Bioshock Infinite Review
Shaun: This week, Jason and I are tackling a dual review of a little game you may or may not have heard of called BioShock Infinite. Our review of BioShock: Infinite isn’t going to tell you anything you didn’t already know. Infinite is good. Very good. You should be playing it. But what we do want to address is this sentiment that Infinite is not only the game of the year (which is ridiculous, as it’s only April), but also a modern day masterpiece, and one of the best games ever made. We’ll explore these claims, and decide if they are outrageously baseless, or in fact, true.
Jason: And if our review ends up sounding far more negative than our final score states, just keep in mind that the strongest and most groundbreaking things in Bioshock: Infinite, are spoilers. So for your sake we’d rather not discuss them too heavily. Just trust us when we say that it’s worth playing despite its flaws.
Shaun: Through three games now, the BioShock formula has been solid. The combination of powers (Vigors) and gunplay keep the design fresh, and provides the game a unique feel from the other thousands of shooters on the market. However, I say solid for a reason; nothing here is outstanding. BioShock Infinite does everything well, but nothing exceptional, and certainly not better than many of its competitors.
Let me get it out of the way upfront that my favorite aspect of BioShock Infinite’s gameplay was Elizabeth’s support. Not so much the dimensional tears (I’ll get to that later), but rather, throwing you items when you need them. It sounds dumb, but I felt like the fluid interaction built camaraderie, and it was such a simple, fun mechanic to turn and catch items as she threw them to you.
With that said, as I played through the game, I couldn’t help but feel this was a downgrade from BioShock, and certainly from BioShock 2 (which was a retread that most people agree featured the height of the series’ gameplay). The Vigors are interesting, but in my playthrough, they weren’t as fun, varied, or practical as Plasmids. For me, it all comes down to options, and I never felt like I had that many. There’s a distinction you have to make when considering “options:”
Those that matter and change the way you approach the game
Those that don’t
So yes, I could push enemies off of buildings, or possess a turret for a brief amount of time, but it felt superficial and unnecessary. While it was fun to experiment, I always found myself just relying on the basic Murder of Crows Vigor for distraction to augment my guns, and nothing more. The inability to permanently possess machines was a complete liability, and the other Vigors didn’t provide enough of their own flavor to really get me invested in the system.
The shooting mechanics were tight, but again, once I found a couple guns I liked, the rest were superfluous. I can barely even tell you the difference between a carbine and a burst gun. Encounters boiled down to shooting galleries – the skyhook presented some different options, but again, why go through the hassle when I’m rewarded more for just getting the enemies into a bottle neck and cutting them down with my hand cannon.
Of course, you can get away with this technique – most shooters do – if you can alter the pacing and keep things fresh. Previous BioShock titles did this to incredible effect. Fights with Big Daddy’s completely altered the way you approached encounters, forcing you to use the environment, element of surprise, traps, and a plan. If you went in guns blazing, you were in for a very long, very boring war of attrition.
BioShock 2 took this to another level with the segments where you had to protect the Little Sisters. Instead of rolling through the level drilling unfortunate souls in the head, you had to make a stand, using your entire arsenal to keep the bloodthirsty splicers at bay. Combine that with the Big Sister fights, and the segments where you actually play as a Little Sister, and you have a great change of pacing that introduces different angles to your experience with the game.
Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand, is an exercise in static gameplay – how you approach most encounters in the beginning will be how you approach them in the end, throughout the course of the title. Riding around on the skyhook is fun, but brief, and while tearing portals open for things is fun, if you think of it from a game theory design, it’s basically just giving you resources, and allowing you to choose which one to have while abandoning the others. Good, but not great.
Jason: I’m 100% with Shaun on this one, and will even take it a step further by saying that I was able to get away with using Murder of Crows and Charge for about 85% of the encounters in the game. Could I have tried out and experimented with other things? Sure. But why would I when the combat really didn’t push me towards needing to. Now I will be the first to admit that I did not play the game on Hard, and from what I hear that Booker is squishy as heck on Hard. So it’s very possible that the experience would change a great deal if I upped the difficulty.
But, and I doubt this is just me, I don’t feel I should have to play the game on a “hard” difficulty to get a challenge out of combat. As Shaun mentioned, the first 2 Bioshocks were able to bypass this particular problem by mixing things up on you and changing the formula. Big Daddies, Big Sisters… the entire game changed as soon as you had to face them or protect your Little Sister.
