Wot I Think – BioShock: Infinite

BioShock: Infinite is a new first-person shooter from Irrational, creators of BioShock, System Shock 2 and SWAT 4. It’s set on a flying city in 1912, where racism and religious fundamentalism dictate society. You’re up there, wielding guns and magic, to bring someone the girl and wipe away the debt. Here’s what I thought, spoiler-free.

The thing about fantastical fiction is that you’re completely at the mercy of the author. You’re paying for them to share the contents of their head with you, and in any setting not bound by the rules of our Earthly existence, they can do and justify whatever they want. The right buzzwords, pseudoscience and space-magic, and anything can be achieved, any discrepancy simply waved away.

That’s something the consumer of such tales must be prepared for, and will so often feel let down by, but conversely the author has to deal with the fact that the offerings of their own imagination may not possibly be able to satisfy someone who’s become invested in the tale they began. That must be a bitter pill to swallow: how can they possibly meet such an undefined expectation? I doubt that someone who took issue with the ending of Battlestar Galactica or how Stephen Moffatt often papers over Dr Who’s many plot holes with the loosest possible interpretation of temporal causality knew quite what it was they wanted to hear and see instead – they only knew what wasn’t it.

Right now, still trying to absorb the giddying clusterbomb of condensed exposition, subtle emotional clout, incredible spectacle and get-out-of-narrative-jail-free cards which hits in the final minutes of BioShock: Infinite, I just don’t know how people are going to take it. I don’t quite know how I feel about it, either: some aspects work very well and demand further analysis and retrospection, a thoughtful piecing together of what led up to it and dawning realisation of how everything connects; others are frustratingly the result of deus ex machinas and quasi-magical convenience. I can’t imagine there won’t be shouting. Then again, the shouting is arguably as component a part of a BioShock game as is the success. I think, though, that BioShock: Infinite might be a victim of its storyline to some degree: though more complete than BioShock’s, and far more fleshed out than Dishonored’s, it’s in the way of the game, this fantastical movie plot and its rollercoaster spectacle arguably transforming the mechanics of combat and exploration into something just to be got through in the hungry pursuit of Finding Out What Happens.

That wasn’t the case with the original BioShock, where the narrative, its twists and its statements almost arrived as a surprise part-way through a strange, only-in-videogames world we’d primarily plunged into because of that tantalising underwater setting and its curious denizens. The backlash that hit after the last hours of the game didn’t live up to the powerful twist beforehand seemed to be a surprise even to game director Ken Levine, who initially claimed that most players didn’t care about story and that was why the game ended a little incoherently. With Infinite, he seems to have changed his mind – story is all here, a finely-crafted web which spans from the very first second of the game to its very last, with strands reaching out to the many audio diary-based vignettes to the sides. I went into this game expecting a mystery from minute one, and craving answers to it, and that’s a very different state of affairs to Rapture’s initial tale, where the sense of mystery was initially built from atmosphere rather than brazenly teased exposition.

Here too, the mystery is corporeal, all contained within the alternately fragile and powerful form of sometime damsel-in-distress Elizabeth. Who and what is she, what can her reality-bending powers do and why can they do it? What does the floating city of Columbia want with her, and who sent you, as guilt-wracked private investigator Booker DeWitt, to retrieve her for them? What’s with that thimble on her finger? Why does she get a new haircut part-way through? She is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, occasionally wearing a low-cut dress. I notice Ken Levine occasionally shows Twitter-frustration at how many story spoilers fans ask for, but frankly he’s only got himself to blame for making Elizabeth so evidently intrigue incarnate. Like watching a movie whose poster bears a quote from some rent-an-endorsement reviewer screaming “look out for the killer twist!”, here you go into the game actively searching for narrative duplicity.

Elizabeth is a highly likeable, compelling, well-performed and human character despite being the game’s primary mouthpiece for exposition, and I did find myself sincerely missing her during those times when, for various reasons, she took a hiatus from her role as AI-controlled sidekick. She deftly avoids many of the irritations we’ve come to expect from such NPCs – no escort missions, no getting in the way or stuck on scenery, no robotic repetitions. The game’s animators have done great work with her, bringing her to life in ways both overt and subtle, though oddly some of the facial expressions she pulls make her look like someone’s been mucking with her eyes in Garry’s Mod.

That aside, she can certainly be hailed as one of the game’s greatest successes and perhaps the best FPS companion character since Alyx Vance. At the same time, she just might be Infinite’s greatest shortcoming. She, and the halo of mystery she wears, stands in the way of Infinite’s other main non-player character – the City of Columbia. Despite being an ever-present and visually remarkable – stunning, even – backdrop, its airborne nature and the society it holds is given shorter thrift, because Elizabeth and the quest for answers she represents steals so much focus.

