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I'm Brazen Head and my love for games borders on the fetishistic. As I type, my Dreamcast, Gamecube, PS2, 360, Wii, WiiU and gaming PC trail wires happily to the back of my TV screen.

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Brazen Head
8:47 AM on 02.12.2014


Once again, Elizabeth and I are roadblocked by one of Bioshock Infinite's many locked doorways. Typically, this would mean bypassing the non-obstacle with the billionth rendition of Elizabeth's lock-picking animation, only a bizarre flash of developer deviancy means this one's secured by a combination lock instead.

“It's a code lock”, Elizabeth helpfully informs me. “Most fools generally leave the code less than twenty feet away”. How convenient, I think aloud, that Infinite's universe is not only managed by fools, but that their discrepancies are catalogued for the benefit of others. Of course, the argument might be that the code – 0451 – is a cheeky reference to better games like System Shock 2 or Deus Ex, but the code's suspiciously precise location makes it a poorly-disguised trigger for the impending cutscene, and besides, by this point I am sick of Infinite's bullshit.

It's disappointing that an unpopular opinion need come with a disclaimer, but allow me to cover my arse here; I don't hate triple-A games. I don't hate shooters. I don't spit bile at anything popular in defense of the indie underdog, and I certainly don't like arguing.

But really, guys... are our standards so low that we consider Bioshock Infinite our Game of the Year?

Let's keep things balanced, here; Bioshock Infinite deserves recognition for what it does well. It had a supporting character with depth and presence. It created a world of unparalleled imagination. It tackled themes such as racism and philosophy and proved that games could support better storylines than war or princess-rescuing. These are qualities worth celebrating. Unfortunately, they do not rescue the game from its many failures and, most worryingly, it seems these failures were dismissed in order to make Infinite a poster child for standards in storytelling.

The thing is, Infinite's gameplay is half-baked, littered with design choices that at best are under-developed, and at worst conflict with both the story and combat. It's lucky enough to be bookended with such a compelling conclusion, as little else would have tied the experience together.

It is, in short, a mess; a game in which even its best asset – its story – doesn't emerge unscathed, thanks to design principles which constantly lock horns with one another. Whilst the game's introduction is nothing short of spellbinding, mere moments pass before Infinite's world begins to fall apart.



Paradise? Lost.
Glossing over my initial complaint – that knee high fences in a world thousands of miles above the clouds aren't exactly sufficient safety precautions – the fiction is dented before the left trigger is even squeezed, thanks to Infinite's first egregious inclusion; Vigors. No reason or explanation exists for their being, we're simply forced to accept that in this world, magical tonics with ludicrously dangerous effects are available to anybody, without regulation. Our first one is given to us for free by a smiling spokeswoman, who informs us via an educational film reel that we now have the ability to hypnotise man and machine, bending them to our will. Conveniently, her stall is placed right next to an automaton that is refusing entry to the next chunk of level.

Bullshit.

These Vigors are a player tool, and little else – their existence in Columbia is dismissed by everybody besides protagonist Booker, their presence only enforced by the various billboard advertisements around the game. But those billboards aren't part of Columbia, nor its fiction. They're selling themselves to nobody but the player, who exists on an armchair the other side of the screen. And right now, he isn't sold.



Clearly, Infinite needed to share similarities to previous Bioshock games to justify its share of the franchise, but I theorise that in its infancy, Infinite was its own title; the Bioshock was simply added as a cunning piece of brand recognition. Incorporating certain aspects of the series' design did Infinite, and the franchise, a major disservice.

In short? Bioshock was great. Infinite would be better if it didn't try to be it.

For example, scouring bins and corpses for supplies simply does not belong here like it did in previous games. However high the odds are stacked against Booker, it seems that only the law are savvy to his presence – shopkeepers are more than happy to serve and sell to him. That he is forced to rummage through bins for ammo and money makes little sense. Who throws money into bins, anyway?

Furthermore, how is Booker able to enter areas stacked full of strangers and NPCs, rummage through their cupboards, and steal items from under their noses? Is this what constitutes a living, believable world? This particular oversight becomes even more offensive when, in one area, a crude text box plasters itself on-screen informing the player that the rules of theft now arbitrarily apply. By the next level, we're free to steal again without the text box's permission. Either something wasn't implemented properly, or the game makes this crap up as it goes along.

Would Infinite have been missing anything particularly exciting if looting were dropped altogether? Whilst similarly fast-paced shooters keep the pace with automatic weapon pickups, Booker spends as much time staring at the corpses by his feet as he does down the barrel of a gun. Rummaging through bodies after every firefight smashes the game flow into a brick wall, and tasks the player with chipping that wall away.

Incidentally, 'chipping away' is the ultimate analogy for Infinite's combat. Legions of enemies swarm open expanses of map, and the player keeps firing until the screaming stops. This isn't to say that some interesting mechanics weren't introduced – the Skyhook, the Vigors, and the Tears – but not one of these ever reaches its potential.



