Review: Bioshock Infinite

Never has a game troubled me so much as Bioshock Infinite did, after I finished it.  And that’s not “troubling” in a good way either.  Word of warning: this review is spoilers galore.  Most of the time, the reviews I write are intended to convince people to play or not to play games, without ruining it for them, but because this one’s plot is inherent to the entertainment value of the game, it has to be discussed in full, even down to the major twist at the end.

I get what the game was trying to say, its commentary about the state of most games today being predominantly on-rails shooters that gives you little choice.  And that the beauty of choice lay not in what one game can do for you, but in the wonder that is the entire world of video games – if we were to consider it a multiverse.  Open one door, and you could be playing Mass Effect, and another and you could be in StarCraft II.

Unfortunately, Bioshock Infinite took too long to get to this point, deviated down too many unnecessary subplots, introduced side characters that either proved to be red herrings to the main point, or were too inundated by too much side story.

Bioshock Infinite continues the tradition of delivering story two-fold, first by all the incidental details that one can uncover in the sights and sounds as you explore, and second, by cutscenes.  Unfortunately there were too many cutscenes in this game, and not enough incidental detail.  I also fear that as a pioneer of the audio log storytelling device, Levine overused it in this game to the point that it literally ruined audio logs for me.  They never felt like a treat to listen in on, because of how boringly and samey they were all written.

If this was a deliberate attempt by Levine to discuss the stagnant state of most triple-A video games today, by making his own game not any different from the rest, then he has done a pretty damn good job.  Because I found myself not really all that invested in the story he was telling, and the gameplay itself was by and large similar to everything he and 2K have done before.

They say that the best art treads a fine line of perfection and self-destruction, well Bioshock Infinite literally deconstructed itself and its predecessors in one fell swoop with its mega twist at the end.  Just like Elizabeth/Anna drowns DeWitt/Comstock in the waters, so too does Levine destroy his own creation.  Thankfully, art regards each individual component for its own merit, just as we would say Die Hard was great, but don’t fucking watch the newer ones, then I would tell people to stay away from Bioshock Infinite if you’ve not actually played the original two.

About the convoluted plot, it meanders, gets side-tracked with all the characters that unfortunately weren’t as well-written as any that resided in Rapture.  The Luttece twins were intriguing as omnipresent entities, with their dialogues playing off one another, and their little “choice” games that weren’t actually really choices – but in the end, they remained enigmatic caricatures rather than be emphatically shown as real people.  The sequence where you had to follow the ghost of Lady Comstock was a major borefest with the payoffs of learning more of the back story not really revealing anything of interest.  It’s like Levine and his writing team wanted to keep all the cards close to his chest for no other real reason than dragging players through the mud.

The entire Bioshock series has a penchant of creating people with immense conviction in their own beliefs and aims, that they’d do anything to get what they want, and the latest game doesn’t do anything to change that up.  I guess I was really bored of this premise, we get that all the villains are hard-up stubborn ass people who need a good whooping to stop them.  But maybe more so, the folk in Bioshock Infinite were written even more as either villainous bigoted oppressors or downtrodden victims.  There was no in-between.  There was no moral play in this story, everyone was just out to further their own ends.  I was saddened by the tragedy of Andrew Ryan in the original Bioshock, but I watched half-bored as Comstock had his face bashed in by DeWitt.

This brings me to the most stilted piece of writing of all, Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was a nice companion NPC to have around, don’t get me wrong, but she can never live up to the fascinating realism of Alyx Vance, or the beautifully written sinister GLaDOS.  As a game mechanic she certainly gets out of your way in fights, but she might as well be a voice in your head, and it wouldn’t have been any different.  For the major reveal of her being your daughter, she wasn’t written well enough to be someone you had to do your damndest to protect.

She was presented as wide-eyed and fragile, but I didn’t care enough.  Elizabeth is your standard manic pixie dream girl, and certainly, she shows some growth, but it isn’t organic.  She experiences some shit, and suddenly becomes a lot more steely-eyed against it.  The only interesting part was when she regained full power at the end, and gets uber creepy in the way she talked to DeWitt as he uncovered his revelations.

Plus, I found the chemistry between DeWitt and Elizabeth to be a major fail.  I can understand how freaking hard it is to write a good dynamic duo, in any medium, but theirs didn’t work for me at all.  Interestingly enough, Dishonored had a better father – daughter dynamic and the two characters in that game said fewer words to one another.

On Hard difficulty, the game really frustrates, especially when Vigors are constantly depleted and fighting involves scurrying around spamming the Use button to loot fallen corpses for more ammo and supplies.  This is not a good game mechanic.  If all the items on dead bodies are worth picking up, why not make them all pick up automatically instead of requiring us to hit the Use key frantically?

This extends to the looting in exploratory sections of the game.  It worked well for the first couple of Bioshocks, because those games felt more like you were uncovering the mysteries and hidden corners of the beautifully desolate Rapture.  Here, the goal of the game was to get from point A to point B, and finding resources were just to ensure you could survive through all the human obstacles in your way.  I think it’s just that by this third game, the looting mechanic is fucking archaic.

The skyrails are an interesting addition but I felt it was a missed opportunity to not design in a sense of vertigo as you travelled along them.  I mean, if your intention was to make a game feel like a rollercoaster ride, then why not go all the way right?

It was unfortunate that the Songbird was underutilized despite being the best written thing about the game.  The way it died was the most resonantly tragic for me, reminiscent of the Big Daddy’s plight in its protection of the Little Sisters but it only ever showed up three or four times max.  And in the not-really-climatic final non-boss battle, it was quite literally “used” by you and Elizabeth to further your ends before being unceremoniously drowned – how hypocritical of us.

Bioshock Infinite’s major plus point is that it is eye candy to the max.  From the first moments you step into the city in the skies, I can guarantee your breath will be taken away.  There is nothing quite like what you see in this game in any other game right now, and when the major reveal happens and you look out at all the lighthouses that dot the landscape, Levine’s art and graphics team must be applauded.

But at the end of the day, a game should be merited for its gamic quality, and at best, like its predecessors, Bioshock Infinite is just a pretty rollercoaster ride with stops along the way to all the nicest, and more often than not, disturbing sights and sounds.  I think the best way I can describe Bioshock as a series now, is as video gaming tourism, with the addition of violent and artistic commentary.

I can only recommend this game if a) you have nothing else to play and b) have played the original Bioshocks.  What message it puts across by the end, its tribute to the games industry is wonderful, but it isn’t all that fun to play.  It’s also a little too on the nose with the commentary on racial and religious bigotry.  I’d like for it to be a lot subtler, to allow for more interpretation.  I want to be able to make up my own mind about things – but maybe that’s another point Levine was trying to make, that most other games try to shove their ideologies down our throats, and we can either violently rise up against or with it.

Talky talk

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