RPG Codex Review: BioShock Infinite [Spoilers!]
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RPG Codex Review: BioShock Infinite [Spoilers!]
Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Wed 3 April 2013, 14:49:45Tags: BioShock; BioShock Infinite; Irrational Games
[Written by Castanova]
Next-Gen Tutorial: if you have not played all the way through BioShock Infinite nor read a detailed spoiler of the storyline, do so before continuing. http://venturebeat.com/2013/03/28/understanding-bioshock-infinites-ending-ending-explanation/
"Buy the game and blow your mind..."
I snap into consciousness. Where am I? Rolling over, I see my moon-lit dorm room. I must have made it home from that frat party after all. I close my eyes, try to get back to sleep but it's no use. A headache of apocalyptic proportions sieges my racing mind. I get up and check my phone. 3:27 A.M.
Nursing a Gatorade, I surf the 'net but nothing has changed since yesterday. I'm so bored, I even momentarily consider working on my Journalism 101 homework. As I laugh at the thought, the memory of a voice emerges from my foggy brain. "Buy the game and blow your mind," he urges. But what game was he referring to?
I load up Weakstock.com, the premiere video game journalism empire. The site's logo, a cartoonified image of Jeremy Weakstock himself, seizes authority at the top of the page. Sandwiched between two massive Bioshock Infinite advertisements stands the current headline article -- Bioshock Infinite Review: The Citizen Kane of Gaming. This must be it. I open the article to find quotes from Weakstock's many subsidiaries.
"A brilliant shooter that nudges the entire genre forward with innovations in both storytelling and gameplay." (http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/03/22/bioshock-infinite-xbox-360ps3-review)
"You'll be haunted by this thematically devastating adventure, and indeed, its phenomenal final minutes, which are bound to be discussed and dissected for some time to come."
"It is one of this generations great games, as simple as that."
"Not only one of the best story-driven games of all time, it’s one of the best games we’ve ever played full stop."
"With BioShock Infinite, Levi Kinke cements his status as one of gaming’s elite creative minds."
Can all this be true? I don't see why not. This is a chorus of voices, singing in united awe. The truth is obvious. I open GameStop's website and find my local store's hours.
At GameStop, an employee immediately recognizes me. He gushes over how amazing the game is while another he handles the purchase. He hands me back my father's credit card along with my brand new copy of the Playstation 3 version of Bioshock: Infinite, telling me, "Thank you, Mr. DeStupid."
I get home, slide in the disc, and the next hour passes in an instant. The start of the game is intriguing with a fairly atmospheric lighthouse scene and a nice aerial introduction of Columbia. I've already got questions I want answered: what's the deal with this girl I need to find? What about the flying city, how does that work? Unlike most other big budget games I've played, there's no combat sequence at first. I spend a solid thirty minutes or more just exploring the city, taking in the interesting art design, the amusing religious songs. The shooting and Vigor-casting tutorials are so cleanly integrated, I barely even notice them. Slight oddities do start to nag at me (people seem to leave a lot of money lying around...) but I push those thoughts to the side.
Then a fight breaks out. Being a hardcore gamer, I have set the difficulty to Hard and the first firefights with Columbia policemen do not disappoint. My measly shield dissipates near-instantly and I spend most of the time hiding behind things, trying to survive. Sure, the enemy AI is as basic as it gets and hiding behind things isn't exactly rocket science but I, once again, push those thoughts to the side. I have to find the girl, after all, and I'm genuinely interested in what will happen next.
Someone knocks on my door. I glance back to see a guy I don't recognize. "Hi, I couldn't help but hear you playing Bioshock Infinite from the hall." I invite him in. "I'm Youtuber. Youtuber DeStupid," I tell him. "Nice to meet you, Youtuber. My name's Mono. Mono Cull." Mono Cull looks a bit older and, after we talk more, I find out that he's a brilliant graduate student, studying Physics. I agree to let him watch as I play the game since he owns no consoles and his computer only runs Linux.
As I hunt for Elizabeth ("the girl"), I'm forced to fight seemingly endless hordes of policemen. It's still sort of enjoyable but I'm wondering when things will evolve. After all, I'm still using the same basic handgun and my only Vigor, Persuasion, uses a full 50% of my Salt bar with each cast. Mono more explicitly voices his concern about the combat's monotony but I shrug it off. Surely, I'll get some sweet new powers and items soon, right? The game answers my question by giving me the Sky-Hook, a feature lauded by many of Weakstock's reviewers.
