Tuesday, April 2, 2013

BioShock Infinite - Some Great Ideas Disappeared Into the Infinite

Allow me to start off with a little history. In 2007, Irrational Games introduced the world to BioShock, a game about a man discovering an underwater city headed straight to hell. It was very inventive and told a rather brilliant story filled with deconstruction and an examination of player freedom in video games at the time, even if the last act did feel like padding past the emotional climax. Then in 2010 came BioShock 2, which saw a return to the city of  Rapture through the eyes of one already on the inside and built off the aftermath of the previous game. Its story wasn't as good and the overall design was very linear, but the father-daughter bonding was handled brilliantly and gameplay mechanics that were revisited received a welcomed upgrade. While fans were satiated by another go at Rapture, it would be the Minerva's Den DLC that would prove to be the best BioShock 2 experience. Though the franchise was successful through the adventures in the great city, many began waiting on pins and needles for the next project, known as BioShock Infinite (aka Project Icarus), which would take place in Columbia, a city in the sky.

The previews for BioShock Infinite presented a slew of incredibly innovative ideas and very unique gameplay mechanics. Among these would be parts of Columbia randomly failing and altering the environment, tears in reality being able to summon forth many useful things for battle, a certain character possessing telekinetic powers and more. Many trailers were released that showed off differing but evolving mechanics and styles that got everyone curious and excited, save for those who refused to touch this game simply because Rapture wouldn't be involved (except it is, so joke's on them). I was among the ones excited and, due in part to numerous delays, I pre-ordered the Premium Edition of the game and immediately began playing it whenever I didn't have college work to do. Over the next few days I experienced a story that managed to take what BioShock did and top it in a spectacular fashion, though I quickly discovered that it was nothing at all like the previews made it out to be, with many mechanics and ideas removed and improved until 2K Marin was satisfied with this final version. So, you may be asking, was it for the better?


For those of you still wondering, no, this doesn't happen.

BioShock Infinite, taking place in the year 1912, tells the story of a man named Booker DeWitt, who begins his journey by travelling via boat to a lighthouse in an attempt to meet up with the ones who hired him for a certain job. This job stipulates that if he wants his past debts erased, he'll have to find a girl named Elizabeth in Columbia and bring her back to New York. At the top of the lighthouse, he ends up climbing inside a pod that ascends above the stormy clouds and acts as a one-way ticket to Columbia, which is rather peaceful by comparison. After reluctantly accepting a baptism, he is allowed to enter the city and learns of a raffle that is to be held as part of a celebration for Zachary Comstock, the self-proclaimed "Prophet" of the city. Booker goes to the raffle and wins, his prize being the first throw at stoning an interracial couple with baseballs. As he makes a decision on what to do, someone notices an AD branding on his right hand, which automatically identifies him as the "False Shepherd", meaning he must now be killed before he can do anything that might harm the city. With the city now against him, Booker must now fight his way toward Monument Island to find Elizabeth, all while trying to avoid a class war between two factions known as the Founders and the Vox Populi.

For the first part of the game, Infinite is really good at discussing the sociopolitical and religious aspects of Columbia even after Booker manages to add Elizabeth to his party. The duo constantly come into contact with a dark side of the city that is thinly concealed by its peaceful appearance. It is ruled by the Founders, who worship the words of Zachary Comstock and the Founding Fathers of America, in this case George Washington, with the symbol of the sword; Benjamin Franklin, with the symbol of the key; and Thomas Jefferson, with the symbol of the scroll. It was clear to me from the start that these people come off as religious nuts, since divine worship of America's founders is not only odd, but rather extreme. Not only that, but their beliefs also act as a discussion of American Exceptionalism and how wrong it is, thanks to their racist and xenophobic views towards Blacks and the Irish, who are forced into slave labor and treated as lesser to Whites. This serves as a foundation for the formation of the Vox Populi, led by Daisy Fitzroy, who wish to overthrow the Founders and establish a new order. The way that the game handles these discussions is actually very well thought out and serves as a great driving point for the narrative, as we are allowed to see the class struggle from both sides and see just how different, or similar, the two groups are. It's told in a way that's smart and approaches it from an angle that doesn't talk down to the player and draws them further into the world.

This should give you an idea of how the Founders function.