The larger enemies in Infinite, while certainly no pushovers, don’t carry that same weight or sense of dread with them; especially the Motorized Patriots, who end up being repetitive enough that the game ends up throwing waves of them at you by the final battle. And don’t even get me started on some of the other of the “heavy hitters”… the “Siren” or “Boy of Silence”. Both of which are hardly used at all and one of them, I’m looking at you Silence Boy, are nothing more than a glorified alarm camera. Color me unimpressed.
Also, while I understand the fact that Columbia is a city in its prime and people aren’t exactly scavenging for weapons… does every human enemy in the game (with the exception of one particular area that you can skip 90% of with stealth) have to have a gun? Or a rocket launcher? Or a sniper rifle? Part of the visceral nature of the first games were being ambushed by splicers from all sides and finding yourself surrounded by dudes with hooks looking to gut you. When everyone just starts shooting at you and everything just turns into a firefight, then that tension lasts about as long as it takes to find cover. Which is to say, not all that long. Again, I feel they could have done better here.
Shaun: My favorite aspect of Infinite’s gameplay, I killed at least two extra hours in my playthrough scouring the levels for secrets and recordings. Specifically, the recordings were like crack to me; whenever I found one, I felt a spike of excitement, and immediately played it, regardless of the situation. The developers rewarded me at every turn for my persistence – every nook and cranny of Columbia has some part of history embedded in it, and some secret to be found. I’m already excited to start my second playthrough, just to find all the recordings, safes, and Infusions.
Jason: I agree, as the collectibles and exploration were easily one of the best aspects of Infinite. The use of Elizabeth, in particular, was handled extremely well. Simply running around a level would often lead to Elizabeth running a few feet away from you, finding something interesting, and then proclaiming out loud “Huh…” or “This looks interesting.” While some might argue that this is little more than a sexed up version of the dog from Fable 2, the fact that you aren’t digging holes and are actually trying to spot/pick up small items laying around the environment really made her help all the more important.
Likewise, her ability to pick locks and decipher Vox codes really added to the fun of exploring Columbia. I always went out of my way to track down code books or extra lock picks if I needed them to open safes or locked doorways. Exploring in Columbia was not only tangibly rewarding, but really helped build up your relationship with Elizabeth, who was now the sole reason you were able to get that awesome piece of gear located in the last safe you found. You really do grow to love the little gal. “ Roguish Type,” indeed.
Jason: Columbia is a rich a detailed city that provides players with an experience the likes of which I don’t think we’ve seen in gaming before. The earlier American and Religious overtones really helped to give players a sense that this was a city unlike any other, with perhaps one of my favorite little details being the group/house that demonized Abraham Lincoln, and treated J. W. Boothe as a hero. It showed just how extreme the people of Columbia were in their beliefs, and set a very different tone for the city than what Rapture had. That being said, I can’t help but feel that Columbia, despite how fantastic it was, was a little too fantastical. Perhaps it’s just me, but I walked away from Infinite feeling like I’d taken a stroll into a strange amusement park instead of a trip to a living and breathing city.
That isn’t to say that Columbia felt “fake,” because it didn’t. But Rapture was a place I believed could happen out in the ocean, whereas Columbia, thanks in part to its reliance on technology that literally breaks the walls of space-time, seems to be in some sort of limbo between real and fantastical. Much like the city itself, the setting almost felt stretched between two many places in history. It provided for a unique and one-of-a-kind experience; but where Rapture feels like a place I could (and should!) go back to visit every so often, Columbia feels like the kind of place that’s fun to visit maybe only once or twice. I think the creators sensed this too, hence the shout out to Rapture towards the end of the game. Had Columbia surpassed Rapture in this regard, than I don’t think that moment would have had the emotional impact that it had.
Shaun: I will agree that Columbia definitely required a greater suspension of disbelief, but what it lacked in coherency, it made up for with sheet thematic presence. This setting is a literal manifestation of the game’s various themes, and offers great, not so subtle commentary on the American ideal, now and then. The propaganda was incredible, and thought went into every single aspect of the world. I especially loved the segment of the game where Fink communicated with his poor workers over loudspeaker, trying to get them motivated despite their terrible pay, awful working conditions, and no upward potential, invoking speeches about moral imperatives and lions, cows, and hyenas to keep the employees in check. The richness of the world radiates with detail, and it’s a level of production that most games can’t even get close to. While I did miss the perpetually claustrophobic corridors of Rapture, and the way it took advantage of the diversity of its location – levels dedicated to how Plasmids augment surgery and trips through a crazy artist’s lunatic district come to mind – I felt that Columbia was an incredible location that I can’t wait to go back and explore further.
