Various comments on Bioshock Infinite

Not exactly a comprehensive organized review, but just a series of reactions I had. Focusing more on gameplay than narrative elements, since the latter has been discussed everywhere and the former is where I have some specific criticisms I want to highlight.

First though, a few loose comments on story (since I want to remain spoiler-free for now). The best part is the plot structure and associated twists. The game does have its “would you kindly” moment for sure, and the most important part of a story that visibly about a running mystery like this is that the reveal is properly anticipated (but not too overtly) by what came before it. In this they succeeded. It is rather enjoyable, bordering on necessary, to replay at least the opening portion of the game immediately after seeing the ending. You’ll feel some disbelief at the sheer density of clues, foreshadowing, and double meanings to which you were completely oblivious the first time.

The other story/atmosphere points I want to touch on are really gameplay comments in disguise. Combat based on big, open set pieces was new to the Shock series, and a setting that still “alive” was also new. Regardless of what you think of these individually, their mixture causes some deep problems with suspension of disbelief. Doing FPS-y stuff like looting everything in sight and leaving piles of bodies everywhere and fighting pitched battles with squadrons of enemies does not jive with a living, breathing city that you’re trying to take seriously as an immersive environment. I know you do those things in every FPS, but most FPSs don’t take a city and its identity as their main character. In Bioshock you explored Rapture once it was dead, and learned very vividly what it was like when it was alive. Deviating from that setup did not bring much of anything new to the table, and only caused Infinite to slide more into familiar FPS tropes than its predecessor.

Gameplay

The overarching theme here how completely different Infinite was from the usual Shock gameplay (meaning the SS2/BS1 archetype). There were pros and cons, but overall I would be happier if they’d kept it a Shock game at heart–an FPS with a very unique/immersive story is still a refreshing thing to have, but a Shock game isn’t something we can get from anywhere else if Levine’s crew moves away from them.

The most fundamental change, not necessarily good or bad, is that you can no longer carry health, mana, or large stores of weapons/ammo around with you. The upside is that your health/mana bars matter now–i.e. your health bar is actually your health bar, rather than having most of your health disguised in a pile of medkits in your inventory. It makes combat encounters self-contained–you have to get through each set piece with a fixed amount of resources, subject to your build. The downside it that it’s no longer a resource-management game, and there’s no question that long-term resource management was heart and soul of SS2/BS gameplay. Something like a regenerating shield, for example, would have been complete anathema to those games.

To their credit, this was largely done in service of a new combat dynamic–scrounging around for resources during combat rather than in between, which was actually a lot of fun. This also dovetailed very nicely with Elizabeth’s role, giving her a way to participate in combat that fit very well. It’s still a tradeoff though. To me, I really missed the main gameplay conceit of SS2/BS–each time I encounter something, what am I going to spend to deal with it? 3 Armor piercing rounds? The mana for one shot of Electro Bolt so I can wrench it? Bring it to a hacked turret but probably take some damage? Maybe I’m really running low on some things and it influences the decision.

Related to all this, something I started to mention earlier is that the sense of world was impacted negatively by the new combat framework. Resource-based combat works fine (works best even) when you move around a level often encountering one or two enemies at a time. It was great for horror settings, where that’s exactly the feel you want–exploring a level while not being sure what’s around the next corner. Changing the focus to big set pieces with swarms of enemies really contributes to another huge change from prior installments: the game is no longer scary. Exploring is completely safe, often because you’ve just cleared out an area and know there won’t be another big combat until the next one, also because even if you did encounter a random guard or to it couldn’t do anything to you that mattered. You’ll be full up on resources before the next big brawl.

One final point that was more of a straight negative for me was lack of character customization. This was the second main pillar of Shock gameplay, and unlike the above, I don’t see anything that was gained by carving it out. I went back and played BS1 for a few hours after I finished, and I’d genuinely forgotten how much character advancement that game had. At the time I looked on BS1 as a sort of stripped-down SS2, but now that seems harsh. It modernized SS2 with things like respec ability, but kept the main point: you have a lot of different ways to handle combat, even to be creative. BI retains some of it with the spells, but it’s harder and harder to get away from handling everything by shooting it in the head, and more of the spells serve mostly to facilitate handling/controlling large groups of enemies while you sequentially shoot them all in the head.

Conclusion

As far as conclusion to all this? It’s not that I didn’t like the game. But thinking through it in detail has caused me to solidify that initial uneasy “not as good as Bioshock” feeling (which is so easy to knee-jerk with sequels) and make it more specific. In some ways it made me realize that Bioshock was better than I remembered. Infinite limits itself by being set up like every familiar FPS and then excelling in a few specific areas (most importantly the detailed design of the world). But it can’t be more than a great FPS. Its predecessors are already widely recognized as more than that. It’s about more than stripping the “RPG elements” out of gameplay. In SS2 and Bioshock, the gameplay and narrative worked together to create an immersive experience. In Infinite, they not only work against each other, but much of the innovation that make SS2 and Bioshock unique is absent.

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