Review: “Bioshock: Infinite”

WARNING: This review contains minor spoilers for Bioshock: Infinite, although possibly only in other dimensions.

Official cover art for Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock: Infinite is a “more is more” expansion of the Bioshock template, this time moved from an underwater city to a city that floats in the sky. Infinite inherits the strengths and shortcomings of its predecessors, but also makes some adjustments in level design and pacing that make the overall experience more satisfying.

More challenging, though, is Infinite’s complex plotting. The original Bioshock famously integrated philosophical concerns into a first-person shooter–quite an accomplishment considering that the FPS is the least philosophical (read: most dumb) gaming genre. Left Gamer Review, ever vigilant, thought many ofBioshock’s accolades were a bit excessive. The game’s critique of Ayn Rand was not particularly sophisticated, albeit well more sophisticated than Rand deserves. Much more interesting was the way thatBioshock told its story. The game hinges on a mid-game twist, handled so deftly, that it wasn’t until Spec Ops: The Line that we would encounter something comparably mind-bending.

Infinite has few philosophical aspirations, save for some wouldn’t-it-be-weird-if musings about parallel universes and quantum physics. These all collapse into a finale that is a bigger and louder ride than anything in the previous games, yet leaves one with the inescapable fear that it might not have made the slightest bit of sense.

You play as Pinkerton/private investigator Booker DeWitt, sent to the floating city of Columbia to free a woman named Elizabeth from captivity at the hands of Columbia’s leader, a religious zealot named Zachary Comstock.

Somehow, LGR is the only section of the commentariat interested in discussing the ways that Infinite borrows from The Tempest. (Or, perhaps more precisely, Infinite borrows from The Forbidden Planet, so this is Shakespeare by way of fifties-era science fiction–no need to be too impressed.) Aren’t modern gamers and publishers always trying to brag about how artsy and literary they are? Why aren’t the people at Irrational Games beating us over the head with how Prospero is Comstock and Miranda is Elizabeth and Caliban is a combination of Elizabeth’s dead mom and that crazy robotic bird-monster thing?

Admittedly we’re stretching a bit with that Caliban comparison, but still, the similarities are too many to be accidental. This main plot–finding Elizabeth, figuring out why she’s being held captive, learning Comstock’s secrets, and trying to escape back to New York–is extremely compelling. Unfortunately, it’s bogged down by an uninspired subplot and gameplay elements that have been a downside for all three Bioshock titles.

 

If only we could start some kind of separate society without all these job-killing regulations! Oh wait…

Comstock is a racist demagogue, so it’s only natural that he faces an opposition. The Vox Populi are introduced early on as a secretive, rebel formation that seeks to overthrow Comstock’s forces. LGR’s attitude toward the Vox Populi passed through a sort of Kübler-Ross-style stages of video game grief:

  1. Denial: Ooh, these Vox Populi guys could be pretty cool.
  2. Suspicion: Hmm. Seems like Infinite is cynically suggesting that the anti-racists are just as bad as the racists.
  3. Anger: Yup. Called it. Infinite is warning us that “the rabble” will go too far and end up being even worse than the racist dictator! Save us, Batman!
  4. Confusion: Wait, what’s happening?
  5. Acceptance/Boredom.

The story goes almost completely off the rails by the midpoint, so analyzing the Vox Populi feels about as important as debating the class nature of Koopa Troopas. Both are simply game obstacles. We would take the politics of the Vox Populi more seriously if Infinite did, but at about the third time–SPOILER ALERT I guess? Maybe? Is it a spoiler alert if I don’t understand it?–you cross into an alternate universe, the Vox Populi are completely dropped. They stick around as villains, but there’s nothing more to learn about them, and they disappear as a source of plot tension, and hence matter only insofar that they want to shoot at you, for some reason, and thus you have to shoot back at them.

The hops between universes are bafflingly complicated, but also pretty sweet. To Infinite’s detriment, though, they’re introduced in a cumbersome way, and feel at first both annoying and extraneous, even though they ultimately prove to be right at the center of Elizabeth’s mysterious captivity and Comstock’s villainy.

This brings us to LGR’s longstanding gripe against Bioshock. All of these games feature gameplay elements that interrupt the mood created by lavish art and sound design. The floating city of Columbia is splendidly rendered from start to finish. The previous games took place primarily in cramped, dark, underwater environments, so to see the spacious exteriors of a floating sky-city handled with equal grace is truly remarkable. It would feel even more remarkable if Infinite didn’t ruin the mood constantly with nasty little reminders that this is, indeed, a game, and games are, at their core, arbitrary collections of rules.

Each Bioshock interrupts itself with an excessive amount of “gaminess.” Here we’re using the word “gaminess” as the opposite of “immersiveness.” When a game is working at its best, the player feels won over by its logic. At no point when watching theater do we truly forget that we’re watching actors playing parts, but if we’re watching a great play, we tuck away the knowledge that everything is fake in a corner of our brain, and instead get caught up in the drama unfolding. A game works the same way, and this does not necessarily have anything to do the quality of its visuals or sounds. An old game like Super Mario Bros. feels immersive, not because we’re worried about the princess, but because every element of the game fits. We never say, “Fireballs? From a flower? Preposterous!” In the world of Mario, nonsensical elements are organized together into a coherent system such that little feels out of place.

