Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Video Game Review - Bioshock Infinite

The original Bioshock was an amazing game. It was incredibly immersive and had plot twists that left me speechless. The creepy atmosphere was so well-crafted that my horror-movie-loving girlfriend refused to be in the room while I played it because Rapture's residents freaked her out with their insane ramblings. The sequel focused more on the action rather than the story, which was a wise decision as trying to recapture the original game's uniqueness would have been folly. Bioshock is back, but with a new setting, and a chance to strike a new chord in gaming history.

The story seems rather straightforward; the protagonist, Booker, is sent on a mission to free Elizabeth from her fairy tale imprisonment in a tower, part of the not-so-perfect society that exists in the cloud-based city of Columbia. The phrase "Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt" is intertwined in the story as much as "Would you kindly" was part of the first Bioshock. When you finally meet up with Elizabeth, you begin a rocky relationship filled with compelling conversation and useful scavenging. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about escorting Elizabeth through the increasingly violent streets: she's a boon, rather than a burden, even during combat. Not only can she pick locks and open magical "tears" to provide useful objects, she'll also find money and ammo to help you out in your time of need. And best of all, she manages to stay out of harm's way while bullets are flying. When the game separates you from her, you will definitely miss her presence.

The gunplay in Bioshock games was always a weak point. They take their cues from old-school first person shooters like Doom, rather than craftier cover-based modern shooters. Infinite still follows the tired old formula; they do give you a recharging shield, but they also whittle your weapon selection to two-at-a-time (Really? The one modern FPS mechanic I really dislike, and that's the one they chose to implement??). None of the guns feel very exceptional, and even after they're fully upgraded they never feel sufficiently devastating.

On the flip side, the magic powers (this time they're called vigors, rather than the plasmids from previous entries) all feel great and are quite useful. These powers can be fired directly at your attackers, or charged up and left on the ground as a trap. My favorite vigor was Murder of Crows. Similar to the bee swarms you could unleash in the first game (which I never found much use for), this vigor releases a flock of birds to peck at your enemies. In addition to temporarily disabling your enemies, it's also great for helping you locate enemies that might have otherwise snuck up on you. Other vigors enable you to catch bullets, toss firebombs, and send foes flying back (which is pretty darn useful when fighting in a city floating high in the sky). They're all great, and best of all you don't have to decide which ones to equip... you have access to all you have unlocked at anytime, so long as you have enough energy (in the form of a liquid called Salts) to use them.

You also have a new mechanic in the use of a sky hook traveling system. The hook is attached to your arm, doubling as a melee weapon (which provides from some gruesome killings, easily providing 90 percent of the game's Mature rating). Around several areas of Columbia are roller coaster-like rails that you can jump on and off, providing extreme mobility during fights, as well as powerful air attacks (which can be amplified even more by equipping special clothing that can enable abilities such as adding a fiery explosion upon impact). This opens up combat more than its normal run-gun-hide routine.

The graphics are pretty, and the city of Columbia is indeed an impressive set-piece to behold the first time you lay eyes on it. However, the game fails to capitalize on the spectacle, and once you get used to your surroundings, it all becomes more-of-the-same as you play through each new setting. There's no new environment that makes you go "whoa" as you enter it, no crescendo in the art design. It's all set at a high level of beauty, but it hits that bar and just stays there. With no memorable divergence, you begin to take the scenery for granted and it becomes a flat experience. As a gamer, I crave a constant sense of newness, of progression, as I play through a game. And yet the city of Columbia failed to give that to me.

The character design also feels uninspired to me. The plastic look of the characters in the original game helped increase the creepy factor that fit that game perfectly, but Infinite does not have that moody atmosphere and needs its own look. While it helps make it feel like the same world, the style feels dated. The recent Dishonored had an art style that reminded me of Bioshock, but still had its own feeling. Infinite seems content not to stray too far from its comfortable pedigree. And that may be the biggest problem I had with the game...