For much of the game, I held in check my worries about why civilians were so few in number, why they’d suddenly disappear entirely, why so many of them share the same faces, why we’re given little sense of where they live, why we see or hear almost nothing of how the practicalities of living in the clouds work. So evident it was it that something strange was going on, that there was far more here than met even a far more credulous eye, that I couldn’t rule out the whole city being some character’s flight of fancy, or an elaborate hoax. But Columbia is, it transpires, very much a real place, at least as far as the game’s fiction is concerned. In terms of being a real, or at least convincing, place in a more external sense, it’s no more so than Rapture was. This is despite its still being a functioning society as the game begins, as opposed to Rapture’s post-collapse ruination-in-progress.

There are alternately wonderful and chilling scenes of this society in action, before the bubbling anger caused by the open racism its leaders mandate inevitably boils over into civil conflict. From the family funfair (very cleverly holding an optional tutorial) shortly after the game begins, to the Victorian beach-in-the-sky a few hours later, to the racially-segregated toilets and the distressingly servile attitudes its subjugated black population are ordered to demonstrate to their white ‘masters’, and to a harrowing visit to the poverty, fear and resentment Columbia’s underclass lives in, we definitely get the greatest hits of the both idealised and oppressive America the leaders of the real-world Confederacy hoped to create if they won their Civil War. I’m just not sure we get the detail, at least outside an abundance of wry, careful details in the scenery and those convenient audio diaries wherein characters both encountered and never seen share their thoughts, secrets and outrages.

The choice to include civilians who cannot be interacted with in any way, aside from occasional opportunities to murder them for no reason and without real consequence, does wind up dragging us on a visit to the uncanny valley. There they stand, doing their little routines, paying little or usually no attention to the man with the enormous gun and the hand surrounded by magical crows who’s jumping up and down on things and rummaging through the bins for coins.

Perhaps it’s a statement on how the far reaches of the upper class treat anyone who isn’t like them as too far beneath them to warrant even recognition. But I think it’s just because they’re glassy-eyed automatons sharing a surprisingly small handful of faces and voices – very much at odds with the luxuriousness shown in the rest of the game’s art – and who are conveniently made to vanish immediately and without trace as soon as the game decides it’s time for the shooty-bang-bang. And that is the truth at the heart of BioShock: Infinite: whatever it’s trying to say, whatever else it hopes to be, it ultimately speaks in the language of guns. I’d anticipated and accepted that long before going in and so was never going to complain that a first-person shooter was a first-person shooter, but I did feel frustrated that these hints of the game being something more don’t bear out.

Infinite offers long moments of observation when you can’t shoot, and shorter moments of navigation when you can choose not to shoot. Even if you do choose not to, guards will often spring into action anyway if you get too close, at which point most of the civilians pull a Batman-style disappearing act and you’re forced to fight. Columbia’s social tale, meanwhile, happens around you, regardless of you, as you wander through it, flitting between superhuman combat and hands-off sightseeing.

There are extensive scenes of society, yes, and engrossing ones at that – but they are only scenes to be seen, glass cases in a sprawling museum, and they are all too easily and all too often replaced by sudden ghost towns haunted only by men (and women) who scream blood and fury as they aim their guns at you. Enemies are Splicers without the masks, essentially – and sometimes with them, in one of many, deliberate examples of resonance with BioShock. With just a few scripted exceptions, a convincingly human policeman, soldier or guerilla rebel you will not find here: they are bellowing monsters, without the excuse of backfired genetic experimentation.

Between this and the casting of lead antagonist, Columbia’s self-deified ruler Zachary Comstock, as an out-and-out villain (unless your sympathies lie with racists and/or people who imprison their children, at least), there’s a little less nuance to this society than I’d hoped for. Rebel faction the Vox Populi, determined to free the city from its racist shackles, don’t wind up faring much better despite their cause being an infinitely more sympathetic one than Comstock’s prejudice-led despotism. It continues BioShock’s tradition of trying (not always successfully, of course) to avoid moral black and white, but at the same time there is something odd about making people with an overwhelmingly correct grievance as monstrous as those they oppose. It’s balance, yes, but almost artificially so.

I fear being guilty of an If Only You Could Talk To The Monsters moment here, but the degree to which the city’s non-military inhabitants are phantoms and its military ones psychotics is consistently distracting. I absolutely appreciate Infinite for striving to add life and depth to its battle arenas, and without a doubt there’s much there to burn itself into the memory and emotions in ways that other shooters don’t even begin to, but there’s a real frustration in being teased with a city that appears to offer interaction only to prove simply a spectacular veneer.

Let’s talk about that spectacle though. Infinite is a game ruled by artists at least as much as it is by its writers. It’s the ultimate answer to the question of whether art or technology is the most important part of creating a visually excellent game – Crysis 3 might have far more going on under the hood, but its uninspired paintjob makes it seem so dull compared to Infinite’s vaguely Pixar-esque fusion of the photoreal and the colourfully unreal. Much of its magic is conjured by backdrops and other disguised static elements, smoke and mirrors are often employed to make what are ultimately enclosed spaces feel like dramatically larger, open ones, and close inspection of textures will cause grumpiness for some, but to me it didn’t matter what trickery the conjurer behind the curtain employed. Put together, and clad in all that lovely soft lighting, this Oz is a truly beautiful one to behold.

