It’s never too late to review a game; some of us just go at our own pace. “Reviews After the Fact” offers a critical look at a game, past or present, well after attention has subsided and people have moved on.
For my first Review After the Fact, I’m am tackling Bioshock Infinite.
Let’s get this out of the way at the start: the review to follow contains some MAJOR SPOILERS for Bioshock Infinite and some possible spoilers for Bioshock 1 and 2. If you want to read my thoughts on Bioshock 2, be sure to check out my earlier review.
Bioshock Infinite follows the story of Booker Dewitt, a former soldier turned Pinkerton guard turned private detective. With a heavy debt looming, a mysterious benefactor approaches Dewitt with a proposition: retrieve a woman and bring her to New York. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt” explains a cryptic message. To find the woman he makes his way to the mysterious floating city of Columbia. Built by the American government in Columbia set off on a world tour, but faced flak after intervening in the Boxer Uprising.
Under the command of Zachary Hale Comstock, a self-proclaimed prophet, Columbia seceded from the Union and disappeared into the clouds. There Comstock set up a community with a cultish devotion to America’s founders. Booker seeks out the mysterious Elizabeth, a woman with the ability to open “rifts” in reality, bringing in items from other dimensions or jumping to completely new worlds. Along the way, Booker grapples with the demons of his past. Is Elizabeth the key to his salvation, or is he already damned?
I was blown away by the initial trailer and despite the delays the finished product certainly did not disappoint. The presentation is one of the game’s strongest suits, pushing the graphical prowess of the PS3 and 360 to their fullest potential. Rapture, the setting of the first two Bioshocks, was a hauntingly beautiful environment-the claustrophobia of the crumbling underwater city is in my opinion one of the most memorable and striking environments in any video game. Columbia, by contrast, is a bright, vibrant world of striking colors and wide, expansive environments. The sights and sounds, from the penny-arcade film reels to the barbershop quartet singing anachronistic songs make for a vibrant world I wanted to explore.
The flipside is, like its predecessors, Bioshock Infinite is a linear game. Although the desire to find all the secrets may prompt you to sift through Columbia’s nooks and crannies, the game follows a fairly rigid path so don’t go in expecting a lot of open exploration.
The game is full of fast-paced swashbuckling action, where one minute you could be having Elizabeth summoning an unstoppable mechanical Lincoln from another dimension (incidentally, “Summoning an unstoppable mechanical Lincoln from another dimension” will be the name of my autobiography whenever I get around to writing it); the next minute you could be commanding squadrons of flaming crows; or leaping along aerial rails to bash in enemies with what appears to be a mechanized ice scream scoop designed for faces. The combat was action-packed and damn fun. Combined with the vibrant steampunk locale, it made for me some of the best action of this gaming generation.
However, one of my biggest complaints about the combat is the focus on a more modern style of shooter. Part of what appealed to me about the first two Bioshocks was its use of some of the better elements of classic shooters like Doom or GoldenEye (fixed health/shields and a diverse cache of weapons at your disposal). Infinite is one of a long line of shooters borrowing from the Call of Duty and Halo model. You’re limited to two weapons at a time and have a regenerating shield (no regenerating health is the last bastion of the old-school model). It raises the question of what was wrong with the system in its predecessors?
Infinite’s version of the series trademark plasmids (called “vigors” here) are some of the best in the series. Wherein the first two installments I tended to rely on a small handful of mainstays (Telekinesis in Bioshock, Electro Bolt in Bioshock 2), the vigors offer a great deal of variety and the game encourages you to experiment with different combinations. An especial favorite of mine was attacking groups of enemies with murders of flaming crows or force pushing them with “Bucking Bronco” and chaining electric shocks like a string of levitating human Christmas lights. There are just so many unique powers at your disposal.
While the combat is great fun, I was bothered by the fact that the vigors did not play much of a part at all in Infinite’s story, aside from creating memorable crow-death related moments. This is such a stark departure from the first two Bioshocks. ADAM was the lifeblood of Rapture and the axis around which the story turned. It was the cause of the decline of the city and its inhabitants. Infinite’s Vigors do not serve a similar essential narrative function. Booker is apparently the only one (save one particular enemy) who ever considered actually using them, with most comfortable relying on traditional weapons with the occasional giant robot for flavor. And the game never really attempts to weave the Vigors into the fabric of Columbia’s ecosystem. What do people think about them? How has the introduction of superpowers affected the lives of its inhabitants? The residents seem to have no need for them, which raises the question of why Booker is able to find so many lying around (presumably because no one else wants them). The Vigors end up only serving the game’s run-and-gun style combat.
