HIGH The classic revisionism of the Hall of Heroes.
LOW The lazy, pointless, and offensive "equivalence" narrative that opens the second half of the game.
WTF I've been finding machine-gun rounds in pickle barrels the whole game, but there's no ammo in this armament crate?
Like its series's progenitor, BioShock Infinite starts with a man visiting a lighthouse.
Booker DeWitt owes a debt to someone powerful, and to get rid of it he must visit a skyborne city and retrieve a girl named Elizabeth. BioShock's city of Rapture lay fathoms beneath the lighthouse, and the player had to fight metal "daddies" to (possibly) rescue little girls from it. BioShock Infinite's city of Columbia floats in the sky, and its ruler and prophet, Zachary Comstock is Elizabeth's father. The conflict between Booker and this "big daddy" drives BioShock Infinite, but this take on BioShock's concepts is more of a jumble than a remix.
The opening areas are marvelously designed and scripted, quickly giving a sense of the people of Columbia, the rhythms of their daily lives, their religious devotion to the founding fathers and the prophet Comstock, and the callous monstrosity of their racist beliefs. The independently floating segments of the city provide a reason to show a world in constant motion, and the brilliant, saturated colors of the levels do more to make the world feel alive than the NPCs, who almost always remain rooted to a single spot unless a fight has broken out. And a fight does break out in short order—one problem with taking on a prophet is that he can see danger coming.
As in previous games of the series, combat revolves around the use of of magic powers (here "vigors") in concert with weaponry. Similar to BioShock 2, both can be used simultaneously. Unlike the earlier games, Infinite balances a regenerating shield that must be recharged by hunkering down in cover against a health bar that can only be replenished through exploration and scavenging. The game makes mobile hip-firing a valid tactical choice but balances that against significant benefits for stopping and aiming for weak points. By supporting both mobility and cover, the combat system develops tactical tension that produces interesting decisions for a good portion of the game.
The core combat design does suffer from having too many vigors with the same set of tactical effects (damage + immobility + vulnerability) separated only by "elemental" affiliations. BioShock Infinite also makes the mistake of assigning the functions of reloading, grabbing weapons from the environment, and scavenging resources from corpses to the same button, resulting in a number of occasions where I accidentally ate a can of beans when I wanted to swap magazines. This choice is especially mystifying in light of the decision to assign a face button to the almost unused—and in the context of the game's mobile combat, unusable—"crouch" function.
Given his marvelous arsenal of powers and weapons, Booker has little trouble reaching the tower where Elizabeth has been imprisoned and extracting her. From this point Booker must accompany Elizabeth in an escape from the city.
This sounds like an escort mission, but in functional terms, it is not. Elizabeth assists Booker by finding ammo and healing items in the world or by bringing resources and combat support into the battlefield. If Booker dies, Elizabeth resuscitates him. Despite all the scrambling around she does, Elizabeth is never in any danger during combat. While this prevents the game from being a frustrating 10-hour exercise in protecting a hapless AI companion, it completely sunders Booker's view of Elizabeth from the player's.
To Booker, Elizabeth is a responsibility, someone he must protect from the dangers of Columbia. To the player, however, Elizabeth is an asset. In combat, when Booker's anxiety should be at its peak, the player knows Elizabeth is completely safe—indeed, that she will be helping him defeat his enemies. It is only when non-interactive sequences start and Elizabeth's fate is left to the developers that the player needs to fear for her.
This tension reflects a widespread and fundamental weakness in the game's construction—BioShock Infinite is strewn with poorly-tuned and irrelevant mechanics. The inability to carry health supplies and the tiny peripheral areas make the classic scrounging mechanics feel useless. The strict two-weapon carry limit makes the game's menu of overlapping weapons and their multitude of upgrades seem at once overwhelming and irrelevant. The lockpicking system feels completely superfluous, in part because side areas are so small, and in part because the only locks that really matter don't require lockpicks.
At least the combat feels like it belongs in this world and says something about the characters. Particularly when Booker fights his way through Comstock's "Hall of Heroes" propaganda park, the level design and combat encounters feel like they're addressing the heroic face Infinite's characters have put on their various atrocities. Unfortunately, this moment comes only a third of the way into the game, and afterwards the sloppiness increasingly comes into every aspect of its make. For example, Infinite's late-game combat zones tend to be large and open arenas with minimal cover and defilade. With enemies inserting and firing from all directions, battle becomes increasingly chaotic and lacks any narrative feel. Without interesting secondary antagonists or strong level design, combat feels directionless and perfunctory—an emotionless exercise in elimination, even when an evocative enemy does show up.
Booker's detour through the industrial area of Finkton is a particular disappointment. The industrialist Fink himself feels like a retread of ideas examined in Rapture, and when his downtrodden workers successfully revolt, they almost immediately become villains. The game's attempt to establish an equivalence between angry laborers and the dehumanizing system of oppression that produced them is lazy and unmotivated. Worse, it unavoidably endorses the views of Columbia's racist elites, for apparently no better reason than to give Booker differently-colored enemies to shoot at.
As the story progresses, Infinite gets bogged down in the quantum mumbo-jumbo it uses to explain itself, losing track of the details as it barrels onward through an ever-less-interesting landscape. The striking color palette of the early game fades, becoming more desaturated and oppressive the closer Booker and Elizabeth get to freedom. The game's locations become less evocative of the Columbian way of life, and their design contributes to the combat's decline, particularly in the meaningless battles that conclude Columbia's story. Increasingly, the porous logic of Infinite's story doesn't hold up under examination, and the game undercuts its attempt at a neat, tidy ending by preceding that with a twenty-minute explanation why it doesn't work. Skillfully-used plonky piano music and the shock of the final words and images carry the closing scene, and the impression it leaves is strong. The emotional connection it trades on, however, has almost nothing to do with the game's actual play.
The hiccups in its final moments makes BioShock Infinite feel like it's suddenly lost the thread, but the problems actually start far earlier. Fuzzy-headed narrative and thematically irrelevant auxiliary mechanics make Infinite feel sloppy even when it's working. Combat increases in frequency and decreases in impact after the Hall of Heroes, so for most of its length the game sinks towards a deflated ending rather than rising towards a climax. However, that slow descent starts from a great height, so there is still much to value in Infinite even as it drowns in its own shortcomings.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 30 hours of play was devoted to the single-player mode, which was complete once on easy and twice on normal difficulty.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, mild sexual themes, and use of alcohol and tobacco. All these things are true. Enemies will burn to a crisp, and their heads will sometimes explode if they are killed by an electrocution. There are also scenes of children smoking "Minor Victory" cigarettes specifically blended for kids.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game has subtitles available for most critical dialogue. However, when the screen gets very busy in combat, the ability to hear what Elizabeth is shouting and what sounds the enemies are making can be very helpful. As such, a reduced ability to hear will modestly increase the difficulty.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.