Saturday, June 29, 2013

Review: Bioshock Infinite

Wow, I can't believe this is the first review I've ever done on this blog.  You would think I would have done one or two in the time I have started this blog, but considering the fact I've only made thirty posts in more than two plus years, I guess that makes sense.  I could say that I was busy, or that I am working on figuring out a video format for these blog posts to make them a little bit quicker to make (which I am), but I know that wouldn't exactly be true.  I really just couldn't find time to update this blog as much as I wanted to.  I'll try to change that.  Maybe.  Probably not. 

However, I think it's somewhat significant that my first review would be of Bioshock Infinite, a game I had been looking forward to since its reveal trailer one or two years ago.  But, despite my waiting, I truly tried to avoid the hype train surrounding the game, due to bad past experiences.  There have been too many times where I have been so impressed by a game's good press that I have been thoroughly underwhelmed by the actual game (see Dead Rising 1 and every Bioware game since Mass Effect).  So, to avoid the same fiasco with Bioshock Infinite, I had a media blackout with most, if not all, reviews and promotional material for this game.  I watched the official promos of the Heavy Hitters, but kept away from reviews.  Even when I heard of the constant 10s and perfect scores given to it, I kept my expectations grounded.  There have been many a time where a game has been loved on release day, only to be criticized week, or even days, later by the same people who reviewed it (see Grand Theft Auto IV).

So, with all of this in mind, what is my general opinion of Bioshock Infinite?  It's good, if not great, and maybe even excellent.  But let's be little more blunt here.

  • Is it a "good" game? Yes.
  • Is it a "perfect 10" game?  No, but I have never seen one of those in my life, so I don't think any game is deserving of such a score.  But it is definitely farther from a 10 than Bioshock or Red Dead Redemption are.
  • Is it better than the original Bioshock?  In some ways, it is; however, in other, significant ways, it is not.  
  • Did I like it more than the original Bioshock?  No.  
  • Does it show an evolution in the medium in a story-writing and technical sense?  Yes.
  • Is it the game to define a generation?  Possibly, but my vote is on no.
It would be hard to truly examine this game without comparing it to the original game, so as we go forward, I'll be comparing Infinite with it's predecesor (not Bioshock 2; while I liked that game and felt it did somethings better than the first Bioshock, it didn't exactly bring anything to the table that can be truly seen as exemplary.  I might make some comparisons to it, but it will not be the main focus of the article).

Let's look at gameplay, since my thoughts on this aspect of both games are little bit more simplistic.  To put it plainly, Infinite's gameplay is radically superior to the first Bioshock.  This not only has to do with the helper you have in Elizabeth, who hands you ammo, salts (this's game's EVE (the ammo for plasmids)), and money.  Elizabeth herself is a technical marvel, being an escort partner that can be by herself and be useful, rather than a hindrance to the game.  She alone will make this game a significant chapter in the evolution of the technology of video games.  The addition of Columbia's skyrails made travel and combat more entertaining and visceral, as opposed to simply walking around, though I wish there was more fighting while on the Skyrails.  

Knock knock, motherfucker.
The enemy types are also more varied.  While the first Bioshock had only two Big Daddies and all the splicers (the more advanced of each were only designated by a cosmetic change, such as a simple hat designating armor), Infinite had close to a dozen enemy types.  Some only show up once for story based reasons, and it was something I actually liked.  They still left an impression, but didn't wear out their welcome.  
The Handyman, while rare, will wreck you if you are not prepared.
In fact, all of Infinite's gameplay could follow this template.  While the game is quite short (I'd say around 6 to 10 hours), it never feels repetitive or boring like the first Bioshock did near the entire last third of the game.  There are over a dozen different guns, with achievements tied to each of them, making variety almost necessary (THIS IS A GOOD APPLICATION OF ACHIEVEMENTS, GAME INDUSTRY).  Even the plasmids, while fewer in number, are there for a long enough time, and have radically different effects that you want to sample them all to find your favorite combos.  All the guns and plasmids have the proper weight and feel to them to make you feel powerful.  But the enemies are powerful enough that the game doesn't become a breeze.  It really finds a perfect balance.
Everybody DANCE!
The gameplay is so well done that I only have a few gripes.  The first is that vigor upgrades are too damn expensive, almost twice the cost of a gun upgrade.  I suppose I could have waited, but the ridiculous cost of the vigor made me just spend more on my guns than my vigors.  I would actually catch myself thinking "eh, my vigors are powerful enough." This would be less of a problem if there was a "New Game Plus" mode or something where I could carry my upgrades from my last play through to the new one (which Infinite could probably justify through story, given it's whole emphasis on time travel and multiple story lines), but as it stands now, it just stands as a huge roadblock for upgrading one's vigors.
These machines rob you, with no real way to lower prices.
The second big problem is the game's side missions.  There's nothing wrong with them in themselves, but it can be hard to actually want to follow them through when you have no idea where to go.  The game uses an "arrow" navigational system similar to Dead Space to let you know where to go, and this helps in your exploration habits (if you are going in the opposite direction of the arrow, you know you won't walk into a story event and miss out on loot, which is nice).  But, these arrows only point to the main story mission and cannot be adjusted for the side missions.  This would not have been a problem if Infinite provided a map like Bioshock 1 did, but looking for a single store in the crowded streets of Columbia become even more of a headache if you have no basic clue where to go.  
While not always easy to read, these maps gave you some clue of where to look.
This problem is extrapolated by the fact that Columbia is simply not as visually memorable as Rapture was.  That is not to say it wasn't beautiful - quite the opposite - but the bright lights and Unreal Engine made it so every building blends into a muddled and unmemorable mess of tans and yellows.  Compare this to Rapture, which featured neon signs of varied colors to help leave mental notes.  The environments of Rapture popped more due to these signs, as well as the green color of the ocean, which differs greatly from the brown of Columbia.
This, while beautiful, doesn't stand out as much as...

