"If you're used to insipid boomfests like Halo then BioShock will seem like the shit, but if you're a long-time PC gamer spoiled by more complex FPS-RPGs then you're in for a kick in the balls." -- Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw.
Yahtzee's review of BioShock basically sums up my thoughts on the original game. Like everyone else at the time, I bought into the hype and bought BioShock for $50 on launch day -- a decision I quickly regretted once I discovered it came boxed with crippling DRM. The actual gameplay did little to assuage my disappointment at the technical problems as I grew increasingly frustrated with its excessively contrived sidetracking, unrewarding exploration, and binary morality system. Looking back, the first BioShock may in fact have been the catalyst that led to my current state of jaded cynicism whenever it comes to massively hyped mainstream games.
Going into BioShock Infinite, I was hopeful that the gameplay would at least be an improvement over the original, but I was still fully prepared for it not to live up to its hype. I had the distinct feeling in my gut that it would be another case of "all flair, no substance," and I probably never would have bothered playing it if not for PlayStation Plus putting it into their lineup of free games. Fortunately, many of the things that actively bothered me in the original have been improved or removed. Unfortunately, what we're left with in Infinite is a game that's been so streamlined as to cut out any form of meaningful interaction, while the game stubbornly insists on being something it probably shouldn't have been in the first place.
The world in BioShock Infinite tries so hard to bill itself as plausibly real and immersive, even despite its fantastical steampunk/science-fiction setting and alternate history premise. Great effort was put into the intro sequence to establish the lore and backstory of the world, to wow you with a sense of awe at all the sights, to let you simply soak in the details of the environment, and to make you wonder about its cryptic hooks. As the game goes on, it even tries to make you think about the deeper implications of American history -- most notably the roles that religion, manifest destiny, and racism played in the foundation of "the greatest country in the world." It's a game that really draws you into the experience, suggesting you've just stumbled into a truly special place in a truly special type of game.
All of the game's deft subtlety and nuance go out the window, however, when it becomes clear that this is just another farcical action shooter in which you murder hundreds of cops and civil rights activists by shredding their faces apart with handheld saw blades, summoning crows to pick the living flesh off their bones, and splattering their brains against the wall with a shotgun. It's gratuitously violent, which would be fine if this were Painkiller, Gears of War, or even Call of Duty, but for a game that seemingly wants itself to be considered Something More than just Another Typical Shooter, it comes off feeling completely unnecessary and even ruins the game's alluring mystique.
This is a story about a protagonist coming to terms with and washing his hands of the sins he's committed in war; it's the story of a mercenary-for-hire's developing relationship with a young woman he was sent to rescue; it's the story of a young woman coming to realize her own identity and rebelling against her father's wishes for her; it's the story of a high-flying society built on the principles of bigotry and exceptionalism that must ultimately come crashing down. Combat isn't necessary to tell that story, but it can most certainly be used to supplement aspects of that story, to add dramatic flair to certain scenes or to create small moments of tension.
When the gameplay revolves entirely around combat, however, and when the player has no other agency within the game's world except to shoot people in the face, it doesn't mesh with the purpose or narrative flow of the story and instead creates a very disjointed experience. Too much constant action makes it feel stale, and it doesn't even make consistent sense within the context of the world they're trying to create. If the point of the story (or at least part of it) is to have a protagonist who feels guilty about the slaughter of native Americans in the battle of Wounded Knee, the solution to his guilt is not to have him spend the entire game slaughtering white American cops and African American civil rights activists.
If you're putting a scene into the game in which your main character is confronted by the ghost of her deceased mother, it should not merely be a setup for a lame boss fight, and it should serve a greater purpose in the story than to reiterate things we've already been told through audio logs. This is a moment that should be full of emotion, character development, and meaningful interaction as Elizabeth comes to terms with her past and confronts her demons, but instead it's solved by shooting bullets at ghosts in a boss battle that gets repeated three different times. Eventually, Elizabeth delivers a 30-second monologue about forgiving her mother, but that's about the only plot development in this sequence, and the protracted battles had nothing to do with her cathartic revelation.