Some of the scenes it offers are outright majestic, catnip for any game photographer, and even had me nodding appreciatively at my screen, convinced they were the finest sights it had ever held. Characters are perhaps the sacrifice made to achieve these superb environments: as well as their non-interactive nature, I’d encounter oddities such as a group of three chatting women all bearing exactly the same face. It all adds to that nagging sense this isn’t a real place. But the architecture is magnificent even if the population isn’t.

Areas which aren’t, if drawn on a map, anything much more than a collection of corridors and plazas with a few offshoots and loops, are here bounded by towering buildings and open skies, and an almost overwhelming barrage of visual flavour that helps to flesh out Comstock’s creed and the exaggerated 1912 aesthetic. While a certain commonality of art style, especially in terms of characters, and the use of another pre-digital era means it certainly reminded me of Rapture, the preponderance of brass and wood, stone and sunlight and the judicious use of vibrant red gives it a very different feel. If anything, it can all be a little too much at once, with wonderful elements risking being overlooked because the eye’s trying to take in so many things simultaneously.

What’s odd is how often I almost forgot that Columbia was a city in the sky. Yes, huge roaring engines, balloons and the regular, sudden appearances of the horizon at the end of a street meant the proof of the city’s improbable nature was ever-present, but strangely I felt no sense of the vertigo I got from, say, those initial outdoor forays in Half-Life, I saw surprisingly few scenarios where either an enemy or myself was hurled into the great beyond, and I experienced little that made the way this floating metropolis’ function feel different than, say, Dishonored’s Dunwall or Thief’s City. There are the Skyrails, but I’ll talk about those, and combat in general, shortly. There’s something to be said for the comparatively buttoned-down nature of Rapture, where pipes, glass, gloom and water kept things kept things stylistically contained, all cleaving closely to that one single idea of being underwater – here, the airborne concept is almost drowned out by the barrage of spectacular architecture and colour.

The same might be true of Infinite’s enemies – there’s so much going on, both ornate and strange, that even a 10-foot robot George Washington or a guy with two huge trumpets for a head somehow doesn’t stand out as much as he should. By contrast, that first encounter with a Big Daddy, amidst the solitude, the silence and the murk of Andrew Ryan’s mouldering utopia, was an instantly arresting one which deftly established that character as iconic. I’m not sure Infinite can generate such enduring figures – Elizabeth maybe, but its monsters perhaps seem a little contrived, too look-at-me in their oddness. It’s also less clear what role they serve in Columbia – where Big Daddy was a janitor with a tragic backstory as well as a fearsome fighter, Infinite’s odder foes are largely teleported-in freakshows there purely to present heightened challenge. Even then, the significantly more open spaces mean they can’t manage the sheer terror of being trapped in a claustrophobic corridor with an enraged Daddy. In fairness though, this is a game which shoots for spectacle rather than scares, so it’s unfair to judge it by BioShock’s more horror-inclined yardstick.

What is a far less ambiguously excellent achievement is Infinite’s level design. This is a broadly linear game, in terms of events and the sequence you encounter Columbia’s various areas in, but there’s so damn much packed into its areas. They are timesinks in the best possible way. The relatively small number of loading screens is as much to do, I think, with not an inch of virtual space being wasted as it is the actual size of the maps, and what I suspect from very occasional juddering is some degree of background streaming.

Multi-tier buildings, multi-tier roads and the skyrails which oddly infrequently thread over the rooftops make these maps into generous lasagne-layers of exploration and action. That I spent so much time rooting through trashcans for coins and ammo, or breaking into offices in search of audio diaries and secret health/mana/shield upgrade-potions, is because so much of that sort of thing abounded thanks to the wealth of digital real estate on offer, and not purely because I’m a packrat and kleptomaniac.

There’s a particular level about three quarters of the way in, and coming off the back of a few no doubt carefully-sequenced smaller, more indoor-centric maps, that’s so wonderfully enormous it’s almost exhausting to traverse. It can be roamed out of order too, raided for secrets and supporting cast backstory before being revisited later in the narrative’s more fixed progression, by which point it’s been repopulated with new foes and a sort of roaming bossfight.

Combat, then. Infinite is a game with two brains – one the virtual tourism of this lavish setting and the ever-present, ever-teasing narrative, and the other the loud, explosive and highly violent action. It alternates between these rapidly, as and when it feels like it, and in a way that can often feel disjointed or even like the non-sequitur events of dream logic, but the fighting is thrilling, highly customisable stuff. Oddly, it reminds me more of the original Doom than the tense, slightly clumsy back-against-the-wall skirmishes of BioShock or even the ratatatat man-popping of a Call of Duty. These large, multi-level spaces, the amped-up colours, the preponderance of explosions which could level a house, the veritable armies of freaks and fanatics you face: it’s much more cartoon absurdity than it is macho fantasy. That said, the gore of melee kill moves and the fire-based Vigor is pretty extreme stuff, of the sort you wouldn’t find in cinema outside of the most malevolent grindhouse flicks.

