Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bioshock Infinite Sorta-Review

Bioshock Infinite is a good game. I'm just going to say that because I feel like if I don't hang that disclaimer up, I'm going to have rocks thrown through my windows by the time this hits publish. Because as much as it's a good game, as much as it has a lot of really interesting ideas and tends to snowball you with a lot of sights and sounds, I am really, really let down by it.

At first I felt like I had the issue of overfamiliarity. Instead of being in an underwater city full of magic powers and gunplay where the protagonist, bad guy, and support character are not quite what they seem, I was in a skyborn city full of magic powers and gunplay where the protagonist, bad guy, and support character are not quite what they seem. But let's be slightly more fair to it and Ken Levine – we are, after all, not playing Space Marine Wacky Adventures. Bioshock is in the title, and perhaps these things all come with the territory of being a Bioshock game, in the same way that Tomb Raider is inevitably about Lara Croft climbing and shooting.

But even then, Bioshock was a landmark because everything just worked. Anything that was in the game had a reason – the science-softening microwave in the form of ADAM allowed the rest of the game room to work, and everything that surrounded it tied into the central theme. Ryan's objectivism built a house in which genetic modification could flourish, but it inevitably collapsed as the abuse ran rampant, and Big Daddies served as both an ADAM tool in-game, a service in the game's world, and a metaphor for the downfall of Rapture.

Meanwhile, the equivalent to the Big Daddies in Infinite are giant clockwork robots with gatling guns that spout patriot mantra. Subtlety? Bioshock Infinite seems to say, What's that? If you didn't like our robot soldiers, try our blue-robed racist KKK knockoffs who worship John Wilkes Booth as though he were a golden idol for his work assassinating Lincoln.

It's like the creators never even played Bioshock – all sense of subtlety and world building feels like it's been dropped in favor of more gunplay and big dramatic events. Elizabeth's powers don't even really have much of an explanation that feels in line with Bioshock, almost as though they weren't sure how to explain it, so they just gave up. The presence of ADAM in Bio allowed for the existence of Plasmids. And in Infinite, there are Vigors, which allows the same effect. Now, how did Vigors get created? Well, good question, one that seems more an afterthought than anything, like they saw Elizabeth's powers that they didn't explain thoroughly and went, “YES! A loophole!”

Being fair, maybe the lack of subtlety was the point. After all, Rapture was about the power of the individual rising above, and that probably sounds pretty good if you're fourteen years old, so I can understand how it would come about there. But Colombia draws a sharp contrast by being upfront about its horribleness and how completely awful the entire two-thirds and slavery laws were. For that, in fact, I have to commend it – the barbaric way I ripped a man's throat out, after the drawn out intro of colorful utopia, honestly surprised me, and being shocked by Bioshock turning horrifically violent is like being surprised when Superman saves Lois Lane. It's no shocker this trauma only happens after you're asked to, well, stone an interracial couple to death. It is, no joke, one of the best moments in the game, and it's the first hour of gameplay.

And yet, when you get down underneath the polished presentation, the game feels a bit erratic in its focus. Bioshock, at its core, was about the folly of Randian objectivism. What is Infinite about? American exceptionalism, sure, but you don't have to dig very deep to find out that racism is bad, and then the black lady rebel leader turns out to be completely insane and homicidal (which tends to be a pretty significant issue), in which case so much for that. Is it about power corrupting? I can't tell, because after that the entire political conflict is dropped and it hopes you forget in the rush to find out what's behind all the mysteries. The end story is wrapped up well, but I find myself wondering what I was supposed to take from it. Was the theme of the story just set dressing, not really meant to be played with conceptually?

Daniel Joseph says that it's all about extremes at war, and how the middle – the working class – don't care about the conflict because they want stability, but (and I say that with full respects to Joseph) I don't agree because it feels more of a biproduct of the game's creation than its real point. Levine said from the beginning he was inspired by the Occupy protests and the Tea Party, but politically neither of them are as mercilessly evil like Comstock, nor are they as psychotic and bloodthirsty as Daisy Fitzroy. What, precisely, is Infinite's stance on this political agenda?

In the end, all I see Infinite telling me is, “Both sides are wrong.” I saw the post-rebellion civillians of Colombia evacuating for about ten seconds, and Booker mentioned offhandedly they were going “anywhere the Vox aren't,” and after that, the game barely mentions it, not even when the civil war has torn the city apart.