In cinema, smart directors and writers don't just throw action scenes into the script because it's been a while since the last explosion -- each action scene is there to serve a specific purpose, whether that's to show something about the characters or to create dramatic tension as the stakes rise. The idea, known as Chekhov's gun, is that one should only include relevant details that advance the plot, and anything superfluous should be left out. In the case of BioShock Infinite, the vast majority of combat scenarios don't serve any purpose in the story, and so it often feels forced and meaningless. I don't even know what my motivation is supposed to be for killing all these people, I just do it because it's a video game and that's what you do.
Imagine if, instead of being forced to shoot everyone all the time, the game offered you some different options. Maybe there'd be a stealth system that would let you sneak past enemies instead of killing them. Maybe there'd be an elaborate social role-playing system that could let you talk your way out of situations or blend in with the crowds. Maybe you could solve problems and conflicts by solving puzzles in the environment. You don't have to make every situation a combat situation for it to be tense and exciting, and there are a plethora of other ways to make the player feel like they're using some sort of skill in the game besides FPS gameplay. Playing BioShock Infinite is kind of like playing a lamer version of Dishonored, Fallout 3/NV, or Deus Ex/DX:HR, since those games at least give you different options, even while revolving heavily around FPS gameplay.
In one of the game's loading screen tips, it says "consider not shooting; not every situation needs to be a fight." This is a blatant lie; every situation is solved by shooting at it. The game persistently forces combat on me when I don't want to fight and leaves me no other choice but to kill everyone in sight. At one point you discover a valuable upgrade sitting on a counter behind a vendor and his guard, but the game presents you with no apparent options to obtain that upgrade without "aggroing" the merchant and everyone else in the area. There's no subquest or clever way to get it, nor is there even any interaction -- you either kill them, or keep on walking.
In another scenario, I'm walking through "Shantytown," a poverty-stricken ghetto, when two armed guys confront me in an alley asking me to hand over my money. In a situation where I wanted to say "I don't want to fight you guys; you're obviously in a horrible situation down here and I have more wealth than I know what to do with, so fine, take some money and let's not make a brawl out of this," I was once again left with no option but to violently murder them.
Rather than feeling like the cohesive artistic vision of the game director, Infinite feels instead like a game by committee. It's as if Irrational and/or 2K realized that in order for the game to earn back and profit off its massive budget, it would have to have elements that would appeal to the widest demographic of gamers, and thus it would have to be designed around FPS gameplay. It's then as if two different teams were assigned to work on the story and the combat separately, and then only met to mash the two together in the final stages of production. The game so blatantly jumps back and forth between dumb action sequences and melodramatic story sequences, which creates such widely jarring tonal shifts that pull me out of the immersion.
The HUD is an obvious cue in this regard, coming onto the screen whenever you're likely to experience combat, and going away whenever you're simply meant to take in the story. "This is Combat Sequence A, this is Story Sequence A, this is Combat Sequence B," and so on. If the HUD is onscreen, you've just watched a few minutes of cutscenes, and it's been a while since you've shot someone in the face, you're probably going to be fighting someone soon. At other times you fight your way to an objective to watch a cutscene and just know that once you turn around to backtrack out towards the entrance, more stuff will have spawned just for the sake of having you fight more stuff. It's just so enervating.
After a while, the combat gets to feel incredibly rote, formulaic, and predictable. You frequently walk into areas that look obviously designed like giant arenas, with supply caches and cover sources symmetrically scattered about. The game specifically telegraphs "you are entering a combat zone," which makes them feel so artificial. Ideally, it should feel like you're in a real space that serves the logic of the game's world, which should then break out into combat. It should feel like the battles are taking place right in the streets of Columbia, but these arenas feel so obviously detached from the rest of the game world. It's almost as if I can see the stitch marks from the way they've assembled this world, which only goes to pull me out of the experience.
