I'm Your Multidimensional Huckleberry, Part 1: BioShock Infinite (2013)
By Kimber Benton & Aja Leith · May 02, 2013
Just FYI, this article contains material that might be considered spoilery based on our spoiler policy. In this instance, that includes discussion of tons of plot voodoo.
Kimber: We played BioShock Infinite. “We” meaning me and Aja, ‘cause Mare’s hands get too sweaty when she’s playing video games ‘cause they stress her out. A lot.
Aja: A lot a lot. It’s real hilarious to watch.
Kimber: She even makes weird noises!
Aja: But Kim?
Aja: I’m not actually the Aja from your reality. I’m an Aja from a different reality.
Kimber: For reals? That sounds hyper-dimensionally complicated. I feel like the only way for me to truly understand all of this is if I find a bunch of audio recordings hidden around your house that fill in a bunch of gaping plot holes just enough so that your story seems to hang together.
Aja: I wouldn’t bother. The Aja from this reality only sent me because she’s still trying to beat BioShock Infinite on 1999 Mode, ‘cause she’s real dorky.
Kimber: What’s 1999 Mode?
Aja: Super-hard mode.
Kimber: …oh. Sounds fun?
Aja: It isn’t. Anyhow: I am waiting in rapt attention for you to summarize the story of this game.
Kimber: Sure. The year is 1912. You are Booker DeWitt, an ex-Pinkerton agent who agrees to let a client pay off your gambling debts in exchange for you traveling to Columbia, a floating city, to rescue/kidnap a girl named Elizabeth who can open portals between different realities.
Aja: She calls them “tears.” They should have been accompanied by a ripping noise.
Kimber: Once you arrive in Columbia you discover it to be creepy and racist and post-Protestant and spend most of your time fighting unending waves of Columbian police, both before and after you rescue Elizabeth.
Aja: From a giant mechanical bird called Songbird. Who goes largely unexplained. I mean, it’s explained in a way that hints at the Big Daddies from the first BioShock, but not in a way that actually explains anything about Songbird.
Kimber: Then you spark a massive labor revolt, so you spend most of your time fighting revolutionaries. Then you discover that Zachary Hale Comstock, Elizabeth’s father and the cultist leader of Columbia, is actually just a version of you from an alternate timeline, and that actual you is Elizabeth’s actual father, and Comstock already paid off your gambling debts in exchange for Elizabeth because he can’t conceive his own child—a child that he has incidentally declared to his followers will lead Columbia to war against the “Sodom below”—and that your own befuddled and fake memories are the product of entering a different timeline because: science.
Aja: Also: there’s a lot of shooting in this game.
Kimber: We probably don’t quite want to divorce gameplay and story like they’re entirely separate things in BioShock Infinite, but we also don’t want this review to be a million words long, so let’s arbitrarily focus on gameplay in this part and on the story in the next part. Down?
Aja: I’m your multidimensional Huckleberry.
Kimber: Well, my dimension’s Aja likes First Person Shooter games much more than me. So what did you think?
Aja: I don’t want this convo to be a series of endless comparisons between BioShock Infinite and BioShock, which I kind of love, but I feel like many of the answers I have are going to do that, so: sorry ‘bout it.
Kimber: I think it’s fine. I’ve literally only played a couple hours of BioShock since it was included on Infinite’s Blu Ray and already I like it more.
Aja: Oh you’re playing it! Awesome! But so in BioShock you’re stuck in Rapture, an underwater city, so all of the levels are claustrophobic and take place indoors. You fight a lot, but it’s often with only one or two enemies at a time, even if there are plenty more just around the corner. They just sort of rove around, you just sort of rove around, and nothing seems planned really, or—
Kimber: Well, it’s not quite that pure.
Aja: Yeah, you’re right. Let me amend that: BioShock has game-y moments all over it, absolutely, but in general things seem less planned. In Columbia, however, the rule is that you fight enemies in waves. Everything seems planned.
Kimber: Yeah. Every fight is, like, take out X amount of enemies to trigger X more enemies. It’s annoying.
Aja: I mean, “planned” is maybe the wrong word. Maybe I mean “laid out”?
Kimber: Rapture seems less level designy.
Aja: It’s less This Sunday Sunday Sunday In The Ringish.
Kimber: It’s less seamy. Infinite has a lot of seams.
Aja: Right. And those seams are everywhere. A lot of the new mechanics—the Sky Rails that let you speed around a play area; the turrets and cover that Elizabeth can pull through tears from different realities—pockmark certain areas in the game so you just know even before you enter a space that you’re about to enter a battle. Which is true of a lot of games, obviously, but it’s jarring here because it feels far more like, say, Uncharted than it does BioShock, where the fighting often seemed incidental to exploring.
