Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Bioshock Infinite

Post-Launch Review
Bioshock Infinite (PC)
Developer: Irrational Games
Released: March 2013
Played: story complete in 11h; Burial at Sea parts 1 and 2 complete in 6h


"Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt". Booker DeWitt is in deep but he'll be in the clear if he can finish this job. Sent to Colombia, a miraculous city in the clouds, DeWitt seeks out Elizabeth, who has been locked away in a tower for her strange abilities. But to escape the city, DeWitt and Elizabeth will have to contend with religious fanatics and a city on the verge of civil war - as well as Elizabeth's monstrous guardian, the Songbird.

At Launch

Bioshock Infinite received high praise, with review scores averaging 94%. Reviewers called it one of the best games of the generation, lavishing praise on its story, setting, and visual design. The character, voice acting, and interaction between Booker and Elizabeth was also well received, often called the core of the game. Most critics enjoyed the combat, but some complained that the limited escalation of weapons, upgrades, and enemies weakened the experience.

Post Launch

Several bug fix patches were released, solving relatively minor issues like the game not remembering your graphics settings or the guide arrow not being available in specific areas.
Three DLC packs were released. Clash in the Clouds adds a wave-based combat arena. Burial at Sea parts one and two tell a tale of Booker and Elizabeth in Rapture (the setting of the original Bioshock) which functions as a sort of epilogue to the main story.

Bioshock Infinite's plot is full of time travel shenanigans, but what I really appreciate about it is that it doesn't lean on the closed loop structure common to a lot of time travel stories, where the heroes accidentally initiate the beginning of the story at the end of the story. This structure can build some very good stories, but it eliminates the agency of the characters when the outcome is predetermined. Towards the end of the game Elizabeth talks a lot about the infinite universes created by choices, and in fact choices are made that alter the timeline for good, and we get to look back at choices that created whole universes. You, the player, don't really get to make significant choices - that's left to Elizabeth, figuring out and choosing the right path. But that's okay, because I don't care how linear a game is if the writing is strong enough to support it.

Elizabeth is a great example of how to write a strong female character (and character arc) without writing a man and calling it a woman. She starts out naive and vulnerable, having lived her whole life isolated in a tower with only a monster for a companion. But she's also extremely clever, often getting a handle on situations before Booker does. She's forced to go through a lot, and by the end of the game she's the one in control and holding all the power. To say much more than that is spoiler territory, so I'll just say that Elizabeth is a fantastic and endearing character with a lot of development (especially once you get to the DLC, but I'll talk about that farther down). She's also great in combat, able to take care of herself and even toss you supplies.
 Though to be fair, Booker is also pretty damn interesting for an FPS protagonist.
Elizabeth's curiosity and wonder helped me keep an interest in Colombia even after I had started to get used to it. Colombia is a gorgeous place. The environments and art are amazing, and there's a strong sense of the city's culture and religion, as well as snippets of its history. The public spaces did occasionally feel a little empty, so I would've liked there to be more people around the markets. But other than that minor complaint, Colombia is a very convincing place in terms of its appearance, functionality, and society.
A lot of reviews and gamers felt that the linear combat-heavy gameplay detracted from and conflicted with the story. I can agree with fights weakening the story when there are too many of them, but absolutely not with the idea that violence goes against the themes of the story. The violence is addressed by multiple characters several times. Booker regrets his violent past so much that he's willing to do anything to atone. Though he very clearly does his best to avoid violence when he can, he will not hesitate to kill when it's the only option. Elizabeth is pretty damn uncomfortable with all the violence and she makes this clear several times. As for the people of Colombia, well, the upper class white folk and the Vox Populi are locked in race-based class warfare. So I really don't see how shooting lots of people is supposed to conflict with a story filled with many levels and scales of violence and its consequences, both personal and societal.
That said, combat is probably the weakest part of the game. Not because it's bad - it's actually quite good. There are lots of options and upgrades and combos to play with. The skylines are probably the best element, adding some quick movement and verticality to combat arenas. Guns are fairly standard, which is a little disappointing when the first Bioshock allowed you to wield a tommy gun that shoots lightning, but the plasmids vigors create a lot of supplemental or complementary options, especially given that each vigor has a primary fire and a trap option available. None of the vigors really grabbed me, though, and I think that's because they're mostly supplemental rather than primary damage sources. Almost all of them are more for battlefield control than for damage, unlike previous Bioshock games where you could fight mainly with your powers if you so chose. 
On the plus side, though, there was no traditional final boss (aka the biggest complaint about the original Bioshock). There's a massive zeppelin battle with swarms of enemies, which is more fun than a big monster because you get to actually use all your resources and there's an appropriate level of stress and chaos.

When it came time to write this review I did a quick look at other reviews (as I always do) to write my "At Launch" section, and I finally realized the main reason I wasn't satisfied with the combat: the lack of escalation. The vigors and weapons you unlock as you progress are merely new options, not more powerful ones. The enemies don't really get stronger, so the upgrades don't feel very significant. This is most noticeable in that Infinite has no gameplay analogue to Bioshock's Big Daddy, a boss you really had to scout and prepare for that was tough to engage head-on.
Anyway, combat is fun and more imaginative than many FPS games, but the plot and atmosphere and setting were just so damn good that towards the end of the game I was starting to get a little tired of rooms full of guys.

There were a couple of... well, not plot holes, but stuff that wasn't explained to my satisfaction. What exactly are vigors, for example? Why are they so very similar to the plasmids of Rapture? And this Songbird... why does it remind me so strongly of a Big Daddy? Infinite is set about fifty years before the original Bioshock, so I was a little confused.
Getting to the DLC, though... Burial at Sea is a large two-part story pack where Booker and Elizabeth meet in Rapture (the setting of the original Bioshock). It's fantastic to revisit Rapture with upgraded visuals, and to get a glimpse of the city before it became the ruin of the original game. The level design is reminiscent of Bioshock's more open areas, with more freedom to explore than Colombia. The second part has you play as Elizabeth, with a bit of a different play style than Booker since she's not a trained soldier.

But to really tell you why Burial at Sea is so mind-blowingly incredible, I'm going to have to get deep into massive spoiler territory. Highlight the black bars to read.
So what really happens in Burial at Sea is Elizabeth's hunt for the very last Comstock of the multiverse, and her sacrifice to set in motion the events of the first Bioshock to allow the player character of the original game to rescue the Little Sisters. That's kind of bananas and turns the series into one big story instead of related but independent stories, and it does so as a result of Elizabeth's choice and not as a closed loop. It also explains all thsoe odd similarities I noticed between Infinite and the original - scientists from Colombia and Rapture are working together using the same tears that Elizabeth can manipulate.

The Clash in the Clouds DLC is wave-based arena combat. You start with no unlocks, and money from kills and bonus objectives can be spent on weapon and vigor upgrades. You also earn stat and gear upgrades as you progress. There's no story, just pure fighting. Since I enjoyed the story and its themes a lot more than the combat, and there are no real objectives other than to score high, this DLC doesn't really do anything for me.

Recommendation: play it.

Bioshock Infinite is an extraordinarily well-written game. There are some big mysteries and revelations to keep you going, with an imaginative setting, great characters, and fun combat and exploration along the way. But where the game really shines is in the Burial at Sea DLC and its ties to Rapture and the original Bioshock. Infinite was a very strong game on its own, but as a whole package with the DLC it's a masterpiece. I very strongly recommend playing Bioshock, then Bioshock Infinite, and then Burial at Sea, though I can't really tell you exactly why without spoilers.

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