Note: While I don't normally believe in "spoilers", Bioshock Infinite is intentionally designed as a riddle wrapped up in an enigma so I guess it's only fair to say that some (relatively minor) story details will be "spoiled" in this article.
Party Like It's 1912
Just like the rest of the known universe I was anxiously awaiting the release of Irrational's new shooter Bioshock Infinite earlier this week. While the original Bioshock could never match System Shock 2's finely tuned mechanics - and the reuse of specific plot twists was jarring to say the least - the former was still a confident and mature game in its own right which wrestled bravely with political philosophy and provided clever meta-commentary on gaming itself. Despite the lack of RPG components and clumsy shooter controls, Irrational's 2007 shooter raised the bar considerably when it comes to world building and narrative sophistication in games.
After having played through Infinite, it's clear that Ken Levine and his hard-working minions at least got one of those things right for the sequel as well. To an even greater extent than the original Bioshock, Infinite's true appeal comes from the often incredible level design (arguably far more impressive than anything a technically more advanced title such as Crysis 3 has to offer). While Irrational's multi-platform release was clearly designed with currentgen consoles in mind, the gleaming facades of this Belle Epoque utopia simply look amazing (and the increased resolution when playing on a PC couldn't be more welcome). Infinite keeps throwing stunning vistas at the player throughout the 10+ hour campaign and you can take almost any random piece of in-game footage, print it out and frame it on a wall for non-gamer friends and relatives to gawk at.
Still in Kansas, Dorothy
In the gameplay departement, however, things are decidedly more mundane. Infinite's combat is decent but neither as satisfying as the best shooters out there nor as original as the very similar system used in its predecessor(s). The various rifles, shotguns and RPGs in Booker's arsenal certainly get the job done - not to mention make a pleasing amount of noise when fired - but the gunplay ultimately lacks the tactile precision of a Halo or a Battlefield. The Vigors are refined plasmids and that's nice and all but not the cool new thing that the plasmids were in Bioshock 1 half a decade ago. I also found the recommended Hard difficulty to be annoying because of enemies suffering from a bad case of BSS (Bullet Sponge Syndrome), frequent ammo shortages and some problems with getting a good overview of the action. The environments you fight in are quite large and it can be challenging to see who exactly is firing at you from what position, and I almost found myself wishing for a third-person cover system or something similar. I rarely used the sniper rifle, though, and it's not inconceivable that methodically picking guys off from a distance would have been preferrable to charging in guns/vigors blazing. The sky-hook is brilliant, but mostly because it showcases the incredibly expansive level design and really brings home the fact that in constructing Columbia Irrational cut no corners even where it would have been more than reasonable to do so.
Even outside of combat there are few meaningful innovations to the FPS formula in Irrational's latest title, and it's difficult to escape the feeling that some conventional solutions have seen better days. In particular, the heavy (if theoretically optional) emphasis on methodically searching the environment for stuff (ammo, cash and other resources) is getting really old by now. Even though it stimulates our innate foraging instinct, the mundane act of distinguishing interactive objects from non-interactive objects was always a peculiar art form which (at least in its current version) should have died out after the early point & click adventures. Apart from being a clumsy and superficial way of trying to immerse the player in the world, my own intermittent OCD tendencies tend to distract me from the experience when there's an ever-present risk of missing some of these often superfluous or sometimes even meaningless collectibles. This was a problem in Tomb Raider as well, which got the traversal mechanics just right but sadly confused the joy of exploration with the pursuit of property. And those audio logs which were clever in 2001 and acceptable if slightly artifical in 2007 have by now become lazy and almost comically contrived; to the point that they arguably do more to highlight the genre's long-established lack of meaningful interaction with the world than involve you in the story and characters. In short, I think it's time to start demanding that all seriously story-oriented FPS try harder to escape the confines of corridor shooters and embrace interactivity in a more meaningful way.
Infinite's one supposed innovation is the character of Elizabeth, who turns out to be a decent enough sidekick (unfortunate damsel-in-distress tendencies notwithstanding) and a lot of tireless scripting and sculpting has clearly gone into producing all the optional little activities and idle animations she's up to when there's nothing better to do. In stark contrast to many reviewers, however, I never once felt that her behavior approximated a real person to a significantly greater degree than similar NPCs in other games. To accomplish such wonders would have required an inordinate amount of additional content and advanced AI routines to ensure that Elizabeth reacts naturally to Booker's every move and takes initiatives at exactly the right time etc. At least with the technology we have today, that kind of realism isn't remotely feasible (and perhaps not even desirable), and I mention this only because the developers have boasted about their accomplishments in this regard. It's a job well done, for sure, but in the end it didn't amount to quite as much as Irrational claimed it would.
Tear me a new one
The story starts out promising but about halfway through it sadly degenerates into a convoluted science fiction mess - far worse than Mass Effect 3's ending as far as I'm concerned - and fails to resonate on an emotional level despite all the hard work that went into creating a bond between the player and Elizabeth. Without going into specific narrative twists and turns - not because I'm worried about spoilers or too puzzled by the events in question but because I simply couldn't care less about them - suffice it to say that the plot ultimately hinges on various complicated theoretical concepts which are far removed from our everyday experience. I really appreciate just how openly Bioshock Infinite acknowledges that everything is not what it first appears to be, but in the end the story's increasing emphasis on the truth behind the game's manifest image comes off as misguided. As the writing and Booker/Elizabeth's quest gets increasingly esoteric the story stops being about the city of Columbia with its seductive but ultimately despicable ideology and disgusting power dynamics. And in a game that's ultimately going to be remembered for its impeccable art design and the first hour's haunting yet resplendent representation of American fascism, that's just inexcusable.
In the discordant heap of separate time lines and isolated vignettes that results from Levine's loose interpretation of "plot", many intriguing possibilities are left unexplored and some really questionable narrative decisions are made. For example, I think it would have been much more awesome - yet still disturbing and ambiguous in all the right ways - to have the player be truly involved in (and not just briefly crossing paths with) the bloody Vox Populi uprising; taking over street after street from the Founder militia as Comstock's ideological infrastructure gradually breaks down and the once-ruling class suffers at the hands of the rebels (there's of course some of that in the game, but it's presented in a fragmented and detached manner). There would have been ample opportunity to question the degrading violence inherent in Daisy Fitzroy's glorious revolution while at the same time painting a much less one-dimensional picture of the rebel leadership. Ken Levine makes a very unconvincing case for some kind of sad moral equivalence between the two opposing leaders, and has been pointed out by John Teti among others there's a Rockstar-like "Nihilism Lite" at work here which frankly feels like a cop-out and a cowardly refusal to take a definitive stand on the issues. After all, Fitzroy's Voice of the People pamphlet supposedly calls for some worthy, distinctly democratic political reforms and does not appear to be a twisted mirror image of Comstock's Words of the Prophet with its Christian triumphalism and white supremacist creed. Politicians of every persuasion and perversion do indeed try to sell us a lot of bullshit, but to reduce it all to Machiavellian rhetoric used to disguise naked self-interest (with a bit of raving lunacy thrown in for good measure) is reductionist in the extreme. In the end it does matter a great deal whether what you're peddling is institutionalized racism or worker's rights; and I for one refuse to believe that the relationship between ideology and behavior is as tenuous as Levine seems to suggest.
Artistically speaking, Bioshock Infinite is probably the best-looking game ever made and as such deserves to be experienced by all fans of immersive action games. It's very hard not to be impressed by what Infinite does right, and it's only because the game is such a big deal in the industry this year (both in terms of development costs, marketing budget and the overall level of hype) that it's really fair to criticize it for not going further and achieving more.