Or: "How I Blew My Chances of Winning a $2,400 Laptop"
By PinothyJ on January 28, 2014 at 6:42 pm
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BioShock Infinite has just been crowned Game of the Year (both by games.on.net staff and by readers), and I cannot say I agree with the decision. A GotY should be awarded to only the best of the best, not a game with as many gaping holes in gameplay, story and design as BioShock Infinite has. I originally played through this title on Hard so some of my criticism may be screwed differently than someone who played on the lower settings. Without further ado, let us jump right in!
A Whole New World
When you enter the world of Columbia, the first thing you notice is how peaceful everything is. When you dropped into Rapture everything was a leaky mess and everything wanted you dead. This all seems pretty nifty, until you start to interact with the denizens of Columbia. People talk to you but it is as if you are watching a video of yourself walking around, in that you do not react back or respond unless it is somehow scripted. It is like the anti-matter equivalent of a wax museum.
At first it is only small things that seem bizarrely broken about this game world. To start, there are plenty of opportunities where you should be able to intervene and interact but instead, you cannot. See two gentleman in the stock? Cannot touch them because it is not a scripted event. Want to buy that item? Cannot, pal, it is not a scripted event. This leads me to my next point (scripted events are self-explanatory): stealing makes no sense.
You are ALWAYS stealing but there are certain sections where, if you steal here, the world will freak out and attack you. The distinction between the areas is rarely defined explicitly, and in one example, even walking over a line is enough to have the world want to rip your face off. In this notable example you essentially have to piss everyone off because it is not as if you are given an opportunity to buy the item, despite having the money and means to do so, and the fact that you are standing at an operating stall.
This leads me to my next point: murder.
I do not know what childhood Ken Levine had but it must have been pretty messed up if the default for almost all events – with the exception of a few scripted ones – is murder. The aforementioned stall is an easy example of this outcome. It comes to the point where as soon as Columbians realise who you are, the city changes from being a nice, functioning, lit with a soft-focus, floating city, into an on-fire, falling down war-zone. There is no in-between because the game takes the easy way out and tears you into an alternative world where everything has already gone to hell.
The only saving grace is that Levine has a soft spot for civilians, because as soon as all hell breaks loose, everybody who is not in the possession of a gun disappears. I can understand the rich folk scurrying to their homes (maybe) but the homeless only have the very streets you are fighting in! The VP who are working for Fink do this very quickly, with about fifty plus people just smoke-bombing as your back is turned.
Murder must be what happens when you run out of time when making a game, because in 2011 and 2012 we were promised multiple manners of solving problems, with stealth and inconspicuousness being viable alternatives to area upon area of gun battles.
The biggest pitfall here is that BioShock Infinite cornerstones its entire game around murder when killing people is, arguably, the LEAST fun thing to do in a BioShock title. Playing the game on Hard made me realise that people in Columbia just did not die! Why it is necessary for an angry man with a gun to still be standing after he has been shot four times and vigored is beyond my comprehension. Of course, when you actually come up against an enemy that is stronger, in some way, than the normal grunts, it takes forever to kill them! And you know they cannot be avoided because the scripted event to take you to the next area of bullet-sponges will not activate until they are all dead.
No combination of vigor and bullets seems to make any difference to a rampaging Handyman. And let us just reflect on all the killing we are doing for a moment here. You are playing a man who suffers from PTSD from killing innocent people and you are going out of your way to kill, for the most part, innocent (or at least, ignorant and/or brainwashed) people. Hundreds of people. Multiple mass graves worth of people! The hell?! What kind of world is this okay?
‘Power’ to the People
Vigors in BioShock Infinite just do not work. They do not work in the fiction and in the game they just feel next to useless. Considering that BioShock is just a re-imaged System Shock and BioShock Infinite is just a re-imaged BioShock, it would only make sense that ‘powers’ of some kind would make an appearance. In System Shock they were tool of trade for elite forces and in BioShock they were crazy evidence of “look what science can do when we have no morality and everyone has gone insane”. The inclusion of them in BioShock Infinite made no sense at all. There is no connection to the world, story, characters or science other than the tears and they honestly feel like I am playing a vigor-free BioShock Infinite with vigors being modded in by a passionate fan.