Shaun: And now we start getting into why so many people consider Infinite an instant classic. Allow me a brief anecdote:
After playing through Infinite for a couple hours, I had this strong desire to go back and play the original, and to experience the similar gameplay features that it did better than Infinite.
After completing Infinite, I don’t know how I’m going to get through BioShock again. Because while the gameplay is still superior, the characterization in Infinite is so superb, everything else feels like a void in comparison.
Seriously. I know you’ve heard it before, but the relationship between Elizabeth and Booker is incredible. It’s real, it’s fleshed out, it’s heartbreaking, it’s joyous. It’s everything about what makes real relationships so compelling, put into a situation where that relationship is tested and strained to the breaking point. It’s amazing what giving your main character a voice can do, and Elizabeth is one of the strongest female leads in the medium thus far.
While I can go on about their crazy adventures through various dimensions, about the anxiety I felt if she was being hurt and I was unable to stop it, the one moment that stuck out to me was so simple; Booker picks up and begins playing a guitar, while Elizabeth sings (beautifully) to calm a young, starving boy as she hands him some fruit. Sometimes developers get lost in the gameplay or the high stakes of the campaign, and forget to take the time on these small character moments. Infinite doesn’t forget; in fact, characterization takes top priority, and it pays dividends in soliciting a much more substantial amount of audience investment.
Also: any in-depth discussion would almost inherently result in major spoilers, so let me just say the Luteces stole every scene they were in, and were by far my favorite characters in the game. I’ll leave it at that.
Jason: Although I will go out on a limb here and say that you shouldn’t discount the characters in the first two games. While there is pretty much no way for any game to compete with Infinite in this regard, that’s just because Infinite prioritized incorporating Elizabeth into every aspect of the game. She is, with the exception of a few parts, with you the ENTIRE game. Combat, exploration… idle chatter.
The entire game is, almost literally, built from the ground up with the idea of you and Elizabeth working together. So while their ability to characterize Booker and Elizabeth is nothing short of revolutionary, just keep in mind that they build an entire game around accomplishing that goal, so they’d better have done a good job.
Jason: Now, I’d like to dive head first into the strength’s and weaknesses of Infinite’s narrative here, but there is pretty much no way to do so without HEAVY spoilers. I will say this though, my favorite part about the switch from Bioshock 1 to 2 was that 2 had a much more focused and personal story, and it all boiled down to the relationship between Delta and Eleanor. Infinite pushes this idea one step further, by making the game about Booker, Elizabeth, Comstock, and (to a lesser extent) Songbird. Although the story does drift from this a bit – I’m looking at you Daisy – it still manages to find its way home to our two main protagonists.
I’ve got two complaints about Infinite though, and although they may are minor, I feel they should be said. Locking off or limiting the players time in a given area is never something I’d consider a “good” idea. I understand why it has to happen sometimes, and I get why it made sense within the games story. But in a game where finding secrets and gear is key to your success, giving the players one chance to fully explore an area before they miss out on something forever is not, in my opinion, the strongest game design.
I also have to say that I wish the element of player choice had been embraced a bit more. I understand why, given the themes of the game and what’s actually going on behind the players eyes, it had to happen; but it would have been nice if the players choices were able to impact the game in more meaningful ways. Bioshock 1 did this wonderfully with the harvesting of the Little Sisters, while 2 did it by giving the player a multitude of morally gray choices and letting them choose what to do, both of which eventually led to events at the end of the game changing. Infinite sacrifices this particular aspect to tell a particular kind of story. I’m not saying they made a bad choice; indeed, I have to give them mad props for how layered and well planned out every aspect of each scene was. I liken Infinite to the videogame version of Inception, as the story is nothing short of groundbreaking. But they had to sacrifice a few things to get there, and I’d be remiss not to mention them.
