SPOILER WARNING: Just like with any other Bioshock Infinite piece actually worth your time, I cover story details. If you give even half a damn about the game, don't read this until you've completed it. That's my recommendation. I don't actually care what you do. Spoil it for yourself if you want. Your loss.
So, Bioshock Infinite is a great game. I beat it a few days after it released and I've yet to encounter someone who disagrees with that. Lately there've been a number of debates about the game and the exact level of awesomeness it managed to achieve. Some folk contend that the story and, ultimately, its ending weren't all that surprising or original, and that this warrants knocking the game down a few pegs. Others believe that the level of gore and violence in the game feels out of place or too over-the-top, in a way that distracts from the otherwise wonderful narrative. Still others say that the combat was bland, generic, and easy.
As I've witnessed these discussions arise on Twitter, I've attempted to make my case for the sides I stand on heard ("that's irrelevant", "you're wrong", "you're stupid", respectively) but in doing so, I realize that my arguments, as inelegant as Twitter's character limit often makes them, may make me sound like some blind and zealous fanboy, unable to recognize any faults in a game I love. But this simply isn't true. I certainly have my share of grievances with Bioshock Infinite, and I acknowledge that as dreamy as Ken Levine is, this game is not perfect.
Gameplay vs. Narrative
Before you start foaming at the mouth, I'm not talking about violence. I'm talking about the dissonance that occurs when the events of the story's narrative meet the harsh reality that they exist in a video game. The clearest example of this, in my mind, is right after you rescue Elizabeth in the Fink level, after Daisy Fitzroy hijacks the airship you just took. Liz is pissed at you because you're a lying scumbag. Even though you saved her from some bad guys, she doesn't trust you and is very hesitant to rejoin you. For the next 30 minutes (at least) Liz expresses anger and contempt for Booker in everything she says to him. That is until she finds some money/salts/ammo or you ask her to pick a lock.
Irrational did a great job with conveying Elizabeth's emotions. Courtnee Draper does a fantastic voice acting job, and the character animators would feel at home at Pixar. But Bioshock Infinite isn't a movie. It's a video game. And as a game, it has its list of mechanics to supply the player, sometimes agnostic of the current status of the story. In this case, whenever Liz prompted you to catch some money or agreed to pick a lock, she did so with the same affirming, confident tone, even if she's supposed to be angry at Booker.
I argue that it should have been somewhat trivial to record some "angry versions" of those call-outs and have them only play during that portion of the game, and given the otherwise superb quality and level of attention given to the rest of Bioshock Infinite, it's a bit of a disappointment that they failed here. However, I list this problem first for a reason. Whereas this disconnect probably bothered many people in a serious way, I actually found it quite entertaining. Everytime I pressed E on my keyboard in combat to catch some ammo Liz was tossing me, she still had that "I hate you" look on her face when the camera panned her way. To be honest, I found it unintentionally adorable. I acknowledge that it's a flaw in the game, but it didn't actually annoy me because I thought it was so charming.
That weapon limit
Okay, now shit's getting real. The original Bioshock let you carry all the weapons, and I struggle to find a "story reason" for the change here. Maybe they were just trying something different with the combat. After all, every enemy drops a gun, and there's no shortage of pickups. You can also pick up ammo to guns you havven't even found yet.
I get that restricting you to two weapons may play into encouraging specialization and "builds", but isn't that what the upgrades were for? On the occasions where you run out of ammo on one of your favorite guns (and Liz isn't doing her FUCKING JOB <3) it felt like an unnecessary conflict in choosing which of your guns to drop to replace with whatever that cop just dropped. I dunno, even though it didn't have a HUGE impact on the game itself, I still feel like this is an unnecessary step backwards from the original Bioshock. Whatever Irrational was trying to achieve with this decision, I feel like it would have worked out just as well without the limit. Additionally, and maybe this seems petty, but I feel like making your ground-breaking FPS epic adhere to the two-weapon system does more harm by simply giving credence to any clowns that argue that the combat is somehow no different than that found in the latest Modern War Shooter: Battle Duty, even though Bioshock Infinite has so many other fun elements that set it apart, and ... well, that's for another blog post.