At first the Sky-Hook is interesting. The first couple times I use it it's exciting to ride the hook at an enemy then leap down onto him for a melee kill. The melee execution animations are especially gruesome and entertaining. The first Sky-Hook-able areas introduce a little welcome non-linearity as well, with the ability to explore a few apartments that aren't strictly necessary. At this point, I get the full sense of the game's approach to exploration. You can never go too far off main track but whenever you do, the game rewards you. Tucked away pretty much everywhere is some combination of: money, health, Salt, weapons/ammo, audio diaries, gear, upgrade vending machines, health/shield/salt-capacity upgrades, and bite-sized servings of extra world-design and lore. These side-area apartments even feature an "optional quest" to find a key to a big safe. Optional quests occur sparsely throughout the game and always require finding an object (either a key or a decoding book) and bringing it back to a specific location in exchange for an upgrade and/or some new lore.
But then Mono Cull asks over my shoulder, in his characteristically cynical tone, "Is that all you can do with this Sky-Hook piece of trash?" And I'm hard-pressed to rebut his negativity. When I look at the Sky-Hook tracks, my mind can't help but run through the possibilities. I feel like I should be able to speedily leap from track to track, like a first-person Bionic Commando, executing gravity-defying stunts. Instead, tracks are linear and very rarely pass near an alternate track, almost never presenting the opportunity to leap from track to track. Even when you CAN leap to another track, it's too clunky to execute. I am disappointed to find that the aiming reticule is extremely finicky about letting you lock onto a Sky-Hook track and usually you fail to grab onto anything, simply falling instead. Furthermore, levels are almost never multi-tiered, so using the Sky-Hook to get to, say, the rooftops is not common. I quickly resort to simply walking most of the time as it's more convenient.
I finally reach "the girl" and the sequence where I free her is a polished piece of barely-interactive video game storytelling. It ends with an action-packed set piece where I am introduced to the "Songbird," a giant robot bird which attacks me for initially unclear reasons. After this sequence, I get to explore a new area of Columbia, this time with Elizabeth in tow.
I am introduced to new factions in the game world. Moving past the religious motif of the first area, I'm now getting a look at the industrial and under-class aspects of Columbia. Zachary Comstock leads the Founders, Jeremiah Fink leads Fink Industries, Daisy Fitzroy leads the Vox Populi. All is not what it seems, apparently, and for a while I'm once again intrigued. Earlier on, the game hinted at racial and class undertones in the world of Columbia. Now the game is promising to expand upon those themes. Feeling fatigue from my previous night of poor sleep, though, I turn off the PS3 and bid Mono Cull a good evening.
I go on the message boards to read other people's thoughts on the game. Turns out the game was produced by a massive multinational conglomerate called Kinke Studios. The CEO and Supreme Designer, one Levi Kinke, has posted several interviews he has done about the game. I look at the list of interviews and can't help but notice all the sites are subsidiaries of Weakstock.com. Feeling a mix of comfort and new suspicion, I navigate to an interview and start reading, interested to get in the head of someone who has the opportunity to helm such a huge game event.
Turns out Levi Kinke got his start in the video game industry by answering an advertisement in a video game magazine (coincidentally, one of the first magazines created by Jeremy Weakstock). At the time, Kinke was a failed screenwriter working odd jobs. The company, Mirror Games, hired him and he went on to help create some of the greatest modern PC games including Klepto and Mega Shock Deux. Talking about Bioshock Infinite to another of Weakstock's subsidiaries, PCGamer, Levi Kinke mentions that he has "always believed that gamers were underestimated."
It's the next day and I decide to resume playing the game. I preemptively text Mono Call and he arrives right on time.
I remember that I'm supposed to be learning about the game world's factions but right away it's clear that the three factions in the storyline are almost comically over-exaggerated (RELIGIOUS AND RACIST AUTOCRACY! GREEDY EXPLOITATIVE INDUSTRIALISTS! VIOLENT ANARCHIST MINORITIES!). They all act exactly how you expect them to and even as things change, they change predictably. But what really makes things worse is how the struggle between these three factions has literally nothing to do with the game's storyline. The story is about Elizabeth, you, and a few other characters. The city's factions don't really figure into it at all. They serve simply as a way to motivate filler combat sequences and fetch quests and to, I suppose, flesh out the game world. In the end, the "deep themes" cited in many of Weakstock's reviews are actually fairly shallow and, worse, extraneous.
