There is no such thing as a perfect game, right? Well, maybe Pac-man, Pac-man's pretty much perfect in my opinion. Space Invaders too? Yeah, I reckon. Is there a pattern developing here? Retro games. Maybe there's nostalgia playing a role here, but these games have simplicity on their side - there's not much that can go wrong due to the small amount of variables which feature in these games.
Bioshock Infinite's glut of extremely positive reviews post-release wasn't surprising for the Next Big Thing in videogaming with a reputable proven track record of the original Bioshock. Man, original Bioshock was something else. An immersive environment with truly fresh gameplay and some grim shocks. It was a gaming experience which was pretty close to faultless in my playthrough; I do not remember any issues with glitches, bugs and shaky audio mixes.
So Bioshock Infinite then. The 10/10 poster child. Like many 10/10 "perfect" games, the promise and hyperbole is more than the actual game itself. We've been suckered into game purchases via 10/10 reviews often - it's hard not to be drawn into the marketing whirlwind, the high-gloss CGI trailers, the glut of Twitter positivity. I decided to take a chance and purchase the game on release day - something I rarely do these days due to time and money (ah, those two classic excuses). I also wanted to avoid spoiler chat and experience the story myself.
A hour into the game, I'm already drawn into the sublime environment - it really is one of the game's more positive high points. Sunlight streams through cloud cover enriching the old-timey shopfronts with rich oranges and browns; nostalgic colours from a bygone time. A hovering platform roves into view while a barber shop quartet - the gayest in Columbia - sing a note-perfect rendition of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows". It seems all so perfect... which might be where the problems start.
Liberty Square at Disney. The Hall of Presidents. The Carousel of Progress. Spaceship Earth. Columbia. There's really no difference - a recreation of an environment populated by robotic automatons as they go through their programmed routines for the tourist assholes like me to enjoy.
This was my first disappointment with the environment - as beautiful as it was, its inhabitants were unbelievable. They didn't seem to belong, almost as if they had been glued into place to hide their animatronic innards. Walking to an NPC would "activate" them into a pre-determined soundbyte and then.... nothing. They would deactivate and you moved on. There no real deviation to this - like being entertained by sideshow animatronic characters in a slow-moving Disney ride queue. A steampunk robotic horse only seemed to have the audacity to move about a bit, though around a pre-determined area of effect.
Soon that racism stuff turns up - a mixed race couple tied to a fake tree are unveiled as you unwittingly win a raffle (You were warned of this win via telegram - even predicting the number of the winning raffle ticket - or, er, baseball). A binary morality choice appears - throw a baseball at them or the announcer. Admittedly I was impressed with how the mood turned sour so quickly - violence escalates and blood is spilled. Too much blood? Perhaps. One thing I soon learned at an early stage - I was in the virtual shoes of an asshole. A violent asshole.
That disconnect sown itself into my mind - normally gamers play protagonists who have some kind of honour or moral code, but this DeWitt chap thinks nothing of carving chunks of flesh out of a policeman's face. Still, at least I can control my actions so I'm not a racist, right? Thanks, game!
So far, so Bioshock. Except it isn't. Bioshock seemed claustrophobic and unrelenting in its dread - an underwater city seemed to be the perfect environment to unsettle. Columbia, on the other hand, is vast and open. There are skies above your head and generously spacious arenas. There is no dread here. No consequence.
Soon I meet up with Elizabeth in her angelic prison which overlooks the floating city of Columbia. The terrifying Songbird is introduced and we end up on the fake beach of Battleship Bay. One thing becomes clear - I enjoy poncing about the beautiful environments more than I enjoy the combat, and Battleship Bay is a place I would gladly love to visit in real life. No wonder all the robot NPC automatons enjoy being rooted to their respective sunbeds. I meet the mixed race couple who I didn't throw a baseball at. My reward? Not much.