However, besides these gripes, the gameplay is probably the best I've played in years.  It's fun, varied, and visceral.

That means my problems with the game mainly rest on the game's story, right?  Unfortunately, that is the case.  The story isn't bad, per se, it just pales in comparison to the first Bioshock.  The main problem is the lack of focus.  Let me explain, but BEWARE: THIS DISCUSSION MIGHT HAVE SPOILERS FOR BOTH INFINITE AND BIOSHOCK 1.  I TRIED TO AVOID THEM, BUT I MAY HAVE SUBCONSCIOUSLY REVEALED SOMETHING.

In Bioshock 1, the main conflict of the game was the fight between city founder Andrew Ryan and his main point of conflict Atlas/Frank Fontaine (one replaced the other, but it was still ONE vs. ONE).  Even in Bioshock 2, it was still one person against another, but just replaced Atlas/Fontaine for psychologist and eventual cult leader Sofia Lamb.  The conflict still felt focused, the player was simply there to intervene.  Even the issue the game wanted to tackle in Bioshock 1 was more focused: it dealt with personal agency and the responsibility we have in our decisions.  That was it.  And with a fairly long game, these conflicts and messages all received the proper time and explanation.

Most of Bioshock 1's plot in one image.
Infinite, on the other hand, tries to tell several more stories and messages in a SHORTER amount of time.  The conflicts include Booker vs. Elizabeth (while mainly friends, they have their back and forth of arguments that make their relationship more complicated), Booker vs. Daisy Fitzroy (a firebrand leader of the working class), Booker vs. Comstock (the founder of the city, who wants to have Elizabeth as his heir), Comstock vs. Fitzroy (the upper class vs. the lower class), Elizabeth vs. the Songbird (her mechanical captor), Elizabeth vs. Lady Comstock (her mother, who supposedly locked her in a tower and hated her).  And that's not even getting into the side characters!  And the messages include particle physics, forgiveness of past sins, the dangers of capitalism, the dangers of revolution, the multiple world theory, the subjectivity of history, the horrors of violence, and several others.  To try and do all of this in so little time left many potential explorations of the topic feel unfinished or overly simplistic.  Maybe if one or two of these elements were cut out, maybe it would have felt more focused.  But the fact that Songbird showed up once in the very beginning of the game, only to reappear several HOURS later, to the point where I forgot about him, shows a bit of lack of focus in the story.
When this moment happened in the story, I was wondering more of where the fuck Songbird had been the last three or four hours rather than focusing on the emotional moment.
I guess the problem stems from Levine's new tactic in crafting the story, where he had the voice actors for main characters Booker Dewitt and Elizabeth (played by Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper, respectively) in a studio, with a basic frame of the game, but changing it slightly due to what sounded or fit best during those sessions.  Like Tom Hooper's attempts at "Live Singing" in the movie version of Les Miserables, it's a nice idea, but still needs a bit of the kinks worked out.  Sometimes the mood would whiplash in the exchange between the two characters (Elizabeth would be depressed one moment, then chipper the next), and I feel the main story suffered as a result.  Simply put, if things are up in the air, you may lose track of all your story elements.  It would have worked better if Levine tried this new tactic with a story that did not have SO many elements all playing together at once.  