This lack of deep thought put into the design of the game extends to more tangible things like the vending machines. Just like the original game, inexplicably there are vending machines all over the place allowing you to buy supplies, gun upgrades, and vigor upgrades right there on the street. The designers do literally nothing to explain why their ubiquitous and public presence would fit into the game world in any logical way. Similarly, there is no realistic explanation for why supplies and money are found in literally every container throughout the world. I feel there was the opportunity for the team to integrate the acquisition of upgrades into the gameplay more seamlessly and with more innovation -- after all, the goal of this game was clearly to tell an immersive story -- but it was simply not to be.
"Doesn't this feel a lot like padding?" mutters Mono Cull. Having found Elizabeth, the natural course of action is to simply leave Columbia with her. And, in fact, you are in fine position to actually do so almost right off the bat. But the conflict between Comstock's Founders and Fitzroy's Vox Populi gets in your way and makes sure to stay in your way for somewhere around the next four or five hours. You fight, and fight, and fight, and fight. Repeatedly, you believe you're about to escape from Columbia, only for something to go wrong at the last second.
The options available to you in combat do slowly expand, though. You get access to a host of new weapons (maybe 15 total) and you get the opportunity to upgrade those weapons with options like increased damage, less recoil, bigger clips, and so on. None of these options are mutually exclusive but at least they're fairly expensive which means you can only pick up one or two at a time. The excitement of finding new guns and upgrading particular ones is muted by the fact that you can only carry two guns at a time. Because the primary threat in any given fight are the "elite" enemies (HP-sponge heavily armored enemies), you're probably going to want one of those guns to be an RPG or equivalent. Which means you really only use one gun for average enemies. I find myself spending almost the entire game using the Machine Gun since it quickly mows down the normal enemies and it's even somewhat useful against harder guys.
Not that there are many harder guys. The game really has only three enemies: variants of a standard human soldier/policeman, a medium-armor guy who shoots rockets/grenades, and the Motorized Patriot, a heavily-armored machine-gun toting powerhouse. Even on Hard, standard enemies pose no real threat. Medium Armor guys are sort of annoying but can be dispatched easily with a little Vigor usage. And even an isolated Motorized Patriot is easy enough to kill with a couple casts of the electric shock Vigor. The game only gets difficult in a couple specific sequences where, on Hard, you have no access to any of the "Dollar Bill" vending machines therefore causing you to run out of ammo quickly and permanently. This happens probably three times in the whole game, though. The rest of the time, you can run back to the closest vending machine at the first sign of trouble.
Your Vigor arsenal expands as well, to seven or eight total spells. Some of the Vigors are useless and it's obvious which Vigor you should use in any given situation. But it's not quite as bad as with the weapons -- I do find myself switching among the useful Vigors regularly. "I kind of wish the vigors were a little more imaginative, though," whines Mono Cull and I would tend to agree. They serve their functions but there is nothing awe-inspiring about them. Furthermore, the upgrades you can buy are usually quite expensive. I find myself skipping most of the Vigor upgrades entirely.
You also find "Gear" throughout the game, which are basically equipment items that grant unique passive bonuses. Some of the bonuses are pretty interesting. For example, one makes you invulnerable whenever you consume a health restoration item. Another one lights enemies on fire when you punch them. However, more than half the Gear I'm finding gives bonuses to your melee attack which is usually suicidal to actually use in any real fights. The Gear that applies to normal gunfights is rare and not particularly interesting.
As Elizabeth gains in power, she unlocks the ability to call in things on the battlefield through Rifts. These Rifts are hand-placed in each combat zone and you can only have one Rift open at a time, forcing you to choose on the fly during the battles. Mono Cull calls them "immersion-breaking" and he's once again correct to some extent -- they remind me of the conveniently-placed, nonsensical barriers in the Gears of War and Mass Effect games. However, the gamist in me found them to be probably the most fun aspect of the combat. Usually you start a given fight off by summoning a turret but as the battle gets a bit out of hand you find yourself looking for other things to summon instead -- things like health packs or new guns depending on where you are and what you need. It's nothing terribly exciting but it adds a little variety to some of the setpieces, at least.
Again, similar to the Sky-Hook, I find myself wishing they did more with the idea. The idea of calling in things from Rifts has a realm of potential. For example, combined with the Sky-Hook, they could have implemented some Portal-esque puzzles where you need to execute stylish and risky jumps while summoning certain features on the fly, forcing you to think creatively in a fully 3D space. Alas, the extent of the Rifts is to summon turrets and ammunition during otherwise bland gunfights.
