Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bioshock Infinite: On the fringe

So here we are, not long after the release of Bioshock Infinite, and its seems as though the entire gaming world is in a state of constant praise based ejaculate and orgasmic joy over this game and its nearly perfect execution of all things that is quality in a game. So here I am, freshly finished with the experience in my little, rarely visited corner of the internet, and with a slightly heavy heart I am going to have to break it to everyone that this game, all things considered, really isn't "all that." SO here we go, the review of Bioshock Infinite. I may just be crazy, but I think I have some valid things to say. 

Judging it on its own merits:

So a few hours into this game, I was ready to throw my hat in with the rest and say this is one of the crowning achievements in gaming history. The art direction, the pacing, the character acting, the writing, all amazing. More importantly, in a medium that society as a whole has trouble accepting as an art form because of the admittedly bad image major developers give it (How are we going to advertise X AAA game? THROW SOME TITTES AND EXPLOSIONS ON THE SCREEN! Everyone thinks games are only for constantly masturbating 13 year olds so lets pander to that idea! YAYYYYY EA, Ubisoft and the rest of the gang!) this game takes on subject matter in a way that takes the previously mentioned concept and uses its integrity fueled fists to punch it in the neck. Its rare that a game takes on the concepts of economic disparity, racial conflict, and religion by themselves. Its rarer that a game takes on these concepts and does a good job. Its nearly unheard of that a game takes on all three and does them justice. Because of that and that alone, I was ready to put this game in my top five of all time. Now I've beaten the game, and after some soul searching, I don't think thats really appropriate. That a AAA game is taking on these issues in a way previously unseen doesn't automatically give it a pass into the realm of awesome. There are plenty of examples of art that takes on an issue in a way that conceptually is impressive, but ultimately the product as a whole is pretty lackluster. I mean, Blacula, a blaxsplotation film about a black vampire in the 70s has a lot of poignant messages about race and the status of race relations of the time, but its still a shitty movie. So looking beyond that the subject matter is impressively presented and uncommon, what about the game itself?

Meh train:

So at about half way through the game I started to notice something. I was getting bored. The writing was still great, the aesthetics beautiful, the pacing of the narrative perfect, but the game play itself, the action of experiencing the world and moving through the story, was really dragging. Honestly, by the last couple hours it really felt like a slog. I still wanted to get to the end, to complete the experience, but man I wanted that end to come quickly. I just couldn't get any joy out of any more of the combat set pieces that serve as the game part of the game. I would like to say I had to wrack my brain about why I felt this way, but really, its pretty obvious. Games are interactive media, and the interaction part of Bioshock Infinite is pretty meh. 

Interaction and Bioshock the first:

So lets get right into this. Bioshock the first is one of my all time favorite games. While its similar to its real sequel (We don't talk about Bioshock 2 round these parts) in that it takes on interesting and particularly sensitive issues in its narrative, the whole experience of Bioshock the first is just better all around. To understand why, you have to look at both games and how they deliver on the interactive portion of the experience. First, let's talk about scale, which is where a lot of the problems come in. Bioshock Infinite really does love to show off its grand art assets, and it does so by having most of the combat take place in wide open areas with a potential for a lot of distance between you and your enemies. Now, both of the games in question are first person shooters, but Bioshock the first takes place predominantly in close quarters combat. The problem with opening up the battlefield as they do in Infinite is that it makes it really obvious when the AI is bad, and boy, the AI is pretty damn bad in Infinite. See, when you are up close and personal, the AI doesn't have to be that sharp. Run at, hit, kill the target. It's all it has to do. When you increase the scale of the field and make most of the enemies ranged attackers, there is a lot more that the AI has to think about, and if your AI isnt really good at thinking, it becomes really easy to exploit them for easy dispatch. Honestly, the instant I got access to an accurate ranged weapon, the game may as well have just let me walk through the plot points to the end, because thats basically what I did. With the exception of a couple Handy Man battles, the difficulty of this game is non-existant. Note: I am pretty damn good at videos. You know. Not to brag or whatever. But seriously. I'm really awesome. Still, when a game has portions where I head shot one guy and, without moving my gun, another puts his face right where his now decapitated comrade was just a second ago, allowing me again to get a head shot, followed by another...followed by another. Seriously, four head shots in a row without moving at all. Because of this I hardly ever had to use any vigors, or any weapons beyond the carbine and the shot gun for the rare instance someone got in my face. Speaking of vigors, when I did have to use them I only ever needed three, fire, shock, and possession. All others were essentially useless as they either did virtually the same thing as the others or were generally purposeless (the ability to catch bullets wasn't really necessary again due to the increase in battle field scale) To make matters worse, Elizabeths ability to bring strategic help through tears, replacing the the tactical combat options you had available in Bioshock the first, and her assistance through finding you ammo, salts, and health, ensure that you will never be low on the essentials that may make the battles more interesting (you know, running out of bullets for your favorite gun and therefore making you have to change tactics) and that you will have combat advantage by being able to call up cover, distractions and turrets. 

