Bioshock Infinite Review

Some spoilers ahead. Not the big ones, but some.

I planned to start this review by discussing how most critics seem to love this game unconditionally, but in the few days it took to write it, the inevitable Internet backlash against all popular things commenced. So I’ll start by saying that the game’s harshest critics are, in my opinion, overreacting.

If nothing else, Bioshock Infinite has interesting things to say. The fact that it’s sparked such debate, even among people who think the game says nothing at all (and yet feel compelled to write essay-length diatribes about it), proves that. But I believe it goes beyond that. As a fusion of first-person spectacle, unwavering creative vision, and detailed world-building, it’s been matched during this console generation only by its original predecessor. It also has some fairly frantic and engaging FPS gameplay systems. But, like any creative work, it does have flaws that warrant examination. I’m writing this because the Internet seems to be lacking a hype-free, vitriol-free discussion about what didn’t quite work in a fantastic game.

To be honest, some of the bits and pieces that let me down might not have if I’d just stopped using the Internet three years before it came out. The onslaught of trailers and interviews leading up to Infinite’s release nearly put me in a hype coma. The gameplay demos were especially tantalizing, and sadly, large chunks of content from those never made it into the final game. For example, one thing that did make it is Elizabeth, your NPC partner with supposedly revolutionary AI. But I don’t think she made it through entirely intact.

To be fair, Elizabeth is one of the best AI companions I’ve ever had the pleasure of not being forced to escort. Unfortunately, she also bummed me out a bit. In recent interviews, the developers talked about her as if she were the next best thing to a real person. Maybe that unrealistic expectation is on me, but please, watch this video and decide for yourselves.

Anyway, Liz ain’t real. She’s well-animated and well-written and well-acted, and does all sorts of helpful things, such as give you money almost constantly. And who doesn’t like that? But something strange occurs when she starts moving through the environments unscripted. I think this is the result of an attempt to make her act as a sort of guide, running ahead of you to show the way, but this 1) doesn’t make sense, as she’s been trapped in a tower since infancy and would have no idea where she’s going, and 2) is unnecessary because the game already has a very slick GO THIS WAY system that activates at the press of a button (and is way better than the giant, glowing arrow from the original game). I imagine she works fine as a guide if you’re a run-straight-for-the-goal kind of guy, but I like to explore, and her habit of running ahead made me feel a bit rushed. She also tries to let the player keep up with her, which meant that, as I tried to move methodically through the levels, she kept running away from me, then back over to me, then away, then back, and so on, sometimes just running all over the place seemingly at random. The devs said she would’ve been less believable if she just stood around staring off into space, but darting back and forth in front of me like a bumblebee in a flower store isn’t much better.

I suppose it’s a testament to her overall design and writing that I nonetheless did become quite fond of the character. I particularly appreciated her presence during the numerous scripted events that let you maintain control of Booker (a storytelling technique that officially needs to replace cut scenes already) and during combat, when she throws you useful items at just the right moment. So yeah, I may have been too hard on Liz at the start. AI sidekicks are notoriously weird, and she really is one of the best of the bunch, so after an hour or so I decided to ease up and just enjoy myself. This was not difficult to do. Remember, I’m basically teaching a master’s course in nitpicking here.

But then, the game’s second act began — and with it, a MacGuffin hunt. Now, I have no problem with MacGuffins in theory — many great plots have hinged upon them — but when the characters habitually disregard all common sense in the pursuit of said prize, I start to have trouble suspending my disbelief. Warning: The next paragraph is where things get spoilery.

During this part of the game, Booker’s goal is to acquire an airship and escape Columbia with Liz. The leader of local rebel group the Vox Populi offers to give him one in exchange for guns. Unfortunately, when Booker and Elizabeth find the local rebel-friendly gun maker, he’s come down with a bad case of dead. So what do they do? Why, use Elizabeth’s reality-bending powers to tear holes in the universe and muck about with space-time, of course! And they keep doing it, even when things really start to go to hell, all while disregarding several big, flashing Get Out of Jail Free cards, such as the fact that when you kill enemies, those enemies drop guns, and there are LOTS of enemies, and you kill pretty much all of them. Could they have solved all their problems with a few large burlap sacks? Or by simply finding another guy who makes guns? Or by skipping the Vox altogether and grabbing one of the dozens of other airships floating around Columbia? Hell, Booker actually boards, takes over, and blows up at least one of them during the course of the game. There was literally a moment during my quest to find an airship when I was standing on the deck of a different airship, with Elizabeth behind me and the controls in front of me, and the only available option was PRESS [F] TO DESTROY ENGINE.

