Back from Columbia

I've played through BioShock Infinite.

I should probably put some sort of eye-catching screenshot of this very pretty game here.

How's this?

(I think almost everybody ate them.)

My review, in a word:

"Ehh."

BioShock Infinite wasn't bad, you understand. But I didn't find it particularly compelling, either. I often kept playing only because the last save checkpoint was seven minutes ago (try to quit and the game will tell you when it last saved, if you didn't notice the little autosave thing in the top right corner), and I didn't want to replay that section.

And now that it's over, I don't want to replay any of it at all. You can change the gameplay considerably by specialising in one or another kind of magic ("Vigors") or gun, and the "gear" you find through the game (things like a hat that somehow lights enemies on fire when you hit them, or pants that make your shield recharge faster) is partially randomised too.

But I'm done with it. It just didn't grab me.

Which is not to say, again, that there's anything wrong with this 800-pound gorilla of the gaming world, which cost as much to make as a Hollywood blockbuster. There are a lot of places where BioShock Infinite could have gone wrong, but it almost never did.

Checkpointed saves, for instance, shouldn't be necessary even in console games today (I played the PC version). But BioShock Infinite checkpoints frequently enough that it should only be a problem if you can only manage your gaming in ten-minute instalments.

(The game also works fine with alt-tab, by the way. Well, it did on my computer, at least. So as long as you don't have to actually turn off the computer or something, you can just pause it and get on with other stuff until the boss goes away.)

BioShock Infinite also starts with a console-standard narrow field of view which feels poky on the PC, and I don't think there's an in-game console to change stuff like that. But there is a field-of-view slider right there in the options! You can't take it quite as far as I'd like, but it was good enough.

And you know when you see some giant terrifying thing or ultimate super-overlord in a shooter game, and think, "that bugger's going to be a frustrating boss battle at the end, isn't he?"

Well, in BioShock Infinite, not to spoil too much, but no. There are boss-ish battles and one enemy that acts as a quite classic multi-battle boss, but not many of them, and you're always pretty free to move and hide and just bull through with brute firepower if necessary. At no point do you have to shoot the tentacles, then shoot the missile launchers, then shoot the eyes, then shoot the brain, IN THAT ORDER.

Oh, and you're in Columbia, a city in the sky, but there's no fear-of-heights at all. You sure can jump off any number of edges into miles and miles of vertical fresh air, but you then just instantly teleport back to where you were, with a distinctive noise that may help clue you in to the fact that almost nothing in Columbia is as it seems.

The bizarre glowing steampunk Gilded-Age-With-Extra-Racism Founding-Fathers-worshipping universe-hopping setting of Columbia is almost all brightly lit and cheerfully coloured, and realised very well indeed. I'd put this game up there with Just Cause 2 for prettiness. But because BioShock Infinite has to run on 2006-technology consoles as well as on the PC, the engine actually isn't terribly demanding. At almost-top graphics settings, the GeForce GTX 560 Ti in my rather antiquated Core i7 PC gave me perfectly playable frame rates at full 2560 by 1600 resolution. The price for that is a lot of bits of game that don't look great close up, but I'll take two-dimensional flowers and wheels with corners over having to play in Duplo Chunkyvision Mode any day.

There's also no map in the game, just a navigation key that draws a green arrow in the direction of your current quest target. Many sections of the game are quite enormous, so again this had me worrying about something that a lot of games get wrong: Not telling the player where the hell they're supposed to go next. The Overlord games, to pick one example among many, had this problem in spades; I spent ages trundling around levels in those games trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. Nothing short of YouTube cheat videos helped. (The Overlord games had some extremely frustrating bosses, too.)

But, again, BioShock Infinite dodged the bullet. I only had a navigation failure once in the whole game.

(The navigation key managed to draw an arrow up onto one side of one of the whizzy "Sky-Line" transportation thingies, and the arrow then did a U-turn and pointed the other way on the same Sky-Line. So I just Googled it. Ah, the Market District. Frustration concluded.)

There are also a few side-quests where you find a secret code, and have to find a book to decode it, these two items probably being a long way apart. There's no navigation help for these things, so you'll probably get to enjoy some good old Classic-RPG Where The Hell Was It gameplay. Or you'll go on to a new area and discover you can't go back any more. But the side quests are entirely optional, and don't offer any huge game-beating bonuses - just "elixirs" to boost one of your three stats a bit, and another piece of magical clothing, and another interesting audio log.

