Wednesday 7 August 2013

Bioshock: Infinite Review

(Back in April while I was still stretching my legs with this whole blogging thing I wrote what is so far my only post on the wonderful medium of videogames. It was a short post, too short in retrospective; at least when it's original task was to illuminate readers on the full spectrum of my videogame love. Although since then it's stood as an unfulfilled mission statement. Somewhere in the post I made a promise to review my at-the-time obsession: Bioshock Infinite, not that the idea ever slipped my mind, simply the game itself seemed to slip out of grasp. So here, for your very own reading pleasure, is my highly belated Bioshock: Infinite review.)

To me cut-scenes are a sin in the gaming world; if a man well versed in the grammar of film can lead a trail of fire to quick-cutting as a bad example of how to tell a story in his medium of choice then I see no reason why in the big book of How To Make A Video Game why a device as old and useless as the cut-scene shouldn't be crossed out once and for all. So it comes as a plus, the first of many, that Bioshock Infinite keeps you in the drivers seat for the entirety of it's adventure. You spend the game's duration in the slightly distorted head-space of Booker Dewitt. His past made mostly blank as to accomplish the whole point of the first person shooter and apply your own back-story over the game. Of course few will apply their own real life story, not with the heroic figure presented on the front cover of Bioshock Infinite, the box art being the only place you get a slight realization of what Booker actually looks like; so we simply except Booker for his personality alone, and the only back-story one could apply to the tough, scarred man we get is one of an adventurer. A darker, more troublesome version of Han Solo who has unfortunately thrown down a bad hand one-too-many times.

It's these personal troubles that lead to a game objective as blunt as "Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt". The girl in question, Elizabeth, is kept prisoner in a city that floats above the sky called Columbia. You find her early on, escaping the city being the main objective of Infinite, and you spend most of the game with her accompanying you. She's extraordinarily short, probably the shortest in the Bioshock world, her features are exaggerated and she wears an old fashioned blue dress that looks like royalty; simplifying everything down your the knight in shining armor coming to save the princess who is guarded at the highest tower in all of the castle. A fairytale turned on it's head; because you aren't really a shining knight, instead visions haunt Booker throughout, both of his debt and what he must do to wipe it; hand over his new companion. The morales in Infinite are skewed, a great improvement on the previous Bioshock games which operated entirely in black and white. This is actually the first Bioshock game where the story is fixed, no specialized ending for being an extra bad boy. Which is a good thing incase your wondering, the act of having multiple different outcomes to one game, especially when done in a way as basic as previous Bioshock games, has always felt too flaky for me; neither the good or bad endings meant anything because they were just a coin toss away from the complete opposite, yet there's only one ending in Infinite, and luckily it satisfies all loose ends.
The game begins as you arrive at a lighthouse, the same sort that set off your adventures to Rapture, only this one going up instead of down. I'll admit I'm a preacher of arcade style games; chuck me in the deep end, feed me the story as I go, and make sure the action is right around the corner. Only Infinite reminded me that my love for this style of game has nothing to do with preference but quality; a recent barrage of low quality stories leading me down a lane of endless nostalgia for simpler games that did away with complex narratives. Yet the opening of Infinite is fantastic, not just the lighthouse but the whole opening of the game as you explore the streets of Columbia and interact with what is a very happy society. I should note that Infinite is set in 1908, a steampunk world; not that anything but the propaganda on the walls and the old-fashioned phonograph movies scattered throughout the world reflect the time period. But this early sequence shows the attention to detail in the world which is mostly kept up throughout the entire game; the later sections that lack such detail make up for it with sheer spectacle.

After that it's all gun battles and vigors (the special powers that take the place of plasmids), this early sequence where the basic, non-combat aspects of gameplay combine seamlessly with the story gone. Both remain complete separates until the game's ending which returns us to the story, and is even more of an impressive spectacle than the opening. It's in the following ten or so hours of action that the game lost me. My playing went from daily to weekly until a month, maybe two went by without me returning to Columbia, only for me to get my motivation back and make a quick dash to the finish. I don't tell this as a criticism, or least it's not meant to be, as in a technical sense the gameplay and core campaign of Bioshock Infinite is all fantastic. You can't pick up as many weapons as you like in previous games, instead your straddled with the usual two, and there's a good variety of them past your standard shotguns and machine guns too, all of them with quite a good kick; especially the sniper rifle which turned even me, an avid hater of long range combat, into a fan. Such variety continues into every facet of Infinite; there's more than just the basic soldiers for enemies, instead there's Handymen, which like the name says have huge hands ample for pumping the ground full of electricity, and huge metal bodies of armor, or Patriots, giant gatling-gun wielding machines which cut out faces of old American presidents for heads. The environments too, from high up towers to the game's most inventive piece of imagery with the beach of Columbia, never gives a reason for boredom.

