Saturday, 20 July 2013

Bioshock Infinite

The Title Screen

Released in 2013, Bioshock Infinite is a first-person shooter from Irrational Games for Xbox, PlayStation and PC. This is the third title in the 'Bioshock' franchise but shares no particular connection with events of the previous games.

Disclaimer : Standard first-person shooter violence, some minor language once or twice. Racism (especially against Blacks) features prominently in the story, but is shown in an appropriately negative manner. 

The First Thing
The opening moments of Bioshock Infinite were simply outstanding. The introductory experience to Columbia is very well done and pulled me in immediately. The opening perfectly establishes one of the early dramas with the contrast between the visual impressiveness of Columbia and the murky ideology it was founded upon. An innovative carnival of mini-games featuring different aspects of future gameplay struck me as a great way to introduce players to the game mechanics without immersion-breaking tutorials.

The Plot
It is 1912. Brooker DeWitt (you) is dropped off at a lighthouse where he has been instructed to rescue some girl to repay his debts. The lighthouse leads him to the cloud city of Columbia, a floating, American, ideological haven. Further investigation uncovers the underlying intolerance, racism and oppression set to the tune of religious fervour, perpetuated by the founder 'Father Comstock'. Comstock has prophesied Brooker's arrival as an evil "false shepherd" and events quickly turn nasty once Brooker is discovered. He must then fight his way through the city to find the girl and rescue her. But Elizabeth is more than a damsel in distress. She is special. Strange. Dangerous.


Bioshock Infinite is one of those games where the story is important and an unknown direction of events is beneficial to the experience. This makes it hard to comment on the plot without ruining it. There is a strong focus on character development as Elizabeth will accompany the player for a large portion of the game. Any cutscenes are short, in the first-person perspective, with the player usually in control. Characters drive events with dialogue and actions, and like the previous two Bioshock games audio journals can be discovered scattered around to provide further background and context. Many journals are hidden to encourage exploration and are often the 'reward' for doing so.

It should be noted that unlike Bioshock where player must learn about the mythical-like city and the catastrophe that happened, here the player drives the catastrophe. Consequently there is only half as much explanation required.

The Game
The best way to summarise Bioshock Infinite would be: a first-person shooter with a strong focus on story development. The player has a choice of magic-like powers ("Vigors") and can use them in conjunction with ordinary guns to defeat enemies. Using a Vigor consumes some 'mana' resource ("Salt") and is replenished by items around the levels. In a slight change from the previous games, the player is now able to carry around all discovered powers, but can only hold two weapons. The Vigors all have a secondary function that usually requires the player to hold down the cast button. Vigor abilities include some standards such as fire and lightning from the previous games, but also some new ideas such as summoning crows, and charging towards enemies.

Powers ("Shock Jockey") and Gun combat

Each weapon has its own ammunition, and all weapons can be used in an iron-sights mode; some weapons will have a scope instead. Ammunition is obtained from looting enemies, level items or vendors. It seems ammunition can be collected independent of the weapon and is held in an invisible inventory system. Health does not automatically regenerate, but the player will have a shield that absorbs damage up to a point and will regenerate if no damage is taken. Much like the shield in Halo 1. If the player dies in combat then they are returned either by Elizabeth, or to a recent vendor. There are no "Vita-Stations". Falling off the outdoor levels just results in an instantaneous return.

The player also has four 'Gear' slots which can be interchanged to provide bonuses. Hats, trousers, chest and boots can be found in boxes (often as rewards for secrets/exploration) and provide bonuses. They are often perks such as "chance to do 50% more critical damage" or "75% chance to set to set target on fire when using a mêlée attack". There is a reasonable amount of choice, if the player is willing to explore, but many of the upgrades are tailored to very specific playstyles.

'Silver Eagles' is the monetary currency for Columbia and can be found by looting people and objects. It is used to purchase upgrades to weapons and Vigors, as well as more basic items such as ammunition. There is a direct link between the amount of exploration, and the amount of currency. Upgrades are expensive and it is most not possible to buy them all. Health, Vigor and Shield amounts can be upgraded by the discovery of an upgrade potion. These potions are often the rewards of side mission or complex secrets and ask the player to choose which attribute they wish to incrementally upgrade.

