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The original BioShock is one of the few games that, in my opinion, hailed the arrival of what was the “next generation”: a game that featured a level of visual detail and depth of concept that wasn’t possible on your Xboxes and PlayStation 2s. Rapture — as the setting for a first person shooter at least — wouldn’t have been half as memorable without the extra processing power that came with the new breed of console hardware. Irrational Games’ objectivist dystopia stands as one of the great places in gaming history. I had impossibly-high expectations of what screenshots, trailers and a couple of hundred previews promised to be a fitting follow-up. Could BioShock Infinite and Columbia live up to the hype?
No. No they could not.
Don’t get me wrong, as a collection of corridors and open areas in which you dispense of hordes of people with guns and magic, this is a greatest hits collection — complete with rockets, exploding heads and a collection of funky abilities and superpowers that could match an X-Men team from the mid 90s.
New mechanics like the Skyline and tears — which allow the player to use their companion, Elizabeth to summon items like cover, turrets and ammo — help to freshen up what is some very familiar shooting and zapping for anyone who’s played the previous entries in the series and most of the DLC attached to each game. It takes a few hours to find its feet, but the payoff feels pretty huge when you’re riding a crazy roller coaster and slinging rockets and lightning at robotic George Washingtons. Despite its narrative and thematic failures, the gunplay is solid, sometimes approaching spectacular.
High 5 imminent.
Other returning mechanics serve to make others redundant, like eating food to restore health and “salts” as opposed to buying restorative items from vending machines (as an aside, salts are the energy that power your Vigors, which are essentially Infinite’s version of Plasmids). If I ate an entire cake and five oranges — which I found hidden on some corpses, so there’s all types of bacteria to worry about too, I guess — and followed that up with some coffee, I’d be set to dent some porcelain. Over the course of roughly ten hours, Booker DeWitt smashes a small corner store’s monthly inventory, and he doesn’t need to visit the loo once! Anyway, the plentiful supply of food negates the need to use vending machines and more than makes up for the inability to carry around health and energy packs. Talk about cast iron stomach… or broken game design.
On the whole, the closest I’ve come to discerning any real meaning or message from BioShock Infinite’s crazy ass, time-jumping narrative is care of GamesBeat’s own Rus McLaughlin who muses, “that there can be no morality in an extreme. Any extreme.” Which, yeah, sounds great, but it doesn’t account for a veritable plethora of plot holes and some truly uncomfortable racist overtones that serve as nothing more than window dressing. The caricatures of Native American warriors from the Wounded Knee Massacre, as well as the demonic depiction of the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion presented during one sequence early in the game don’t really challenge the player’s understanding of events, they are, as put by the ABC Arts’s Daniel Golding, used in a superficial way that “seeks not to make any meaningful statement about history or racism or America, but instead seeks to use an aesthetics of ‘racism’ and ‘history’ as a barrier to point to and claim importance.”
Infinite’s story is character driven and focused. The city of Columbia, along with its troubling racist and fundamentalist Christian themes are there only to build Zachary Comstock up as an infamous villain. Comstock, it must be said, is no match for Andrew Ryan, the antagonist of the original BioShock. Where Ryan taunted the player and glorified the achievements of Rapture and his objectivist ideology, Comstock spouts racist bile and relatively rarely directs his ire at DeWitt himself. Voxophones, Infinite’s answer to the Audio Diary, are geared more towards character development and major plot points than on world building, and Columbia suffers as a result. The final revelation says more about one man in isolation than it does about life, video games, the infinite possibilities of an uncharted universe or any particular ideology. It’s entirely possible that you’ll end up moved by the closing hours of this story, but for mine, there were too many questions with answers that failed to satisfy.
Do you know this guy?
Most frustrating of all is that several plot points are glossed over in Voxophones that you won’t likely find in your first play through. I gleaned more about the fearsome Songbird from reading two years worth of previews than I did from the roughly twenty second sound byte that addresses its design and some throwaway comments from Elizabeth. Worse still, I didn’t really get the feeling that its relationship with the heroine was anywhere near as strong as that hinted by a slew of games writers who saw the game across various stages of its development. The relentless focus on central characters means that, for me at least, several moments lacked the impact you’d imagine that they’d have. Worse still, it meant that Columbia was more a neo-classical poster board for racist and religious slogans than an actual place.
Vigors are another example of important lore that’s hidden in Voxophones and otherwise not addressed effectively. Without obtaining, and then listening to the relevant recording, you’d have no idea what such dangerous talents are doing at the disposal of every man, woman and child in Columbia. Not that the explanation afforded is overly convincing either, as I can’t for the life of me figure out why a tyrannical figure like Comstock would allow something like the ability to shoot fire from your hands to be procured by anyone through the exchange of some coin. As many have pointed out already, Plasmids, which offer abilities similar to Vigors, were key to Rapture’s downfall in the original game, yet somehow, in Columbia, the disruptive potential of, what is essentially, magic with murderous applications has been neutered somehow… by something. Vigors are another piece of Infinite’s puzzle which just doesn’t fit.
Elizabeth cares not for plot when there’s coins to be found.
All of this brings us to the emotive crutch of Infinite’s story, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is beautiful. She has Anime eyes and she throws you ammo and first aid kits and money and she has feelings too, but her duties on the battlefield and in general exploration come into conflict with her role in the story. Upon learning some of her and Booker’s respective sordid personal histories, she’s driven to collect more curiosities to interrupt what should be moving moments. Earth-shattering developments are cheapened by the heroine’s compulsion to find useful shit. Her expression and mood change by the second and are more unpredictable than her movements, which see her teleporting ahead, behind, generally anywhere other than she’s needed to be for the conversation at hand to work as intended. Elizabeth is your companion for most of the game, but she’s never really there.
So, I’m sure after reading this you could be under the impression that I didn’t enjoy my time in Columbia. That’s not true, as I must have been having enough fun with it to want to finish it twice; the second run on 1999 mode – the game’s highest difficulty setting. I’d go as far to say that I liked BioShock Infinite, but no amount of crazy superpowers and sniper fights are going to make up for the fact that the story and setting failed to live up to the lofty standards set by my first trip to Rapture. There’s a lot of problems, themes and important tidbits that are glossed over, while other explosive narrative developments are stifled by mechanical conveniences. If you’re looking to kick ass and chew literal shitloads of food, this is the game for you. If you’re looking for the evolution of the elusive Thinking Man’s Shooter, you’ll be left wanting. Recommended, but be sure to check your expectations at the lighthouse.