The gun in one hand, magic power – here named ‘Vigors’ in the other system is extremely similar to Bioshock 2’s, though the sense of impact and destruction is amped up to almost Itchy & Scratchy levels even though enemies take an FPS-standard amount of battering before they fall over. There’s an odd lack of distinction many of the weapons and even some of the Vigors – while there are getting on for a dozen guns, there isn’t much to distinguish between them on a level beyond long range, short range and rapid-fire explosions. Granted, the waters were muddied in my review copy by the Industrial Revolution DLC throwing even more variations on the few themes in there, but even so the bulk of the arsenal comes off like general purpose killing tools rather than distinctive, specialist devices.

I always hung onto the sniper rifle, partly because I prefer to pick enemies off from a distance and partly because, once upgraded via the in-game vending machines, it can basically operate like a shotgun too, but other than that I didn’t much care about which other weapon I carried. I suspect the strange homogeneity between weapons is a response to grumbles about the wrench being so overpowered in the first BioShock – here, everything is overpowered. This is reflected in the enemies, who gradually start donning helmets and armour which require a little more precision or a lot more pummelling to take out.

As for the Vigors, they too are faintly absurd in the level of devastation their animations imply, even if the reality of their damage output isn’t quite so devastating. The pure damage powers – fire, electricity, crow swarm – seemed a bit much of muchness, but my suspicion is they’ll be more individually useful at harder difficulty, or the 1999 mode unlocked upon completion (or with a cheat code), where the odds against you are higher and you’ll need to make much more use of the flammable oil slicks and pools of water scattered about, or kite enemies over careful networks of ‘traps’, Vigors’ in-situ, mine-like alt-fires.

My Vigors of choice were Possession, initially able to temporarily convert turrets and robotic defenders to my side, and then humans once upgraded, and Charge, which hurls me and my Skyhook into the nearest enemy at high speed and high damage. In combination, I felt that much more in charge of what were often very busy battlefields – some mind-controlled guy keeping one side of this pocket war pinned down for me while I hurtled fatally around the other. There’s none of the hacking minigames of the earlier BioShocks here, so Possession was an instant effect, in keeping with the general frantic pace of combat. I suppose I miss the slightly more tactical, slower-paced fights of Rapture a little, but for all-out, adrenalised spectacle Infinite knows exactly what it’s doing. It feels so flexible too: bodies to be managed and mangled in a manner of your choosing, approaching the conflict from multiple angles of attack in what are often sizeable, open battle arenas and very rarely corridors with pop-up monsters.

Two new elements make this stuff even more flexible – Elizabeth, and the Skyrails which loop over the top of some areas. The plot hinges around Elizabeth’s ability to access alternate realities, and in combat this plays out as summoning up cover, turrets or ammo and health drops into places where before there was nothing. It can feel a little too restrictive – impossible not to hunger for a game where you could essentially assemble the ad-hoc battlefield of your bloody dreams – but it’s a welcome and suprisingly natural addition. Like the Vigors, it’s about flexible fights and maintaining high-action at all times.

Being able to summon up a pile of health kits in a particular spot, for instance, makes a big difference from rummaging desperately through crates while bullets fly and your HP meter blips ominously. Elizabeth also lobs any health or mana (‘Salts’) she finds at you unbidden as she skips between cover, and the attempt to make her believably alive is bolstered by small touches such as her apologising if she’s not found anything in a while. As I said earlier, I missed her when she wasn’t there, both as a combat aid and as convincing companion through an unsettling world.

As for the Skyrails, though their purpose in navigation is strictly an A-B one, with a few optional stop-offs to pick up audio logs and other secrets, in combat they essentially add a revolving Z-axis. Height is so rarely used in modern shooters, a sad side-effect of their usually being made with sluggish gamepad sticks in mind, but Infinite finds a high-speed compromise. You can shoot from the skyrails, you can drop onto enemies from on-high for insta-kill melee attacks, you can get to high-up cover or out-of-the-way ammo caches, or you can just zoom around frantically while Possessed foes and summoned turrets clean up the mess for you. Unless there’s a Handyman around, Infinite’s rarely-seen Big Daddy analogue.

They’re the game’s fiercest foe (there’s no direct conflict with the more terrifying, more mysterious Songbird I’m afraid) despite cartoonishly yelling about how unhappy they are to have been made into Frankenstein’s monster, and as well as being able to soak up all the bullets in the world they can also electrify Skyrails, forcing you to get off them unless you fancy becoming a kebab in a waistcoat and spats. There are surprisingly few Skyrails or Handymen in the game, it generally preferring ground-based combat against traditional human foes, but the upside of this is that they’re a real pleasure/terror when they appear rather than becoming routine.