The sad fact of the matter is that for as much emphasis as Irrational put into the combat, it's not even that good. Movement, aiming, and firing weapons all feel kind of clunky and straightforward since you lack the ability to shoot from behind cover or while sprinting, which prevents the game from achieving the fun of either tactical precision or past-paced mayhem. It's the lukewarm middle-ground of mediocrity. The game's incredibly low FOV combined with the excessive bloom and glaring light sources makes it difficult to see enemies in the environment, so it often feels like a confusing, chaotic mess with you being hit from all directions not knowing who or what is actually hitting you. It doesn't help the fact that enemies frequently seem to enter the arenas from odd areas offscreen, either.
There are over a dozen different weapons to use, but for the most part these are all standard shooter fare -- a typical assortment of pistols, machine guns, rifles, shotguns, and rocket launchers. You can only carry two weapons at time, though, which would ordinarily be fine since limiting the player's arsenal makes him have to weigh the benefits of different combinations and come up with his own desired build, but there are no real consequences of using one weapon instead of another. Besides their innate properties (shotguns being good at close range but useless at a distance), the weapons all seem equally effective at dealing with any enemy you might encounter in the game. Since it doesn't really matter what you pick, I played practically the entire game using the same two weapons and never once felt like I needed to switch things up, or regretted not upgrading another type of weapon.
It makes you wonder why Irrational even felt the need to switch to a two-gun system, considering the original BioShock let you carry all of your weapons. I guess the idea was for more realism, but if that's the case it would've been more appropriate (and more desirable) to let the player carry three weapons. If the idea was indeed to force the player to make choices about what weapons he'll carry into battle, then what's the point if you're going to strategically place all the weapon types in the combat arenas for me to pick up and use? The effect is I can still use any weapon I want in virtually any situation, but now there's a tedious middle step to do so.
There aren't very many enemy varieties to face; most of the time you'll be fighting the same assortment of machine-gun wielding, unarmored footsoldiers whose only purpose in the gameplay is to rack your kill count up into the hundreds. Melee enemies run straight at you while you mow them down with a gun, and ranged enemies stand around blatantly stepping in and out of cover essentially just waiting to die while laying down suppressing fire. Every so often you're faced with a sub-boss, stronger variants that use vigors, but these guys don't require any special strategy to take down and only serve as bullet sponges to artificially inflate the difficulty of a given encounter.
Plasmids make a return in the form of "vigors," but like the weapons, these all serve basically the same purpose as one another and it doesn't really matter what you use. Most of them do some combination of direct damage, damage over time, or temporary incapacitation, and most of them can be set up as traps. It rarely feels like there's any clever use for vigors since you can no longer use them on the environment -- puddles of water and oil spills are entirely absent except in a handful of scenarios that require way too much effort to lure an enemy into, and you don't use them to solve environmental puzzles or to reach new areas.
The new additions this time are skylines and tears. Skylines are rail systems that you can ride through the sky, dangling by one arm and shooting with the other. This is an interesting concept, but they only appear in a handful of battle arenas and enemies don't seem to use them except as a way to enter the level. While riding the skyline you basically just press left trigger to auto-lock onto a target and press right trigger to shoot, which isn't very involved gameplay, so they feel underwhelming and don't contribute much to the combat. In fact, the skyline exists as a literal demonstration that this is quite sincerely an "on rails" shooter. Tears allow Elizabeth to summon things from other dimensions to aid you, like supplies, cover, decoys, and mechanized allies. This can be useful at times, but it's just about the only way Elizabeth serves any role in the actual gameplay.
When you first meet up with Elizabeth, a tutorial message pops on screen telling you not to worry about her in combat, essentially informing you that she's invulnerable. At first I thought "thank goodness," because it's often very frustrating having to babysit a helpless, useless person in typical FPS escort missions. The more I played, however, the more I started to realize this was a truly missed potential. As much as everyone hated Ashley Graham in Resident Evil 4 (her annoying, whiny personality certainly didn't help), she added an extra layer of depth to the gameplay that I find lacking in BioShock Infinite.