Another big problem of the story is the lack of memorable side characters.  Infinite's side characters (like the Lutece twins, Cornelius Slate, and Jeremiah Fink) are no doubt interesting, but nowhere as memorable or sympathetic as Bioshock 1's.  They just kind of blended together, or I simply referred to them as their stereotypes (corrupt businessman (Fink), crazy revolutionary leader (Fitzroy), overly proud military man (Slate)), rather than their names.  The problem is that the Audio Diaries are more cryptic this time around, making them not as fun to listen to, and not as important to side character development as in Bioshock 1.  In Bioshock 1, there were some characters that you knew ONLY THROUGH audio diaries, yet I connected with them infinitely more (pun not intended) than any of Infinite's characters, regardless of whether I saw them or not.  I'd much rather recount the depressing tale of Sullivan, Andrew Ryan's security head, than the life of Jeremiah Fink.  There are some interesting ones in Infinite, such as Preston E. Downs, a hunter who reminded me of Saxton Hale and has a change of heart to his violent ways, but not many.
Downs has a pretty great and tragic story, but...
It doesn't come close to the torture Sullivan puts himself through.
The biggest downgrade is the main villain, Comstock.  "Yahtzee" Croshaw summarized the problem best in his review of Infinite, where he said the best villains are people you can agree with and seem like completely rational people.  They are the people you fear because they make sense.  Andrew Ryan had some bizarre moral views, but he could eloquently justify even the most heinous actions, like capital punishment for petty crimes.  That's a villain you could sympathize with and fear.  Comstock, to put it frankly, is just a religious nut full of sermons and nonsense.  His speeches blend together in their cryptic, biblical babble.  All you see is the evil stuff he did, without having anything to justify him.  He becomes this kind of cartoonish villain that's hard to take seriously.  

The fact that he looks like Santa Claus doesn't help.
Then, there's the ending.  Now I liked the ending, personally, but I felt that a) it came WAY too soon, and b) explained way too much in a little time.  The problem with a story that has so many twists and turns and mysteries is that you will eventually have to explain them (unless you're Damon Lindeloff, who does whatever the fuck he wants and pisses me off for it).  But Infinite has to keep the mysteries going for so long that you have to have a giant explanation dump for ALMOST EVERY question that has been bothering you since the very beginning of the game.  In about 15 minutes, I'd say about 90% of the mysteries were explained.  It would have been better to have the mysteries a bit more paced out in the story's unfolding, rather than to have to wait until the end.  Some mysteries weren't even extrapolated upon earlier on in the game, including an "AD" brand that is on Booker's right hand.  It has an end-game story significance, but is never really detailed on beforehand.  It's the reason people chase him, since it designates him as the person who will bring the end times to Columbia, but he never explains how he got in in the first place.  In many ways, it's just there.  It still makes me think, and has a great somber tone and memorable moments, so I felt it was the best moment of the game.

The ending still has some great moments and quotes, however.  This is one of them, accompanied by Elizabeth saying that "There is always a man, always a city, always a lighthouse."  It's chilling, and sets the stage for many more Bioshock games.
But, once again, that's not to say the story is BAD.  In fact, it's great.  Booker (a voiced protagonist, much to my pleasure) and Elizabeth are grealy entertaining, have great banter between themselves, and are the absolute star of the show.  Elizabeth is the best character I've seen in decades, with a natural evolution of character who presents a great mirror to how fucked up violence in gaming is.  Booker's sarcasm and jaded outlook leads to some great lines, some of which I genuinely laughed at.  The Lutece twins are another gem, with their back-and-forth, Chesire Cat archaic dialogue that always entertains.  The atmosphere is also great, with a few "anachronistic" songs, like Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" being reworked with a 1910's sound.  But when compared to the focused, sniper-shot story of Bioshock 1, Infinite is more like a shotgun.  It's still effective, and covers more ground and area, but it doesn't penetrate and leave as quite as a distinctive mark  as Bioshock 1 does. 
This scene caught me completely off guard, and made me sympathize with Elizabeth to the point where it felt like I was doing it to an actual friend, not an AI.
So, overall, Bioshock Infinite is a fantastic game.  It just doesn't resonate with me the way the first game did.  And it's not like I have nostalgia glasses for the old game; I'm perfectly willing to admit the game's flaws, such as its repetitive gameplay and the way the third act of the story pretty much shits the bed, and falls apart into cliches.  But Bioshock 1 did so much more right than Infinite did in the story and atmosphere department that I just didn't enjoy Infinite as much as I wanted to.  If I had to give a rating, Infinite would be in the higher realm of an A-, while Bioshock 1 would be a steady A.  I enjoyed both games, but I would still recommend a bathysphere under the sea to Rapture over a rocket to Columbia.

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