Hook Jumping and Sky-line Gameplay

Brooker's permanent mêlée weapon is the Skyhook and this allows him to leap to specific highlighted hooks, or to the sky-line that surrounds most of the outdoor levels. Once on this rail the player can control throttle and change direction. They can shoot and target specific enemies to jump off 'at' in order to do a damaging attacks. This does not make combat trivial as many enemies also use the sky-line or employ tactics to force the player to dismount. The Skyhook mêlée weapon can also be used to perform executions if the target is on low health. A skull notification presents the opportunity for a small animation and target death.

There is no little sister or morality system and the game only has one ending. There are still occasional ethical dilemmas or choices. For much of the game Brooker will have Elizabeth as a companion. Her existence is largely for story reasons, but she does contribute to some gameplay elements. She does not take part in combat, except to occasionally throw items to the player if in need such as health, ammunition and salts. She also has the ability to unlock padlocks (a 'press button to continue game' mechanic) but non-story locks require lockpicks to open; which must be found. Elizabeth grants the player the ability to summon objects from time to time and is mostly used to provide tactical options in later combat sections.

Quality art style and graphical fidelity

The graphical quality is high, with a slightly cell-shaded art style. FPS was consistent except for one area, but a game restart cleared that up. Much like previous titles, the effort placed into the art style is extensive and almost 100% responsible for making the world interesting. All character dialogue is very well voice-acted and in Bioshock Infinite the protagonist is voiced too. The music is well done, with several anachronistic song covers lending a mysterious element (intentional and explained). The control system is simple, and mostly can be rebound. First Person Shooters are played with Mouse and Keyboard and I found no problems there. This is a good PC version. I encountered a few minor bugs here and there, but nothing serious.

Wrap Up & Negatives
There are two main negatives with Bioshock Infinite: the combat and the plot. The combat becomes boring quickly for a few reasons. Firstly, enemy variety is not that high and the AI is quite simple. I played on Medium difficulty and I really did not feel challenged at all. The smaller enemies are far too easily dispatched as the game progresses and although the larger enemies can withstand more damage this does not make fighting them harder; just longer. Secondly, the two weapon system is a very bad idea when tied into the expensive upgrades. It feels nonsensical to use un-upgraded weapons and for literally four-fifths of the game I used the machine gun and sniper rifle. The final levels try to force you to use different weapons and it felt awkward using un-upgraded guns I had never fired.

My problems with the plot may be subjective and I can not go into much detail without spoilers. But essentially I did not agree with the metaphysical direction of the story. The initial story is about race, inequality and human ambition which I found very enjoyable. As great a character she is, the introduction of Elizabeth marks a downturn in story enjoyment for me. Make no mistake, the plot is exceptionally well thought out and is central to the game. I just did not enjoy the direction it went and I started to find it a little pretentious, convenient and needlessly complex. It took me 9-10 hours to complete and the story barely manages to cover that; filling some moments with bizarre events that bear no relation to the rest of the game (the bit with Elizabeth's mother will strike anyone as random).

Out with the old, in with the simple (upgrade system)

Also, fans of the original Bioshock games may be disappointed by the simpler nature of this title. There is no assembling items from scrap. No ammunition management or swapping of plasmids/bullet types. No lockpicking or hacking minigames. No Moral Choices. A large amount gameplay has been removed or simplified for Bioshock Infinite. There is also an issue with the depth of Columbia. It appears to be large and interactive but then becomes series of large combat arenas. There is also no explanation about Vigors and how these fundamentally frightening powers slot into society. With Bioshock the plasmids were central to the plot, in Columbia they are just sort of 'there'.

If you had asked me what I thought whilst playing the first half, I would have told you it was one of the best FPS games I've played in a while - a true rival to the original. Unfortunately as the story progressed further and further into complex science fiction and away from the character drama I found I was enjoying it less. This is then made worse by the simple and repetitive combat. The story ending is fairly solid, if on the pretentious side, but the middle-late gameplay/plot was disappointing. A story like this was always going to be a challenge and I think the developers let it get away from them.

However, the amount of thought into the references, tie-ins and little hints scattered around the game was impressive; special mention to the Lutece's 'Coin Toss'. There is a lot to look back on at the end of the game. I thought the characterisation of Elizabeth was very well done and loved the effort placed into making her an interesting gameplay companion. A lot of the game in general was fun and the city of Columbia is an incredible environment with visuals that are frankly breathtaking at times.

In short, Bioshock Infinite is a good game... just not the fantastic title it started as.

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