Kimber: Right. “Why are all of these support turrets and medical supplies available for Elizabeth to drag from a different reality all of the sudden?”
Aja: It feels more formulaic. In BioShock you would fight things and sometimes you would loot stuff and sometimes you would discover audio recordings that gave you more insight into Rapture’s back story, but doing all of those things often happened at the same time and seemed pretty fluid.
Kimber: Like I said: only a couple of hours in, but it seems like everything seems to sit more comfortably together. You’re still playing a game, obviously, but it feels less like you’re doing gamey-things and more like you’re exploring a world.
Aja: Yeah. Now, to be fair, maybe part of my dissatisfaction with Infinite it is that all the publicity stuff from the last few years suggested that Elizabeth’s powers would have more variety. Like, she would be able to pull any number of things through tears to help you out in battle. As it is, though, you have to ask her to pull through the same shit that every other FPS just leaves lying around, which means you’re stuck taking an extra step to, say, refill your health.
Kimber: What was she supposed to be able to do?
Aja: There was talk of her being able to pull trains through tears to knock enemies off of bridges, or opening up doors, or…I mean, clearly it wasn’t all that effectively planned out since it was scrapped. Which happens all the time, so it’s not like I’m saying Irrational was publicizing in bad faith or something. But whether it’s fair or not what ends up happening is that while the idea of Elizabeth is cool, in practice she’s just doing stuff that you could probably just as easily do yourself. She’s a good character, but she doesn’t really add anything to the in-battle gameplay.
Kimber: I’m not as familiar with these types of games, but it felt that way to me, too. Like, it’s nice that she throws you ammo or salts, which fuel your superpowers, when you’re running low, but I kept thinking, “why not just let me have more of those things, then?”
Aja: Yeah: having her or not having her (with that modification) doesn’t make the difficulty of the game any different. Though I guess some people might argue it’s more realistic that you can only carry a “realistic” amount of ammo, whatever that is. But those concerns aren’t the issue, to me. My point is just that Elizabeth as a mechanic doesn’t transform Infinite into something innovative: BioShock Infinite is still just an FPS, and the only reason we need Elizabeth to accomplish in-battle tasks that other FPS games handle in less complicated ways is the plot point that Booker can’t open tears. Which…again, no bad-faith accusations, but at times it really feels like the only reason all those turrets and tears and medical supplies are alternate dimensioned is because when the initial plans for Elizabeth fell apart somebody said, “Uh oh. We promised Elizabeth could do amazing things in battle. I guess a watered down mechanic is better than none at all, right?”
Kimber: Plus, nothing about this game makes me care about realism, really. I care that the battles are fun and exciting despite how realistic they are, and…I was never bored, necessarily, but I was never glued to the screen. And especially later on there were a few times where I kept thinking, “I really hope that’s the last wave of enemies, because: snore.”
Aja: I felt like every new area in Columbia was cosmetically different but ended up seeming the same. Like, the locations seemed exciting and innovative until the moment you had to fight in them, and then suddenly your brain drops the sense of “I’m exploring this new environment” and instead defaults to “I’m scanning this artificial battlefield for the same 6 or 7 things that I require to dispense with this group of enemies.” So instead of sneaking around corners to look at macabre posters only to be attacked from behind by drug addicts as you did in Rapture, you enter a wide-open area and start scanning the scenery for sky rails and freight hooks and environmental assets. And that issue kind of bubbles up into your macro sense of Columbia as a world, reinforcing the idea that with only a few notable exceptions—the Fraternal Order of the Raven, the Hall of Heroes, and maybe Shantytown—Columbia’s various locations are aesthetically diverse but aren’t functionally or narratively diverse.
Kimber: They’re just different battlefields.
Aja: Well, it’s a question of context too. In plenty of games where this seems like less of a problem the levels are just different battlefields. Hell, the strategy games you love so much take that idea to its extreme. But the in-battle gameplay choices you’re offered in Infinite tend to emphasize this artificiality, whereas the level design and gameplay of BioShock tend to de-emphasize it, and since Infinite fits into BioShock’s legacy it’s disappointing.
Kimber: I don’t know anything about the back-story of Rapture, but it already seems real.
Aja: I think that’s because Rapture would seem like a real place even if there was no story taking place there. Hell, where you are in the game? There isn’t really a story taking place yet. Atlas doesn’t actually tell you all that much in the beginning of the game; he just tells you to go places. So the story is all coming from the environment.
