Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bioshock Infinite

Grrr - I accidentally hit Publish instead of Save a bit earlier today so if you read that version on a feed it was just the first few draft paragraphs. Oh and since I'm editorializing here - the snapshots below are all pilfered from the internet - not my own. One of these days I'm gonna set my screen/video capture stuff back up. But not today! And since this is a newer game I'll try to keep it spoiler-free, although that does handcuff me on a few things...

I just finished playing Bioshock Infinite on the PS3 and it was a fun game with a good story. Do I consider it worthy of the lofty 9.5-10 ratings that many critics are giving it?  Well no, not quite that high for me personally - so if you're a huge rabid fan of the game you might think my minor criticisms are heresy. But hey just because I don't think it's a 10 doesn't mean I'm trashing it. Since when did an 8.4 rating for a well-received game become a bad thing?

The game takes place in the early 1900's and you are Booker Dewitt, a Pinkerton detective who has apparently done some shameful things and fallen on hard times. Booker has built up a large gambling debt to some bad people and at the beginning of the game you are directed to "bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt" - an imperative that is repeated throughout the game. So you are off to bring back (rescue? kidnap?) a girl named Elizabeth who you quickly learn is being held in a city called Columbia which floats in the sky. The girl turns out to have the power to open "tears" in the fabric of the universe and not only see into alternate timelines but also bring things over from them or pass through the tear itself to visit the alternate universe. The rest of the game deals with your efforts to take this girl out of Columbia while hordes of steampunkian loons are trying to kill you. And between firefights you struggle to piece together bits and pieces of this mysterious narrative as you go along.

Everyone knows I'm a sucker for game trailers so here is the TV spot that first grabbed my attention. None of this is actually in-game footage, but it actually does a great job of capturing the general feel of the game. I kinda like the song too - although I've never heard the whole thing.

The gameplay is virtually identical to what you experienced in the first Bioshock, so if you liked that one you should definitely like this one as well. If you never played the original Bioshock - well it's considered a classic and lucky for you it is included in the PS3 version of the game so you can play both of them for the price of one!  Anyway, Infinite has the exact same kind of smooth FPS gunplay and same kind of genetic powers although this time they are derived from "vigors and salts" instead of "plasmids and eve" (six of one half-dozen of the other).

This makes for some pretty cool fights against large groups of baddies, but it does tend to get repetitive after a while as did the original Bioshock - one of my all-time favorites on the XBox 360 by the way. But of course you can level that criticism at most games, the key is whether or not the game can keep you from thinking "ok this is starting to get a little repetitive" and I did find myself saying that a few times here. Not a lot, as the story keeps things progressing pretty well, but a few times. There weren't any real boss-battles to speak of - mostly just hordes of small to medium-sized baddies. I think one or two bosses or maybe a cinematic set piece here and there would have helped break it up.

So the basic program is something like this.

60  GOTO 10

A common criticism I have about these kinds of games is that even though you have a large variety of weapons and powers to use, there is often no real reason to vary your use of them. You could pretty much just grab a machine gun and use nothing else for the entire game. No real need for different guns, melee, vigors, etc. You don't even really need to use your vigors at all, a fact the game designers were apparently aware of as on multiple occasions when I'm mowing down enemies the message flashes on the screen "Don't forget to use your vigors!". The game should not have to tell me to not forget to use something I don't need to use - the game should find a way to make me need to use it. There were a few exceptions, but generally speaking I would've liked to have seen a little more situational need for a particular gun or power to mix it up a bit. I assume if I ratcheted up the difficulty the need for strategic use of weapons and vigors would increase, but even then is there any major reason to use "charge" instead of "devil's kiss" instead of "possession"?  I pretty much just started using the vigors randomly so I could see what they all do.

Once you break her out of her prison, Elizabeth is at your side for almost the entire game. But you aren't forced to protect her - in fact she never even takes any damage whatsoever during fights. She pretty much just takes cover and throws you health, salts and ammo as you need them which is very useful. She can also open tears and bring things through like gun turrets that will fire at your enemies or cover you can hide behind - VERY useful! Unfortunately she can only open one tear at a time.  And she continually finds money and other things lying around when you are just exploring and throws those to you as well if you want them (and why exactly would you turn down free money?). So she keeps you pretty well stocked in the essentials. And of course she also helps feed you bits of the narrative as you go along which is the key driving force in the game - even though she doesn't know the full story herself until the very end.

