Hailed by many as the best game since, well, ever; Bioshock Infinite is a would be masterpiece of conceptual story telling and artistic design. With this kind of hype expectations were certainly high. Its almost inevitable then things don’t quite reach the heights promised. After just a short time immersed in the twisted “city in the skies” which is Columbia the overwhelming sense of confusion at the distorted early 20th century alternate universe and ambiguous plot is quickly overtaken by the realisation that core gameplay is little more than a slightly above average shooter full of flaws and creaky mechanics.
In truth, BI’s claim to greatness rests entirely on its aesthetics and the innovative story, all of which are undoubtedly impressive in a creative sense but are unable to hide the major flaws which are found everywhere. After hours of struggling through the many shoot outs the over riding feeling is that BI would have been better as a film.
The tone of confusion mixed with wonder is instantly set in a beautifully crafted opening sequence every bit as mysterious as it is cinematic. Dewitt Booker is being sent on a mission to return a girl, a task which two odd looking twins in anoraks promise will wipe clean all of his debts. This ambiguous intro does nothing to acclimatise the player to the assault on the senses which is Columbia – a city in the sky where buildings float on clouds and everything is a twisted fantasy version of early 20th century America. But don’t worry too much – you’re not supposed to understand until the end…
The Bioshock series inhabits that realm of increasingly standard first person shooter which attempts to cross over with as many genres as possible, most notably incorporating as many RPG bells and whistles as possible. Just like most of its peers the combat is not as polished or balanced as dedicated shooters like Halo or CoD, while most of the added genres are whittled down to a basic level and are entirely forgettable.
Essentially what we have is an arena based shooter strung together by tedious fetch and return tasks which do little more than provide an opportunity for plot exposition. Though these moments of quiet may appear the ideal opportunity to dunk that biscuit you’ve been nursing for half an hour, or rearrange your junk, do so at risk of missing vital conversations or plot cues.
During battle the cover system is frustratingly poor, allowing enemies who are so far away that the draw distance can barely animate them to be able to fire shots with pin point accuracy past dozens of obstacles and still manage to hit that rouge hair sticking out from behind the wall and cause significant damage. Guns come in an impressive variety but only a few have any real sense of weight or satisfaction to their destruction and many will be quickly ignored altogether.
Additional abilities accessed on Booker’s free hand and powered by vials of salt – an strange idea which is never truly explained – essentially serve the same function as grenades and other explosives but with a super natural twist. Some of these powers, such as Possession, do come in handy when laid as traps or unleashed as chain reactions, but really they are nothing particularly special and only come in use during boss battles.
In terms of innovation Bioshock only ever offers mirages. The air-rail network which connects the various areas of Columbia allow Booker to leap up at any point and sail through environments via his hook melee tool. Theoretically this allows for an open world experience however, despite the initial roller coaster like thrill, it is quickly exposed as a basic platforming gimmick allowing for some very basic on rails shooting.
Early in the game Booker acquires a companion in Elizabeth, a curious and carefree young girl eager to explore a world she has been kept away from for most of her life. Elizabeth is undoubtedly the crowning glory of story, making the player instantly fall in love and providing some emotional reason to uncover the true nature of the story.
Later into the game Elizabeth develops the power to open tears into reality, supposedly giving you the ability to bend the arena battles environments to your will but in reality this amounts to pressing an on switch to access ammo and then pressing another to access a gun – all predetermined and limited to 2 or 3 options. During hectic battles where other options are available this merely contributes to the frustrating mess of things to keep in mind which don’t really add any real strategy or tactics to the fighting.
In a more general sense, the first half of play time can be breezed through with one hand down the front of your trousers as glitches and loopholes can be exploited (e.g. hiding in areas enemies are unwilling to go to). Progress is simply a question of perseverance rather than developing skill or trying new things. The only real challenge is posed by an unsubtle difficulty spike which kicks in around the half way point and forces you to finally take a look at the vending machines and get to grips with the skill bonuses. There is also a case of “guardian angel” noticeable while playing on the normal setting, which severely undercuts the challenge. Between Elizabeth’s timely top ups of health and ammo, the appearance of loot which wasn’t in that same container 3 minutes ago, and the caches available through the tear system, it can be quite difficult to die no matter how hopeless your skills. Unfortunately upping the difficulty setting simply leads to more frustrating enemies which exploit the poor design in more annoying ways.
In almost all aspects the gaming fundamentals of Bioshock Infinite cannot be described as anything other than a second rate experience to be persevered with rather than truly savored and enjoyed.
Thankfully then there is reason to persevere – the utterly bonkers and mysterious plot.
The game world is undoubtedly an astonishing feat of imagination and creativity, so much so that it can all be too distracting when you really should be paying attention. It is not just a alternate universe but a twisted and demented one; at times as scary as it is comically insane. Not one to be mixed with hallucinogenics. Graphically the game is highly advanced though perhaps expecting more of the current gen consoles than they can realistically manage. Any cracks in the game engine are covered up by some of the most intense and headache inducing lighting effects.
It was an episode of South Park, ripping into the pretentiousness of Inception, which argued that just because an idea is overly complicated and baffling doesn’t automatically make it the work of genius. That is certainly true to some degree here. Much like Lost, BI loves nothing more than to throw half glimpses and ever more mysterious clues in your direction which do little more than to raise yet more questions. Straight from the first scene you are bombarded with details which you can do absolutely with. The best you can manage is try to remember as much as possible and hope that ruined sponge bag of a brain of yours can recall them during the grand reveal at the end.
It has to be said though that during the conclusion everything does come together rather brilliantly.
The myriad of twists and revelations rest upon quite far fetched concepts which hold the fantastical world together and these aren’t sufficiently revealed to the player until the final section of the game, where they are suddenly thrown at you all in one go, perhaps in the hope that any plot holes will be obscured. Anyone unable to pay attention for longer than an hour will more than likely be completely lost.
But does this devotion to complexity and outlandish ideas make for good story telling?
Sure, the types who love the ambiguity of Lost and such will be able to spend years decoding what actually happened, lighting up forums and websites with furious debate over each minor plot point and obscure clue. You know the sort – the kind of people who love nothing more than the sense of superiority these things give them. But those who cant be bothered reading a ‘what really happened essay’ will most likely walk away with an unmistakable sense of amazement but only a limited idea of what really went on.