Combat? Devolved.
Much has been made of the Vigors and how very few players actually used them all, so let's concentrate on the Tears and the Skyhook; two excellent ideas that weren't properly implemented.

The Tears, for example, fall victim to the most literal use of Deus Ex Machina, or 'Ghost in the Machine', ever witnessed. Whilst the story establishes that Elizabeth can open up universal 'tears' as 'some sort of wish fulfillment', the player can't exploit these half as much as the game first promises. The explanation is that Elizabeth's abilities to open Tears are limited by a machine that inhibits her power... a machine, guarded by a ghost. Such exquisite irony.

It's a laboured excuse for why Tears are so underwhelming in-game. The player can only open tears of certain types in certain locations, and only one can exist at any time. For example, a tear containing a box of health kits can't exist if the tear on the opposite balcony, containing a sniper rifle, does.

So hey, here's a novel idea; if the player can't possibly reach both at once anyway, why not just have them exist at all times? Now, admittedly, the Tears occasionally provide the need for quick-thinking - do you summon a robot guard, or defensive cover for low-health situations? - but they're superfluous often enough that they start to feel pointless.

What would I have done? Simple. Drop the Vigors altogether, and have Tears available anywhere. They could work on a 'cooldown' basis (or even deplete from a slowly regenerating mana bar), and have players select them from a dial of gradually unlocked items. Does the player summon a rocket launcher and health kits, or pay the same price for a robot bodyguard? Already, more tactical opportunities have been opened up than the Vigors or Tears have ever allowed. It also works much more believably alongside that particular Deus Ex Machina.



Another missed opportunity is the Skyhook, an awesome idea thats potential is never truly fulfilled. Whilst being on a Skyrail is quite the exciting feeling, its tactical advantages are limited to aerial attacks and quick getaways. Why not one or two set-pieces with collapsing Skyrails, that require the player to leap between tracks? Or perhaps a tense chase sequence? As they are, the Skyrails only truly benefit the travel from one Tear to another. Vanquish may not have covered philosophy and existential variants in its storyline, but at least when it invited us to shoot across the floor with rocket boots it had the decency to provide us with full control.



The biggest shame is that everything was in place to make the Skyhook a much more liberating device in the form of those stationary grapple points. Imagine how much fun it would have been to scale Columbia's colossal buildings not by rail, nor airship, but by travelling from grapple to grapple, being able to peer down below and truly admire the height from a stationary position - not from a Scalextric track at 100 miles per hour.

Even so, this is far from the biggest disappointment when you look at the adversaries that could have been.

Boss? Hogs.

Fitzroy, Fink and Slate.

Aside from being little more than diversions in the grand scheme of Infinite, all three of the game's secondary antagonists were Infinite's most repeatedly missed opportunity, and perhaps the grossest example of its undercooked ideas.



Did you notice how every last one of these potential menaces only ever threatens via conveniently-placed loudspeakers? The sole defense of any of these rivals is to throw wave after wave of enemies at Booker, whilst fashioning as many ways to say “You're rubbish, you are” as possible. More often than not, the reasons for these battles to occur in the first place are for some of the most ludicrous reasons put to script;

“Booker, this is Slate. Prove yourself as a soldier!”
“Booker, this is Fink. Prove yourself as a bodyguard!”
“Booker, this is Fitzroy. Prove you're actually Booker!”

Such little justification exists for any of these characters' resistance that it eventually resembles satire, an unsubtle joke that the developers openly invite us to laugh at. The closest the game gets to a boss fight is the frustrating airship battle at the end; an awkward skirmish in which Booker is able to send Songbird to attack targets, but only if they're not even remotely obscured by scenery – this renders Booker seemingly incapable of pointing them out.

The game, of course, provides concession to this clumsiness the only way it knows how; endless throngs of enemies.

Game of the Year, Folks.
It's much easier to hear the sound of reader's teeth grinding in disagreement than it is the throngs of cheering supporters here, so let me wrap up a few more complaints before I make an enemy of everyone; Elizabeth constantly talking over Voxaphone recordings; the near-identical nature of the guns used by Comstock and the guns used by the Vox Populi; the almost-futile effects bestowed by the so-called gear 'upgrades'; the bullet-sponges that are the game's enemies... Infinite is hamstrung by all of these and more. Like Shenmue, Eternal Darkness and Sonic Adventure before it, there's little doubt in my mind that we'll return to this game years later, and re-evaluate why on earth we held it to such high acclaim.

Bioshock: Infinite's status as Game of the Year can't reasonably be attributed to the game itself. It can only be attributed to what it stands for; higher storytelling concepts, imaginative universes, and empowered supporting female characters, all of which is something to celebrate. But is the “Game of the Year” accolade really judged more on a game's concepts than its execution? The feeling that Infinite was merely made an example of, as so-called 'proof' that video games are maturing, is inescapable.

As a game, it's no more evolved than any first-person shooter before it, and this in itself serves to derail everything that makes it potentially ground-breaking. It's Serious Sam, all tarted up in socio-political philosophy.

In short? Bioshock Infinite is kind of bad.
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