Now, in both games, you have the ability to grant yourself combat advantage, and the way you achieve  it serves again to show why the interactive elements of Bioshock the first succeeds where Bioshock Infinite kind of flops. In the former, while the hacking game is admittedly repetitive, easy and kind of annoying after the millionth time, to hack turrets and other devices to give you combat advantage, you had to seek them out, disable them or in the case of things like security cameras avoid them to access them, and then actively manipulate them to get that advantage. In short, you actually have get to know the environment in order to exploit it. In Infinite, all the things like turrets and other aid and distractions are just laid out for you to manipulate when you need them. You don't need to explore, you don't need to manipulate your environment beyond simply looking at something and pressing a button, and because of this there is simply not a lot of immersion to be had in comparison. This holds true for a lot of things. In Bioshock the first, exploration and gathering of ammo and health/adam was essential (at least in the first half), in Infinite, you never get the sense that you need to because once you have Elizabeth on your team she generally will hook you up with what you need and if not, there are vending machines EVERYWHERE. 

Finally, while both games are linear, the way its presented in both games serves to show how Bioshock the first is superior to Infinite in interactivity. In the former, you are generally put into an area that you are free to explore and interact with. Combat is generally small scale, only a couple guys to fight every now and then that pose real threats (until the second half) with Big Daddy's posing unique challenges and opportunities. In these areas you could, depending on how you have set up your character (which in the first you are given a great deal more choice than in Infinite) you can scout out enemies, set up traps and hard points to fall back to, go invisible and hack everything so the environment becomes hostile to everyone but you. You know, you got to be tactical. Also, the story is always given in these environments, so there isn't a separation from the dangers of combat and the delivery of the narrative. In Infinite the combat takes place generally in set pieces along the story line, IE you are given some plot and then enter into a fight. The combat areas are not open to exploration as you do not have any tactical abilities like stealth so you merely go from set piece to set piece until the game is over. There does exist the potential for tactical combat, the skyline fighting and the vigors, but because the scale of the battles and the poor AI, there isn't a NEED for it as opposed to the first where it is essential. Again, because of this, the interactive portions of the game are just stale in comparison to its predecessor as well as many other games in the genre. 

The final word:

Shit I have to work on making these things shorter. My massive, many wrinkled brain just has so much to say! If you made it this far you would probably assume I didn't like Bioshock Infinite all things considered. That couldn't be further from the truth. I am throughly thankful for my time with this game and for its existence. This is mostly a reaction to the unfettered praise that the game is getting. While the story was very satisfying and it was probably the most well paced and one of the most well acted games I have ever played, as well as being balls to the wall amazing in the presentation of the issues it's taking on, the fact of the matter is we are working in an interactive medium, and the interactive portions of Infinite were really lacking. It boils down to these two considerations. 

1) Bioshock came out in 2008, and its interactive portions are more advanced, complex and satisfying than its sequel released five years later. 

2) While the story and its presentation is superior in Infinite, and the characters deeper and the social commentary so fucking ballsy and awesome, there is an important consideration. I have played Infinite once, and its probably the only time I will play it. I am actually considering trading it in, though I want to see what the DLC will be. On the other hand, I am on my fourth play through of Bioshock the first. I know all the twists, I know all moves, but I'm still having one hell of a fun time playing it, because the interactive set pieces are so well designed.