In Resident Evil 4, Ashley was completely vulnerable and you therefore had to protect and take care of her. This added extra tension to action scenes because you had to be mindful of other things than just your own immediate surroundings. She could take too much damage and be killed, or she could be carried off the level, requiring you to chase after and eliminate the guy carrying her without harming her. You could instruct her to hide in giant bins, or tell her to wait somewhere or follow you closely. When she took damage, you had to split your own limited healing supplies, weighing the costs and benefits between healing her and yourself. When presented with an item that can upgrade your maximum health, do you use it on yourself since you'll be the one in direct danger the majority of the time, or do you use it on Ashley since she's the more vulnerable one?
The effect of Resident Evil 4 is that I had more things to consider in and out of combat than just shooting every enemy in the face. There was a feeling of genuine interaction between myself and Ashley, as purely mechanical in nature as it was, a mutual dependence that made her feel much more tangible and present within the game. In BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth is this transient figure who basically only shows up whenever it's time for a cutscene. She can pick locks for you, but that's the same gameplay mechanic as me pressing the action button to open any other door, and she can find health or ammo when you need it in a fight, but this is the same gameplay mechanic as regenerating health/ammo. There's no player interaction with Elizabeth since it only happens in cutscenes. Even when she's crying after a traumatic event and you press the action button to "comfort" her, you don't actually do anything since it just sets up another cutscene.
Ellie from The Last of Us serves as a pretty good example of how the middle ground between Ashley and Elizabeth can be pulled off. In The Last of Us, Ellie was designed so that she wouldn't be an unnecessary nuisance in combat -- when sneaking around, enemies would never react to her presence, even if she scurried right in front of them. She did not take damage, but it was possible for her to become incapacitated, thus requiring your timely assistance to prevent her from dying. She was used in occasional environmental puzzle-solving, wherein you had to help her across an area, and as the game progressed she'd come to help you in combat by throwing objects at enemies or even shooting an unsuspecting enemy from their flank while they focused fire on you. Conversations with her often happened in ordinary gameplay and came off feeling natural and unscripted.
I came to feel a much closer bond with Ellie than I ever did with Elizabeth, and she served at least some basic function in the actual gameplay. I hated Ashley's guts, but the mechanics got her involved in the gameplay to such a degree that, in retrospect, I appreciated her presence. As great of a character as Elizabeth is, as well-acted and (generally) well-written as she is, as well-animated as she is, and as much effort went into setting up emotional setpieces for her, she never feels like an actual person in this game to me. Instead of finding some worthwhile use that incorporated her in the gameplay (tears being the only exception, albeit functionally shallow), we're stuck with combat mechanics like any other basic shooter and which forget about Elizabeth, the central figure in the story, almost entirely.
The running theme in BioShock Infinite is of a game that begs to be treated like a more sophisticated role-playing experience, but which only ever offers you the illusion of choice. After receiving an objective prompt to "find a way into the city," a minister extends his hand offering a baptism and your only option is to accept the baptism, else simply not advance the game. Two characters hand you a coin and ask you to predict if it's heads or tails, but all you get to do is press a button to advance the cutscene while your character says "heads." Someone hands you a basket of baseballs and asks you to take one, and your only option is to press a button to advance the cutscene while you take the one you were explicitly told not to take. At the raffle you win the privilege of throwing the first "stone" at the interracial couple; you're given the option to throw it at the couple or at the announcer, but the scene has the same outcome no matter what choice you make.
The game has so much pretense about telling its story in its own precise way that it never gives you any opportunity to veer off the rails to have any input of your own. In some of the game's more dramatic narrative moments you're literally stuck on rails, forced to just sit there and watch as the sights go by. There's a sequence when you're trying to escape from a giant mechanized bird, but the tension falls apart when you realize you can just stand there twiddling your thumbs and nothing will ever happen until you cross the next threshold, and when you do, you end up in a cutscene where your character flies around on the skyline. Any excitement in this scene is merely shown to the player; you never get to feel any of it through actual game mechanics.
There's no sense of urgency to any objective in the game, save for one, at the very end. The narrative pacing is therefore either so tightly controlled by the game that you have no control of your own, or your own control only goes to ruin the pacing of obviously emotional sequences. In one instance, Elizabeth runs away from you and an objective pops up to catch up to her, but then she patiently waits for you to get just close enough to see her before moving on, like a puppy playing keep away, while you scrounge through trashcans looking for hotdogs and full cups of coffee to ingest. Except for the combat sections, you are entirely passive in this game, and the game's ending even explains that everything is predetermined, specifically saying you have no control and none of your choices actually matter.