NO-ONE has vigors except the horrendously painful elite-grunts. You see them in advertisements and in two-or-so demonstrations but there is nothing to indicate that they actually exist in the every lives of the Columbians. For all intents and purposes, they genuinely seem like a last minute addition despite being on the table long before the actual theme. They cannot be prohibitively expensive, otherwise they would not be giving away full, free samples nor advertising them at a light-hearted carnival to buy. Let us assume that they did, why would a ‘wholesome’ society be buying some kind of power to SET SOMEONE ON FIRE? Not only that, by why are half of these advertisements targeting the children as well as the adults?
My second point was they feel next to useless. Their effects are pretty cool, but even with that it does not make them any more enjoyable to use. The only reason you use vigor/weapon combos is the enemies just will not die if you do. Any enemy that is a step up from a stock-standard grunt is simply going to shrug off any vigor or bullet spray anyway. You used them because you are out of alternatives, not because they are enjoyable to wield. Even upgraded, the vigors have about as much excitement to offer to the game as the weapon stations: “we can offer more electricity, or more fire for your fire, how about more damage for your guns?” Unfortunately, you have save every penny for these upgrades just to even think about staying alive against the firemen and handymen of the game.
Let us look at the amazing story that everyone is raving about! It is trollop. There, I said it. Raving about BioShock Infinite‘s story is the equivalent of raving about how well written Fifty Shades of Gray is. Let us have a look at the key characters of this lively world of Columbia. Can you remember any of them outside the main circle, because I am sure as hell having a hard time? There is Fink brother number one, he like industry and is a stereotypical work his workers to the bone. There is Fink brother number two he is, something about creating all the music? Slate, he was the guy who his Booker’s link to the past. Daisy: she was angry? The only character outside the main circle who is really interesting is Songbird, and he only ever tries to kill you and he has the decency of only doing so in scripted events (which is more ‘con’ than it is ‘pro’).
The characters in BioShock Infinite are just so damn dull that it makes you want to tear your hair out. The worst part is, most of them do not get any sense of depth until you finish the game for the big reveal. I understand Levine wants to have his big ‘oh snap!’ moment, but is creating a world full of seemly dull and stereotypical characters really the way to do that? This is made even more onerous by the fact that the Voxophones that you pick up throughout the game are either recorded by, or about, these key characters. Where are the tales from anonymous locals that paint a picture of this living, breathing world? There are next to none, and even those are probably – in a subtle, look-how-clever-we-are manner – tied directly to the plot and its bland pot of characters. That all brings me to my next point: STOP TELLING A STORY WITH INEXPLAINABLE AUDIO DIARIES!
For those that do not know, audio diaries were a real big part of System Shock. As developers of the Shock games, Irrational appear to still have not gotten over how awesome a job they did with these titles that they are defaulting to the same formula they pioneered twenty odd years ago. Now, to be fair, it is next to (if not) impossible to create a story-driven game without using something that the System Shock series pioneered. Despite this, I find it troubling that the Irrational team have been using the same rigid structure of framework of game design for each one of their games and story expansions, since their perfecting of it with System Shock 2. The lacklustre manner in which the audio logs are fumbled though in BioShock Infinite is few steps short of embarrassing in comparison. A fitting analogy would be your father or uncle who tells you that same damn story every time you are around, except this time a few of the names have changed just for flavour.
