Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Review: BioShock Infinite (PC)

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I'm sure there are older, more technical examples of the Multiverse Theory in literature, film and academia, but I'm more familiar with Red Dwarf and the finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation. BioShock Infinite, so steeped in the theory, comfortably slots into the Top 5 interesting takes on Multiverse but the game lacks the ability to sky surf on the back of a crocodile so it's definitely not in top spot no matter how slickly the game presents the theory.

For all the cool-looking grandeur (which I never got over) of BioShock Infinite's floating metropolis of Columbia and minor commentary on religion, race, and class, the game doesn't do a great job of telling its story in a manner that allowed me to know what the hell was going on most of the time. If I wasn't hunting down the audiologs -- "Voxophones" -- scattered throughout the game, most of the game would have been a mystery because the characters in the story barely offer enough information for any of it to make sense.

“Make sense” is relative to the game world.

Even making an active effort to locate the audiologs, I only located about 65% of them. I ripped on Halo 4 for hiding almost its entire story in secret terminals, and the situation is a little better here since there are enough of them sprinkled obviously to at least offer some colour to the story. Most of the story is served up by the ever-present Elizabeth and bit players like Fitzroy, Fink, and Slate who have their own agenda as an armed uprising takes root to take down Comstock, the ruler and Prophet of Columbia. It's snippets of information most of the time, but at least the protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is an actual character rather than the mute persona of the original BioShock so there's a chance for some actual interaction.

There are occasions where exposition is going on -- clues being doled out -- during pitched battles or immediately before so the player doesn't have time to think and digest what was just said or revealed. No, the player runs around lighting guys on fire.

BioShock Infinite pokes a stick into the same part of my brain that LOST and X-Files liked to prod in the past. There are answers with no questions and vice versa. Some of them aren't even in the game but my mind reels off on some tangent trying to connect dots that probably shouldn't been connected. Or the other dots aren't there.

So, I'm left making up imaginary connections to dots that don't exist for a story that could have been told a little better. That's definitely something Halo 4 was unable to do: engage me with the story and world.

For all the layered plots and "twist" ending -- you'll suspect it's coming if you pay attention -- BioShock Infinite's combat is good. The environments in which the fighting takes place is interesting only 30% of time -- basically it's one fighting arena broken up by simple corridors like most every other shooter available. At least in BioShock Infinite I can sic crows on groups of enemies or lift them off the ground to make an easy target as they run straight at me.

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A Chozo artifact pursues Elizabeth and Booker for most of the game.
Don't you see it? BioShock Infinite bridges the gap to the Metroid universe!

The 30% that are interesting feature plenty of sky-lines in the barely disguised arena.

Sky-lines allow DeWitt (and Elizabeth) to "ride the rails" as it were, like some kind of aberrant roller coaster. While I've seen examples of some really interesting -- and fast! -- technical skills using the sky-lines, my use of the sky-line boiled down to running away or trying for a better position, particularly during any Handyman fight.

The Handymen are basically replacements for the Big Daddy from the first two BioShock games, but rather than a lumbering juggernaut, Handymen are simian juggernauts. Agile in a way you wouldn't expect like X-Men's Beast or the classic Spider-Man/Daredevil/ Punisher villain Kingpin. The movement is ape-like and there's some special consideration that goes into facing one, but it boils down to pumping as many bullets into it as quickly as possible. They don't show up that often but I can't isolate a single example of an impactful Handyman fight. The same can be said of the motorized Patriots. The first appearance of this enemy is pretty cool, but subsequent encounters are rote. (Blast them with Shock Jockey, flank, and start unloading everything you have.)

Because it's all so neat to look at, it's easy to forget that most fights boil down to the same darn thing every time: the doors close and you must kill everything in the room.

Later in the game, Elizabeth's ability to "tear" items into the current reality is put to good use. Besides snapping cover, guns, salts (to supply the magical vigors), and turrets into reality, there's an instance of Tesla coils, which I was really happy to find. By the end of the game I really wanted to see something new or unexpected, like having her open a "tear" in the floor and have enemies fall into it. No, instead she brings in oil slicks that can be ignited with Devil's Kiss. That's okay but it's not very surprising at hour 10.

What would have been surprising is to have Elizabeth tear open a portal and have Half-Life’s G-Man poke his head through. The game was already massaging the connect-the-imaginary-dots part of my brain so why not open a pipeline to Half-Life’s version of reality? Infinite realities, infinite doors, and so on. Such a thing would have been the thing that launched BioShock Infinite from an above average and awesome character game (I include the city with the characters), to something that would have lit the gaming world on fire with a two second cameo. At least in the reality I just created by writing that sentence.

BioShock Infinite is a really neat game, which I'm glad I played. I'm not convinced it has somehow reshaped the genre or will be looked upon as the high-water mark for story telling of this or any other generation even if it did engage me. It’s a cool setting filled with all sorts of small touches that show due care and attention paid to the fiction Irritional created and the closing 20-minutes are powerful, even if the player does little except get an extended “explanation” but I'd dispute the notion that this is somehow the pinnacle of video games because there's enough that's simply average, like the actual layout of the levels (aside from sky-lines), that those making this claim are simply seeing something that isn't present in this dimension.

- Aaron Simmer

The Good:
- Riding the sky-lines really does offer "on rails" action
- Story pings the LOST and X-Files part of my brain where there are always more questions than answers (some questions of my own doing)
- Columbia is like touring an alternate universe

The Bad:
- Aside from Columbia, memorable characters seem to be in short supply
- The cursed number 3 shows up! C'mon, Irrational!
- Clothing "upgrades" seem like an after thought and I never bothered with them outside of picking them up

Score: 8.5 / 10