Sunday, April 14, 2013

New Review; Bioshock: Infinite's a great and thought-provoking FPS, though ultimately falling victim (a little bit) to its mainstream aspirations

Bioshock was an FPS game for the art house crowd, with its Ayn Rand-inspired underwater city of Rapture holding no shortage of dark secrets, quiet corridors, and containing within its walls a subtle but gripping narrative. What made the game so great for me was that it took the usual FPS gameplay and turned it on its head; it wasn't simply about going from room to room and killing off random NPC characters, but it was an eerie title that wasn't afraid to slow down. To get under your skin; to make you think.

Bioshock Infinite is from the start an entirely different beast. It still has the artsy flair of the original, still has its incredible art direction, its creepy voxophone recordings, cool Plasmid powerups, and strong shooting mechanics. However, it does this in a form much more along the lines of a standard FPS game, and it's hard not to feel that a lot of the depth and subtlety of the original has been lost.

But enough about that. Bioshock: Infinite is a great FPS. The floating city of Columbia proves to be an incredible place to explore, one maybe not quite as memorable as Rapture but one still brimming with variety and imagination. It's a world that so willingly fled from the rest of humanity, a world that floats above the "sinful" planet below; a seemingly beautiful paradise with dark traces of xenophobia and racism lurking beneath the surface.

You play as Booker DeWitt, a protagonist who, unlike those of past Bioshock games, has a voice and speaks, playing a major role in the game's storyline and storytelling. He's tasked with entering Columbia to free Elizabeth, a strong character locked away in a tower, imprisoned by a man named Zachary Comstock, the religious fanatic who runs this floating society and who's worshipped by Columbia's people like a god. Booker and Elizabeth form a strong bond, with their well-developed partnership doing its best to anchor all the shooting (and there's a lot of it) in human emotion and motivation.

Your first half hour or so in Columbia is incredibly memorable; as the outsider, the intruder, you slip in amongst the people, trying to hide your identity as you wander through the city streets. It's a gorgeous day, and the people of Columbia are all out celebrating. You hear bits of dialogue as you wander through the crowds, ("did that waiter's accent sound a little...funny to you?") that gives off a slightly unsettling vibe, jarring amidst the colorful setting and the happiness of the people. You receive a telegram warning you that, for your own good, you should not betray your identity. Eventually you wind up in front of a stage and a cheering crowd, the curtain pulling back to reveal an interracial couple, tied up, with the crowd ready and eager to begin throwing rocks at them as they beg for help. A baseball is placed in your hand, with the game telling you to make the choice of throwing it at them or the announcer.

It's at this point that Bioshock: Infinite is genuinely scary, feeling more like a horror game than anything else. I'd have loved for it to have continued like this for its entirety, but, suffice it to say, your identity is revealed shortly thereafter, and you spend much of the rest of the game running from and shooting down Columbia's citizens as they try their best to take you out, believing you to be the fabled False Shepherd who has arrived to destroy their society.

And it's at this point that Bioshock: Infinite becomes a shooter, and though it's one of the best shooters I've ever played, a good deal of intrigue and tension is lost as the game goes on, and clearing out wave upon wave of enemies becomes routine. It's never without its fun, however, as there's some fantastic combat mechanics in place to keep things interesting. As in past Bioshock games, you fight enemies with a mix of Plasmids (powers that you acquire over the course of the game) and traditional firearms, and switching between Plasmids can be done on the fly, which is nice. You can carry two guns at a time, and plenty of ammunition as well, though not so much that you can waste it by carelessly shooting. Your shield regenerates, though your HP meter does not, so any damage taken while your shield is depleted does not come back until you pick up health packs or food items.

There is thankfully no limit to the amount of items you can carry, (if there is I haven't reached it) so you can explore the environments and pick up items without worrying about managing an inventory, which remains one of my favorite aspects of this series. As you explore you can pick up Voxophones, which are small recording devices that play you bits of dialogue, giving you insight into the world, its people, and their society. As is Bioshock tradition, these recordings are incredible and really serve to immerse you in this unique world and its twisted characters. Infinite struggles at times with the integration of these, as the frequent dialogue between Booker and Elizabeth can interrupt the recordings midway through. It's something that can be a little annoying, though the game gives you the opportunity to listen to them again or read their transcripts in the menu at any time, which is helpful.