Infinite, on the other hand, is such a mix of realism and silliness that you consistently feel snapped between moments of immersion and reminders that, yes, this is a game, and it has silly rules. You buy ammunition at a vending machine. You put on magic shoes that give you power bonuses or whatever. You heal yourself by looking in trash bins and seeing if someone has thrown away an apple. You see a whole pile of apples where a fruit stand was destroyed by the Vox Populi–but you can’t eat those, because they weren’t discovered in a trash bin or a crate, duh.  A real low-point comes toward the end, when you search a chocolate box at an empty candy shop and discover a hot dog, and then you eat it because your health is low.

These are common game elements, sure, but they’re outdated, and they’re at odds with all of Infinite’s remarkable atmosphere. Infinite adopts, unaltered, most of the gameplay mechanics from the previous entries in the series, often in ways that make little sense. For instance, Infinite gives you special powers called “vigors” that are fueled by “salt,” which are identical in function to the “plasmids” fueled by “EVE.” The original Bioshock featured villains devoted to eugenics and DNA-manipulation, so these quasi-magical powers felt like they meshed well with the story. The vigors feel out of place.  You gain powers by drinking different tonics, and then collect salt in order to maintain them. Why salt, exactly? Don’t know. Not explained. Mostly, it just seems like the special powers are part of the game because it’s a Bioshock game, and you get special powers in Bioshock games.

The skyhook is a new nonsense weapon that is more or less analogous to the Big Daddy drill. It’s a nasty looking thing, the skyhook, and does ferocious damage to people when you smack them with it, which makes sense. What makes less sense is how it allows you to fly. The first time the skyhook helps you leap into the air, Dewitt decides that it’s magnetic, and that magnets help you fly. Grand. Fortunately, speeding around on rails, roller-coaster style, courtesy of the skyhook, is super fun, so I give it a pass. It’s sometimes confusing to figure out exactly where you’re supposed to go once you’re on the roller-coaster, but it’s a nice diversion from shooting at things.

In the first two Bioshock games, the enemies seemed related to the overall story, too. The Big Daddies were part of the machinery that kept the whole realm functioning. They have analogues in Infinite that aren’t explained, like enemies who seem to be made out of clouds of crows, “firemen” with flamethrowers, and winged robotic George Washingtons. Fighting the robot George Washingtons is fantastic, and fits nicely with the way that Comstock draws on America’s foundation myths to support his racist agenda. The firemen and crow-cloud people, though, just seem like video game nonsense thrown in for an extra challenge, with little attempt to square them with the rest of the story.

Bioshock Infinite delayed

Clouds are fun

And so, when we learn that Elizabeth can create tears between dimensions, it just seems like another silly, arbitrary thing in a game full of silly, arbitrary things. You can see where, say, a better weapon is available through a dimensional tear, and if you ask Elizabeth, she’ll expand the tear, and then you can grab the weapon.

But what feels like a gimmick for fight sequences eventually emerges as the central mystery. Why does Elizabeth have this power? How is Comstock controlling her? Is Elizabeth the key to understanding how the city floats in the first place? And what’s the deal with that robotic bird-monster thing?

In the end, I felt like I never learned any of the things that I wanted to know, but instead was handed some dizzyingly dramatic twists that told me a lot of things about DeWitt, who is not very interesting. Perhaps we can debate in the comments whether these end twists make sense, but they seem somehow both exhilarating and deeply unsatisfying, both illogical and predictable. It’s almost narrative reverse psychology. Logic dictates that the biggest surprise will come from the ending that makes the least sense, so we expect a “surprise” ending, and even when the ending twists feel completely unsupported, it’s still hard not to get to the end and say, “Eh. Saw it coming.”

This is not to say that Infinite doesn’t do a lot of things extraordinarily well, because it certainly does. It would be hard to overstate the excellence of the Columbia cityscape, or to exaggerate how exciting it is to explore this big, steampunk world.

Previous Bioshock games were often weighed down by repetitive action sequences, and though Infinite isn’t terribly inventive, action-wise, it wisely puts some space in between fights to let tension build. It felt like hours before DeWitt even got around to punching anyone, which is an excellent departure from FPS tradition.

There’s an interesting discussion over at Kotaku about the violence of Infinite, which argues that the actual first-person shooting is at odds with the rest of the game. The moments without fighting are often the most interesting, plot-wise, which again speaks to the unevenness of the plotting. The intriguing, violence-free moments all relate to Elizabeth’s mysterious background, whereas the Vox Populi “plot” is really just an excuse to keep guns blazing.

Infinite does feature some particularly chilling moments, the best of which are outside of fight sequences. The moment when Columbia’s endemic racism is revealed is quite a shock. (In real life, seeing so many religious white people in one place together would’ve made us assume they were all racists, but this is a game, so the surprise worked.)

It’s a small, background detail, but when DeWitt and Elizabeth go looking for a gunsmith to get supplies for the Vox Populi, you encounter a terrifying “auction,” in which day laborers “bid” for work based on how quickly they offer to complete a task.

But Infinite ultimately must succeed or fail based on how players feel about the ending. We will, at least, give Infinite credit for trying. Rather than producing yet another game fighting through tight corridors under the ocean, Infinite expands its universe. Bioshock 2 merely grabbed hold of the story elements of Bioshockand offered an uninspired rehash. Infinite tells a big, thoughtful, complicated story with a lot of moving parts, but doesn’t always succeed in arranging these parts in a satisfactory way.

Bioshock: Infinite is available for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Mac, and Windows PC.

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