By GrantHeaslip 46 Comments
I'm having a hard time reconciling BioShock Infinite's near-universal acclaim with my experience playing it, and I'm having a hard time believing that much of what's been written about the gameplay would have been said had the game featured a typical FPS world and plot.
Let me get this out of the way: BioShock Infinite's world and narrative are great. I've got my issues with the pacing, the lack of character development, and the throwaway nature of a lot of the objectives, characters, and story beats, but by the standards of video games, I can't complain. I don't think it's a masterful elevation of video game storytelling, but hey, casually throwing around hyperbole is how games criticism works, right? My issue is not with Infinite's script and art direction, but with the act of actually playing it, and the way its gameplay flaws have been swept under the rug.
I consistently found Infinite's combat to be awkward, unpolished, and generally unsatisfying. The enemies were brain-dead, and encounters often ended with my hunting down a stray enemy shooting at a wall or yelling the same few psychopathic phrases at me while running around in circles. I found many of the abilities required such an investment of time and focus that they were effectively pointless to use for anything other than quick crowd control or as specific counters. I found doing anything from the skylines so awkward that I only really used them to as panic buttons in conjunction with the skyline invulnerability equipment. The jittery enemy behaviours, ridiculously spongy enemies, and lack of hit reactions felt straight out of, well, 2007.
For reasons that, in hindsight, are unclear to me, I played Rage a few months ago. I'm not going to argue that Rage is a better video game than Infinite, but I'll say that the on-foot combat sections of Rage were dramatically better executed than Infinite's. The enemies behaved intelligently and animated believably, and the act of shooting enemies felt way tactile and satisfying. The constrained environments and predictable enemy mobility allowed the player to assess a situation and execute on an informed plan. In contrast, I found encounters in Infinite constantly devolving into confused clusterfucks, especially when Patriots, Handymen, or RPGs were in the mix. To put it simply, I didn't find BioShock's combat fun. It was, for the most part, a means to an end in a way that I don't think was befitting of a top-of-the-line shooter. Sure, the combat of Infinite isn't the main attraction, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't have been better.
The exploration segments of Infinite were unnecessarily hampered by the bizarre decision to litter environments with pickups. A lot of the time I could have spent soaking in beautiful environments and ambient storytelling was instead spent running around mashing square. This wasn't an occasional, minor annoyance -- I probably spent 10-15% of the game running around looting corpses and cabinets. I can think of no good justification for this -- if scavenging had to be a part of the game at all, it should have been way more seamless, or just a thing Elizabeth did for you. Many reviews don't mention the scavenging at all, which for such a time-consuming component of the game, is a bizarre critical omission.
I already touched on the jittery enemy behaviour, but I haven't mentioned how it manifests in Elizabeth. I remember watching an E3 (2011?) demo of BioShock that included a segment with Booker and Elizabeth looking around a souvenir shop. Elizabeth moved around realistically, had context-sensitive interactions with objects, and generally seemed like a character and not a brain-dead AI pathfinding her way around you. There was almost none of this in the finished product. Early on, I would stop whenever she seemed to be acknowledging something, but I quickly figured out that it never went anywhere. Inevitably, I'd walk over to her and she'd awkwardly turn on a dime and pathfind out of the way. At best, she might lip-sync to a piece of dialogue while starting at nothing in particular. By the end of the game, the lion's share of her ambient dialogue was about lockpicks -- in some cases lockpicks that weren't even in the same room or floor. Elizabeth's character model looked great, and animated well in directed cutscenes, but for most of the game she was about as believable of a companion as Half-Life 2's Alyx.
The game's other NPCs were even worse. In the beginning of the game, I started developing a theory that the inhabitants of Columbia were illusions, robots, or something that explained why they all looked the same and did absolutely nothing except repeat a short animation loop and flap-jaw lines when you got near them. This never stopped being distracting to me -- for a game that seemed to be investing so much in world-building, the lifelessness of its inhabitants was a bizarre misstep. I never felt like I was walking through a living, breathing world so much as a carefully-laid-out diorama. It's stuff that would have played well in a quick camera pan in a movie, not the kind of sustained viewing video games encourage.
BioShock Infinite, with the shooting gameplay of Rage and AI that didn't feel straight out of the mid-2000s, would have been a much better game, but when we're talking about a game that received countless perfect or near-perfect scores, how does one express "better"? In most cases, this kind of papering over of flaws wouldn't annoy me, but when we're talking about one of the most hyperbolized-about games since Grand Theft Auto IV, I can't help but feel duped by critics who are supposed to be, well, critical. I can't speak for said reviewers, and they're obviously entitled to their opinions, but I get the distinct impression many were blown away by the world and story (and really, the last third of it), and desperately tried to conceive of equally amazing gameplay where none existed.