Bioshock: Infinite adds the character of Elizabeth into the proceedings, and she proves to be a great addition. She stays out of the way during combat, searching the battlefield for items for you, including ammunition, HP recovery items, money, and Salts to recharge your Plasmids. If you're low on one of these and she finds one, she'll offer to toss it to you in the heat of battle without missing a beat, which works incredibly well. Later on, her own unique powers are revealed to you, and she can summon objects for you to take cover behind, or even automated weaponry to help you take out enemies. It's a very cool and well thought out addition to the gunplay.

Another awesome new feature is the addition of the Skylines, which Booker can magnetically attach himself to and zip around the battlefields on like a roller coaster. Though these are a little tough to navigate at first, once I got the hang of it I had a blast integrating them into my combat strategy whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Sadly, where Bioshock: Infinite sees a major step back is in the customization of your character. Past Bioshock games gave you such an incredible amount of customization options that you could use to grow and develop your main character, to really make him your own. To give you the choice between harvesting or rescuing Little Sisters and receiving more or less ADAM for this process. Bioshock Infinite scales this back considerably, with character advancement literally as simple as paying money to level your guns and plasmids up at vending machines and finding HP expansions in the environments. That's it. Hacking has also been entirely eliminated; an unfortunate loss, given how much fun I had with it in the original Bioshock. 

Going with its more traditional FPS design, Bioshock: Infinite does away with the Vita Chambers entirely. When you died in Bioshock, you didn't lose your progress, the game simply starting you back at a Vita Chamber with a small penalty. Infinite similarly doesn't take away your progress, though it takes some of your money and restores your enemies' HP just a little bit. But it starts you back, in most cases, right near where you died, and with much of your ammunition being somehow refilled, taking away almost all the penalties for dying.

Furthermore, there are almost no boss battles to speak of. Bosses may not have played a major role in past Bioshock games, but Infinite really hurts from its almost complete lack of any major boss encounters, with even the final boss consisting of (yawn) wave upon wave of enemies from earlier in the game assaulting you from all angles. Haven't we seen enough of this by now in modern Western game design?

Thankfully, though it's within the mold of a typical FPS, Bioshock: Infinite is anything but. The storyline may not delve as deep into religion and racism as it seemed to promise at the outset, and the ending, to me, plays a trick that feels incredibly cheap. It's also unfortunate that the citizens of Columbia didn't, in the end, serve as much more than a shooting gallery. Still, the story throughout brings you along for the ride, and the dynamic between Booker and Elizabeth is incredibly well-written and is delivered with excellent vocal performances. Troy Baker (Final Fantasy XIII, Resident Evil 6) continues in what must be his mission to appear in every single video game ever, and his voice is the perfect fit for Booker, somehow managing to bring both a toughness and a vulnerability to the character that suits him very well. Elizabeth's voice actress, similarly, does a top notch job.

Verdict: Bioshock: Infinite sees the series make huge strides into the role of a more standard FPS, and it does a great job at maintaining much of its artistic integrity even as it dumbs itself down (a bit) presumably to reach a wider audience. Like with many video games today, I wish the resolution to everything wasn't as simple as gunning down as many baddies as possible, because Bioshock has in the past proven itself to be much more thoughtful than that.

Still, what it does, it does very well. Bioshock: Infinite is a great shooter, one that tells a compelling tale that may not delve as deep as I'd have hoped, but one that nevertheless grabs you from the start and doesn't let go. Great shooting gameplay and an amazing setting help to make almost every minute of the game a fun and unique experience, even as you engage in yet another gun battle against nameless foes. Bioshock Infinite is a little too simple to provide as rich of an experience as the original Bioshock did, but it's a journey worth taking all the same.

Presentation: Great, if a bit straightforward, storyline, decently short load times, easy to navigate menus. Incredibly well-made game with much to see and do. Vast reduction of the "Good/Evil" choices that this series has done so well is a little disappointing.

Graphics: Though no longer as impressive as Bioshock's were back in the day, Infinite sports incredible art direction and smooth technical prowess, some framerate drops aside. Columbia is a world truly brought to life by incredible artistry.

Gameplay: Pushing Bioshock more towards your average FPS than it has ever been, it nevertheless does this very well. Environments are still fairly expansive, and you have the freedom, to a degree, (though it's almost never required) to backtrack. Solid character customization options that are a little too simple by series standards.

Sound: Music that draws you in without drawing too much attention to itself. Great voice acting.

Replay Value: Game ends at just about the right time. Downloadable Content is available should you want to pay (sigh) to extend the adventure. No multiplayer this time around, but that's alright.

Overall: 8.0/10

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