What really disappoints me is the revelation that 1999 Mode doesn't remove the weapon limit. I mean, what's more definitive of first-person shooters from the late 90s: the difficulty level of computer enemies, or the unrealistic and badass arsenal your character has by the end of the game? Duke Nukem 3D and Half-Life weren't that difficult, and Quake III and Unreal Tournament were all about fragging other humans. Not dropping the 2-weapon limit in 1999 Mode seems like a massive missed opportunity! What were they thinking?!
Those FUCKING ghost battles
I played the game on Medium. I can already feel Gobun scrolling down to give me shit in the comments, but that's how it is. I played the game on Medium for a couple primary reasons: first, by principle, I tend to do my initial playthrough of a game on the "default" difficulty setting, with the potentially na´ve assumption that this is the creator's vision of the "standard" or "typical" experience; and second, I knew that I wanted to get as much out of the story as possible, and harder difficulties can tend to throw unwanted frustrations in the way of this.
And still, fuck those ghost battles.
I'm totally willing to go along with the setup for the first battle against Lady Comstock's ghost in the graveyard. The scene, I felt, was set up well, and in spite of not fighting any ghosts prior to this moment, I was able to accept it as a natural part of the game's universe. But the absurd spike in the game's difficulty was awful! As I said, I played on Medium. Up to this point, I only died several times in the whole game: a few at the very beginning (that initial run from the police from the raffle is surprisingly tough) and later just a few moments of negligence on my part. But I struggled so much against Lady Comstock, dying at least a couple dozen times.
And then you fight her again. And then once more.
And I feel like I know exactly why those battles were bullshit. Throughout the game, whenever I found upgrade vigors, I didn't necessarily focus on just Health, Salts, or Shield (in the end, I tried to evenly upgrade them over time) but I do distinctly remember putting most of my upgrades to Shield. And yet, the zombie(?) mobs that Lady Comstock's ghost summoned would, for some reason, totally deplete my shield in no more than two hits. Meaning it didn't take very many hits, if I weren't playing absolutely defensively, to die. To make it all worse, Lady Comstock's health felt at times to be unreasonably high, taking an absurd amount of hits to kill her. Couple that with regenerating her health when you die, you just have an long, frustrating experience that does nothing but drain your patience in the worst way.
I had no real problems with the game's combat system until that point. Fights were reasonable and fair, with a healthy amount of challenge, and the vigors and skylines I felt added an exciting and never-ending source of entertainment. But the difficulty decided to spike unexpectedly in that graveyard to a level that really broke the immersion for me.
Lack of choices
Throughout Bioshock Infinite, you're given a number of choices along the way. At first, these choices feel super important, because what you choose will impact the story later on. But I eventually found this to not be the case. Despite the choices given to you, Bioshock Infinite's story is surprisingly one-track. For a game that flirts so heavily with quantum mechanics and the concept of infinite realities, you'd think there would at least be multiple endings or versions of key events, even if the ultimate outcome is more or less the same. But Irrational didn't even go that far. From what I've been able to gather, the only choices that affect later on are: how you react to the ticket teller during the ambush (Booker either will or will not have a bandage on his hand for the rest of the game) and choosing to save the couple at the raffle will yield an upgrade stash later on.
Is that really all? I've seen some people suggest that this is intentional. They say that the message Bioshock Infinite is sending is that it doesn't matter what you choose, the same outcome always occurs (albeit probably in a different universe). I could probably buy that, as disappointing as it is from a gameplay perspective. Other people try and say that the futility of choice is a statement about video games as a medium. This I disagree with. There've been many people trying to describe Bioshock Infinite as some sort of gamer culture commentary. I don't see it all, and if anything I think that just sounds really narcissistic. To say that there aren't any consequences to player choice because it's making fun of previous games without consequences for player choice seems like a massive cop-out, especially given all the games that do respond to player choice (e.g. Mass Effect).
I can't finish list posts properly
So, that's my ranty list of problems with Bioshock Infinite. At least, the ones I could think of tonight, but I definitely covered the ones that have been sticking in my mind these past few weeks. I truly, truly enjoyed the game. It's a wonderful accomplishment for gaming, a great story that's acted out and presented masterfully with gameplay that is for the most part entertaining and challenging. But to ignore the nagging problems I had with it would be doing it a disservice. I'm sure the kinds of things I am complaining about probabyl sound pretty trivial to some of you, but that's how it tends to be when you're otherwise completely blown away. I will be very surprised if anything surpasses it when it comes to my game of the year for 2013.