When we can finally move away from having to listen to every mediocre Voxophone, just in the event that we actually here something worthwhile or plot related, there is the license to make up any deus ex machina you want and get away with it: the tears. If there is a wrinkle in the plot, or something awesome that the writer wanted to add into the game, just say the word tear in there somewhere and there you have it. The flip-side to this is Elizabeth’s tear manipulation is not even that exciting! Yes, I remember Paris, I remember Songbird, but can you remember ANY moment outside of scripted events where it was interesting? Unless you are really excited by freight hooks, automated gun turrets and/or cover, I imagine your answer to the aforementioned question was something along the lines of: not very. Irrational games has access to infinite (get it) possibilities and the most we get out of it outside of scripted events are period covers of modern music. Do not get me wrong, they were just amazing, but that is it? The well of infinite possibilities dries up after pop songs?
Elizabeth’s powers were not always on god-mode, with developer diaries describing her abilities as heavily draining, and the player would have to choose wisely when to employ her assistance. It sounds like this would not change much as you would just be pulling through the box of health kits and leave it at that as your companion recovers, except it was never so boring. Elizabeth had access to much more interesting and exciting tears like pulling in trains to wipe out enemies in one foul swoop, tears that actually made a difference to the horrible frustrating battle arenas the litter every corner of this game world. There was even a mention of pulling in archway or doors to create short-cuts to make life for you just that little bit easier.
Before they had developed the tear mechanic her abilities mimicked those of Booker’s vigors, except more powerful and designed to work in conjunction with his. An example from a gameplay video showed her sucking debris together into a super-heated ball and throwing it to Booker who catches it with telekinesis and launches it into a group of enemies.
Reviews have praised the gameplay aspect of Elizabeth’s inclusion as a companion, in that you do not have to constantly protect her and drag her along and be held back by her, but in doing so, the developers have ended up going in the opposite direction. It is really quite nice when she chats to Booker about her and the world and her experience in it, but it’s less nice if she does this whilst facing a completely different direction as I am have an intense fire fight with the locals. And in terms of her staying safe, we have gone from games like Metal Gear Solid where it is easier to knock out your dead-weights and sling them over your shoulder, to BioShock Infinite where she is, as far as the hostile NPCs of the game are concerned, completely invisible. Feel free to run through that room up ahead of people who are hell-bent on capturing you, none of them will see you anyway.
With all that being said though, she is a godsend during the horrible fire-fights where she finds salts, ammunition, health and, when it is peaceful, coins, but would it not make sense for her to pick up the damn lockpicks, the only freaking thing in the entirety of Columbia that she requires?! And does it bother anyone else that the Elizabeth you see on the back of the game, and on the front of some game covers, on the front of some official game guides, and the one you find in game ALL have different facial structure?
The End is the Beginning is the End
As I bring this to an end it seems fitting I talk about the end.
(Spoiler text is in white, highlight to read).
Let us recap: Booker is really the father to Elizabeth, he sold her to an alternative version of himself though a Lutece. This alternative him was created when he decided to choose religion over the bottle, specifically when one of him chose baptism and the other chose, um, not? Elizabeth’s grand plan to turn everything right (what is ‘right’ in a world of infinite universes?) is to drown Booker before he makes the choice. Considering how much Booker already hated himself before remembering he sold his daughter and what selling her put her through, it was not a tough choice to let her drown him. Apart from starting the bleeding obvious that it is the Lutece “twins” THAT ARE TO BLAME AND SHOULD BE DROWNED, this entire ending, and build up, would simply not work.
The game is very specific in that both Bookers were EXACTLY the same to the point of the baptism, at which point one took a path of good and the other took a path of evil. This just is not possible (the creation of Comstock, not talking about the universes thing). Everything down to the choice of an English middle name and Welsh last name. Religious name changes were chosen for a purpose to reflect the place said person has in God’s plan. What Zachary Hale Comstock has to do with a plan from God is anyone’s guess (remember God’s retreat in a deeper valley?).
