BioShock Infinite is Badly-Designed and Badly-Written Prolefeed
BioShock Infinite is being praised for its tight gameplay and brilliant story. I found it to be a poor man’s Dishonored and lacking in both combat and plot. I’ll address each separately.
The tools you are given are generic. The idea of having both guns and magic (sorry, Vigors) in a first-person shooter might be enticing if you’ve never played American McGee’s Alice, Clive Barker’s Undying, or the first two BioShock games. Devil’s Kiss is just a fire grenade, Murder of Crows and Bucking Bronco are just stun grenades, Possession is a land mine, Undertow is a Jedi force push, etc. Not only are the spells uninspired, but the basic pistol you get near the start of the game will be enough to last you to its completion. There’s no need to use weapons and sorcery in unique combinations; you can just Rambo your way through with the occasional duck behind cover, Halo-like, as you regain your armor.
The Possession spell’s primary use really only works on enemy gun turrets. Using it on vending machines merely gives you a small amount of coins and casting it on the robots that control lifts and railways does nothing, as that would allow the player to go out of the pre-established boundaries. Another failed opportunity, though a forgivable one considering this isn’t an open-ended game.
Enemies are dumb. They usually run straight towards the player, even if they’re armed with billy clubs and you have a shotgun and fireball spells and they’re stepping over the corpses of their allies. Occasionally they’ll try to surround you, but cover is so commonplace that it’s very simple to take out one enemy, duck behind a wall, and let your shields regenerate. This game is much too easy, though after completing it it unlocks some harder modes that I didn’t bother with.
In an example of the consolification of video gaming, BioShock Infinite uses set checkpoints instead of letting the player save where they wish. This does prevent cheating but I imagine its primary purpose is to make the game more like a movie. Death brings you immediately back to where you died, or very near it. There is no penalty for death and thus little challenge to be found.
Invisible walls, disappearing bodies, weapons that can’t be picked up, only being able to hold two guns at a time, all sorts of other irritating video game clichés. There is nothing to discover; everything is clearly labeled and brightly lit so there’s no need to ponder solutions to the obstacles. Just look around until you see a glowing thing or even use your handy plot arrow to direct you if the game isn’t straightforward enough already. I couldn’t even throw myself off of one of the game’s many ledges. There is no tension, no danger, and no excitement. Elizabeth keeps you full of ammo, salt, and health, so there’s even less need to scrounge for them. Why not force the player to go melee or start from the most recent checkpoint if they run out of ammo? This is another unneeded safety net.
Much of the time, this game takes control away from the player. Even camera controls are denied you during most of BioShock Infinite’s cutscenes. At least Half-Life let you hop around the room and knock cups off of shelves with a crowbar while NPCs babbled exposition to you.
One more gripe: the mouse speed configuration is hideous. Everything is either “slower than Dragonball Z” or “look in every direction at once”. I had to spend quite a long time with the sensitivity slider and the physical settings on my mouse before arriving at a mouse speed that wasn’t disorienting. Even low-budget first-person shooters usually have better controls than this.
The plot of BioShock Infinite is about an alternate universe where brainwashed wizards in 1912 worship the American founding fathers. It exists apparently to ridicule rightist pundits who just can’t shut up about how beautiful it is that George Washington killed Hitler with a lightsaber and Reagan Jefferson personally wiped communism off the map with his giant steampunk cannon. Soon, some dimension-traveling stuff is tacked on, and it gets worse towards the end.
Some internet guy made this image. Half-Life 2 is pretty linear so I don’t think it’s the best comparison, but this image does illustrate the deceit of BioShock Infinite and its illusion of choice. You had more options in Ultima 30 years ago. I guess part of the art is hiding the lack of choice if you have lack of choice, and BioShock Infinite fails at it. While playing Half-Life 2 I never felt railroaded because each individual segment was enjoyable and it never took control away from me. BioShock Infinite goads the player along its linear path but always keeps the pretense that it’s a Very Important Message (about white supremacy, manifest destiny, and Quantum Leaps or something) and that your choices really matter. You’re still a passive participant throughout the entire game, but it keeps pissing on you and telling you have free will. Why can’t it be honest and just say it’s a movie with occasional shooting parts?