Elizabeth offers the other new mechanic for Infinite as she has the power to interact with rifts to other dimensions. This power can be called upon in combat to summon useful items like health, weapons, and ammo. Also at certain parts of the story, Elizabeth and Booker need to travel to alternate versions of Columbia. On a personal level, I enjoy alternate history, such as the works of Harry Turtledove, and am a big fan of the nineties sci-fi universe-jumping show Sliders, so I enjoyed the concept off the bat, and it certainly worked well in combat.
On the other hand, the Sliders-esque world jumping at times just felt like a crutch to hold the story up. Once the story hits a dead end, it just throws you into another alternate reality to allow the plot to move forward. Need to talk to a person with important information but they happen to be dead? No problem, we’ll just jump to a universe where they’re still alive! Why join the resistance when we can go to another world and join the revolution already in progress? Time and again I kept waiting for Booker and Elizabeth to return to the initial universe at the start of the game to see what if any implications their world-manipulation had but found myself disappointed by the end that there was no return to any of the other alternate worlds. This was especially true following the deaths of major characters. After Elizabeth unceremoniously kills two characters in a scripted scene, I awaited the chance to encounter each of them in another world, only to find that that was last time we get to encounter them.
From a technical standpoint Bioshock Infinite is fairly solid, but there are some nagging issues ranging from irksome to game-breaking. For example, the subtitles that used to accompany playing the audio guides (called “Voxophones” in Infinite) have been removed, forcing a player to pause to read the transcript if they want to read along. For some reason, 2K decided to introduce an autosave feature, as opposed to being able to save anywhere, as had been the case in the first two Bioshocks. This now means that saves are tied to the system’s internal clock. The game will upload the save with the most recent date and time, which runs the risk of losing valuable progress if you do not maintain a constant online connection (I am not sure if this is an issue with the PS3, but it was a source of frustration during the early portions of my playthrough on the 360). Most aggravating for me was the most recent update for the 360 caused game-breaking freezes that rendered the game unplayable (the issue was fixed by uninstalling the update).
CRITICAL LOOK AT STORY
In terms of story, Infinite has a weaker overall narrative than the original Bioshock. So much of the story feels shallow with little substance below the surface. Aside from Booker, Elizabeth, and Comstock, the characters don’t have much narrative depth or development. The original Bioshock led players through Rapture by exploring the characters who populated her, chronicling through audio recordings, flashbacks, and personal encounters the decline of Rapture through their experiences, from Andrew Ryan’s descent from objectivism to authoritarianism, to chief engineer Bill McDonough’s idealism to his efforts to wrest control of Rapture from Ryan, and the machinations of villains the likes of Frank Fontaine, Doctor Steinman, and Sander Cohen. In Infinite many of the characters we meet never evolve beyond shallow characterizations, the greedy robber baron Jeremiah Fink, the brutal revolutionary Daisy Fitzroy the grizzled old military man Cornelius Slate, and they come and go with such frequency that there is little time to explore them before they are unceremoniously shuffled off.
Infinite does continue the implicit theme that runs throughout Ken Levine’s epic of experimental cities and magic/science powers: choice is a myth. In my review way back when of Bioshock 2, I argued the underlying message of the Bioshock series has been the illusion of choice. In Bioshock 1 and 2, the moral choice system was undermined by the gameplay itself, namely how the material benefits, such as achievements, bonus ADAM and tonics, disproportionately favored the good path. When broken down to a reward system, there was no incentive to harvest the Little Sisters (aside from ripping slugs out of innocent little girls, you heartless monster). In Infinite, the story itself invalidates choice entirely. Carrying Infinite’s story to the end shows that a choice not made in the current in-game world is most likely carried out in another alternate world. The game itself demonstrates to the player that choice is an illusion on numerous occasions. Occasionally, the player is given a choice: heads or tails, bird or cage, kill or not kill. However, these choices end up having no impact on the game’s ultimate outcome. Even at key moments in the game’s story, the player more often than not is reduced to a spectator, such as during the deaths of Fink and Fitzroy. Even Comstock’s death at the hands of Booker is done in a cut scene.
