Friday, March 7, 2014

Bioshock Infinite

Alright, time for this. I was really interested in this game from its initial hype although I cannot exactly remember why. I know for certain though that one reason was the introduction of Elizabeth because I'm always into character-driven games. As a game it's not mechanically that different from previous Bioshocks. There are however some things I didn't really write about earlier, and then there's of course the whole issue of Infinite's story - which is something that definitely needs to be discussed. For the record, I once again forfeited getting this game for a long time and then got it as PS+ freebie. I'm such a bad gamer, never getting games for their full price tag (that's not *entirely* true, but close).

1. Battle Arena Infinite

This is the thing I really want to get out of the way first. It felt like Infinite is structured differently (either that, or my memory of Bioshock 2 is not as sharp as I think). Splicers were present in small bunches almost everywhere across Rapture and could often be picked off without attracting the attention of an entire army. Not so in Infinite's Columbia. The player is fighting more organized forces - Columbia's security forces - and because of this each encounter feels more like an arena battle. I actually didn't like this at all because it creates an unwelcome bipolarity - battles are almost completely separated from rest of the gameplay. I wasn't able to pinpoint this earlier, but now that I think about this kind of bothered me in The Last of Us too. However in Infinite the problem seems to escalate just a whole lot more, culminating in the game's horrible final battle.

It's like every encounter in the game is deliberately designed shooter puzzle whereas in Bioshock 2 it felt more like just encountering splicers in their natural habitats. Sure, the fact the player is fighting organized troops does make this kind of design more plausible. Still it feels like no one's really guarding anything in Columbia - everyone is just waiting in position for the player to come along and be entertained. But I wasn't entertained. I tried to follow the game's plot but the game kept constantly interrupting me with these long-ass fights. Encountering an enemy here and there keeps exploration more interesting, but being interrupted by an arena battle at every turn feels like an obstacle course. Some may find this weird coming from a JRPG buff like myself; however, typical JRPG battles are short (and they're kind of the game's main content anyway). Battles in Infinite just seem to take forever.

The fact that Infinite takes place in the living city of Columbia instead of a dead one like Rapture sounded good on paper. However, turns out it means that most enemies will be ordinary soldiers with their ordinary weapons, and suddenly we realize that this right here is a problem. There are a few enemies that use Vigors (the game's magic powers) instead of guns, but there's literally just two types of them. Add another two special enemies: one a walking war machine and another a mechanical hulk... and that's pretty much everything. Variance has never been a strong point of Bioshock enemies, and Infinite only seems to make it worse. Arenas contain all sorts of tricks that try to make things more interesting. Skylines allow fast movement around the battlefield, and for the player to instantly pick off enemy soldiers with skyline attacks. On top of that, Elizabeth can pull things like weapon caches, friendly turrets and additional covers into reality.

Oh, and what's up with the weapons in this game? I have not seen weapons this incredibly boring since... well, I actually cannot remember. The fact that, yes, we do get awesome magic powers, is no excuse to use zero imagination with weapons. It should really be the opposite because there already is some pretty strange technology in the game. We literally get nothing beyond the standard pistol-shotgun-machinegun-rifle-rpg combination (ok, we get a grenade launcher-y thingy) and holy shit these weapons do fuck-all damage (at least on hard, not sure why I even chose that difficulty). We even get two different versions of each basic weapon and they are almost similar to use. What the hell? The biggest plus in this entire system is the fact that while the player can carry ammunition for all types of weapons, only two actual weapons can be carried at a time which at least kinda forces the player to try out most weapons.

The superpowers are pretty cool honestly, although even they felt a bit watered down from Bioshock 2. You can't really fight with just them though because the availability of salt (read: mana) is pretty low at times - so I just ended up using the most cost-efficient powers most of the time. Just overall I did not like fighting in Infinite as much as I did when playing Bioshock 2. I probably make it sound a lot worse than it actually is but you have to remember that the positives from my previous write-up apply. As a side effect of the way weapon carrying capacity is limited, the game actually doesn't suffer as much from the reverse difficulty curve problem. Indeed, the player cannot carry much of anything except ammunition and money. The last battle was actually the most difficult, although perhaps not for reasons I would have liked it to be.

It's worth notice that the battle arena format in itself is not necessarily bad design. It works just fine in many games that emphasize combat above things like progressing the plot and exploration. A couple of very recent examples would be Remember Me and Devil May Cry, or Vanquish if you'd rather compare Infinite to another shooter. Bioshock Infinite just isn't a combat-first game. At least I didn't want it to be and - looking at the amount of effort put into the game's world, plot and Elizabeth - I think neither did the devs. The (excessive) arena battle structure simply doesn't feel right for this game. It's actually something that's really common in games at the moment, and I fear after Infinite it's going to bother me a lot more than it did previously.