Then after the death of Daisy Fitzroy, the game throws that all away in favor of exploring Booker and Elizabeth's characters, mostly the latter. This is done in tandem with the game's exploration of parallel universes by giving us an idea of how either of them would have lived if they occupied a dimension where a single decision or change significantly altered the course of history, which in turn creates a much bigger ripple effect than anyone could imagine. I liked the direction it was headed, but sadly the characters never seemed to return to their original timeline, in which an important character is dead and the alternative would have been to locate someone with a similar skill set to them. At this stage of the game it is still capable of weaving an interesting narrative, however it doesn't seem to quite reach any sort of conclusion that would tie things up or have the characters possibly learn some kind of important lesson that can translate to the player in the real world.

This still happens, but in a completely different context (and language).

This is where the very final act comes into play, its execution putting the problems with the narrative thread on full display. Not once does it ever decide to go back to discussing the differences between the classes and there isn't a point where it doesn't feel like two different story types put together. There are also some moral choices and minor decisions that Infinite presents its players that all seem to lead toward something unique or bring up the possibility of a radically altered story based on these decisions, possibilities that the game throws away when it gets to the ending. Yes, ending singular, not plural as expected. After experiencing the ending, I sort of replayed the game in my mind and realized that subsequent playthroughs would then be seen from this new perspective that would be very difficult not to think about. At the same time however, I have rather mixed feelings about how it turns out. On one hand it presents a rather brilliant deconstruction of storytelling in all mediums, but on the other it comes right out of nowhere, is a bit confusing at first, cheapens every decision made in the game thanks to them retroactively never happening and ends up tainting the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth a bit by killing any potential from them being a couple through a certain revelation that makes the latter a huge turn-off. This ending helps BioShock Infinite's story stand as an example of a game having too many good ideas, since it doesn't completely flesh them all out and it sort of makes me think of John Dies at the End (the book at least) in the sense that it comes off as two to three somewhat unrelated stories slapped together with a common ending, except the cult literary example given has the excuse of originally being an annual Halloween serial later turned into a book and this game is a Triple A production.

Where the story may begin to fray as it gets closer to the end, it is the gameplay where the experience truly shines. Combat in this BioShock is definitely more challenging than its predecessors, which I actually find to be a good way to get used to the new mechanics. Enemies show a good amount of variety in their AI and attack patterns and their designs are refreshingly based on normal humans as opposed to the off-putting Splicers from Rapture. Each enemy type emphasizes a different weapon and waves are patterned such that you have to really think about what you're going to do next, but even though I like these designs better overall, they do eventually grow a little stale once the only difference between Founder and Vox is their color scheme or aesthetic choice, so they lose a little of their unique flair toward the end and just become faces in the crowd. Ones that aren't shared between factions, such as the formidable Handyman or the ironically named Boys of Silence, are actually quite interesting and stand out the most. It should also be noted that Infinite doesn't really have anything that could be considered a Boss, but the closest thing to it is a fight in a graveyard that can become rather infuriating and is sure to cause people to throw their controllers in frustration on higher difficulties.

Elizabeth, the most expressive character in the game.
(No, that doesn't really happen, but you get the idea.)

Of course, it is also the weapons at Booker's disposal that help give the combat a certain flavor. Certain weapon types are pretty much retained from earlier games, with a couple of exceptions. The biggest is that weapons can have a Founder or Vox variant, which is to say that one had red cloth on it and the other doesn't, but also that the melee weapon in this game is the Skyhook, which can also perform executions and double as a way to get around certain maps quicker. The familiar Plasmids have also been replaced with Vigors, which operate in a decidedly different way. ADAM is no longer required to purchase superpowers, nor is EVE required to maintain their use. Vigors, of which there are eight, instead run on a Salts system, where they all share the same Salts bar but have a clearly defined amount of Salts they consume on each use, which forces the player to experiment and find one that they like (such as Murder of Crows for me). Vigors can also be upgraded with regular currency to increase the effectiveness of their unique abilities, plus they also share the same button contexts, which are basically a tap for a single shot and holding to create a trap.