Even the game's own narrative logic starts to fall apart when certain game mechanics are introduced. Why, for instance, is there so much money to be found in trashcans, and why does my character go around scarfing down pineapples and cotton candy that he digs out of trashcans? Why am I finding machine gun bullets in a box of chocolates on a peaceful, happy beach? Why does no one care when I steal money from their bags right in front of their eyes, and why do other people suddenly care when I start stealing money from cash registers? Why does this deeply religious society sell demonic vigors out of vending machines that let me possess other people, burn them alive, or summon crows to devour their flesh? Why is the fair giving out free samples of the possession vigor right next to a machine I can possess to grant me access to a restricted area? Why am I the only person who thinks to use this vigor to get into the raffle without a ticket?
In one area of the game I was faced with a restricted zone guarded by police officers. I approached the area for the first time from an unintended angle and therefore couldn't see the barricades set up on the other side of the ledge. The only prompt I had suggesting this was a restricted zone was the presence of one police officer, who said nothing and made no gestures as I approached, and one line from Booker saying "doesn't look like we can enter now." "Why," I asked at the screen and walked forward, barely crossing the invisible "do not cross" line, only to have every officer in a square-mile radius open fire attempting to murder me.
Which then led me to wonder "why are police officers sent into a murderous rampage over such trivial, insignificant transgressions?" Surely getting too close to a restricted zone only warrants an officer to raise his hand and tell me "sorry, no access" and at worse push me away with the butt of his weapon, like the guards do in the introductory area of Half-Life 2. These guards literally just stand there and make no reaction to your presence until it's time to call the SWAT team on you for putting one toe over the line. "Fine," I say, "I won't go to this area I'm obviously supposed to come back to later." So I went into a building next door, spent less than two minutes talking to one character, then stepped right back outside only to find that the police barricade had been lowered and I could proceed, which then led me to wonder "why do they suddenly not care if I go this way?"
Linearity is to be expected in such a heavily-scripted, story-driven game, but Irrational rarely ever pulls its linearity off in a convincing fashion, always making it feel obviously contrived. You're in this fantastical floating city in the sky but you're always stuck in linear corridors with only one way forward, because the only other branching path is conveniently blocked by something that will conveniently disappear once the game is ready to let you go that way. One of the worst offenders is a group taking a photograph in front of the gondola station, not letting anyone pass for as long as it takes you to scrounge through trashcans before talking to the necessary NPC. You also have barred gates inexplicably showing up over doors you've used previously, preventing you from backtracking away from the story, which then disappear once it's necessary to go that way again.
Exploration is hindered severely by the contrived linearity -- there are no large, open hubs to experience and the only branching paths are locked siderooms that you quickly back out of once you're finished looting them. Even within the cramped corridors, exploration feels like a tedious waste of time because you're often just rummaging through trashcans looking for small, incidental amounts of ammo and restorative items. But since you have an automatically regenerating shield, and Elizabeth automatically refills your health, mana, and ammunition in battles, and you're usually bound to find entire caches of health/mana kits in tears, there's barely any incentive to explore every nook and cranny except to find the occasional upgrade (which are usually behind obvious, locked doors anyway) and audio logs.
For as much emphasis as was put into the story, too much of it is told through audio logs and disembodied voices spouting monologues at you over the PA. I hate audio logs in almost any game because they feel so detached and out of place -- they can be useful to add atmosphere and supplement the details in a story, but it's incredibly lazy to have virtually the entire story told through audio logs. It's especially illogical how and when these audio logs turn up -- why is this audio log from this person in an area he would never conceivably be? Why did this audio log suddenly show up in the elevator I was just in five minutes ago? Why am I almost never interacting with any of the game's more prominent characters, instead listening to them talk to me through a PA system just long enough for me get a chance to shoot them in face?