In any case, like everything else in the game they’re increasingly sidelined by the plot. The compellingly dark race issues, civil war and discomfiting politics of Columbia rather fades away in the latter half of the game, as a more overt vein of fantastical science fiction and cutscene-based super-event takes hold. Obviously I can’t say much, but the reality-shifting stuff escalates in ways both intriguing and narratively convenient, while the supporting cast almost evaporate in favour of the plot’s singleminded obsession with Elizabeth.

While there are a handful of decisions to be made earlier in the game, these are really only about salving your own conscience or indulging your own bloodlust – the plot tells itself regardless. Player agency is heightened in terms of the fighting, but in terms of the storytelling you’re a mere witness to fixed events, and that does feel at odds with the BioShock series and its heritage.

It’s not for me to judge the denouement – as I say, there’s something deeply peculiar about offering a verdict on the consciously fantastical offerings of another human being’s imagination – but I will say that involves 15 minutes in which you can only walk, the game’s most stunning environments by far and a reveal that initially made me feel hoodwinked but later had me thinking back at length on the 15 or so hours which led up to it, how carefully it had all been arranged and also how meaningless the game’s entire events could potentially be interpreted as being in light. But it had me thinking, speculating and deciphering, and I value that enormously. I guess, personally, I’d have preferred more sustained world-building and less mysticism-tinged science fiction, but the wikis and armchair theorists are going to go nuts chasing all the permutations and interpretations which spin out of what happens and what’s implied.

By the standards of mainstream first-person shooters, I’m not sure what there is to rival BioShock: Infinite. It’s a true giant among story-based games which revolve around targeting reticules, and I’m going to have an exceptionally hard time getting much out of one of those grimly photoreal, tiresomely macho-posturing gun-worlds after the soaring colours, explosive combat and impossible structures of Columbia. By the standards of BioShock, and by the standards of what Infinite teases but doesn’t quite deliver because it’s so caught up in telling its fantastical, reality-distorting tale, I’m not quite so agog. Despite being first encountered on the other end of a civil apocalypse, Rapture was a place first and foremost, but despite its initial hours of compelling social politics and religion-led villainy, Columbia winds up feeling more like a construct to house an elaborate sci-fi auto-mythology.

While the links between BioShock and BioShock: Infinite are thematic rather than narrative, this game makes no bones about the fact that both revolve around a man, his city, and how it all went wrong – indeed, it winds up lionising this concept, this self-made archetype arguably at the ultimate expense of tackling the darkness in Columbia specifically. Elizabeth is fine company indeed, but the burning desire to find answers to her riddle incarnate both disrupts and railroads our journey through BioShock’s remarkable worlds of skyscraping ambition and ocean-deep folly. I much preferred the smaller stories of unseen Columbians’ tragedy and ambition, told richly in background detail and audiologs, but perhaps left a little disconnected from the main game.

Infinite’s a triumph in terms of fantasy-architecture spectacle and bringing superb flexibility to the modern rollercoaster shooter, but in other respects it’s a small step down from the player agency and even the singular aesthetic of BioShock. Not that it necessarily needs to, as it is most certainly a high-aiming game in its own right rather than mere offspring, but I’m not convinced it will live quite as long in our collective memory as did/does its parent. It sure does make me want to use superlatives like ‘majestic’, ‘lavish’ and ‘spectacular’ over and over again, though.

BioShock Infinite is released later today.


  1. Juicetin says:

    This review has reminded me why I read RPS. A cracking piece Alec. Congrats.

  2. honuk says:

    “It’s not for me to judge the denouement – as I say, there’s something deeply peculiar about offering a verdict on the consciously fantastical offerings of another human being’s imagination –”

    Errr, what?

    Far be it from me, the critic, to critique the bulk of this game, on account of it not being my game!

    I sincerely hope you never try your hand at reading a book, much less writing about one.

  3. PopeRatzo says:

    I just hope there’s more than 5 hours of gameplay.

    • analydilatedcorporatestyle says:

      I like you Red
      I like the way you fill out your clothes
      I wanna soak my head under your hose

      “scraping foetus off the wheel” (too obscure for youtube)

      • Dances to Podcasts says:

        Jim Thirlwell isn’t too obscure for RPS, though.

  4. Leonard H. Martin says:

    “Infinite’s a triumph in terms of fantasy-architecture spectacle and bringing superb flexibility to the modern rollercoaster shooter, but in other respects it’s a small step down from the player agency and even the singular aesthetic of BioShock..”

    I am absolutely forwarding this to PrivateEye’s Psueds corner. Easiest £10 I’ll ever make!

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      How is it that pseudo-intellectual? It seems quite in line with the rest of the WIT and says what it does on the tin.

  5. rebochan says:

    RPS, I frankly put far more stock in your WIT articles than the dozens of 10/10s that I read today. You’re the only site that seems to actually care about talking about games as they truly are and not what the publishers demand we think of them as.

  6. analydilatedcorporatestyle says:

    I still haven’t ascertained if it is indeed ‘a good ‘un’ or ‘pure shite’.