2. The balance of exploration

This is another topic that I could have written about a while ago, but it hasn't really occurred to me. It's a Bioshock tradition (inhereted from System Shock) that every corner shall be explored. Every desk, every trash can etc. can be opened and looted for various rewards. Recording devices make it extra worthy to explore because they give more information about the background story and its central characters. This is honestly just fine - I don't mind exploring when I get rewarded. It doesn't even feel too weird, because especially the first two Bioshocks lean into the survival direction and there is no rush to get anywhere. So yes, it does make sense to look around for money, ammunition and other resources. It's a bit of a different story for Infinite because the game is more about getting out of Columbia fast. Anyway it's not that relevant a topic.

I have been wondering about the design considering exploration. Exploration is in a way an interesting concept because at the same time it adds to the game's value through making it longer. Then again, at the same time it does to a certain extent detract from the game's value by making future encounters easier because the time went exploring generally translates into bigger resources. The ratio of this time-to-resources exchange depends heavily on the game as does the actual value of additional resources. The interesting question about this whole exploration dynamic is its balance point. When designing challenges of the game, what's the expected amount of exploration? If the game has a clear "main path", then it would kind of make sense to use resources along that path as a reference. But yeah, I'm just throwing this out there as a question: how designers generally approach this exploration-resource-challenge triangle?

3. Elizabeth

Spoiler alert!

It's hard to not write about Elizabeth. Her role in the game was hyped a lot by the developers and she does indeed play a pivotal role in the game's narrative. Once again I don't exactly remember what we were promised but it is very clear that Elizabeth's role in the game is getting heavy emphasis. She's this weird kind of a mix. In one way she's a fairy tale princess: she has unique powers, and she longs for freedom in the tower she's being held prisoner. In another way she's a self-reliant rogue-like character who can stay out of trouble in fights and scavenge her surroundings for resources. Even stereotypical helpless female characters come with some powers of their own these days as an attempt to make them contribute something beyond tits and ass. In Elizabeth's case clearly more thought has been put into the attempt but she still has the sidekick-y vibe.

The devs have gone perhaps a bit too try-hard though. They really want the player to care about Elizabeth. She gets put into scenes that show off how sweet and innocent she is; she provides her share of witty banter; and... boy does she get captured often. Towards end of the game there's a particularly cheap scene where she is basically tortured in captivity which I just felt was a bit unnecessary. I mean by that time it has been clearly established that Comstock is a twisted fuck, there's no need to underline it further. It's a common problem with game plots - everything needs to be taken into the extreme and stressed to death. I also don't really agree with the decision to make Elizabeth's head bigger than the other characters'. They did so to make her emotions more visible but to me it just made her feel a bit creepy. Besides, it's a shooter, and therefore perhaps 90% or more of Elizabeth's presence in the game is audio.

Basically the devs pull all sorts of tricks when all they would have really needed to do was to leave good enough alone. As a traveling companion I really did like Elizabeth. She has her own personality and pride, and her presence in the game brings it much-needed life. Columbia in itself simply isn't as interesting as Rapture, so the fact that there's a companion really helps. It's sad that she has to become a plot object in many cases.

4. The plot

Spoilers possible.

The game does have an ambitious plot and I think it's kind of the central piece, even more important than Elizabeth. I did like the plot itself. Admittedly I'm easy to entertain when it comes to plots. I don't really actively look for inconsistencies or stuff like that and usually don't give a shit about realism either. There are a lot of game plots that are so obviously stupid they bother even me, but I guess I'm willing to overlook more than the average game critic. So when a game like Infinite starts playing around with alternate dimensions I get in to the positive wtf set of mind, like I do when watching David Lynch movies. Infinite is curious in the sense that it handles its theme and plot with great care but at the same time botches horribly. The biggest problem is the really slow build-up - for most of the game hints are very subtle. Then the game goes and does the worst thing possible: it explains itself in one swift motion, at the end of the game. Although the plot is clever, it's disappointing when it's just laid out like that.

Other than that, the theme is handled well. Even some of the game mechanics are tied to the plot, most remarkably respawning when Elizabeth is not around to revive Booker. Windows to alternate dimensions also explain certain technological advances that are otherwise out of place, as do they explain certain similarities to Rapture. Elizabeth's powers also make use of the alternate dimensions theme and eventually we get to jump between timelines. The amount of dimensional travel is a bit of a letdown because there aren't that many jumps. Most of the game time is spent in one timeline. Likewise, the timeline where we spend the latter half of the game seems to be there just so even more enemies can be thrown at the player. It's not like we take a trip to witness a darker side of Columbia, it's a one-way ticket to a battlefield. The way a huge portion of the back story is told through audio logs is fine as it rewards exploration. At the same time, the fact they are not obtained automatically makes them more special to the player.

All being said, I did find this twine parody of the game incredibly funny (obvious major spoiler alert).


I could describe Infinite as a nice attempt. It's very promising in many respects, but also falls short with most of them. Like the plot which to me was perfectly fine, but then is kinda ruined with horrible storytelling. Another issue is that the game simply isn't structured to portray the story all that well, largely because so much time is spent fighting arena battles. The whole game is actually a bit like that: any progress is constantly halted with distractions. So I guess it's too game-y for its own good while at the same time not being that great as a game. This article was a bit rushed because I really want to move on to writing about Lightning Returns...