I believe Bioshock Infinite would have been better served if it hadn't been labeled as a Bioshock game.

In addition to conforming to Bioshock's mannequin-esque character design, Infinite also keeps the ludicrous scavenging system. Eating food out of trashcans for miniscule amounts of health is a stupid game mechanic. Was five years ago, and still is now. But now you can't even carry items to recharge your health or magic. Why? And perhaps the biggest burden the game takes on with the Bioshock name attached: the story expectation.

Infinite takes the smart route of not going head-to-head with the original Bioshock, setting the story in a lively, thriving city (full of very uncomfortable open-faced racism) rather than the ruins of a fallen civilization. We're along for the ride during the fall of this stratospheric society, instead of dealing with its haunted remains. But it's like watching a M. Night Shyamalan movie after you first saw The Sixth Sense. You're waiting for the big twist, but it can never live up to your expectation. The twist in Bioshock blindsided me... I hadn't even realized that they were dropping clues throughout the game until that plot point happened. But here, I kept saying to myself "surely they aren't going there" and yet they did. Not that the storyline is completely by the books... the narrative loops back upon itself so bizarrely that you fall off the track and may be too puzzled to be sure if you see the plot holes you think you can. The underlying theme of pre-ordained destiny ends up being a not-quite-sensible attempt at an ending, but is definitely an interesting ride.

Even the enemies in this game lack much of a presence when compared to the original. The hulking Big Daddies seemingly lurked around every corner in Rapture. Here, there are two "big" enemies: The Songbird and the Handyman (Handymen?). The Songbird is criminally underused. It should have been an ever-present entity, keeping you on your toes and out of its sights. Instead, it shows up a time or two and interactions are mostly handled in cutscenes. Boo! Maybe that's why they went with some generic looking cover art instead of featuring the awesome Songbird; because it would have been misleading to what you get of it in the game.

(Speaking of the cover art... there was a lot of ado about the choice to simply put guy-with-gun on the box instead of featuring the more fantastical elements of the game. Irrational Games' co-founder Ken Levine defended the decision, saying it would appeal to frat boys. I find that rationale completely flawed. Trying to market it to the Call Of Duty crowd seems to me like you're intentionally trying to mislead them. As I stated earlier, the gunplay is the weakest part of this game. It's all about the story, the environment, the magical abilities, and then... maybe... the gun combat. I wandered around in this game for at least a half an hour before I even got a gun. This is the type of game that needs to marketed to its own type of audience. Plus, Booker's old-style wardrobe may give the impression that you'll be fighting with single-fire muskets. Not exactly the full-auto Battlefield crowd's dream. But I digress...)

As far as the Handyman goes... the first time you see him, he's watching you closely and you're thinking "dontpisshimoff! dontpisshimoff! dontpisshimoff!" But when do you fight him, there's no drama to the event. And he comes back a couple more times later on without any rhyme or reason for his being there. Is it the same Handyman, or are there several of these things? I don't know, as they look identical. In fact, most enemies are carbon copies of each other. The lack of enemy skins is disheartening indeed.

So why is this called Bioshock? The only thing directly tying the game to the others in the franchise, is a quick cameo at the end, which Booker even dismisses as a joke. Would the developers not have gotten their budget approved with a new IP that took more design risks? Is "from the studio that brought you Bioshock" not enough of a selling point that it needs to be chained directly and absolutely to this established product? I think it was a crutch that ultimately crippled its full potential.

3.5 out of 4 Stars

Recommended for: Story lovers. If you enjoy quality character interaction in-between all them people shooting at you, this is a game you should definitely play.

Franchise fixes: Make it a true anthology series, with more definitive design differences. I'd like to see recurring locations or chacacters presented in distinctly different styles. Also, overhaul the health system. The regenerating shield was a good step; That brings the game up to 2001 standards, so how about adding another decade or so to that?

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