Thursday, January 9, 2014

Belated Bioshock Infinite Impressions

I am a horrible person worse than even the most salacious lows humanity can produce. Or at least that's what the internet would have you believe because I waited *gasp* eight months to finally work my way through Bioshock Infinite. How could I have committed such a crime against gaming? Truth told, sometimes life just gets in the way of playing games (even great ones!) and once I had moved past all the launch hype I didn't feel any urgency to rush the experience. With some free time over the holidays, I finally managed to give a proper play through and am ready to give my impressions.

If there is a (slight) advantage to playing through a game late, it's that I am less apt to be swept up in the release hype. Bioshock Infinite was receiving massive praise and was dominating gaming podcasts and editorials for weeks after launch. Everyone was pretty much saying that it was the greatest thing since sliced bread and many were describing some sort of transcendent experience while playing. I can only speculate if I would have felt the same if I played the game earlier but, as it stands, I feel Bioshock Infinite is a great game but not the second coming. In fact, it isn’t even my choice for game-of-the-year (I picked Grand Theft Auto 5). This isn’t to say that Bioshock Infinite wasn’t worthy of the praise it was receiving but rather that the hype-train was fed a bit too much coal while it was leaving the station.

One significant factor that has likely diminished my impressions of the game is that I wasn’t a huge fan of the original Bioshock. Again, please don’t misinterpret; I thoroughly enjoyed the sights and sounds of Rapture but didn’t walk away feeling like I had a religious epiphany. In fact, I felt the twist of the original game was less ‘The Usual Suspects’ and more ‘R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps’ in its impact. I hadn’t fully sussed out what was going on, but when it was revealed I wasn’t exactly floored either. Oh yeah, by the way, spoiler alert – Bioshock has a twist at the end. Maybe I’m cynical or maybe I’m just not a huge fan of deliberate obfuscation with the intent to create a surprise ending – at worst it feels artificial and at best it feels like I have been following a baited hook the whole time. Some people like this feeling and enjoy playing through a second time armed with the foreknowledge necessary to spot all the clues strewn about… not me.

The most striking feature of Bioshock Infinite is its art design. The floating city of Columbia is a vivid portrayal of a warped version of early 1900’s America - vibrant reds and blues transition to murky greys and browns as the plot progresses and help to shape the shifting mood of the game. The cartoonish and exaggerated models don’t strive for realism but feel perfectly at place in the alternate reality setting; the robotic Patriot enemy, George Washington with a mess of gears protruding from his back and wielding an oversized Gatling gun, is a definite highlight. I was particularly impressed with the liberal stylistic use of cogs and wheels to drive home that the world is very much a product of mechanical design unspoilt by computers and other modern technologies. The scale is massive and the sights of monolithic statues, bulky airships, and a gigantic mechanical bird (dubbed Songbird) are captivating. Indeed, around each corner and in every new area you get the sense that no element is filler but is deliberately designed to enrich the world.

While it all looks amazing, I found the actual exploration to be quite linear. Although I only bumped into a few invisible walls, I often found the path before me offering few deviations. You get the odd chance to explore one of the local dwellings or creep across a rooftop but, more often than not, the broader world is closed off. There are few opportunities to veer off course and digress in areas not immediately relevant to the plot and I would recommend keeping your finger off the sprint button outside of combat to give yourself chance to drink in the available content. I understand the design decision here, it would be unreasonable to expect the same attention to detail being applied to huge tracts that the average player will never visit, but it is disappointing nonetheless.

Once past how gorgeous everything looks, I found myself confronted with fairly tepid shooting sequences. There are a few different types of enemies with an assortment of armaments and vigors (read magic powers) to dispatch them with. Vigors run the gamut of fire and lightning attacks to possessing enemies and can be combined in predetermined ways to create enhanced effects (for example unleashing a murder of crows on an enemy and then setting the whole thing on fire to create a hellish cloud of death). Also, various landscape points, called tears, can be manipulated to shake up the battlefield. These tears can be used to call in extra cover, hooks to reach a higher vantage point, or a turret to lay down suppressing fire. On paper, it sounds like a lot of fun. In practice, I found myself going back to a few staple powers and weapons to effectively progress; by the end of the game I found each battle to be a series of popping out of cover and stunning enemies with my lightning attack to line up easy head shots with my carbine. I’m sure more adventurous players will be constantly mixing up their strategies but the point is that game rarely requires you to do so. A deep bag of tricks is cool to have but feels redundant when you can  rely on any of them to get the job done.

Then again, Bioshock Infinite isn’t so much about stellar gunplay as it is about telling a story and crafting an interesting world. I won’t give too much away on the plot details but have similar feelings to the purposefully paradoxical ending as I did to the original Bioshock finale. Again, I didn’t fully deduce the big twist I knew was coming but didn’t soil my boxers when it was unveiled either. A bigger draw for me was the exploration of the themes racism, religion, luddism, and power corruption that permeated the main narrative. I also appreciated that the game rarely tried to force a defined opinion on these issues down my throat and instead presented them to me as various shades of grey (though generally darker shades) for my own ethical sentiments to mull over. Occasionally I found the protagonist's actions to be somewhat nonsensical but ultimately justified this as a manifestation of impulsive traits over deus ex machina plot progression. Booker is a troubled character how clearly wrestles with past demons. He is constantly reminded of the horrible things he has done and struggles to not let them cloud is present and future actions. Delving into Booker's psyche may not be Pulitzer prize winning material, but it is interesting nonetheless and a convincing enough driver for the plot.

I genuinely enjoyed my trip through Columbia and would recommend a visit to anyone who is in the least bit curious. I don’t feel it is the Mona Lisa everyone is touting it to be but it's definitely worth a look. I may not re-visit the world of Bioshock Infinite any time soon but that doesn’t mean I won’t hold onto a few fond memories.