One cool gimmick is the system of roller-coaster like "skylines" set up around the city that allow you to ride them with a grappling hook that you obtain early in the game. This makes for some fun action during some of the fights, but unfortunately in most cases the skylines are isolated loops around particular buildings or small areas so again you can't really use them to explore the city you just loop around one small area during that part of the linear story. I think it would have been more fun if you could explore the whole city on them like you could on the trains of Infamous for example.

They completely did away with the hacking puzzle minigame that was used in the original Bioshock - and I kind of missed it.  I've seen this kind of mini-game tactic employed in several games and I thought the original Bioshock implemented it extremely well. But in Infinite you "hacked" a mechanized gun by shooting it with the "possession" vigor and you opened locks by asking Elizabeth to pick the lock. The lockpicks are scattered everywhere so you never run out of them and thus that little mechanic felt like an unnecessary inclusion. I can only assume that the lockpicks are more sparsely available if you play through on a higher difficulty.

The story is both the strength of the game and also where I think it is most overrated. So forgive me if I sound a bit snarky here in places as I really did quite enjoy the tale but feel the need to take the unfettered universal praise down just a notch here.

The setting for the great majority of the game is Columbia, an impressive early 20th century American city that floats in the sky and is ruled by "The Prophet", who has some pretty rigid ideas about religion, patriotism, and race. There are some that are not down with his views so in addition to the native elite you also have to deal with the revolutionaries - but any moral distinction between the two factions is lost as it appears that they are all nutjobs and would very much enjoy killing you.

Columbia is populated with all sorts of technologically anachronistic devices. One of my favorite moments of the game is a small part at the very beginning when a jet-powered barge flies alongside you during a carnival and a barbershop quartet starts singing the Beach Boys' God Only Knows - not a big Beach Boys guy, but I've always been a sucker for harmony.

There are several different floating pieces to the city that make for cool environmental eye candy but you aren't really allowed to explore many of them so even though the setting has an open-world veneer it is in actuality quite linear. Which is OK by me as I usually find most so-called "open-world" games somewhat boring as they tend to lean far too much on meaningless tangential exploration to the detriment of the core story. Still, I found it a little disappointing at the beginning when I hurdled over a fenced edge into the sky to what should have been a fairly easy drop to a slightly lower floating building only to suddenly reappear back where I had jumped.

A minor thing that bugged me was that the vigors never really seemed to fit in for me in the context of this universe like they did in Rapture. In Rapture everyone was preoccupied with improving themselves to some sort of perfection through chemistry and technology so the practice of monkeying around with one's own DNA to gain bizarre powers seemed a sensible fit. But it just didn't seem to flow in Columbia. First of all, the vigors and salts and vending machines to strengthen them are located EVERYWHERE for the taking, but you rarely come across very many people other than you that use them. I suppose a bunch of racial supremecists would inherently believe their DNA is already superior and thus be hesitant to tinker with it, but it is made widely available and even happily given out for free with no apparent stigma at the carnival at the beginning of the game so that doesn't make sense. And wouldn't a lot of the downtrodden revolutionaries start juicing to kick some vigor ass themselves?  It almost felt like the vigors were forced into use simply because Irrational Games knew they were a solid proven fighting mechanic for the franchise. Yeah I know - that's exactly why they are in there. And yeah they're pretty cool so fine, I'll accept the shaky vigors premise.

With Elizabeth's ability to open "tears" into other realities, a large part of the game deals with alternate universes. I'm a sucker for alternate reality/parallel universe stories. Always have been. A Marvel comic book called What If was one of my favorite comic books back in the day. It would chronicle a well-known comic book tale with one small difference, usually at a critical juncture in the timeline, which would inevitably spin the entire tale off into some completely different conclusion - usually with rather dire results. It was one of the few comic books of the time that often had a dark or hopeless ending instead of a feel-good one. Somehow that appealed to me.