I guess it’s possible I missed a quick line of dialogue that explained it away, stating that only an extra special MacGuffin-brand blimp could fly as far as they needed to go — hell, this is downright plausible considering the 80 optional audio logs that fill in so many other apparent plot holes — but there were still better options than smashing a bunch of universes together just to see what would happen. Then again, that would’ve made the game half as long, and I was enjoying myself too much to want that. Plus, the payoff for those logical leaps of faith provided some great narrative moments. It just felt like the writers expected us to appreciate the cool ideas without thinking too hard about how we got there.

But man, some of those ideas really were fun.  Despite all the plot holes that are only kinda plot holes, Infinite’s narrative works, because it’s really just about this man and the terrible decisions he has made. I can’t say whether it makes any sense from a scientific perspective, but as a story that’s equal parts swashbuckling action and character-driven tragedy, it mostly follows its own logic and has a surprisingly elegant conclusion. There is, however, one other plot-related area that really left me wanting more: the bad guys.

Next to Andrew Ryan from the first game, Comstock comes off less “evil genius” and more “crazy sky racist.” Only near the end did his character undergo a reversal that genuinely creeped me out. The first Bioshock also had the iconic Big Daddies, who were appealing not only thanks to their striking look and tragic backstory, but also because we encountered them repeatedly throughout the game. They were the wild card always lurking around the next corner. Infinite’s enemies are a bit too varied and numerous, and as a result, we don’t get to know any of them all that well.

The most striking examples are the Songbird and the Handyman. From a gameplay perspective, handymen play a large role, leaping into battles with a ferocity and speed seldom seen in video games even while screaming things like “Why are you doing this?” and coughing like a chain-smoker. They’re a fascinating reflection of The Many from System Shock 2, but we never find out much about them aside from a few quick bits of dialogue and a poster or two, and they only appear in combat three or four times. Songbird plays more of a story role, starring as Elizabeth’s tragic, force-of-nature protector. He’s not a boss to fight, the implication being that he’d wreck your face without breaking a sweat, and I think that’s great, actually — but we still only see him a handful of times. This might’ve worked if the beast had been kept a mystery and only gradually revealed during the game itself, but alas … he’s been plastered on all the marketing materials as one of the main attractions. It wasn’t exactly a missed opportunity, but a bit more character development and screen time (or, conversely, a bit more of the mystery monster vibe) could have evoked an even greater emotional response during the Songbird’s chilling final scenes.

I probably shouldn’t call this a review, considering that I’m rambling about a game with so many ideas, such sky-high ambition, it’s amazing it all works together as well as it does. Of course things were going to get cut. Of course it wouldn’t be able to overcome the mountain of hype. The fact that it came so close is remarkable. And yet I still feel let down. It’s not surprising, really; the game’s marketing campaign was a napalm strike. Years before it came out, we were watching extended gameplay demos that seemed too good to be true. Turns out they were. Much of the spirit of the demos made it into the final game, but scaled down, no longer following the script that made the NPCs seem so alive, no longer set in the levels so large and with so many things going on. The final product, though fantastic in its own right, can’t quite live up to the promises left behind.

But then, I’ve written about lesser games more favorably. I think that’s because they delivered more than I expected, while Infinite gave me less. Nonetheless, I hope as many people as possible play Bioshock Infinite. I hope it sells a bajillion copies. I finished it last week and haven’t been able to stop thinking about the plot’s many twists and turns, and how much I want to play it again on 1999 mode. Most of all, I can’t shake the feeling it provides something the industry needs more of: games that speak to gamers, that approach mature topics in mature ways, and do so using storytelling techniques that belong exclusively to the medium. The current state of the Internet proves that Bioshock Infinite speaks to gamers, regardless of what each person hears, and I love it for that. If I’m also slightly disappointed by it, well–that’s only because it came so damn close to being something even greater.

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