BioShock Infinite Review - Looks good but fails to impress as a tactical FPS
2K Software teased BioShock Infinite to massive fanfare at Gamescom 2010, and it won more than 75 awards in different categories at E3 2011. Released in 2013, the game was praised almost universally for its absorbing story, pristine visual aspects and setting, as well as the beautifully fleshed-out flying city of Columbia. Infinite took to the skies in a bold move, abandoning both the underwater city of Rapture as well as the storyline of the previous games in the franchise.
On the surface, at least, that seems to have been a masterstroke. Infinite opens with protagonist Booker DeWitt being blasted through the clouds in a wooden barrel, pushing through to reveal the glorious flying city of Columbia. A veritable steampunk paradise, Columbia is essentially a large interconnected network of flying ships ruled over by the eccentric tyrant Zachary Comstock. His chequered past and contentions with the United States government led him to secede from the USA and establish his own independent state, with himself as head of state, law and religion. Columbia is one of the richest game worlds set up for a single-player game, with a vibrant political history that mirrors post-independence America, with all its racism and conservative religious issues. Booker arrives with his mission to rescue a girl named Elizabeth (who has magical powers his employers want to use) in the midst of a political struggle, in the midst of an uprising of the ‘Vox Populi’ (voice of the people) led by the slave leader Daisy Fitzroy. Multiple voice recordings lie scattered around Columbia and picking these up allows the player to learn more about the story of Columbia and the characters we observe(or not, in case of Comstock’s late wife). This rich, layered background provides a perfect setting for an action-packed story when paired with the impressive graphics and soundtrack Infinite boasts.
Oh, the skylines. How can I forget the skylines? Scarce minutes into Booker’s adventure, the player is equipped with a magnetic grappling hook that can be used as a melee weapon to satisfyingly crush enemy skulls. More importantly, however, it hooks on to the skylines crisscrossing Columbia that allow Booker to swing from platform to platform in breathless and chaotic action sequences(more on this later). The skylines were touted as one of Infinite’s new innovations, accompanying BioShock’s signature vigours, otherworldly powers triggered by drinking certain potions. Other major changes in Infinite include weapon upgrades that now apply to all weapons of a particular kind rather than just the one equipped, meaning that individual guns are more or less identical to each other if they are of the same make. The player gets non-regenerating health and a fixed stock of energy which is expended on using vigours. Enemies generally spawn in waves and are not very powerful on lower difficulties, barring minibosses or bosses. They do, however, tend to be “bullet-sponges”, requiring quite a large amount of ammo to kill unless their heads are blown off. Melee is overpowered on lower-level enemies, but gradually gets less effective as one progresses.
Combat, however, is one aspect where Infinite doesn’t quite seem to have it all together. Arenas are large and full of cover, promoting a safety-first playstyle a la Call of Duty, ducking and popping up from behind cover. In addition, Elizabeth will often spawn new cover objects that further promote this style of play. The game does not really push the player to use vigours and move headfirst into enemy territory, a problem that is compounded by the fact that most genuinely useful vigours cannot be used more than two or three times before Booker is out of energy, making them unsuitable for taking on multiple enemies. Comparing this to Crysis 2, (Electronic Arts, 2011), which was another much-hyped game in the first-person shooter genre, shows us some immediate differences. Crysis 2 provides the player the option to play stealthily or to go in all guns blazing at any point of time, without encouraging any single approach for a majority of the game. This allows the player more freedom with how they wish to play the game and the end result is, in my personal experience, more fluid, explosive combat. Moreover, as YouTuber Mark Brown talks about in his series Game Maker’s Toolkit, the lack of distinct enemies in most situations does not force the player to prioritise certain engagements over others, which dulls the combat system to a large extent (https://youtu.be/-Bx5t0baXhc). Skyline combat, intended to be fast, chaotic and exciting, ends up as a disorienting experience that has Booker flying through hordes of enemies but never able to really engage in combat during the same. It is simply more feasible to swing around, find cover, and engage from a safe distance; something that becomes a recurring trope throughout every stage in Infinite. Even the new weapon upgrade system takes some of the fun out of the whole idea of customisation, as individual weapons cannot be upgraded or customised, an unwelcome departure from earlier BioShock games. Those iterations, as well as Crysis, help the player develop a particular type of weapon according to their choice and add a greater level of individualism.
Lastly, we come to the story. Despite having some of the most forgettable combat loops in a decade, Infinite was praised far and wide for its winding, but tight story with a twist to rival the greatest of thriller writers. Combining elements from history, post-colonial America and a driven yet weary protagonist in Booker, the story is one of the main reasons why Infinite gave me some reasons to attempt a full playthrough. However, that is in itself a problem. A good story should complement an interesting and entertaining game; a series of boring combat loops players grind through in order to try and get to the end of a well-written storyline is not a good look for a game of this (purported) caliber.
BioShock Infinite shines for its visual aspects, setting and tightly-knit story, but does not quite turn into the outstanding first-person shooter it briefly threatens to.