Boy, BioShock Infinite is grand. Not necessarily particularly comprehensible, but grand, all right. And I like incomprehensible; as I've written before, I much prefer coming out of a movie or game or whatever saying "what the fuck was that all about?", than having everything spoon-fed to me in mainstream Hollywood style. I don't think BioShock Infinite really is especially inventive, story-wise, but it's like The Fifth Element or The Avengers or that Doctor Who episode where all history happened at once; sumptuous popcorn entertainment best not thought about in any great depth.

BioShock Infinite has no Super-Famous Actors cluttering up the place with strangely lousy voice acting. And no frustrating Do It Again, Stupid gameplay (as in earlier BioShocks, death is only really a minor inconvenience; you come back with not quite all of your health and a little bit less money, and all living enemies get a small health boost, but that's it). And it has difficulty settings you can change whenever you like. And it has quite slick and responsive keyboard-and-mouse controls (many recent console ports play better with a controller). And there's plenty of pleasing filigree on the basic mechanics. And a companion who never needs to be baby-sat. And the story may be... blurry... but it's every bit as grand as the graphics.

(The confusingness is probably unavoidable given that there are multiple universes and even a certain amount of time-travel... ish... ness... involved, which I don't think is a spoiler, given some central features of the setting and stuff you're told before you even kill anyone. I found one of the central end-of-game revelations, though, to be extremely hard to digest. It felt to me like a plot twist that perhaps made sense early in the development of the story, but the final story ended up being very different. Or maybe it was thrown in toward the end of development. Either way, and again not to spoil, I think there are basic but-just-look-and-listen-to-them-for-pity's-sake problems with it. You'll probably know which bit I mean when you get to it. If you don't detect it, congratulations on being less annoyed by the game than I was!)

Is BioShock Infinite worth buying at full price? If you loved the previous BioShocks, probably yes.

For me, though, regrettably no.

Perhaps you'll just adore the setting, in the same way I adore the settings of Fallout 3 and Saints Row: The Third and don't care about their nonsensical stories. There's only about twelve hours of gameplay in BioShock Infinite, though, so no matter how awesome you think it is, you'll pretty much have to get a lot less gameplay per dollar from it than a big open-world game gives you.

(EDIT: Actually, I don't really love the setting of SR3, which is just Interchangeable Simulated City To Commit Mayhem Within #726. What I like is the game's craziness, and the integration of that craziness with the overall feel of the city. Contrast this with Grand Theft Auto's bizarre attempt to graft conversations in which killing one person is treated as important, to gameplay in which you ran down 53 people on the way to have that conversation. Also, the first time you get in a helicopter in a Saints Row game, you will actually be able to fly it.)

You probably will enjoy a second playthrough at the very least, though. There are piles and piles of things that are suddenly loaded with new meaning in a second playthrough, now that you know all the great revelations of the end of the story about how everybody in the game is actually a robot built by Nazi moon vampires. That just doesn't tempt me quite enough.

(The more I read about the game now that I've finished it, the more I also want to replay it just to make less of a hash of it. "Wait, I wouldn't have had to fight all those unreasonably tough dudes with cudgels in that place that had almost no health and ammo if I'd just sneaked around their creepy boss-dudes instead of shooting at them? I thought it was only one boss-dude and eventually he'd stop teleporting away so I could kill him! Dang it.")

I don't really find myself disappointed, since I wasn't one of the people waiting impatiently for the year BioShock Infinite slipped from its original release date. (There's a joke about that in the game, too, along with quite a lot of other adroitly-placed jokes that break up the horror and seriousness nicely.) Actually, the biggest disappointment I had was that there were only a few Olde Tyme Remakes of modern pop songs in the soundtrack.

And I shouldn't complain.

This is a game that lets you sic clouds of highly carnivorous ravens on your enemies while shooting at them with a man-portable crank-operated Gatling gun, after all. What else do you want?

9 Responses to “Back from Columbia”

  1. Chazzozz Says:

    Thanks Dan, for a review that tells it like it is from the POV of someone who's played it. I read the one in PC & Tech Authority and it positively gushed with enthusiasm (not to mention the Bioshock Infinite trailer video du jour posts every day), which made me quite excited about it. Sadly, I don't have a bleeding-edge Tiny God computer, I'm stuck using one of those 2006-technology consoles you mentioned. So, while I thoroughly enjoyed the previous installments (including the ever-so-scary System Shock 2 that the Bioshock series grew out of) I think I'll wait for this one to pop up secondhand at my local Gametraders.

