Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Game Review: BioShock Infinite (Xbox 360, 2013)

As the heir to one of modern gaming’s royal dynasties, BioShock Infinite follows an impressive legacy.  Despite taking the series into the clouds, Infinite lost most of the charm that made BioShock a masterpiece, feeling more like your average shooter than the epic companion to a classic game.  Here’s why:

To put BioShock Infinite’s mediocrity in perspective, it’s worth looking back at why BioShock became the phenomenon that it is.  In terms of fundamental mechanics, BioShock is a great first-person shooter, with smooth controls and fun features that make it exceptionally exciting.

But BioShock stands apart from all other great shooters because it created a wonderfully detailed and engrossing world.  The underwater city of Rapture (BioShock’s setting) and the beautifully twisted society crafted by Andrew Ryan (the in-game personality behind Rapture) are incredibly compelling, in large part because they take a real-world philosophy to an absurd degree, which in turn leads to all the game’s major conflicts.  This setup puts BioShock’s world squarely in the uncanny valley for societies – it’s similar enough to our world to be recognizable, but bizarre in subtle ways that make it unsettling.

As a result, exploring Rapture and discovering its secrets was fun (due to the gameplay) and intriguing (due to the world).  It was a brilliant game all around.

BioShock Infinite starts strong.  Protagonist Booker DeWitt, seeking to retrieve a particular young lady, travels to the floating city of Columbia and is immediately greeted by a strange cult.  There are white robes, a charismatic prophet, candle-lit altars, and an unrequested baptism in the opening minutes of the game.

After awaking from his near-drowning experience during the baptism, Booker finds that the powers-that-be behind Columbia have developed a religious order that worships the founding fathers of the United States as gods, taking patriotism to an uncomfortable extreme (in much the same way that BioShock treated individualism).

That. Is. Awesome!

I was tingling with anticipation, hoping to learn more of the philosophy behind this patriotic cult and expecting to see conflicts arise as Columbia’s citizens fought with the overzealous adherence to this radical religious thought.  Infinite was set to be another delightfully twisted adventure.

But then, little more than 30 minutes into the plot, the cult disappears almost completely.  Sure, they still refer to their leader as the prophet, but there is virtually no discussion of the principles governing this world.  Instead, the narrative shifts into one focused on segregation and class warfare.  Although not explicitly bad, this storyline was awfully mundane because it was historically appropriate for the game’s 1912 setting – that’s the kind of stuff that was really happening in the United States at that time.

In the latter half of the game, we see yet another plot that supercedes the previous two.  This final story borders on pretentious, as it introduces extreme science fiction elements with very little explanation.  It’s almost as if the game’s conclusion is trippy purely for the sake of being trippy; it’s the gaming equivalent of M. Night Shyamalan’s later films.

That’s ultimately my biggest complaint with Infinite: rather than creating an epic, detailed world for the player to explore, they tried to merge three, resulting in three underdeveloped (and therefore uninteresting) storylines.  By the game’s final scenes, I honestly didn’t care about the story or the world.  My hope that everything would get tied together in the end never came to fruition, so I completed the game disappointed with the journey as a whole.

On the bright side, this underwhelming story is fantastically presented.  The world is stunningly detailed, with gorgeous environments and fabulous character models.  As an example, you spend much of the game traveling with Elizabeth (the girl Booker’s sent to bring back), and she will idly lean against walls or look out windows while you’re looting nearby trashcans.  Those little details bring some realism to the game, despite the somewhat cartoonish visual style.  The voice acting and sound effects are similarly immersive, so it’s a solid all-around presentation.

In terms of gameplay, Infinite is about what you’d expect from a modern shooter.  It features several different weapons and a familiar control scheme for eliminating your enemies, plus a gimmick that makes the game different from all the other shooters on the market.  Infinite’s gimmick, the indistinguishable-from-magic “vigors,” are functionally identical to BioShock’s plasmids – you wield a vigor in one hand while holding a gun in the other, and they allow you to shock your enemies or possess machines.  Unlike plasmids, the vigors aren’t explained (why do I need salt to throw a fireball?), but it gives the game the same basic feel as its predecessors.

There are some new features, though.  The most prominent is Elizabeth.  You spend about half the game traveling with Elizabeth, but it’s never an escort scenario; although she makes you do most of the fighting, Elizabeth helps out in some interesting ways and is able to defend herself.  She will even occasionally throw restorative items or ammunition to you in the heat of battle, which is pretty cool.

Infinite also introduces a Sky-Line system of rails circling some of the bigger battlegrounds.  These rails allow you to quickly move through an area and let you drop on your enemies for a devastating melee attack from above.  This system is unfortunately pretty disorienting, as your perspective will change rapidly when jumping onto or off of the rails.  It’s also the one part of the game that really requires precision, but it felt pretty clunky to me; I had a hard time with both getting on and off these rails quickly.

The most disappointing aspect of the otherwise solid gameplay is the difficulty curve.  For the most part, the game ramps the difficulty up pretty slowly, with some spikes each time you encounter a new type of enemy (and therefore have to develop new combat strategies).  But then it blasts you harder enemies and much more difficult objectives in the last couple sections.  It can be infuriating to progress through the majority of a game without any serious complications only to be greeted with a difficulty wall at the end.  If the rest of the game had been a bit harder, I wouldn’t have minded the final scenes nearly as much, but as it stands, the last bit of the game is exceptionally frustrating.

In the end, BioShock Infinite is a decent first-person shooter.  It’s built on the same great gameplay as earlier BioShock titles, with only some minor hiccups along the way.  The real flaw, though, is in the story – instead of boasting a flavorful plot in a fantastic world, we get a schizophrenic narrative that can’t quite decide what it wants to be.  As a result, it really does feel just like any other faceless shooter on the market.  It’s a fun game, and it’s worth at least one playthrough, but it doesn’t have nearly the same charm as the rest of the series.

My Rating: 6/10 – decent.

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