A fun game, but a 5/5? A masterpiece? What has happened to our standards?
Bioshock: Infinite is the hardest game for me to review since – well – since the first Bioshock. Normally, when I give a game four stars, I spend most of the review telling you why the game is fun and why you should probably play it. With this game, I instead feel compelled to tell you why it is not a masterpiece worthy of the lavish praise that it is receiving from every corner of the internet. I think back to the way that gamers used to look at games, and, ten years ago, this game would have gotten a much different reception. It would have been accurately pegged for what it is – a decent, but seriously flawed ride that is good while it lasts, but one that is vastly inferior to the best experiences that gaming has had to offer.
If you have been following games for a while, then you may remember a game called Jade Empire. Jade Empire, like Bioshock: Infinite, was a stylish, colorful game that came from a developer with an unmatched pedigree. Jade Empire also received glowing early reviews from numerous outlets right at the game’s release. However, after that first round of “OMG BEST GAME EVAR!!” reviews, a few outlets, like Gamespot and X-Play, pointed out that the game had some serious flaws, like its unimaginative good and evil morality system, and its monotonous, unchallenging combat. Since then, the consensus opinion on the game is that it was pretty fun, but not nearly as good as Bioware’s masterpiece RPGs of the late 90s and early oughts. Bioshock: Infinite reminds me a lot of Jade Empire with its repetitive combat and its complete lack of difficulty. Nowadays, however, the critical voices to point out these flaws are nowhere to be found.
I get warm fuzzies thinking about the good old days, when games actually had to do something revolutionary and groundbreaking in order to be described as “revolutionary and groundbreaking”. Remember what Half-Life 2 did for gaming? Physics-based gameplay, incredible graphical technology, cool weapons, the striders, facial animiations, fun level design. Wow. Now that game was revolutionary. If anything, Bioshock: Infinite does the opposite. It contributes to the depressing trend of de-evolution in gaming. Challenge is non-existent. You are constantly tripping over so many power-ups and so much ammo that it’s almost impossible to be killed. If you do get killed, you are revived on the spot. As a result, there are no thrills to be had in Bioshock: Infinite. There is never a sense of satisfaction in overcoming your obstacles. There are more exciting moments in the Ravenholm level of Half-Life 2 than there are in this entire game.
You are now limited to two weapons. Why? I don’t know why. Because of the airhead in the Marketing Department who has a pie chart that says your game should have two weapons, I suppose. The first Bioshock let you carry all weapons, and it had neat features like alternate ammo that made them more fun to use. They also looked interesting, because they had been cobbled together out of junk. What the hell happened? The selection of weapons in Bioshock: Infinite is boring, and there is no alternate ammo for them. There are a lot of them, but they are so redundant that 80% of them serve the exact same function. Outside of the rocket launcher and the mini-gun, there was no thought put into how to make each weapon unique – giving each weapon its own strengths and weaknesses so that what weapon you use depends upon what encounter you are facing. Why doesn’t a game get criticized for these kinds of problems anymore? Games might be “art”, but games are still games too.
Because of these problems, Bioshock Infinite is not a great shooter. It wouldn’t even be a good one, were it not for the extra flavor provided by your sci-fi special abilities. These abilities, called Vigors, allow you to do some pretty entertaining stuff and kill bad guys in fun ways. You can launch them up in the air, set them on fire, stun them with electricity, or turn them to your side. Thanks to the Vigors and some decent enemy AI, combat has a slightly sandboxy feel that isn’t present in most shooters. It can be fun to just experiment with your abilities to see how many ways there are to kill people. Unfortunately, there isn’t any other reason to use different vigors. Their functions are kind of redundant, and you can get through the game by spamming the same basic strategy over and over again (remember the comparison to Jade Empire?)
Bioshock: Infinite does have one potentially very cool new mechanic – the sky hook. With the sky hook, you can attach to rails and fly through the air from one floating island to another. As a bonus, the hook also functions as a Cuisinart that you can use to scramble enemies’ faces. This mechanic does provide for some fun moments and some great scenery, but it doesn’t provide you with much freedom. Furthermore, you don’t get to use it that often. The game is too linear for it to realize its full potential.
Just as disturbing as the lack of criticism for this game’s gameplay is the universal praise that it is receiving for being a “games as art” game. There is a strong “Emperor’s New Clothes” dynamic at work here. Everyone wants games to be art, so when a “games as art” game comes out nowadays, the gaming media gushes all over it, and they all slap each other on the back for being such great connoisseurs of art. Nobody wants to be the guy who gets accused of being unintelligent or unsophisticated because he doesn’t appreciate art. Social commentary in games is praised, regardless of whether it is uninsightful, ninth grade level crap. More on that later.
Is Bioshock: Infinite a great work of art? Is it finally the Citizen Kane of gaming? The answer: no. It is more like the Inception or the Avatar of gaming. Like Inception, it has spectacular set pieces, it has an interesting sci-fi premise, and it bombards you with a bunch of weird, loosely explained events that make you think that there is some wonderful, complex story beneath. The more you think about it though, the more plot holes you uncover, and the more you realize that the brilliance is just on the surface. And, like Avatar, it is chock full of ham-fisted, infantile political commentary that has no nuance and provokes no thought. If you compare Bioshock: Infinite’s story to writing to the best that gaming has to offer, it doesn’t measure up. It doesn’t even measure up to the best that Ken Levine has had to offer – Thief and System Shock 2 were better.
