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Review: Bioshock Infinite

Game: Bioshock Infinite
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 96
Completion Time: ~14 hours
Buy If You Like: Stripped down, Art-Over-Substance FPS console ports

If only everything had this level of polish.

If only this level of polish extended to the gameplay.

Something that I struggle with when starting a videogame for the first time, is under which critique rubric I am to judge the experience. Sometimes the circumstances makes it easy: a $10 indie title ensures low-expectations, with potential high returns on either an entertainment-per-dollar basis (FTL, Binding of Isaac, SPAZ) or even an artistic one (LIMBO, Bastion). Indeed, in the years since the indie game revolution gained steam, I have found it increasingly difficult to justify $40-$60 Day 1 purchases of even AAA titles. What is the point, other than proactively (and expensively) avoiding spoilers? It was with this thought and a few other development team concerns that I initially decided to forgo Bioshock Infinite’s Day 1 purchase. That is, until I watched this fateful Adam Sessler video review. I mean, how could you not whip out your credit card right there?

Now, some 14 hours later and $45 poorer, I am wishing for an alternate reality in which I waited for the inevitable 75% off Steam sale to purchase the game.

Bioshock Infinite follows the story of Booker DeWitt, as he searches the floating streets of Columbia to bring back a girl to erase his debts. It is immediately clear at the beginning that Columbia is both visually stunning – seriously, where did these guys pull this fidelity out of the Unreal hat? – and an overt, artistic repudiation of Pax Americana fetishism. While rifling through picnic baskets and trashcans for every last silver dollar, you will run into signs of the blunt, religiously-justified racism and bigotry of the early 1900s. While I would be surprised if this is the first videogame rendition of this particular theme, Sessler is not wrong about game aspect of Bioshock Infinite functioning as a more effective prism to explore this theme, than had this been a book or movie and showing the same thing.

She is the color in this Paint By Numbers.

Elizabeth is the color in this Paint By Numbers.

Sessler and the other reviewers whom have catapulted Bioshock Infinite to a 96 (!!) Metacritic score are also not wrong about the brilliant elegance of Elizabeth. Rescued fairly early, Elizabeth initially serves both as a foil to the stoic/cynical Booker and as a player narrative stand-in. As the game progresses though, she provides a sort of… warmth that becomes noticeably lacking from the game proper whenever she is absent. Sometimes it is mesmerizing just watching her run around – the number of animations are incredible – or when she sits at a park bench as Booker stuffs his face with candy bars looted from the pockets of the slain. Immune to all damage, Elizabeth nevertheless avoids feeling like mere window-dressing (even in combat), while also avoiding the immersion-breaking pathing bugs we have come to expect from companion AI. She is simply… there. Present. And Bioshock Infinite is better for it.

I would also be remiss if I did not briefly mention the absolutely amazing soundtrack. While the omnipresent “angry violins” battle music gets old pretty fast, nearly everything single other ambient score is both haunting and melodic. Periodically there will even be barbershop-quartet-esque pieces that quite literally caused me to remove my hands from the keyboard and mouse to simply experience. Hearing songs like Will the Circle Be Unbroken and God Only Knows satisfies a need I never even knew existed. Any game that can fit in classical Mozart in a way both consistent with the fiction and powerful in execution gets mad props from me.

Unfortunately, where Sessler and all the other reviewers go off the rails is when they talk about (or conspicuously omit talking about) the actual game bits.

Simply put: Bioshock Infinite is not a very good FPS title, and absolutely not at all a good Bioshock title from a gameplay perspective. The skeleton is all there, with Vigors replacing the Plasmids, but there isn’t any meat. The gunplay is simplistic. Environmental damage combos are virtually non-existent. While the eight Vigors available seem to be a comparable number to the original Bioshock, the (usually) extremely open battle environments lends itself to one or two extremely OP strategies. For example, in an early combination with some equipment, using the secondary fire of Murder of Crows to create a single nest trap can disable dozens of enemies across the entire map; when one nest triggers, the crows chain from enemy to enemy, stunning and damaging them, and all enemies leave nest traps if they die while afflicted. Alternatively, once the Possession Vigor is upgraded, it essentially one-shots most enemies in addition occasionally scoring you kills if they actually get in some damage on friends.

For the record, I played beginning to end on Hard difficulty. So when I say things like the gunplay was simplistic, I do not mean that enemies fell over from one or two shots. Instead, firing the guns takes little skill, and there is little variety in the types of guns – there is no reason to have the Machine Gun, Burster, Repeater, and Crank Gun in the same game, for example, as they all occupy the same design space. While the skylines provided a useful gimmick to certain battlefields, their primary purpose seemed to be giving you the opportunity to one-shot weak enemies with a melee attack that would otherwise only remove 20% of their health.

Da Birds, da Birds.

Da Birds, da Birds.

The fingerprints of Console-ification are also all over the place. Bioshock Infinite uses a completely oblique Checkpoint system, with no Save & Exit option. There are no Quicksaves.  Booker has a regenerating shield, and can carry only two weapons at a time. There are no First Aid Kits or other inventory-esque items, although there is “clothing” that acts as swappable passive abilities. While changing clothes might have added some depth to the combat, the reality is that most of the items are hopelessly weak in comparison to the aforementioned OP combos.

While some of these things do not sound bad on their own, the problem arises when you then apply these simpler systems to an artistic game so focused on encouraging  exploration inbetween the banal combat. Why barge into every non-locked house on the street – and see the thematically consistent bigotry – if there is quite literally no point to do so? Even if I accept that Checkpoints aren’t all that much different in practice than Quicksaves, the ever-present hunt to replenish my First Aid Kit supply drove me to explore every inch of Rapture, to my ultimate edification. Conversely, I explored Columbia out of a vague sense of propriety, like when an acquaintance takes you on a tour of his house even though you couldn’t care less about what the pantry looks like. Don’t get me wrong, I explored every masterfully crafted inch of Columbia that I could. But the whole time I sat there thinking “There is no reason for me to be here,” which I count as a deficiency in the game design, especially given how the original Bioshock played out.

Finally, in an effort to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, I will not talk about the specific issues I had with Bioshock Infinite’s plot or overall narrative. Suffice it to say, I did not feel that the actual message the writers were trying to convey made a whole lot of sense given what was presented and foreshadowed. Indeed, the whole narrative felt disjointed, likely due to the first half of the game consisting almost entirely of exploring Columbia’s working class issues, rather than the more fantastical premises that dominate the later game.

Ultimately, Bioshock Infinite is clearly an ambitious game, but at the end, I felt like nearly every aspect of it did not live up to its inherent promise. While that is a shame, that doesn’t mean you should avoid the experience altogether. Bioshock Infinite is definitely a game worth playing, it is simply not worth playing for full MSRP, or even half that amount. If you can wait, you should. And as far as Sessler and the others predicting Bioshock Infinite’s long-term “lionization” and discussion “for years to come,” well… I think they will be waiting for that for quite some time. Perhaps until the heat death of the universe.