They want a movielike game but the reality is that you can’t do that, so you end up instead with a gamelike movie. It has only the illusion of free will even as it railroads you along its dull plot. It forces you down a linear path and has you choose meaningless options to make you feel like you’re doing something. It’s cheap, exploitative, yet highly polished, like a Spielberg film. For a game that’s allegedly anti-slavery, there sure are few options for the player other than scavenging for loose change and the odd numerical upgrade.
So Columbia is bad, I get that. But the Vox Populi are also scum because they just kill people indiscriminately. So the story isn’t so dumb that it’s completely one-sided; however, it’s still a lazy cop-out to say “everybody sucks”. That’s middle school writing, that’s Warhammer 40,000-level writing. The only not-evil person is Disney princess reject Elizabeth, who is basically the same as Farah from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (and is mercifully invincible in combat).
There are some dumb lines, like “I want a puppy but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna get one.” The “I have to do this alone” posturing cliché towards the end grew quite tiresome. The ironic callbacks to the beginning and to previous games weren’t as poignant as they were obviously intended. And the last half hour or so of the game is downright hilarious. These combined with the generally ridiculous premise, confusing plot events, and the unfulfilled promise of genius add up to a huge disappointment.
Look at this ridiculous video showing the game’s self-aggrandizing creative director bragging about how brilliant his writing is. It comes complete with internet comments lavishing praise on BioShock Infinite and using the word “art” more than the King James Bible. When speaking about the game’s villain, he said, “It occurred to me that I had to figure out why people follow him.” Are you kidding me? Ken Levine sucks.
Because BioShock Infinite is a leftist wank fantasy (whether the creator intended it to be or not), it must not admit in any way that emancipation was primarily Christian. The game also has a completely out of place Beach Boys song in it, presumably because it has the word “God” in it and Levine thinks that all theists are either brainless cattle or cackling Flash Gordon villains. Reading an interview with him I get the impression that he’s smarter than the average game designer, but not to the superlative extent that he is credited with. Apparently, making fun of KKKristians automatically makes you a subversive genius or something. Living in America you almost can’t avoid idiot Christians, but his fanciful interpretation of Christianity (the dominant religion) in America sounds as dumb as most Americans’ beliefs about Muslims. Not that a rightist fantasy written by Ted Nugent or some other hack would have been any smarter.
The writing in BioShock Infinite is somewhat better than what you’d get from Brown First-Person Shooter or Giant Budget Third-Person Shooter. Compared to “FUCK YOOOUGHAHEAGHGHH” from DmC – Devil May Cry, it’s downright beautiful poetry. But it’s nowhere near the genius everyone is attributing to it; it is mediocre at best. And with the sham that is gaming journalism, people are looking for the next thing to praise, whether it’s praiseworthy or not. They think if they can write reviews that sound like Ebert (RIP), they’ve made it.
If somebody responds to my criticisms with “well what’s your brilliant storyline?” I’d have to say that I wrote a book once and it had lots of problems with it, so I know writing is hard. I probably couldn’t do better. But if people are going to shout this game’s praises from the rooftops, it should be better than this. Some random internet dork like me shouldn’t be able to dismantle it so easily.
Is there anything likeable about it? The visuals are nice (and nothing more than nice), for one. The backdrop of early 20th century Americana combined with sci-fi floating cities is a unique mix that most steampunk settings wouldn’t have thought of. There aren’t just gears glued on everything; there’s a decently thought-out world here that examines the ramifications of the Vigors and how they would affect society. Too bad the rest of the writing is insufficient.
Ultimately, BioShock Infinite is a pseudo-intellectual failure, like an indie artgame with an oh-so-deep message except with a budget. Or imagine if the movies Armageddon and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (highly-polished, huge-budget, kinda dopey flicks) got all sorts of hyperbolic critical acclaim immediately after their releases. It’s absurd. BioShock Infinite does not deserve the near-universal praise it is receiving. It is an example of the dumbing down and homogenization of FPSes. It doesn’t live up to its own expectations; it tried to be this amazing masterwork and I will judge it as such. Everything it tries to do has been done better by Dishonored, System Shock 2, Fallout 3, Deus Ex, even Clive Barker’s Undying. Pass it up.