhile and important beyond being a gift giving fairy and MacGuffin, but it just doesn't mesh with the game very well.
The frustration that comes from all this endless, unexciting and tedious combat is the last thing that really makes it hard to get into the way this world functions, every 30 seconds there's another wave of faceless troops to kill, always distracting you from looking around and seeing the sights. Back when I reviewed Bioshock 1 I made a joke that I'd love to see Rapture functioning, even if it was just Nintendogs: Rapture. I have to say after seeing how Irrational have put together a functioning, living society, I hate to say it I'd prefer it if it was Nintendogs. The three brief moments in the first two thirds of the game where you're unarmed, mingling with the non-hostile civilians are the best parts of the experience during that portion of the game, and that's saying something because they're barely interactive at all. The lively, non-violent parts of the city more or less exist without you, not allowing you to talk to anyone or interact beyond overhearing mostly mundane conversation, but it's enough I guess. I'd have loved them to RPG it up a little, and really let you get involved in regular Columbian life, but compared to combat so lifeless it makes exploding heads with lightning feel boring, it's enough.
Luckily, all of this thematic crap and world building hogwash has absolutely bupkis to do with the plot, and once the plot returns after about 12 hours after a brief appearance in the first half hour, all of this stuff is irrelevant. In reality, the game is a plot driven story about a man and a woman who can open passage ways between realities trying to escape a flying city an an egotistical dictator. Sadly Irrational takes its time realising that, and gets sidetracked by confused and meandering commentary on politics, a failed civil war, and world building that gains nothing. The game spends about three quarters of its duration trying to recapture Bioshock's glory and fails hopelessly, and for that portion of the game this is honestly worth about a 5/10 through that massive stretch, to say that the pointy end of the plot had a lot of work do would be an understatement to say the least; Thankfully, it does that work and then some.
The final few levels of the game are truly magnificent. After locking you into ten hours of "Wander around with Elizabeth while trying your hardest not give the slightest crap about a civil war", the game finally decides to ignore the happenings of the world and just focus in on the main points of the plot. Elizabeth, why she was locked up, who she really is, how she she got her powers, and a whole boatload of time traveling, reality jumping excursions into what her purpose and future is. Suddenly she goes from a needy puppy who gives you treats into someone who is important, someone who understands things, and someone who has more depth than a Disney princess who dances with strangers and sings songs to scared children.
Likewise, revelations about the Lutece's, a pair of strange twins who appear in strange places throughout the game, begin to stream in. Their roles are likely the finest thing about the opening portion of the game since they are always aware of what really matters in the context of the plot, they're the only unique and new development in the world of Columbia, and their weird, esoteric manner of speaking is intriguing as it is quirky. As the game comes towards its end, their roles in the creation of reality tearing technology, their relationship towards one another, to Booker, to Elizabeth all become clearer. Every revelation is delightfully entertaining and interesting, and they retain that quirky characterisation.
The writing is sharp and thrilling, as you learn details of what the consequences of the technology which brought Columbia into being at a brisk pace. In addition the great acting and improved story development, none of which has anything to do with the actual state of the city at all, the plot unfolds with the best visual feasts and artistic statements the game throws at you all game. There's asylum full of demented, blinking in-and-out of reality mental patients with president masks which launch into very real mental patients who want to beat you to death with sticks whenever you alarm weird overseers which seem to be made out of horns and listening cones, which provides the games best scare. The final battle takes place on an under siege airship surrounded by other airships which are being destroyed by a giant robot hawk. There's a scene depicting late twentieth century New York being beset upon by the floating city itself while great revelations are exposed to you which is just about the most glorious thing I've witnessed in a game. All of the games most impressive imagery comes in this last stint, and it's pretty hard to put down the controller.
Then you've got the ending, it's a little confusing at first since it doesn't hold your hand too much, moving through it's many developments quickly, overwhelming you with loaded, intriguing dialogue and wonderful visuals, whether it's the endless sea of lighthouses or the touching scene with songbird during a welcome quick visit to Rapture. I needed to go have a quick look up what everything actually meant afterwards to really put everything in order even though I picked up all the main gist, mainly because it's delivered with a lot of time jumping, introduces some major, unforeshadowed details, and features some cyclical journeys through the same events with different variables. But despite the plausible clusterf... clusterstuff of details and wildly swerving threads, it does make perfect sense and doesn't actually leave too many plot holes (I can think of a couple of little ones though), which is pretty rare for anything time travel related. The number of little tie in things the game mentions early on its setup is impressive as it is endearing too, it's simply a very well written ending.
I really wish I could discuss the ending with more detail here, but sadly this site has a "no spoilers" policy, so I'll have to keep it vague. It successfully avoids the "Your one ally was actually betraying you and was a totally different character all along" twist that the original Bioshock and about 95% of other games released this generation has used, which is something I liked a lot. Admittedly, they fall back on the most overused twist in mid 2000s films, albeit a twisted version of the twist, and they use the most common dramatic time-travel movie ending ever, and a few parts of the reveals are extremely predictable, but it throws so much at you at least some of it should feel refreshing and surprising. Trying not to give too much away, but the ending is basically a mix of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Looper, Fightclub, the ideas used in the original Bioshock twist but about a thousand times smarter, and a hint of Portal. It's got lots of little nuances I'd love to discuss, but sadly I can't, but what I can say is given the first game ended with a slideshow and narrated voiceover it's about the most impressive turn around anything has ever had...
...It's just a shame they wasted half a day of my time getting to it.
So, in the long run, how does the game hold up? I'm actually pretty conflicted. Th end of the game is really good. Not just the ending, but basically the entire last act is as enjoyable as any game I've played in recent memory. I'm not sure if it's just the better environments, but I even enjoyed the firefights more as I felt excited to get to the next piece of story. But damn, that first half is both boring and utterly pointless, outside of the little bits with the Lutece twins at least, and fighting your way through the mountains of boring enemies and repetitive environments to only be rewarded with more "lets keep running away" plot and repetitive, unintriguing audio logs is downright unpleasant. Trying to break apart the bad from the good is a real challenge, so I'll fall back on roughly in between a 5 and a 10, rounding down because the bad side of the game is so much bigger. It just hurt them that they so desperately wanted to recapture the magic of the original and tried for so long, and it just didn't translate properly. This kinda breaks any logical numeric rating system I can think of; it's mostly terrible, but essential; Bioshock Infinite is definitely a game everyone should play and experience, but not one that should be lauded with undying adoration.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 11/14/13
Game Release: BioShock Infinite (AU, 03/26/13)
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