Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Now Playing: BioShock Infinite

Within the rather subdued opening scene of BioShock Infinite (which also serves as a nice little nod to the original BioShock), there came a moment which reminded me of the closing scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and I suddenly had the feeling I was about to be taken on one hell of a wild ride. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

You are Booker DeWitt and your assigned task is simple - return the girl and wipe away your debt. It’s a wonderfully straightforward premise to initially hook the player, the classic ‘princess locked in the tower’ story with you cast as the hero sent to rescue her (or kidnap, depending on your point of view). But as you might expect, Booker isn’t exactly a white knight and the story takes several surprising and clever twists along the way.

Shot into the clouds, Booker lands upon the floating city of Columbia. BI has a wonderful art style, very similar to the original BioShock. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but personally I thought the game looked simply fantastic at times (even though they rather overdid it with the bloom in places). The attention to detail throughout the world is excellent, and the opening scenes are perfectly presented and paced as the player takes their first curious steps into this strange new world. It’s an intriguing, interesting setting, one which I was more than glad to take my time to explore in between the frenetic combat.

Not before long, Booker finds himself on the wrong side of Columbia’s finest and the game takes a sharp, sudden and brutal twist. Combat in BI is almost a little jarring given the nature of the plot and the refined, soft style of its aesthetic and sound design. It’s surprisingly violent, with exploding heads and messy melee executions. But maybe that was the point - as Booker soon learns that beneath the ‘civilised’ veneer of Columbia lies a dark (and BI does get dark at times) cold, and twisted heart.

Because of the bright, cheery setting and the slow natured pace, that initial eruption of bloody violence has all the more impact. It also serves to remind us of what Booker is capable of - that he is no stranger to violence - which ties into his past and his own personal journey throughout the game.

Environments in BI are fairly large, detailed and well varied throughout the game, with a decent degree of freedom to explore outside of combat. In addition to your primary objectives there are also a few optional side quests mixed in to unlock secret areas, but these often involve some irritating backtracking. Sorry, no puzzles. The use of sound and music in the game is top notch, which combined with the lovely visuals creates a wonderfully immersive atmosphere. VA is also very good. Character models and animations are also good, although it must be said that some models are repeated so often it begins to seem as if the entire city is populated with clones!

There are a lot of great action set pieces throughout the game, thankfully none of which force the player into lame QTEs or cinematics. It lets the player direct the action and the experience, even if the end result is always going to be the same. Although I have several issues with the combat, it is solid and satisfying enough, and certainly enhanced by the presence of Elizabeth (the girl you are sent to rescue) and her dynamic assistance during battles.

The game’s narrative is superbly paced and overall, very solid - aside from a couple of areas I’ll touch upon later. It’s a story where one man’s vision of paradise burns and quite literally falls. It deals with more mature themes than you might expect from a game that lets you summon flocks of crows to eat people’s faces off, or to make their heads explode in comical fountains of blood. The main plot won’t be anything new or startlingly original if you’ve read or watched much science-fiction, but the concepts it explores are well presented and the story, overall, is very well told. At times, I felt like I was watching an episode of Fringe.

And unlike most games, BI manages not only to open strongly, but to hold the player’s attention throughout and to end fairly strongly too - not perfectly though, as it does feel a little abrupt the way it is handled right at the very end, though it certainly doesn’t spoil the experience. But it is a shame that a few of the side characters don’t get much love - Slate, Fitzroy and Fink are all interesting characters, but sadly they get little time within the game.

It has to be said though that it is sadly the gameplay of BI which is probably its weakest feature. It’s unfortunate because, aside from a few minor niggles here and there, it largely excels in just about every other area. BI, at its core, is a very basic run and gun first person shooter. Like I said, it’s solid and satisfying enough - just - but it could have been so, so much more. It plays much like the original BioShock, with a weapon in one hand and a power in the other.

You have a two weapon carry limit in BI, which feels a little odd, but you soon get used to it, swapping out weapons on the fly as you go (at least until you get the almighty Hand Cannon). There’s a selection of the usual suspects to choose between - handguns, machine-guns, sniper rifle etc, which unfortunately all look and feel a little uninspired, and variations of these weapons later in the game are really just different coloured re-skins. Like the original BioShock your standard weapons are combined with plasmids - sorry, Vigors - which are essentially superpowers straight out of a bottle.