Booker and Comstock are tied by two things that do not involve anyone else: the Massacre of Wounded Knee and the baptism. Booker’s post traumatic stress disorder, in relation to the former point, was so crushing that the only conceivable out he could see was the latter. Upon seeking religion (this is the good old fashioned, bible bashing, God fearing religion of 1800′s America, not the religion we see in the game) Booker changes his name (for no reason, he had no reason to hide his identity from any other Bookers – not even Lutece had worked it all out yet – or even from anyone else since the only people who knew of Booker’s involvement in Wounded Knee were equally as debilitated by the guilt) and celebrates his involvement in Wounded Knee and treats it as the greatest thing he has ever done in his life as if it was some kind of divine message from God. Granted, there is not evidence to suggest that he did this amazing PTSD backflip before or after he broke away from the church to form his own religion, but what the hell did the angel Columbia say that suddenly turned all of that around?
Then we have the religion itself which is made up entirely from the mind of Comstock. The underlining problem behind this religion is the fact that Comstock is reeeeeeaaaally flipping bad at it. He constantly breaks his own rules and reinforces the point about how devoted he is, and then he believes he is a divine prophet for the religion and is even happy to die without a fight because of the very thing he knows not to be true. Well, what is it? Column A or column B? He has to be column B if he is going to just forget the crushing PTSD and somehow embrace Wounded Knee as being the coolest thing ever to all of his followers, while at the same time making up lies that it is shown he knows are lies, about the event as some sort of cover up. Comstock is now ultra-patriotic to the point of blatant racism, a cult leader to boot and a member of Congress.
Now we have covered his religion, enter the insidious witch of this game world, Rosalind Lutece. Lutece is the brilliant mind behind the technology that makes Columbia float and the creator of the technology that allows you to open up tears into the alternative universes. Now this is where it gets stupid. Why the HELL would Lutece, a foreigner to the United States, entrust her Lutece field to an ultra racist cult leader over ANYBODY ELSE ON EARTH? And why the hell would the ultra racist cult leader be in cahoots with a foreigner? If it meant that this was the only way he could build the city that the angel Columbia spoke of then does this NOT speak favourably of foreigners?
Want to fix the universe and everything forever? Pin-point where Comstock is ‘visited by the angel’ and stop that from happening; kill Lutece so she cannot ruin everything by creating a floating city and creating tears (no one should ever have that power); or give Booker the Flu so he is unable to be present to the events that lead up to Wounded Knee! Any one of these makes more sense than killing him before the baptism. His religion and the City of Columbia would not exist without his vision; the tears and the mechanics of the floating city would not exist without Lutece; and Booker never would have led down that path with a mind free of severe PTSD. Hell, all of this could easily still happen, irrespective of Booker’s actions, is Lutece is allowed to live.
So we have a choice, except that BioShock Infinite has the Swiss cheese of game plots or somehow come to the conclusion that Rosalind Lutece is the most accomplished and manipulative supervillain in the history of supervillainy.
Want to know what really grinds my gears about this game, really? If I sat down and worked it out, weighed up the pros and cons and compared the charts and tallied each individual element of this game from Irrational that BioShock Infinite would STILL get an 85 out of 100 (at least). It is full of such high standards: the sound is amazing; the voice work is 100%; the character design (not writing) is so lovely; the graphics simply surprise you at every turn; you can play the game in all its glory without trying to win a GoN competition first; for a AAA title it is affordable; and many, many more. To see so many things wrong with a game and still considering it to be such a great title is a massive credit to the Levine’s team and they should forever be commended for their superb effort.
Despite this, and as the title says, there are way too many things for this game to be considered a Game of the Year. Instead of being a classic game it has tried to be too many things and, as a consequence, has spread itself too thin.
A GotY is a massive thing, a classic, the kind of work of art that you get your grandkids to play despite the fact that it means forcing them to stop playing their Pokemon Kaleidoscope with their mind and use a mouse a keyboard like an old person. There are phenomenal works of gaming brilliance and then there are those games that just fall short, and BioShock Infinite is one of the latter.
And if that is not enough to make you discount BioShock Infinite as GoTY, just remember that Levine… stuck a massive battle in the middle of your precious game, whose only purpose was to extend the life of the least enjoyable element of the game — and to top it off was a mother-flipping ghost. A GHOST FOR PETE’S SAKE!