Also one of my all-time favorite science fiction novels - well series of novels actually - is the Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny. In it the royal family has the power to alter the reality they are in, not by entering a tear, but by taking a walk and mentally changing small details of their world as they go until they are in an entirely different world. Just a few weeks ago I watched Men In Black 3 - which featured an alien who could open tears of his own into alternate timelines very reminiscent of Elizabeth. The movie involves Agent J being caught in a villainous time-travel scheme and being forced to go back in time to stop it and save his partner Agent K from dying before they met. And even just last night I saw Looper, an alternate timeline-oriented movie which also has a number of parallels with the game. God help me I even enjoyed the Butterfly Effect with Ashton Kutcher - officially the only movie I will ever watch that features him.

So why am I mentioning all this? One - to point out one reason I really enjoyed Bioshock Infinite - I love that kind of stuff. And two - to point out that time travel, alternate universes and time paradoxes have been the core of countless numbers of fanciful tales for a long time and so I feel like Infinite gets a little too much credit on its handling of that front. Still, the wheels may be well-worn but the ride is still exciting and smooth. The ending was particularly good. It was thought-provoking, and even emotion-provoking, rather than your typical final boss-battle. When it flicked to black I sat there quietly just watching the screen for a while absorbing what I had just seen. It was so good that it brought the entire story that led up to it together and bouyed it up to a considerably higher point than it had been for the duration of the game up to that point. Even if I did pretty much see it coming...

And the floating city thing?  Well you can go all the way back to Gulliver's Travels for that one. And there have been several other SF/fantasy stories that have used that setting since then. So anyway, I'm not saying the game is cliche - in fact it might be LESS cliche than all the other FPS titles out there - I'm just saying that the fanciful aspect of it is not particularly groundbreaking in its creativity and I would assume that others that have read and seen the same kinds of books and movies that I have might feel similarly.

Finally, the game deals with some weighty themes like racism, revolution, fanaticism, religion and redemption. The conflicting juxtaposition of this seemingly idyllic Rockwellian community in the sky and the rampant racism and violence you soon encounter gives the tale a certain social gravitas that does add to its telling, but in my opinion also leads some reviewers to give it a little more credit than it deserves. To me the story handled those topics in such an over the top caricaturish manner that it seemed a bit amateurish - kind of reminded me of the juvenile sci-fi novels I used to get from RIF at school versus the more mature sci-fi novels intended for adults. The RIF books were a fun read, but the non-juvenile ones handled the storytelling in a more subtle and sophisticated manner. That kind of stuff has been the meat and potatoes for good science fiction for over a century - pick up some Huxley, Wells, Orwell, Heinlein. It brings to mind an episode of Frasier where Frasier and Niles had such fond childhood memories of a fine Shakespearean actor but when they met him again as adults and enticed him to act in a production of theirs they soon realized that his acting was overly exaggerated and melodramatic and they had simply not realized it in their youth. So to some degree I think Bioshock Infinite is that melodramatic Shakespearean actor and the gushing reviewers holding up 10's are the prepubescent Frasier and Niles.

So all that being said, yes it was a very good thought-provoking tale, but the reality is that the story itself, which is being praised as a brilliant masterpiece by most reviewers, would not be rated anywhere nearly as high if it had been presented in the more aged medium of film, and even less so in the grand elder media of a book.  The bottom line is it is a good story for a video game.  I enjoyed Infinite very much, but with the notable exception of the last hour or so I believe I still enjoyed the original Bioshock.

Graphics = Very good. Not muddy COD realism but more stylistic and colorful which is fine by me.
Sound = Excellent. Great music and sound effects. Some of the tunes during fights felt ripped from Wizard of Oz which fit the setting perfectly. The voice acting was also very strong.
Gameplay = Very good if you like Bioshock FPS play, although can get a little repetitive.
Story = Excellent. Although not as enthralling as some overly emotional reviewers have asserted.
My overall rating = 8.4

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Fallguy40 said...

It's nice to see games make strides in storytelling. Even if this one doesn't quite live up to the praise, at least it's a step in the right direction as the industry matures.

Games like Bioshock, Mass Effect, and to a lesser extent Uncharted, show you can take the basic repetitive structure of a shooting game and wrap it up with a compelling story to make the sum greater than its parts.

MadPlanet said...

Agreed Fallguy. More and more it seems that games are paying attention to the importance a strong story to the success of a modern-day game. And it doesn't necessarily have to be a brain-twisting innovative tale - a solid adventure with good character development can make for a fun game. And babes. Stories and babes.