Combat in Bioshock is a strange thing. Sometimes there is uncertainty as to when the next combat scenario will kick off - enemies hide in plain sight and will activate and start attacking you when the game determines it. "Oh, so exploring time is over now and shooting time begins?" The exploration factor is another great thing about the game - the team of environment artists have crafted believable locations - albeit inhabited by unbelievable inhabitants; the couple who secretly treat and hide the non-white inhabitants of Columbia who suddenly disappear as attack goons burst into their house. There's a firefight but those hidden NPCs still sleep in their beds. There is no running or the shudder of fear that sudden gunfire should bring.
At least the skyrail system allows a fresh element to the combat - skyline takedown moves are always satisfying and the freedom to travel at speed around the numerous arenas... the arenas. It's like when you play a game and enter a suspiciously large room. You know a boss fight is on the cards. In this respect, you should always expect combat when you see the variety of dimensional tears that Elizabeth can interact with. Also in that respect, combat is rarely surprising and often feels more like a chore to get to the next part of the game.
10/10, right? Not a single jot of that was removed for the frankly terrible audio mix - interface sound effects clash with sometimes important dialogue from my new companion. Voxaphone excerpts are reduced in volume as Elizabeth pipes up with some more dialogue - frustrating when you're trying to get into the moment of the thought processes of the Voxaphone's owner. Enemies shout at you but their volume always seems to be constant - they sound like they're in the same room but they're actually further away than you think, especially the ones which spawned below some stone stairs.
Larger enemies appear including Handymen - Bioshock Inifnite's equivalent to the Big Daddies. They are ruthlessly brutal in their attack patterns and feel like the only threat in the entire game - well, besides the ghost I was shooting with a sniper rifle. Eh? Was I using ghost bullets? There is not much consequence when you die; Elizabeth will bring you back to life and some enemy life bars reset. That's it. In comparison, Bioshock 1 felt more challenging... more consequential when your life bar was depleted. The challenge also feels removed where you can exploit arenas - and they seem begging for exploitation - especially when there's vending machines which can give you an almost endless supply of ammo to attack.
Maybe this is a design decision based on the utterly terrible save system. I've heard horror stories of hours of gameplay lost due to the fact the game will autosave when it feels like it. Quitting out of a game will give you a warning with a timestamp with the last game save which was created for you. This from a AAA game is pretty unforgivable given the norm. Have we really forgotten how to create save games on the fly? I found myself playing until my profile autosaved, though I know the vast non-linear maze leading to Comstock House has few of these autosaves, which is probably where the loss of game time is most apparent with bemused gamers.
That ending too. The ending. Beautiful as it was, it still left me confused. I think all bets are off when you introduce an infinite dimension concept. Anything can happen, right? Just because anything can happen, shouldn't mean anything should happen. My baptism-inspired death (murder?) left me hollow and unfulfilled - the complete opposite feeling I experienced at the conclusion of the original Bioshock. A post-credits nod seems like an afterthought to placate the emptiness. It doesn't.
The developer crunch behind this might explain some of the technical issues I had with the game. I've worked on games as an environment artist, and even I was taken aback by the abundance of flickering polygons between intersecting geometry - especially during one part where I was walking over these heinous illusion-breaking shapes while edging around a building balcony. It's a small thing, but something I shouldn't really be seeing in such a beautiful environment. It's jarring. Technology is behind all this, not imagination.
I've gamed long enough to not believe in the "perfect" game based on 10/10 review scores. Edge Magazine gave Halo 10/10 and yet somehow managed to not experience the dredge of The Library or the stuttering frame rate of The Maw. It saddens me that Bioshock Infinite wasn't the Bioshock Infinite I was expecting based on my time with the original Bioshock. Themes felt forced, gameplay felt almost dumbed down for a newer audience. The multiple dimensions were the perfect "get out of jail" tool for its writers.
In fact, that bit of the game. You know, the bit where you end up in Rapture. That only made me nostalgic and a bit sad. Good game franchises don't die. They just get dumbed down.