Elizabeth helps you in other ways. She will summon items and supplies for you out of thin air and throw them to you in the middle of battle. Low on health? She will throw you a health pack. Low on ammo? She'll toss you bullets. Even outside of battle, simply interacting with a vending machine will frequently cause her to toss you some spare change. Further, if you manage to die, Elizabeth will revive you. It costs money, though, and you are usually placed a few rooms back from where you died so it feels fairly similar in convenience to the Vita Chambers from BioShock 1 rather than a clear step-up in "streamlining."
In the end, the Elizabeth-supplied "God Mode" was the feature that worried me the most and it ends up feeling fairly innocuous in practice. On Hard, at least, there is a long cooldown between free re-supplies. Elizabeth may save your life with a health pack once but then you're on your own at least until the next battle and maybe even longer. She'll throw you ammunition but, if you don't have immediate access to a "Dollar Bill" vending machine and the enemies are using a different weapon than you, you'll still end up running out of ammo a lot.
"This is crap compared to Mega Shock Deux," spits Mono Cull. "In Mega Shock Deux, it was a true survival horror game. You have to conserve ammo. You're all alone. The only character who talks to you is your mortal enemy. Sure, if you die you get revived at the cost of some money but they're less conveniently placed and you have a save/load feature anyway." I counter him by noting that, despite being a spiritual successor, BioShock Infinite is a completely different style of game. The only thing they have in common, really, is that they're first-person. In the context of a "story-driven" FPS, Elizabeth's presence and her help work well enough. That being said, the consequence is that almost all tension is removed from the combat.
Besides gaining powers, Elizabeth's character evolves slightly over time. At first, she is a popsicle-stick-headed, neotenous-eyed child. But within hours, her hair is cut more sexily and her shirt is ripped off, revealing pixel-tits squeezed into a virtual bodice. It is very clear to me that I am intended to develop sexual feelings for her over time which clashes heavily with what I am soon to discover about my character's true relationship to her. I mention to Mono Cull that this poorly-conceived evolution from hapless child to young sexual object is either a cheap, effortless method of forcing the player to have a connection to her in order to maximize the impact of the ending or it's a reflection of Levi Kinke's latent sexual deviance. Mono believes it's both.
Elizabeth's character also reveals that, after six years of development, the team was still scrambling to finish the game right up to the very end. When you first rescue her, you make it clear to her that you're there to take her to someone in New York in exchange for your debt to be erased. However, it isn't until an hour later that Elizabeth decides to throw a temper tantrum about this fact and runs off alone forcing you to find her. Mono Cull opines that they had recorded the voice work already and it was too late to change anything.
Six or seven hours into the game now, I turn to Mono. "Is this storyline ever going to progress?" I wonder aloud. "I don't know," Mono Cull replies, "I hope so. Because the gameplay is getting more and more stale by the minute." We talk about how even the Hollywood-inspired scripted sequences are wearing out their welcome. After the fifth time you watch something Awesome happening (you fall from some great height and desperately reach out for Elizabeth's hand at least three times) with no ability to control yourself, you start to disengage and the excitement settles down into something more akin to watching a mildly amusing cutscene.
Fed up for the time being, I turn off the PS3 and tell Mono Cull I plan to go visit some bros at the frat house. Standing to leave he says, "You know, if you're able to actually see some of the flaws in this game, you should check out The Omnibus. It's a video game website. Very prestigious and they fight the good fight."
That night, I log onto The Omnibus. The website was created a decade ago by a mysterious character known as Aphat Emcee. I see lots of news posts about games and even genres of which I've never heard before in my life. And I thought I was a hardcore gamer! Pushing forward, I manage to navigate the terrible interface and locate the Bioshock Infinite thread. I'm aghast at what I'm reading but I can't stop myself. It seems every single person in the 50+ page thread would like nothing less than to urinate down Levi Kinke's throat, light him on fire, then douse him in liquid nitrogen. Each poster, despite probably never even playing the game, is certain that there is nothing redeemable about the entire thing. And I thought this Mono Cull guy was being a little harsh!
Partly confused and partly to avoid spoilers, I search for a thread about what I consider to be the best RPG of all time -- Skyrim. I can barely lift my jaw off the floor. It seems impossible but that same cesspool of negativity from the Bioshock Infinite thread carries over to my beloved Skyrim. Wanting nothing more than to find one, just one, post which validates those 450+ hours I've spent doing randomized fetch quests in Skyrim, I read deeper and deeper into the thread.
And blown my mind is.
Try as I might, I cannot dispute some of the arguments being made against Skyrim by the few sane posters in the thread. It's like when you grow up and first realize your parents are not infallible! How could I have been so blind? How could I have been such a hardcore gamer but never really thought about what I was doing? Sure, this Omnibus site is one hell of a shithole... but is there truth buried deep down in there?