Talking technicalities makes Infinite a perfect game, yet it slogs in the middle; the reason I almost never returned to see the fates of these characters. The center of the game becomes stuffed with distractions; the most glaring of which is a subplot involving a Chinese weapons maker and more than one alternative universe. This and a lot else happens in the middle of the game that has very little, if anything to do with escaping Columbia with Elizabeth. Yes, the game makes excuses for these objectives, but none made me care about why I was starting up a rebellion with the people of Columbia or why I was having to find Elizabeth again and again after that initial rescue. The game's combat also turned into a slog, the variety of enemies and weapons isn't complimented by a variety of situations, the second half of the game suffers from the feeling that the game's combat isn't progressing but simply repeating over and over with only slightly different dressing each time.
Not that Infinite doesn't offer innovations. My favorite element of the game was the skylines, in which using a grapple hook you can attach yourself to the railings around Columbia and go for a ride. It's been done before of course, Ratchet and Clank had you using a grapple hook to navigate around more than 10 years ago, yet Infinite makes it a major part of the game, used both for getting to new areas quickly and as a new means of fighting enemies. While on the ground Elizabeth can open "Tears", which means making a variety of helpfuls such as a box of med kits or a fighter drone materialize, and don't worry; this ability has an actual explanation in the plot.

In total it's hard to rate the core gameplay of Bioshock Infinite. It's well made, it dodges the conventions of most shooters, and I did have a lot fun, yet the game starts to become easier in smaller doses when new elements start becoming a rarity and your objective starts to become muddled beneath an endless swarm of sub-plots. On the flip-side the presentation is good all-around. The graphics aren't the best around but the colorfulness of the world and size of the environments, usually fully explorable, makes Columbia one of the best realized environments ever made explorable in a game. The environments aren't destructible and the AI doesn't do anything special but the ways the game manages to tell the story in a cinematic way without taking control away from the player makes this an impressive enough package.

(Spoilers be here, so run far far away unless you've finished the game or just couldn't give a fuck) The ending of the game is a complex one. I got the ins and outs but when I turned to the interwebs for backup it just stared blankly at me, running through big plot points that my brain hadn't even picked up on in my rush to finish the game. To lay it all down: the tears that Elizabeth opens are gateways to alternative universes; which leads to a Matrix-esque scene of an infinite number of ligh-houses each representing a different choice one could lead to a different outcome, Elizabeth is actually Booker's daughter who he gave away to wipe away this bet; although distraught by the mistake he's made he heads to Columbia to reclaim his daughter, yet in the end we find out villain Comstock is really an older Booker, from an alternate universe, and to stop the endless loop they're in Elizabeth drowns Booker, ultimately killing Comstock as well. I liked the ending, as Booker dies, we leave the first person for the first and only time as the camera flies up into the sky; I said earlier of my dislike of this but here such a technique fits, the camera almost representing Booker, now flying out of body, watching things from above. The ending feels sad, and the images on screen are, yet the implication is that by ending the loop Booker, the original Booker, will be alive and well with his daughter, no giving his daughter away this time, and no Columbia. I liked the ending not just because of the surprising scope it attends to but simply because by the end the game has made you care about these characters so much that it doesn't even matter that the ending makes all events that have happened in the game completely void. It's a good closure, it ties off all ends and doesn't point to any sequel; the ending really hoisted the game up in my estimations.
(Spoilers over) In conclusion I really enjoyed Bioshock: Infinite. When taken as a whole I think it deserves to stand up to the best games of this generation; which is what I meant when I said that the point when I stopped playing from lack of interest wasn't meant as a criticism. It's the best Bioshock game made yet, Columbia is just as interesting a setting as Rapture, and the game plays a lot more smoothly here than in other games, not to mention the ending; not brought down by interactive choices leading to different endings mean this is the first Bioshock to offer an actual conclusion. 9/10

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