There are buckets of issues with making jingoism, xenophobia, and religion the focus of a villain. There are two sets of buckets of making the lady of color and revolutionary just as crazy and psychotic as the villain. But to introduce that everyone and everything sucks, then simply drop the issue and speak no more of it? A lesson or moral that 'Everything sucks, the end' is a shitty, lazy message, and I really expected more from the brain behind Bioshock, especially going in when he promised that he saw inspiration from hot-button topics of the period. Racism and oppression of the underprivileged are issues today, not just in 1915.

On the bright side, the game probably steals all of the awards ever for Elizabeth, who is probably one of the best sidekicks in gaming in recent memory, and not for the reasons you figure. Sure, she can summon objects as per her realitywarp powers, she tosses you fully loaded guns (so long as we're on about gameplay, that's a nice perk), and that's all well and good, but at her best, she's just a fun character.

At first glance, she seems to be set up to be a quirky maniac-pixie dream girl, replacing romance with a touch of parental care on the part of Booker, and while that turned out to be entirely the case, Elizabeth is everything I ask for in noncombat lady characters – she's determined, complex, shows surprising strength, independent, a lot of fun, and imaginative. There's none of the dainty frailness of a princess in a castle, Elizabeth is a fully realized character, and every moment of ambiguous morals, flaws, aspirations, talents, trappings, and growth all fit to her personality. When she sobs into her hands and lures Booker close enough to club him in the head with a wrench to commandeer the vessel, it makes her genuine moments of vulnerability (with Songbird, or when she attacks Fitzroy) so much more vibrant. Her moments of naiivity early on are endearing, but when her one ally (Booker) turns on her, she becomes cynical and distrustful. She's a complete character, top to bottom.

For what it's worth, the combat of Infinite is just fine for a shooter. The problem is, much like the rest of the game, I genuinely wonder how we got a Bioshock game that plays like this. Scavenging has been a core component since System Shock 2, but now it's been cut down to streamline everything into more gunfights. I feel like there's a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation here; did the lowering of stat adjustments on food render the Take button obsolete, or did they find the game more fun to just Take All at every turn so they lowered the food penalties to make it less frustrating? I can only imagine the next Bioshock game removes food entirely and just has you running over bodies to retrieve ammo.

It seems obvious at first to remove all the side content to Bioshock – like the hacking minigame, among others – to turn everything into either powers or gunplay, but the contrast of doing six different things at once made the hectic and panicky gameplay and dense atmosphere totally enjoyable. Walk through tunnels hearing 60s tunes, see a wandering Big Daddy and Little Sister, get into a gunfight with a group of Splicers, barely scrape your way through, hack a vending machine for lowered prices, get into a conversation with a crazy person.

Instead, Infinite is just a conga line of gunfights cut up with interesting story segments, and the spice has all left. There's optional quests that involve finding keys and going back to the last area and using it on a door you couldn't enter, but it feels like an afterthought, like the sandboxy world from Bio is just gone. Colombia never felt like a big city – it felt like Afghanistan in the clouds, a string of shooter setpieces I adventured to with some nice setdressing. It's just gunfights and magic powers and gun upgrades. Bioshock is now the Bioshock knockoff, in that way, like Singularity before it, even in the specific way it uses puppet shows in place of the drive-in movie advertisements.

The gun-upgrading is still there, but since you're only allowed two guns at a time and have to constantly swap out weapons, each upgrade loses meaning as you frequently have to discard your six-upgrades machine gun and shotgun after running out of ammo. You're never allowed to prefer a gun because of how frantically you have to keep swapping weapons. And there's such a ridiculous amount of guns, the upgrades feel vestigal at best. Remember when the hectic and panicky combat of Bioshock demanded upgrades to keep any level of edge over your opponents? Where is that now?

Why is the hostility of the environment not creating a sense of oppression and terror rather than just making the game into a shooting gallery where I sometimes summon turrets or possess turrets or shoot fireballs? Why is a Bioshock game repeating half of the core mechanics then applying them to a new system? The skyline is there, sure, but in a different game the entire mechanic would have had the whole game built around it.

Are we just doomed to cut down every aspect of an interesting RPG/action game in favor of streamlining the gunplay and turning every game into Call of Duty? Is this really what we want, deleting features instead of adding or improving to them? 

It's kind of relieving to see the reception first overwhelmingly positive then, after a spell, collect their thoughts and step away. It's important to try to go in unbiased, and I can understand the difficulty of doing that with a game carrying the Bioshock torch. And I'm really glad. Because as great as the game is - and it is great - the seams where one game became another are showing. And I really want to see the other game more.