I close the browser in rage and disgust. Then I re-open the browser and delete Weakstock.com from my bookmarks. But it's not enough. I clear my cookies and browsing history too. I want Weakstock gone from my life forever. I wanted the truth and what I got was manipulation. It's still not enough. My rage is boiling over. How can I dispose of Weakstock once and for all?
"You've got to finish the game." Mono Call stands in my doorway. I look at him, eyebrows raised in confusion. "You've got to finish the game or you'll be wondering what happens for the rest of time. You'll be wondering if maybe the ending is so amazing that Weakstock's lackeys were right all along. That's the only way to end this."
So, I boot it back up again and push relentlessly toward the much-vaunted ending. I complete the final battle and then work through another 45 minutes of only-slightly-interactive narrative. Finally, the game ends, the twist is revealed, and the credits roll. While Levi Kinke's staff's names take up half the screen, the other half is consumed by an attention-grabbing video showing Levi Kinke himself, presumably demonstrating how hands-on he was throughout the process, presumably demonstrating that this game, this piece of art is his, the auteur's, creation.
I'm left confused. Not in the sense that I can't understand the plot -- Mono Cull promptly explains everything that my feeble mind cannot work out for itself. But I am confused about why everyone on the planet went crazy for this ending. In fact, me and my bros went to see a movie only a couple years ago with the same ending. It was called Looper and it was basically a medium-budget B-movie that was mildly clever but ultimately made no impact in the industry.
Was this just the video game version of Looper? No. Because this game didn't fail to make much of an impact. On the contrary, every game journalist seems to have creamed his jeans over the game and it seems a clear-cut favorite to win every video game award available. So, in the end, I find myself watching the credits of a mediocre game. A game that was the target of my temporary irrational hatred thanks to the temporary irrational love otherwise poured upon it. Was it horrible? No. The art and music in the game was competent, the combat was boring but not horrible, and the story was clever compared to other AAA FPS titles. If it was about half the length and cost $20 I would have been quite happy with it. But it was certainly no Citizen Kane.
Mono Cull laments, "Sometimes I wonder if there will ever be a truly good AAA game ever again." I start to respond that it's surely possible, just as soon as people like Jeremy Weakstock or Levi Kinke are no longer around. But then I realize that the Weakstocks and the Kinkes will always be around, in an endless cycle, as long as consumers continue paying for their trash. People like Levi Kinke will always tell gamers that they are underestimated by other companies doing the same thing himself behind closed doors. People like Jeremy Weakstock will always be around paying for uninformed opinions that happen to tow the company line.
And I realize something even more shocking: I am Weakstock. Just as if Elizabeth had opened a Rift to the future, I see my own future career. Bad grades in journalism class, failure to secure a job after graduation, living with my parents, writing unpaid video game reviews for a two-bit website, managing to land a job at IGN as Junior Minor Subordinate Reviewer, desperate to keep my job and desperate to fit in, writing paid game reviews with no true critical thought, influencing young minds like my own... a truly endless cycle. But now I see a way forward, a way to break that cycle.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Mono Cull asks me, eyes wide.
"Yes," I respond. "This is the only way to stop Weakstock."
Mono Cull nods, solemnly. He walks over to my TV and disconnects my PS3. He packs it up, system, controllers, plugs, everything, and throws it in his backpack. "I will quarantine this for, uh.. *ahem* experimental purposes," he tells me. Then, just as suddenly as he originally appeared in my dorm room, Mono Cull disappears.
I sit in my dorm, now, alone and bored like never before. I stare at the wall, once again contemplating my Journalism homework, and once again laughing it off. I take out my iPhone and check on the status of my village in Clash of Clans.
Written by -- Castanova
Produced by -- Crooked Bee
Idea by -- Castanova
Good Looking Dude -- Castanova
Intelligent Guy -- Castanova
Wealthy Man -- Castanova
Savior of Video Game Reviews -- Castanova
Other not at all important things -- Other People
In another time and another place (another reality?), I find myself at the frat house with my dudebros. A memory forms in my mind -- what seems like years ago, my bros and I seem to have stopped buying console games entirely.
We do sweet Jello shots and high-five each other while watching TV. The news anchor talks about the console gaming industry's steep decline into unprofitability. He talks about CEOs resigning left and right. He talks about layoffs, he talks about AAA franchises bombing at retail. He talks about the cancellation of the Xbox 720 and the Playstation 4...
My subsconscious forces me to listen. Almost like another version of myself responds positively to this news. I look to the screen. Could it be--