The setting is, at least very interesting. A city miles up in the clouds – I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen that one before. It is accompanied by some absolutely beautiful scenery, even though the technology that powers it is outdated. Bioshock: Infinite gets at least one bonus star for actually using the full color palette, as opposed to 80% of today’s AAA titles, where the entire screen is gray or brown. There is an excellent mix of indoor and outdoor environments, and rarely a moment where it feels like you are in a copy-and-pasted area. The outdoor areas give you the opportunity to take in some truly breathtaking scenery. Bioshock: Infinite also deserves a ton of credit for offering a massive amount of variety in its buildings and set pieces. There are a ton of assets in this game -- probably more than any first person shooter since the first Bioshock.
The game is at its best when you are viewing everything from a distance. It fares a lot worse up close. Textures have that muddy “this game was obviously made for a console” look to them. Some of them are so crude that they are almost comical – the worst offender being the flat texture that is supposed to represent the apples in a bag of fruit. I know that I’m nitpicking, but Christ, some of this stuff looks like stuff that I saw in a Piranha Bytes game 10 years ago. A few story characters – specifically, Elizabeth – look incredible and realistic, but most characters don’t fall into this category. Generic NPCs look outdated, and they look bright and pale, thanks to the game’s overuse of bloom. They also look mostly the same – Bioshock Infinite is one of the worst offenders in recent memory when it comes to copying and pasting of NPCs and civilians. Facial animations and lip synching are good for important characters, but really bad for the generic men and women who populate most of the game. The ugly NPCs are one of many examples of how this series has failed to keep up with advancements in technology. They would be at home on the original X-Box. Speaking of “this game was obviously made for a console”, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the field of view is pretty bad. It isn’t as bad as Dishonored, but even with the slider turned up to its maximum setting, it is still too tight. Customization options for the PC version, by-and-large, are lacking.
Bioshock: Infinite has gotten a lot of credit for its story, and some of it is deserved. It is a unique, unpredictable story that will have you wanting to see what is at the end. A major problem with the story though is that it is meant to be taken seriously. There is a limit to how much you can suppress your disbelief. The first Bioshock could be taken seriously, because it didn’t completely break your sense of disbelief. The setting felt appropriate, because it was playing on the “Atlas Shrugged” theme of the world’s geniuses finding a secret hideaway. The technology was appropriate for the time period. The plasmids were a new scientific discovery, thanks to all of the great minds in Rapture. Everyone’s crazy, hostile behavior seemed like the result of brain damage and overmodification of the body. Its Libertarian political themes were relevant too.
Bioshock: Infinite, on the other hand, requires a new historical timeline. Rockets were invented in the late 19th century, which is when this massive city in the clouds was built. The technology in Columbia, this city in the clouds, is exactly the same as what is available in Rapture four decades later -- machine guns, vending machines, turrets – everything. Your special powers in the game, called “vigors”, are given no reason in the story to exist, unlike the plasmids in Bioshock. The primary antagonists in the game are a bunch of religious wackos who worship the founding fathers like Gods and refer to the rest of the world as “The Sodom below”. Bioshock Infinite takes place in a wild alternate universe, which wouldn’t be a problem for a comic book or a Quinton Tarantino dark comedy. But this isn’t a comic book – this is a piece of “art” and social commentary that is genuinely meant to be taken seriously. It can’t be. It is too preposterous.
Topping it off is Bioshock: Infinite’s preachy social/political commentary. The citizens of Columbia are all a bunch of religious fanatical, violent racists who:
1. Hate Abraham Lincoln for ending slavery and, instead, worship John Wilkes Booth
2. Hate “negroes” and think of them as inferior beings
3. Hold a raffle where the winner gets to toss the first object in the stoning of an interracial couple.
4. Celebrate the slaughter of Native Americans at Wounded Knee
When I see this game get praised for its mature and thoughtful take on social issues, it makes me bury my head in the palm of my hand, like that famous picture of Jean-Luc Picard that occasionally shows on forum threads when somebody says something stupid. I think that a better way to describe this game would be as a long walk down the Tunnel of Prejudice (from the South Park Episode “Death Camp of Tolerance”). It is jackoff material for the White Guilt crowd. It isn’t thought-provoking when it comes to race, unless you are a violent, racist Klansman who suddenly rethinks the error of his ways as a result of this game. For everyone else, the primary antagonists of this game are evil fanatics who garner no sympathy. What are people seeing in this crap? Is this what passes for deep and complex these days?
It probably sounds like I go into games looking to criticize them and pick them apart. I don’t. I go into games with just one goal – to be entertained. Does Bioshock – Infinite pass that basic test? Yes, it absolutely does. I never once wanted to abandon the game and start another one, which means that I mostly had a good time. I got a little bored sometimes, but the ever-changing scenery ensured that these periods never lasted long. It is a success as a game.
On the other hand, I have pretty high standards for what constitutes a 5/5 game. I am tired of games getting the 5/5, A++, 10/10 treatment without being held accountable for the things that they do wrong, and this game does a lot wrong. When it comes to fun shooting, there are dozens of games in the PC library that are better. Some of them, way better. When it comes to story or creative genius, there are lots of games better in that department too. Should you play Bioshock: Infinite? Yes, you should. You should also, however, keep your expectations reasonable, realizing that this experience is one that you will enjoy, but soon forget.