    Questions, questions Mr Deckard

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      That’s why WITs are better than numbered reviews. If done right they give your an indication whether it’s the sort of thing you’d like or not, rather than some sort of pseudo-scientific numbering from good to bad.

  7. Uthred says:

    Decent read but would have preferred some actual/more time spent discussing the actual game part as opposed to the self-indulgent verbosity. The low res textures get one unclear passing line (despite other games getting excoriated for lacking hi-res textures on the PC), the ongoing mouse control issues (present in both Bioshock 1 & 2) dont even merit a mention, nor does the load stuttering, etc.

    • Kobest says:

      It seriously has that mouse control issue still? Who would have thought that non-accelerated mouse input would be so hard to implement these days?

      • KenTWOu says:

        Mouse control has different issues! This time it’s mouse sensitivity issue not acceleration.

  8. valz says:

    Alec says “it’s a small step down from the player agency and even the singular aesthetic of BioShock,” but that seems fairly impossible to me unless the game is all cutscenes. Bioshock narrowed player agency considerably from previous games in the genre. It, like the games in the Half-Life series, was about one thing more than anything else in terms of gameplay innovation: finding new ways to use linearity to push a script forward. There is no meaningful player agency.

  9. Morcane says:

    This review is pretty much a review where RPS shows it’s best at ‘arguing for the sake of arguing’.

    • typographie says:

      I normally don’t make it a habit of agreeing with these kinds of comments, but I do in this case: to say that the Vox Populi are “artificially” made out to be just as bad as the Founders ignores some pretty major in-game atrocities. Its hardly a contrivance that a revolutionary group that starts out with a legitimate grievance can lose sight of their goals and become murders, there’s examples of it throughout real history.

    • Confusatron says:

      My thoughts exactly.

  10. Very Real Talker says:

    no no no wait the bad guy is full on evil because- he’s a racist? By the same reasoning all the people who lived before the seventies were full on evil. I don’t think that you can use racism in a 1910 game to automatically describe someone as evil, I mean it’s really stupid

    • AngoraFish says:

      The game clearly plays up the evil of racism through a 21st century lens and rubs it in your face in the first half hour. The game is not making any particular attempt to present a balanced interpretation of 100 year old values.

      In this instance, the approach seems correct to me. The vast majority of white players will be disinterested in that angle other than as a background curio, and there are enough likely to be paying sufficiently little attention that any alternative approach runs the runs of validating those values. Bioshock would be deluding itself if it were to pretend it was able to offer any kind of profound commentary or historical hyper-realism.

      Apolitical representation of racism also runs a very significant risk of putting offside the vast majority of game players who don’t themselves happen to be white and privileged, and therefore who are likely to find racism’s inherent abhorrence much more difficult to ignore for the sake of the story.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      You are aware there were plenty of non-racist people as well in those days, right?

  11. SuffixTreeMonkey says:

    RPS chums, have you read a good review in terms of directness? I would like to read that. So far, I’ve read this one and PCgamer’s (and a bit of the comments), and I’ve noticed the following opinions/hints that were not truly mentioned in the reviews:

    * 1999 mode is god-awful, with enemies taking way too many bullets to die, so it feels like “in 1999, we just boosted health of enemies three times — what a difficulty!”

    * HD textures — yes or no? Are there blurry posters, notes etc in places? I hated those in DX:HR so much.

    * The plot is (supposedly) illogical and the gameplay is not connected to it at all. Is that so? Comparing to say Bioshock 1 or Spec Ops: The Line, where the gameplay actually complimented the plot. This rumour is probably what irks me most — the plot may be broken but because we avoid spoilers too much, we won’t know. Is it really like playing a game of Gears of War or what have you with an illogical movie in between every 10 minutes?

    * How long is the game? Compared to the previous Bioshocks? Is it the same kind of shooting all the way, or do the enemies actually change a bit, or the gameplay? Good games, even linear ones, tend to vary the gameplay — Half-Life 2 had squad fights, survival horror, overpowered gun thrashing the place, commanding animals to do your bidding, shooting and driving. All in various points of the game so it felt varied. What does this game offer?

    Any and all comments and links to reviews addressing or dispelling those notions gained from reviews and comments would be welcome.

    • Iamerror says:

      “* 1999 mode is god-awful”

      I didn’t play it, but apparently yes, that’s true. Not really sure what you were expecting to be honest; it’s an extremely narrative focused game – they weren’t going to redesign it to accommodate a new stye of play.

      “* HD textures — yes or no? Are there blurry posters, notes etc in places?”

      There’re a handful of blurry, or low-res textures, but the majority of the game looks gorgeous.

      “* The plot is (supposedly) illogical and the gameplay is not connected to it at all. Is that so?”

      There is a disconnect In the sense the same is true of Half-Life 2 and indeed every other of these style of games ever. The story is far from illogical, just complex and delivered in a way that some may dislike. There’re a couple of twists that may annoy fans of more conventional narratives. I’ve heard a lot of claims of large plot-holes, but haven’t really seen any explained yet, likewise, a lot of the complaints regarding the games narrative structure seem to disregard the fact the ‘illogical’ ending works so well because everything in the game foreshadows / works toward it.