However, I found the Vigors to be largely ineffectual in combat. In fact, some of the them I didn’t even use more than once during my entire Hard playthrough of the game. Why? Well, for one, your standard weapons are powerful enough to see off any foe - especially the Hand Cannon. With that single weapon equipped, particularly if you’ve upgraded it, you can pretty much one-shot your way through half of the game.

Also, many of the Vigors are only really effective in certain situations or environments which rarely arise, and aside from using them for amusement occasionally, they were never vital to the combat. I largely ignored them much to the irritation of the game, which frequently told me ‘Remember to use your Vigors!’ Oh, I didn’t forget, BI. Sorry, but they’re just a bit crap.

There are 8 Vigors in all, each of which can be upgraded or used directly or to create traps, but like the weapons, most of them just feel rather obvious and uncreative - electric shock, charge, force push, shield etc - I would have preferred more exotic and imaginative Vigors. You can chain some together to form combos but that’s pretty crappy and pointless too, as are the upgrades, which are just dull.

Fortunately, there is more to the combat than just the generic guns and the somewhat useless Vigors. Early on in the game you acquire the Sky-Hook which is used to traverse Sky-Lines (and also serves as your melee weapon) which, in certain areas, allows you to whiz around the battlefield. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it certainly adds another dimension (ho ho!) to the rather bland shooting.

Later during the game, you also gain the ability to open ‘tears’ in reality to bring forth supplies, cover and other helpful items such as automated gun turrets. I’ll talk more about my issue with this feature later, but for now, I’ll just say that these additions do go some way to make up for the disappointing Vigors and the by the numbers shooting. Character movement also felt a little too sluggish for my tastes - so many of the Vigors are only really effective within a fairly close range, so it’s strange that your character trundles about in combat, and attempting to close in on dangerous foes in the large combat arenas to unleash a Vigor seems rather redundant when you can easily just shoot people safely at range.

Enemy variety is another niggle, as there’s very little on offer. It’s not terrible, but I certainly expected more Vigor based special enemy types. Given the prevalence of the bottled superpowers, it’s a little strange how so few of your enemies make use of them. We only really get a couple of Vigor type foes and you rarely encounter them. Why not Bucking Bronco foes who toss you up into the air? Or Undertow types - knocking you back or dragging you towards them? Or shield users? Some different varieties of the Motorized Patriots would have been nice too with different heavy weapon types. Then you have the ‘Handyman’ foes, who look great in design, but in combat are just bullet-sponge charging brutes.

Introducing new enemy types throughout the game would have been a fantastic way of keeping the player on their toes, forcing them to adapt their tactics and utilise the various Vigors in new ways to deal with the new threat. But by half way through the game you’ll have encountered every enemy type there is. At one point in the game the player finds themselves up against another faction within the world (and the initial reason why is pretty ridiculous, but I’m going to gloss over that for a moment), which would have been a great opportunity to really mix up the combat with something new and unexpected, but this new threat is composed of exactly the same enemy types as before - except they wear red. Red. Oh.

It must also be said that enemy AI is pretty poor. They either run straight at you or practically line up to be shot. There is, however, one new sort of enemy introduced right towards the end during a small segment which I won’t spoil - a creepy bugger you generally try to sneak by. It’s an excellent, dark and strange thing to encounter, but unfortunately you soon return to the generic enemy types you’ve killed a hundred times before.

I played the game through on Hard difficulty first and really, that should be the default ‘Normal’ setting, as it offers a somewhat balanced challenge. Then again, you could argue it offers no challenge at all because of the way the game handles player death - or rather doesn’t handle it.

The death penalty, or lack thereof, is a bit of an issue. When you die, you, well, you don’t. You just get right back up again and carry on fighting. It certainly keeps the action fast and flowing, but as a result, even on Hard difficulty, aside from a rather redundant monetary deduction, ‘death’ is nothing to be concerned about and as a result, battles lack any real tension. Excitement? Yes. Tension? Nope!

To compound this problem, the player is also given an auto-recharging personal shield! Why? Just because…I guess? I played through the game on Hard first, and then on Normal to explore more and muck about with the Vigors. Despite my best attempts, getting killed on Normal was pretty much impossible and the entire game was a cakewalk.