Then there is Infinite’s ending. During an amazingly well-rendered sequence where the player sees an infinite number of Booker’s following and infinite number of Elizabeths to and infinite number of lighthouses, Elizabeth reveals the universe consists of countless alternate realities. All of these alternate realities (or probabilities as the Luteces explain earlier in the game) began with one defining event: Booker, following his atrocities at the Battle of Wounded Knee was faced with a choice–fall into a pit of despair, alcoholism and debt that led to him selling his infant daughter (Anna aka Elizabeth)–or experience a religious conversion wherein he took on a new persona (dramatic pause): Zachary Hale Comstock. This impasse set all the pieces in motion leading to the creation of Columbia and Booker’s ultimate confrontation with himself played out over millions upon millions of possible choices. However, despite the possibility of myriad variations between the disparate worlds, at the core some basic constants remain. As Elizabeth explains near the end: “there is always a lighthouse; there is always a man; there is always a city.” No matter how many times he has the chance, Booker always picks heads. He is always a man trying to redeem his violent past by committing more terrible deeds. And ultimately, the game rules that the only way to break the cycle is to remove Booker from the equation.
Infinite’s story in its purest essence ultimately boils down to the holy trinity of Booker, Elizabeth, and Comstock. The rest is window dressing and set pieces. It is the story of a man who has done terrible things who attempts to undo his past by continuing to do terrible things. It is also the story of Elizabeth’s lost innocence as she leaves her cloistered environment to enter Booker’s world of violence and brutality, a world that ultimately proves to be of his own making. The core characters, unlike the ancillary ones, do have a great deal of depth. Combined with terrific voice acting by Troy Baker, Kelly Marot, and Kiff VandenHeuvel , the interplay of Booker, Elizabeth, and Comstock are by far the best elements of Infinite’s story.
The issue of the representation of women in video games has justifiably attracted a great deal of debate lately. Much has been written on Elizabeth and whether she represents a positive or negative female character. Elizabeth is capable, intelligent and she is certainly one of the best AI support characters I have ever encountered. Yet, it is disappointing that Ken Levine needed to rely on the tired old Damsel in Distress trope. First, when Booker literally retrieves Elizabeth from her cell in a tower ala Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty and second when Booker needs to rescue Elizabeth from being kidnapped and tortured later in the game. I hear that Elizabeth takes a more active role in the Burial at Sea expansion, but I have yet to play it.
A lot has been written and said about the racism in Bioshock Infinite. The player quickly learns that Columbia’s quaint slice of Americana is built upon a foundation of white supremacy, where non- and “lesser-whites” (a contemporary term for non Anglo Saxon Protestant whites, such as Irish and Italians) toil as an oppressed underclass who keep Columbia running.
However, I noticed after the initial shock of turn-of-the-century racism subsides, Bioshock Infinite has very little to say about racism, either in Columbia or America. In the original Bioshock Randian objectivism was the foundation on which Rapture was built. “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” a film of Andrew Ryan asks with player as they descend the bathysphere into Rapture. Rapture’s whole reason for being was based on Andrew Ryan’s dream of a place “where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the strong would not be slave to the weak,” and Bioshock’s story explores how the self-centered individualism at the heart of Rand’s philosophy breaks down. The free market creates an environment where Frank Fontaine can exploit the lower class people who make Rapture run; it also becomes part of Ryan’s tragic fall as he sacrifices his ideals for an authoritarian quest for order. The philosophy drives the story and shapes how Rapture’s characters interact with Ryan’s city. Moreover, the player sees the consequences of objectivism all throughout Rapture, from Ryan’s turn from laissez faire free-market capitalism to despotism, to the rebellion by the underclass, to the ethical debate over scientific progress.
In Bioshock Infinite I don’t see a similar approach. Sure there’s racism and racial violence and a working-class hero seeking to gain justice for the oppressed, but in the end Fitzroy is just as amoral as the Comstock establishment, launching a French Revolution-esque reign of terror, and by the second half of the game the Vox Populi have changed from scrappy resistance to antagonist, so much of the game results in the player gunning down blacks and “lesser whites” with the same amount of vigor (if you’ll pardon the pun) as Booker did against the white upper caste of Columbia. Racism as ideology in Bioshock Infinite felt more like thin wallpaper just covering the surface, a flimsy means to the end of finding more “bad guys” to shoot. It certainly made for some shocking moments, but in the end, turn-of-the-century notions of racial inequality are not really Infinite’s message, which really feels like a missed opportunity (especially in light of the more recent concerns over racial inequality in the wake the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner).
Tl;dr: Should you play Bioshock Infinite? Yes. If you like exciting run-and-gun gameplay with insane superpowers then Bioshock will be right up your Skyline-sliding, world-jumping alley. If you’re a longtime fan of the Bioshock series, the story may leave you a bit underwhelmed.