    • TwoHedWlf Says:

      Haha, "Review from someone who's played it." Reminds me of some reviews I've seen over RC hardware, variations of "This motor is really great, I'll do another review once I've got one and tried it."

      So this review is based on what? A picture and chinglish specs?

  2. Slurpy Says:

    Did you play it in 1999 mode? I'm told that's the only way it's fun for us old-tymers.

    • dan Says:

      God, no. Just standard difficulty. Feel free to turn it on if you enjoy suffering, but to my mind it just reverses several of the abovementioned things they could have done wrong, but didn't.

      I suppose it could sort of work if you've played through once already and so no longer want to spend time checking out the pretty. I'm not interested in several hours of fear of single incoming bullets and desperate searches for health and ammo, though. Not until the "achievement" you get from grinding through the game in that mode comes with a cash prize, at any rate.

  3. sockatume Says:

    Checkpointed saves are seldom required any more, but they're a useful tool for pacing the encounters in a fairly linear game like this. If you can restart from any point in a skirmish, it breaks down into a scrabbling series of small advances and the need for strategic thinking evaporates.

    Of course, games should let you simply put them down and walk away at any point, but that can - and should - be orthogonal to the way the game handles player failure.

    • dan Says:

      Yeah, and like I said, Infinite handles this pretty much optimally. No Lose The Boss-Fight, Rewind Ten Minutes and Have To Kill 1028 Mooks Before You Can Have Another Go stuff.

    • Fallingwater Says:

      > Checkpointed saves are seldom required any more, but they're a useful tool for pacing the encounters in a fairly linear game like this. If you can restart from any point in a skirmish, it breaks down into a scrabbling series of small advances and the need for strategic thinking evaporates.

      Remember Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus? You could save at ANY point. In a platformer. And it autosaved at each level so you couldn't quicksave yourself into a corner.

      And it was fun as hell.

      Checkpoints themselves, and their use to "enhance" gameplay, are one of the Huge Fails of Modern Videogaming that I'd banish into an alternate dimension through one of Elizabeth's tears, if I could.

      And yeah, I'm only replying now because I just now finished Infinite.

      And yeah, I too thought the creepy boss-thing was just one and I'd eventually get to crack that silly head-thing open like a walnut.

      Fortunately, two crows+flames combos and a couple of shotgun blasts are sufficient to kill the mobs.

  4. Jambe Says:

    A nice review.

    The first hour or so (I spent a lot of time just lookin' around) was the game's high point. "Grand" is the right word. Aesthetic grandeur out the wazoo! This is a common criticism, but I was put off once it devolved into the generic "shoot stream of bads, move to new place, rinse & repeat" mechanic. It was just another shooter at that point, albeit one with outstanding visual and aural design. The looting mechanic also seemed hilarious and out of tune.

    I like combat in games, mind; I was a huge fan of UT99 and I'm liking e.g. ShootMania Storm and CS:GO. But I don't see why it has to be in all AAA games, at least not as a core or central mechanic. It probably would've been impossible to pitch Infinite as some kind of genre-bending narrative-driven "interactive story with a few fighty bits" type of game; at least we have the indie space and Kickstarter and suchlike to spur innovation. In any case, the combat in Infinite seems unnecessary and even counterproductive to their narrative goals (hodgepodge though they were).

    The Shooty-Mc-Kill-Kill mechanics were among the most satisfyingly-polished bits of the game, yet I wish they'd downplayed those elements and focused more on telling their bonkers stories. Flesh out more characters (most of which were flat and cartoony and unmoving), slow the pace of encounters and present fewer and more memorable opponents, and the whole thing could've easily gelled into an affecting experience. As it was, the sheer volume of combat rendered fights samey and forgettable, so the only thing that seemed remarkable was the architecture and sound and such. If they'd stripped out like 4/5ths of the fighting, fights (and the combat mechanics themselves) would've seemed a helluva lot more satisfying.

    For contrast, see a game like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a first-person horror game with no combat which produces umpteen bucketfuls more emotional impact than Infinite could even shake a stick at. Speaking of which, here's Thomas Grip's take on Infinite, which you might like.

    • Buxtehude Says:

      Yes, that's almost exactly what I thought of the game as well. I would love to replay the game with the combat either removed entirely, or else severely reduced. As games writer Richard Cobbett commented, a BioShock Infinite where Booker is *actually* a Pinkerton detective trying to piece things together (instead of bumbling around from one shootout to the next) would be terrific.


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