Shaun: BioShock Infinite is unique in that the characters and setting compose such a predominant part of its narrative. Like Jason mentioned above, it’s hard to address the nuances of the plot without spoiling something, but suffice to say the narrative is very thoughtful and well done, and ending will be talked about for years. The ending is earth shattering and will stay with you long after you’ve finished (read the spoilerific explanation here). Jason’s points are well taken – never getting to backtrack is frustrating, even if it’s necessary and dictated by the narrative, and their is no choice at the end. Personally, I’m fine with that – I once wrote a piece where I argued allowing players to choose endings can so often weaken the narrative, as it did with BioShock, The Force Unleashed, and countless other games. But it is a fact, so if you feel the need to have options in your ending, you may be disappointed.
The simplified story of “Booker saving the princess in her tower,” is a simple archetype to allow for the less grounded narrative exploration, and in this one’s opinion, it was amazingly heartfelt, engaging, and immersive. Infinite is one of the better stories you will experience this year, across any medium.
Jason: What can I say? The game looked great; aside from a few texture loading issues and the fact that it isn’t really pushing the limits of the Xbox, Infinite manages to still somehow become something equivalent to a digital work of art. Is every building and street corner a pinnacle of art? Nope. But the city as a whole (and those skyboxes!) mix together to form a spectacular vista that you can’t help but take a second every now and then to stop and take in.
Shaun: I’d like to call particular attention to the facial details, which are a big part of the reason players can invest so much in Elizabeth. So conveys so much emotion in her face and through her eyes, and it always reflects how she’s feeling. While the game doesn’t go for “realism,” necessarily, in its art design, the aesthetics are gorgeous nonetheless, and exploring Columbia is always a visual joy.
Shaun: Admittedly, I’m not really much of a sound guy. With that said, I’m pretty split on Infinite’s music. The original compositions of classic songs were stellar, and actually shed a lot of light on the plot lyrically, which was a nice touch. They also nailed down the sound of the time period very well.
On the other hand, I felt like the game’s score was simply mediocre. Fine in its own regard, sure, but when I think about recent scores like Halo and Tomb Raider, I find Infinite’s original scores were much less impactful and memorable.
I also think it’s worth mentioning how cool it was that many of the sounds throughout Columbia were recycled alterations to Rapture’s. From the vending machines to the mission update notifications, the similarities were a great touch, and helped the game really retain the BioShock spirit.
Jason: I’m mostly with Shaun on this one, although I will say that, of all the music presented in the score, not all of them are duds. Indeed, both the “Lutece” theme and the five or so songs that make up the game’s finale are all quite good, and surprisingly memorable. But that probably has more to do with just how awesome both the game’s finale and the Luteces were (seriously, those two are the best part of the game) than it has to do with the score by itself.
Another thing I’d like to touch on is the use of modern day songs in Columbia. For those of you who don’t know (or didn’t catch on to it in your playthrough), almost all of the music playing on the radios and voxophones in Columbia is simply an old-timey remix of a more modern song. From R.E.M. to Creedence Clearwater Revival, you’d be surprised just how and where these classics show up.
That being said, I feel that the novelty that Columbia gained by taking this route cost the city a sense of history overall. Is it awesome to hear “Tainted Love” sung by an old jazzy singer over a voxophone? You bet it is. But it doesn’t have the same weight to it as hearing “Beyond the Sea” or “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” as you ran around Rapture. The soundtrack of Bioshock 1 & 2 added to the theme of the game while also giving you a sense of the history to the time period the game takes place in. Columbia seems to lack this somewhat, although it does gain points for being wholly original in its implementation.
So is BioShock Infinite the unequivocal masterpiece it’s being heralded as? Yes and no. From a gameplay perspective, certainly not – while very good, it’s not even the best shooter of this decade, let alone all time. However, that’s what’s so funny about BioShock Infinite, and quite a few other recent games: the phenomenal story and characterization trump any minor gameplay flaws. BioShock Infinite will be remembered and talked about for years to come, and has, in many ways, set the bar for weaving together environment and plot, as well as relationships done right. Elizabeth and, to a lesser extent, Booker, are very fleshed out, very real characters, and demonstrate just what the medium is capable of. With narratively moronic games like Gears of War: Judgement flooding the market, you owe it to yourself to experience the flawed masterpiece that is BioShock Infinite, and explore what storytelling in games can truly achieve.
Jason: I give BioShock Infinite 4.5 Roguish Types out of five
Shaun: I give BioShock Infinite 4.5 crack-laced Voxophones out of five
Overall score: 4.5 Roguish Voxophones out of five