First, a disclaimer: I haven’t finished Bioshock: Infinite. But that’s not a problem since it very quickly raises some issues worth talking about. I’m not that fussed if I never see the end – I don’t play games for the story and window-dressing, and fundamentally that’s all the team behind Infinite is concerned about. It builds to a narrative ending and forgets about the stuff in between.
The problems don’t lie in the gorgeously hollow (sometimes literally) visuals of Columbia; a floating, flying city in the sky, where a madman called Comstock reigns and where you, the player, must guide Booker Dewitt, the protagonist, down narrow streets toward a very personal goal.
The problems aren’t found in the racial appropriation that litters the set pieces with overblown caricatures; the writers handle theme upon meaningful theme with neither depth nor finesse, merely providing passing images that the player is meant to ponder through their blood-soaked screen.
And the problems certainly don’t lie in the heavy-handed emotional engineering that the designers are swinging for; Half-Life 2 had a much more personable and empathetic female AI sidekick ten years ago – the amount of drooling over Elizabeth in Infinite is frightening.
No, the problems lie in the gameplay, or lack thereof. Combat has never been a strong point of ‘Shock’ games (System Shock 1 and 2, and Bioshock 1 and 2). But the mechanics have become so diluted in this iteration that it actually gets in the way of the grand narrative. I fear that this is an insidious ploy by Ken Levine, lead writer and creative director of Infinite, and others – to make games entirely interactive films: good riddance to play.
Let’s look at a quote from an earlier, more free-thinking Levine:
“It’s quite different to, say, adventure games, which were the anti-emergent games. I never liked those, because you knew exactly what was going to happen. They were predictable, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. I mean literally predictable.”
How the mighty fall. Infinite is infinitely predictable. Not plot wise – the mashed-together gobbledygook about inequality, religious bigotry, idealism, idol-ism, debt, racism, war, regret, multiple timelines and quantum physics is barely discernible, let alone predictable. It is the game and gun play that are easily understood, leading to fire-fights that end up repetitive far too quickly.
Like in the previous Bioshocks, players have access to plasmid ‘vigors’: genetic power-ups that complement the shooting. These are a signature of the series, and yet feel totally generic, almost all having the same effect (a crowd-control or a direct damage ability). The most interesting would be Undertow, which flings enemies toward you, or off edges. Aside from that it’s almost a matter of deciding whether you like killing people with electricity, fire or crows. For something that could add spice to combat, it’s utterly mundane.
The other side of combat is, like with any FPS, the guns. And wow, what a selection! In fact, the game gives you two of every type (two shotguns, two rocket launchers, etc.)! This might be amaze-balls awesome if not for two things – you can only carry two guns at a time, and more guns mean more upgrades. These play off each other, as you can, for example, upgrade your favourite weapon only to discard it when out of ammunition/the situation calls for it, and then have to wait until you find it lying around again. You need to spend a ton of credits to upgrade most weapons, and the vigors also cost a hefty sum for an upgrade. It’s not about choice so much as saving.
The worst part is that it doesn’t matter. All the guns are as insignificant and unmemorable as each other, the bullets slapping the bad guys until that little red bar is empty. Mini-bosses offer none of the thrills of the Big Daddys from Bioshock, merely needing a few extra rounds. You’re given a massive arsenal to fight psychotic hoards, but there is no feeling behind it, no fear or trepidation. Gone is inventory or health management – when you’re low you have two options: Run around madly pressing the ‘use’ button to gather health/ammo, or wait until the invincible Elizabeth throws you a randomly generated package. More guns, more powers, more bonuses, more upgrades, ‘more’ options—Infinite is a game of multiple kitchen sinks slammed together, but none of them produce clean, drinkable water.
This could have worked as a big fuck-off CGI movie, and it would have had none of the hilarious gaffs and errors that game code inevitably brings. While I could go on—and there are many more fallacies to criticise—my word count dwindles alongside my patience. I’ll leave you with another Levine quote about scenes and story-telling: “You want to enter it as late as possible, so you are not spending time on nonsense. You want to get out as quickly as possible.”