The most fun thing about the Vigors however would be the combinations you can make with them. I ended up relying on Vigors and melee most of the game, with gun use increasing toward the end, so I found some combos that are really fun and surprisingly exploitable with the right Gear. In Infinite, Booker can wear Gear, which is clothing with enhanced abilities spread across four clothing slots: hat, jacket, pants and shoes. These can grant abilities such as earning Silver Eagles, the game's currency, each time you pick up a Voxophone, this game's version of Audio Diaries. Near the end of the game, I found a Gear that had a chance to gain Salts upon enemy death, which helped boost one of my favorite combos, which was most effective in enclosed spaces. The combo is thus: first cast an upgraded Bucking Bronco to levitate enemies in the air to allow for attacks while they are defenseless, then throw an upgraded Devil's Kiss to cause an explosion of fire with wide splash damage. If the targets are weak enough, they should die from this combo and that particular Gear will potentially award Salts for every kill, which has the potential to have an infinite Salts gauge if lucky enough. This is just one of the myriad combinations that you could discover, which is merely part of the fun.

Murder of Crows, the best Vigor in the entire game (to me at least).

The only real downer about the combat is that you can only have two weapons equipped at any time, which perhaps lessens the burden of carrying weapons you will never need, but sometimes the world is littered with a specific item to the point where I wonder if I made the right choice with what I picked (hint: the shotgun is your new best friend no matter what the room says). The same goes for Vigors, though you can access a scroll wheel with ease. The only advantage to the system in place is that you can easily switch between two weapons on the fly, and trust me when I say it's fast and best for setting up Vigor combos, but you'll also need to figure out the weapons you like and stick with them; trust me when I say you'll know them when you see them.

Map layout of the various parts of Columbia is also very well done. There is always a correct path to advance the story, but there also exist a number of secret areas that require either a good number of lockpicks or good exploration abilities to find. These areas are usually worth it in the end, awarding a high number of Silver Eagles, lots of ammunition, or even a good amount of Health and Salts refills along with Infusions (based on an idea for the scrapped Nostrums game mechanic), which can upgrade the Health, Salts or Shield gauges to allow an edge in combat. Each section of the great city also has its own set of visual landmarks and the areas never feel recycled from each other.

Though there is much blood to be spilled and those in charge are
kinda racist, it turns out that Columbia is a pretty beautiful place.

On the technical side of things, the graphics are the best yet in the series, with more dynamic lighting and open sky combined with areas that all have their own distinct feel and personality to them. Character models are very detailed and expressive, particularly Elizabeth, who has animations for when she just looking around the environment or assisting you in combat by throwing you useful items. The visual delight is one I won't soon forget, as it elevates the series, and perhaps the genre, to a whole new standard. Sounds are also very good, with well chosen effects and a voice cast that captures the spirit of the characters and world perfectly. I have absolutely no complaints here.

Lastly, I'd like to mention a rather unique difficulty setting known as 1999 Mode, which tweaks the game in a way that recaptures the design of a shooter from 1999. The game plays and is scripted exactly the same, except enemies are tougher, there is a higher money penalty for dying (100 Silver Eagles) and if you don't have enough money when you die, then it's Game Over and you are booted back to the main menu. I was actually excited to try it out and so I did in an attempt to complete the game a second time for this review, but I died so often in an early section, after getting Murder of Crows, with so little money that I decided to just stop before giving in to insanity. Though incredibly difficult, I'm sure that fans of 1990's shooters will definitely get some satisfaction from playing it and it is a pretty good self-imposed challenge, since it gets you to really ration your money and resort to scouting the environment more. (Note: Normally 1999 Mode is unlocked by completing the game once, but you can access it earlier if, at the main menu, you press Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B/O, A/X, Start. You're welcome.)

BioShock Infinite is a game that reaches beyond the high marks set by its predecessors in almost every way, but perhaps tries to tap too deeply into the infinite to come up with an engaging narrative. While gameplay is the best in a shooter yet, the story, shockingly, has too many good ideas to completely develop them and has pacing that can be best described as uneven. Shooter fans will no doubt love this game and those new to the franchise that haven't played the original should pick up the PS3 version, as it comes with the original BioShock on disc...if you live in America. The journey may be filled with excitement, wonder and tears, but the ending may cement one's opinion on the game forever and those uncomfortable with the idea of parallel universes should either think about it for a moment or try to go in with an open mind.

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