Okay, onto those plot bits I mentioned earlier. Spoiler warning! There comes a moment when you enter a new reality in which your character is a martyr of a resistance movement. Upon seeing your return, the revolutionaries cheer your name, and you assist them as they make their advance. However, for whatever reason, the leader of the movement decides to kill you just…because. I guess because the game was running out of bad guys to throw at you or something. It’s pretty dumb, especially given that all her men also suddenly turn on you without any sort of question.

Following this, about three quarters in, the game takes a slightly bizarre twist. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a moment involving a ‘ghost’ and an objective to head to three separate locations in order to open a locked door which is impeding your progress. The entire section feels completely unnecessary and simply serves to pad out the game a little. Also, the battles against the ‘ghost’ and her minions feel completely out of place and are just, well, stupid. It really could have been cut from the game entirely.

Okay, with all these negatives you’d think I didn’t like the game or something, so let’s move onto the best thing about BioShock Infinite, the one thing that really brings it to life and makes it great. The one thing that without, it just wouldn’t work at all. And that one thing, if you hadn’t already guessed, is Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is your constant companion for the majority of the game. In fact, BI is something of one very long escort mission in disguise. But a good one! Elizabeth smartly takes cover, interacting dynamically with the environment both within and without combat. During battle she’ll actively search out ammo, health and salt supplies as you run low and toss them over for you to catch. She adds another layer to the combat which, without her, would be all the more dull. On top of that, her character is really the star of the show. BI is as much about Elizabeth than it is Booker. BI is really her story, and we’re just along for the ride.

One negative about the Elizabeth character I should bring up though is her apparent invisibility to your opponents. I can understand your early foes not wishing to harm her, but later in the game, it really doesn’t make sense that she is simply ignored as she sometimes runs blindly towards the bad guys.

Like BioShock, BI also features purchasable Vigor (rather pointless) and weapon upgrades (useful, although very disappointingly there are no visual enhancements to weapons such as in the original), tons of items to loot (money, food, drinks, ammo) and interesting audio logs which serve to flesh out the story, characters and setting. There is no equivalent to the research camera from BioShock, although I can’t say I particularly missed such a thing. They also rather overdid the item pick-ups and searchable containers. Why is there a hot dog in a chocolate box? It don’t make no sense! There are also clothing upgrades with different bonuses, but these I pretty much forgot about.

Despite all these niggles, BioShock Infinite remains quite a remarkable experience. I honestly can’t remember the last time a game hooked me in so strongly that I found myself sitting up into the late hours completely immersed in the unfolding narrative. Not only that, but within hours of completing the game, I started a second run and enjoyed it just as much, if not more, than my first. There are some games we can love, even though we can recognise their flaws. BI is one of those games for me.

In fact, it’s probably because I liked it so much that I’m all the more inclined to dissect the experience and highlight its problems. It’s because I liked it so much that I wanted more and expected more. In a game about infinite possibilities, it’s kind of ridiculous how so many areas lack meaningful choice and imagination. For example, the ‘tear’ mechanic in combat. Given that these tears can open into multiple realities, locations and times, why do we only ever have the opportunity to summon forth ammo, guns, turrets, cover and Sky-Hooks? There was so much potential for this mechanic to really go wild and introduce all kinds of craziness onto the battlefield. Instead we just get generic crap that honestly, we don’t really need anyway.

Then we have the rather unimaginative Vigors, upgrades, enemies, weapons and the solid, but by the numbers shooting. It’s all rather unfortunate that the core gameplay of BI almost feels overlooked, as if it was something of an afterthought to the rest of the experience. But the (frequent) combat is the core of the experience. It’s the only way we really get to interact with this rich, fascinating world. And it’s just...okay. Which is disappointing, because it has so much untapped potential. It could have been so much more, and had so much more depth than what we got.

Overall, BI is an extremely polished, well presented all-round package that features some genuinely breathtaking moments. However, I can’t deny that the gameplay elements are sadly lacking. And despite the good additions - Elizabeth’s interaction and the Sky-Hook - it feels like a step back from the original game. As I said, it’s because I enjoyed BI so much that I’m probably being all the more hard on it, because I feel as good as it is, it could have been so much more. Maybe even worthy of all those perfect scores I’ve seen it lavished with. But unfortunately, BI falls short of those dizzy heights.

Nevertheless, BioShock Infinite is certainly one of the most engaging, entertaining and sheer enjoyable titles I’ve played in a long time, and it’s one I’d highly recommend.


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