      “* How long is the game? ”

      Enemies change [it says as much in the WIT] and there’re a handful of unique combat sequences. It doesn’t reach HL2 levels of ‘unique gameplay’ – there’s no driving or such. Instead the scenarios and complexity of the combat gradually grows throughout.
      The game is around 9-12 hours long depending on player skill and difficulty level. I didn’t find it an issue.

  12. Azmodhan says:

    First-time commenter (as far as I can recall; I do tend to get drunk and yell at the screen): thank you for this review. While I won’t be picking up this game before it’s heavily discounted, this article is, to me, exactly the type of journalism I come to RPS for. Bravo, Alec. While I would argue that scores and recommendations do serve a valid purpose – a purpose well-served by other gaming sites – I feel that this is what RPS does best: an intimate, at times understandably inchoate, but above all thoroughly honest assessment (despite the word’s score-y implications) of a game. While this applies to the field of criticism across the board, I find it especially rare in the gaming world to encounter comprehensive and personal reviews which amount to more than buyer’s guides, especially as it pertains to triple-A games such as this one. Game reviews at their best should be able to hold fast against critiques of other, more critically considered media (you know what I mean: a New Yorker article about a conductor, say, and one about a video game designer have a priori different audiences and standards by which they are judged; not that this isn’t understandable, given the current state of the culture). This one, in what is a maddeningly rare feat, does. Again, thank you. Cheers.

  13. Bubba says:

    The last FPS I played was the first Quake. Been a while, I know. As I’ve aged, my gaming tastes have moved from hyper-adrenaline to slower moving strategic games like Paradox’s offerings.

    That said, this is such an engaging, intriguing, well-written review that I’m going to pick up a copy of Bioshock:Infinite. In all sincerity, if the game is half as compelling as its review, I won’t be disappointed. Nice writing Alec! Now I’m off to search the interwebs to see if you’ve written any fiction – perhaps there’s a new Neal Stephenson to be explored.

    Edit: I came to this review via a slashdot article today, and I’m excited about what I’ve found.

  14. Sunjammer says:

    This is a fantastic article and I couldn’t agree more. I, too, felt hoodwinked by the ending, and I felt like Columbia felt completely artificial. Actually I just agree with everything. Thank you for putting my thoughts down in text, so I don’t have to write them myself!

  15. Saint says:

    How do I know which fov setting I should use? I am getting nausea within mins of playing the game. No issue Borderlands 2 until several hours later but this game very bad for me.

    • typographie says:

      The default in-game FOV slider is unmarked, and only goes up to 80 or so. You can adjust the slider values in a .ini file. RPS conveniently has an article explaining how to do it here.

      What FOV you prefer is highly specific to the person. Just set the slider to a high value and try it until you find a comfortable setting.

  16. Honsou says:

    Infinite shows me how amazing Bioshock was.

    Way overhyped. Fun and presents itself well but its not a 10/10 game.

  17. Danorz says:

    but at the same time there is something odd about making people with an overwhelmingly correct grievance as monstrous as those they oppose. It’s balance, yes, but almost artificially so.

    This is liberalism. This is the curse of BBC news, this is why balance is an illusion and only helps the oppressor.

  18. maximiZe says:

    Player agency? Did we play the same Bioshock? Mine sometimes let you choose between two buttons, one gave you better rewards than the other (ironically it wasn’t the one that said ‘harvest’), and in the long run they determined which one out of two half-baked endings you’d get.

    I love every Shock game, I just don’t see player agency in terms of narrative choice being something any game of the series could be legitimately praised for. On the other hand players can influence the pace of the narration more than in basically any modern action game, but that applies to all three Bioshocks alike.

  19. kdz says:

    I, for one, will remember Infinite more fondly the the original. Probably because the twist in BioShock was partially spoiled (I knew who was who, but did not know what was up with the main character) by a silly fellow I know. But Infinite’s incredibly imaginative setpieces, locations and scenes resonated with me more than Rapture’s atmosphere.

  20. Harry S. Plinkett says:

    I love this game. That is all.

  21. Chris D says:

    That is all?

    I begin to suspect you may not be the actual Harry S. Plinkett.

  22. 11temporal says:

    Way overhyped.

  23. KenTWOu says:

    Next time, when we’ll get another game with serious script and narrative problems, cause script writers doesn’t have enough power during game development, you will understand why BioShock:Ifininite got lots of 10 out of 10, why it was over hyped.

  24. lcd says:

    Spoilers follow.

    The script is great, but this isn’t really a shock game. While others talk of lack of player agency (which I agree with) I would highlight the lack of action verbs. Upping my potion count for health, plasmids or shield makes no difference to the style of play, nor opens new doors for player customisation. All of the attack styles are pretty much identical, and just about every form of interaction has been removed bar shoot-them-in-head.