There's no feeling of antagonism throughout BioShock Infinite, either, no overt villain to provide conflict and drive your efforts forward. Father Comstock is largely passive, a ghostly icon lurking in the background never actually doing anything. There are a couple of major sub-bosses leading up to the encounter with him that take place over major arcs within the story, but even these characters come and go without much development or resolution. You hear a few things about them in audio logs, they say some things to you over the PA, and then you kill them and move on to the next one. Interesting characters like Jeremiah Fink and Lady Comstock are just excuses for boss battles and are about as memorable as any of the mercenary boss battles from Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
What's perhaps most egregious about BioShock Infinite is that everything feels so phony and artificial. Despite the fantastical setting and the great attention to detail in the atmosphere, it always feels like I'm watching an animatronic show like the Chuck E Cheese band or like I'm on the Splash Mountain ride at Disney World. The comparison is easy to make because so much of the game's imagery uses actual animatronics, but even the living, breathing inhabitants of this world feel like dead, lifeless robots. They all stand around idly doing nothing, and then come to life as you approach, just long enough to exchange a few lines of dialogue before returning to their inanimate idle state. Characters never actually acknowledge you, and there's not even a way to use the action button to get them to say "hello." They're just scenery in a theme park ride -- you watch their little show and then you move on.
At one point I arrived at an industrial manufacturing district that had dozens of characters out working on stuff. They're scrubbing the floors, polishing new vending machines, hammering nails into shipping crates, and so on, and every one of them is using the exact same animation sequence. As I walked throughout the district I thought to myself "surely there's no way a developer would be so lazy as to leave this unrealistic crap in their game, this has to be intentional, there's gotta be some story reveal coming up that explains they're all mind-controlled drones or something," but there was no big reveal and I was left to conclude that Irrational were just being lazy hacks. Once again it felt like I was seeing phony animatronic theme park characters instead of the actual, harsh working conditions of desperate workers in the midst of an industrial revolution.
The game's story -- the other main emphasis besides the combat -- is interesting, I guess, but it's the kind of story that's built entirely around a twist reveal at the end, meant to make you reconsider everything previous in the story, the type of thing that encourages and even almost demands a replay to understand fully. Unfortunately, as interesting as some of the ramifications for the game's "twist" ending are, I have no desire whatsoever to go back and play the game again because I'll just be stuck in the same dumb combat scenarios and the same filler elements of the story when you're sidetracked catching up to Elizabeth any of the numerous times she's separated from you, or being sent out of your way to murder hundreds of dudes because you don't have the "blue key" to use on the "blue door."
Since the action and role-playing elements are so streamlined, there's not even any incentive to try new builds in combat because, as mentioned earlier, everything is designed to be equally effective and the gameplay won't change dramatically by using different guns or vigors. Odds are you already played around with all of the different weapons and vigors in the first playthrough, anyway, since there are no restrictions on what you can use at any time.
The story also wants to shock you with its depiction of racism and the abused power of religion, to make you reflect more deeply on aspects of American history, but the game never gets going with any of these ideas. Throughout most of the game, it feels merely like it's yelling "look, bigotry is bad" at you, and it even undermines the empathetic struggle of the civil rights movement when its leader is portrayed as a psychopathic child-killer. Midway through, the themes of racism and religious extremism are dropped almost entirely in favor of pursuing Elizabeth's story, which is welcome enough, but stands out as another instance of missed opportunity and wasted potential to be Something More.
The effort and intentions are worth applauding, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired, leaving it feeling ultimately worse than many similar types of games. The combat is serviceable at best but feels almost entirely superfluous in the context of the story and the world. Everything in this world is so artificial and lifeless, making it feel like you're just walking through a theme park attraction, and there's zero sense of meaningful choice or interaction allowed for the player -- everything is streamlined so precisely that there's no satisfaction to be had from the gameplay, unless you really like the mindless action. Otherwise, BioShock Infinite is possibly even shallower than the original BioShock and therefore not worth recommending except as a demonstration of how a game can have such great ideas but still fall so brilliantly short of achieving its own goals.