Monday, April 1, 2013

Bioshock Infinite Review

I'm not much of a video game player. I'll play maybe one or two games a year, and there will be years that go by without playing any. Every few months I'll walk over to the Game Stop and get a used game, play it for twenty minutes, and just stop. I did that with Gears of War, Prince of Persia, and a bunch of other games.

Recently I've played the first two Dead Space games. I really enjoyed those. They had good stories, great environments, and fun gameplay that never got too fast or crazy. I'm not very good with the XBox controller, but Dead Space moved at a deliberate enough pace that it was both fun and rewarding for my skill level. Before that I played the the Telltale Walking Dead game which was so good it has made the television show unwatchable. Before that I played the first Bioshock and before that Half Life 2. Half Life 3 would likely be enough for me to get a new PC to play it, but I'm not hip to most video games. I'm just mentioning all of this to give some perspective as to where I'm coming from, and because those are the big points of comparison I have for Bioshock Infinite.

I picked up Bioshock Infinite largely because of its setting and themes. Eugene Debs is, as I've discussed many times, my hero and someone I find endlessly fascinating and inspirational. Eugene Debs got over a million votes in the election of 1912, and when I found out that Bioshock Infinite took place in 1912 and dealt with issues of labor and resistance it became apparent I had to pick it up. I played the first Bioshock in large part because it was a critique of Ayn Rand, although being a big fan of System Shock 2 didn't hurt.

I'm going to approach this review by tackling the actual game play first, and then by talking about its story and themes.

I'm not very good at playing first person shooters with the XBox controller. I do well using a mouse and keyboard, but for some reason I always feel clumsy with a console controller. I'm sure some of my feelings about the game play resulted from this, but I feel like some of the other issues I had weren't caused by my own ineptitude. 

Bioshock Infinite's game play isn't much different than the first Bioshock. It's not a bad game by any means, but it was never especially satisfying or tactical. A game like Half Life 2 features a lot of interesting scenarios that resulted in challenging game play that necessitated smart play. I always felt like a lot of the battles in Half Life 2 were won with a combination of tactics, thought, and twitch reflex. Bioshock Infinite, on the other hand, felt way too frantic and muddy so that I never really felt as though I was using any sort of tactic. I never felt like the actual game play was especially satisfying. I would mostly just shoot the baddies, run around to regain health, and repeat. 

The biggest problem I have with Bioshock Infinite's game play is that I'm not sure they ever figured out what they wanted the game play to be. Did they want it to be a fast paced action shooter? Did they want it to play like a first person Prince of Persia where jumping and using the sky railway was essential? Did they want it to be about the pseudo-magic abilities you controlled so you could possess, disorient, and lay traps? Or did they want the game to be about opening up "tears", basically controllable pieces of terrain that you can activate, to use to your advantage? The combination of all of these creates muddled game play that is less exciting than it is merely frantic and overwhelming. This combined with my sloppiness with the controller made it so I treated the game almost exclusively like a standard shooter by ignoring most of these other features.

Don't get me wrong, the game play is never bad. I never disliked it, but I mostly found it to be a price to pay so I could advance the story and explore the world set up in the game. Had the game been a bit slower and more measured like Dead Space I think I would have liked it more. Still, it was perfectly acceptable, especially since it is clearly not the selling point of the game.

The major reason I purchased and played the game was because of its setting and themes. The 1890s through 1930s period is one of the most interesting periods in American history, and it is a history that never gets discussed. We might hear about prohibition or World War 1, but rarely is there talk of the labor struggles and ramifications of laissez faire capitalism. Bioshock Infinite promised a game that would take all the elements that fascinate me so much about this period (nationalism, labor, industrialization, technology, race, women's liberation, and many others) and make them the focus of a video game. 

Sadly, I feel that most of these issues only serve as window dressing. While some of these issues are touched upon, they seem to be discussed in only the most obvious and on-the-nose way. A lot of this has to stem from the world simply not feeling real. I felt that the first Bioshock existed in an actual world, I believed that Rapture was an underwater city that ate itself alive because of the untenable nature of its philosophical foundations. The world felt real in the game as well, especially since we arrive in Rapture after things got bad.

Columbia never felt real. You enter the city on a normal day and the streets are largely empty. Columbia doesn't feel lived in or real. Once things go bad and the action starts I became confused about why some people were shooting at me and others weren't. It's a beautiful game and Columbia looks gorgeous, but I never felt like it was a real breathing city. I'm sure it's easier to create a rotting corpse of an underwater city like Rapture, but Columbia feels like it doesn't quite attain its lofty goals.

I felt underwhelmed by the themes the game wanted to explore, and I think a lot of that comes from the world it exists in. We see a few instances of how awful unfettered capitalism is, one of my favorite scenes involves an auction site where workers bid on how fast they can accomplish tasks at a factory, but for the most part it feels as though the game simply asks us all to come in understanding that things are bad for the working class. I'm sure some of this comes from my desire to be beaten over the head with Eugene Debs and allusions to the Pullman Strike, but I feel that if you're going to make a game that deals with these issues that they need to feel immediate and real. Instead, I come away knowing that the wealthy, like the industrialist Fink, are bad to the working class but don't find myself caring.

That the game *SPOILER* eventually has the labor resistance, the Vox Populi, become almost as bad as the industrialist overlords feels like a silly attempt to be neutral. That combined with your inability to actually be involved in any of the struggle that occurs between Comstock and the Vox Populi makes me feel as a viewer and not an active participant. That normally wouldn't be a problem, but this is a video game. I wanted to be part of a worker's revolution in the sky and to murder cloud bourgeoisie with fire. It's not fair to judge something for not being what I wanted it to be, but I feel as though the game paints this world and then asks you to be a viewer instead of a participant.

Other issues, such as nationalism and religion, are handled well enough. Even then, they are a little on the nose. Instead of being an incisive critique on American exceptionalism, the game becomes a bit of a comedy. Comstock and Columbia are too broad, too obvious, and too comical to really have any teeth as actual criticism or commentary. 

Despite my problems listed above there is a lot to like about the game. While I'm a little annoyed that the reasons I got the game were merely window dressing, the game ends up telling a much more personal and existential story. Similar to the first Bioshock there is a twist that changes a lot of what you see during the course of the game, and ultimately the game is about the relationship with Elizabeth. Again, it's not fair to judge a game based on what you want it to be, but I do wish the game focused more on its setting and the societal themes within. 

In the end, the story told is compelling. While I don't find the relationship between Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth to be as compelling or emotional as the relationship between Lee and Clementine in the Walking Dead Telltale adventure game, it still manages to be engaging enough. Ultimately, I enjoyed this game but am a little baffled by the amount of love and critical praise it gets. All the things I liked about the game I found done better elsewhere, but all the same it's a fine game and one I don't regret playing. Now back to painting my toy soldiers and not wasting my time with these dang video games kids like to play.

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