    Additionally, due to the lack of action verbs, I found this a very ethically difficult game to play. There are interesting set pieces here, and it’s a very beautiful game, but don’t show me two people chained in the stocks and deny me the ability to free them. Don’t show me the starving masses and allow me to use Elizabeths powers to only conjure food at a single instance to steal some money some poor, desperate, starving people where stealing.

    It tells a story, and from the looks of it quite a good one, bar (I haven’t finished it and likely won;t go back to it for a few months, but can imagine roughly how it will end) the really terrible use of wormhole travel, or whatever they’re calling it.

    If Booker Dewitt is emotionally crippled over the death of his wife and son, why doesn’t he use elizabeths powers to travel to a universe where his wife and son are still alive and he doesn’t owe however is forcing him to do this anything? Or why not get her to open one where he hasn’t lost the airship?

    I do like the characters and think the presentation of both Booker and Elizabeth are very good, but overall the game was rather boring gameplay-wise, with very grindy fighting sequences happening over and over again.

    Incidentally, check out Primer for an excellent movie on time travel/overlapping realities. Check out looper for a shit one.

    • luukdeman111 says:

      “It tells a story, and from the looks of it quite a good one, bar (I haven’t finished it and likely won;t go back to it for a few months, but can imagine roughly how it will end)”

      You have no freaking idea dude….. unless the story already got spoiled for you, you will never guess how this game’s gonna end…

  25. Campaigner says:

    This is the first review I’ve read that I didn’t really understand and also the first one without a score.

    I read parts of it but I can’t make out if the reviewer finds it good or bad. Either he used too many advanced words or I didn’t read it carefully enough. Sure was long though.

    So to make it easy:

    Is this game good for someone who likes a great challenge with arcade gameplay? Quake, Doom, Borderlands.

    Is the customizing with plasmids fun?

    Is the 1999 mode like games used to be if you play them ironman style (no saving yourself)?

    • Isomorph says:

      Hi there! You must be new.

      “Advanced words” are just the way RPS rolls. They also have ideological issues with ratings, so if you need a fraction to make a purchase decision, you’ve come to the wrong place.

      As far as your questions go, there’s a run of what I count to be 9 paragraphs entirely about the combat. It all starts with the paragraph whose first sentence is “Combat, then.” I was going to copy and paste, but there’s actually a lot of talk about combat here. It’s just buried somewhere in the middle; I, too, forgot what Alec had said about the combat by the time I had finished the review.

  26. imralizal says:

    Without intending to insult anyone who does happen to like this game or the series, I had the same problem with the first Bioshock. RPS mentioned in the Dishonoured review that is was much more like what they expected Bioshock to be, in terms of the interactivity of the world and the flexibility of moral decision making, and to me Dishonoured stands head and shoulders above all the Bioshock games to date for exactly that reason, gameplay. Because, it’s a game, not a movie. To me, and it seems to many others, the best thing about Bioshock was the story and the setting, but the gameplay never really lived up to these or even fit with them. Bioshock was a thoughtful piece about player agency, mocking us for being slaves as we “mindlessly” gunned down every person we came across just because we were told to, but it never actually gave us ANY choice but to kill them. There was simply nothing else to do. The world the story describes is a real (enough) place, but Rapture as realized in game was painfully unreal to me. It’s obvious that not EVERYONE would be a murderous splicer. Maybe I don’t play enough FPS’s (any) to be comfortable with going through room after room just slaughtering everyone, but I just wasn’t. It was too much. They were supposed to be people, not aliens or robotic super soldiers or whatever, and being forced to gun down on mass what are essentially the mentally ill armed with wrenches was not my idea of a good time.

    When I play Dishonoured, I rarely kill anyone, only the assassination targets generally and perhaps not even then. I only use lethal force when absolutely necessary or appropriate, because that’s what I would do in real life, and every action immerses me further in the character, the game and the world it has created. In Bioshock, it was the opposite. Nearly everything that I was forced to do was something that I would never do. I suppose I am one of those “If only you could talk to the monsters” people, because I did want to talk to the splicers, or at least have options. Other games can include systems that allow you to interact with NPC’s in ways beyond murdering them, so I don’t see how it’s too much to ask. I eventually turned the difficulty down to easiest just to get through it because the gameplay was so uninteresting and bizarrely hyper-violent that I just couldn’t stand to play it anymore. It’s a game that I could have gotten just as much out of if I had watched the cutscenes on youtube. But then, I don’t play shooters, so I really shouldn’t be surprised that this particular shooter also does not interest me. That’s fine, and I don’t begrudge anyone who does like shooters, they’re an immensely popular type of game. What bugged me about Bioshock was that it pretended to be more than a shooter, and it isn’t, not really. It’s just a shooter with good art, and a setting and a story that deserves to be in a more interesting game.

    Thanks to Alec for being the only reviewer (except for TB) to actually look at the game critically, instead of just giving it five gold stars because it’s Bioshock.