Kimber: I don’t think they’ve really even explained what’s going on with the people yet. It’s just clear they’re all addicts of some kind and they’re into killing me. And they make poor decoration choices.
Aja: I’ll get into the story stuff more in part 2, obviously, but only part of the problem with Columbia is that its story doesn’t quite explain it. There’s a gameplay part of the problem, and that’s that you keep entering these really cool environments but everywhere you look there are colored-out freight hooks and turrets and boxes of sniper rifles and medical supplies and all the “alternate universe” conceits in the world don’t change the fact that these things merely exist to support you in the fight you’re about to have. So instead of the intended response—“isn’t it weird how that building was designed differently in a alternate universe?—you have an actual response: “Would it be more useful to turn on the freight hook so I can get above my enemies? Or should I turn that turret on to provide cover fire?”
Kimber: And that’s only because you have an FPS mind. I tended to ignore those things in favor of just enjoying the environments, but that meant that I rarely actually used any of those assets in battle, which probably means I missed out on some compelling in-battle choices.
Aja: Maybe. But I actually think it’s a problem if you don’t need the stuff, because then why bother? Why insert random turrets you might use if it isn’t necessary to use them?
Kimber: Um…are they there for Hard and 1999 playthroughs?
Aja: I guess? I didn’t find using them all that exciting. Plus, the areas are big enough that the stuff isn’t always obvious. Like, there were several points where I’d clear out a battlefield and then notice pools of gasoline that I could have lit on fire and freight hooks and other things that I could have used. But it’s all kind of useless if the enemies are going to jump out and attack before you have a chance to determine a strategy.
Kimber: It’s interesting that you brought up Uncharted. I’m not sure I enjoy the endless combat in that game either, but at least I feel like the cover-based approach creates clear objectives: hide, kill off enemies, move forward, hide. A lot of BioShock Infinite’s fights felt like they had the layout of Uncharted-style combat without any of the strategy.
Aja: What did you think of the vigors?
Kimber: The magic? I thought the various powers were cool and all, but once I was in battle I just tended to spam Murder of Crows to stall the enemies and then I shot them with my machine gun. And then later I switched to Undertow, cause sometimes that knocked enemies off edges. But this wasn’t a game where I ever really came up with a tactic, and I’m not sure it’s a game that really lends itself to that kind of skill-building.
Aja: It’s true. The option most of the vigors have to set traps is cool, but if you can’t sneak into an area and do that before the fight starts what’s the point? Same thing with sniper rifles: I tried to use them a couple of times but you can really only get off a shot or two before you need to switch back to your regular weapons.
Kimber: I really like strategy games, so obviously I’m into mathematical limitations, but it always seems odd to me when a game imposes limits but then doesn’t give you a clear cut way to utilize your assets in combat. I’d just kill, loot corpses, and hope Elizabeth tossed me the thing I needed if I was running out of ammo.
Aja: And since you can’t save when you want, if you just want to explore a bit but you get stuck in a fight you have to do the whole process all over again and find the next checkpoint or do it all again when you reload the game.
Kimber: I also kept feeling like I would clear out a wave of enemies only to find that there was still one combatant hidden somewhere that I had to run around and find. And sometimes they’d be shooting at me, but I couldn’t see them.
Aja: The AI is kind of weird that way. There are a bunch of, like, club-wielding enemies who are perfectly happy to impale themselves upon your bullets and magic, but then there are other enemies that seem to hang back, regardless of the range of their weapon. And it really kills the momentum of a fight if you think everybody is dead but then you have to search to kill one remaining enemy, especially if killing that enemy simply triggers the next wave of enemies.
Kimber: I also had a few glitches, I think, where a fight wouldn’t end even though I couldn’t find an enemy. Which doesn’t matter except when there’s a door you want lock-picked, ‘cause Elizabeth won’t pick a lock if you’re in combat.
Aja: Speaking of lock-picks, I also felt like the exploring parts of the game were somewhat unclear. Like, right after you get Shock Jockey which lets you shoot lighting bolts there are a couple of electronic generators you can charge to open secret doors, which is cool, but I kept looking for dead generators after that and it didn’t seem like there were any.
Kimber: I noticed that too. I couldn’t figure out if that was just weird, or if it’s because they assumed that later on you would actually have enough lock picks to open secret doors so they just stopped doing it…
Aja: One other thing: it annoyed me that the vigor and gun upgrades were so expensive, not because I couldn’t buy them all, but because by the time I had maxed out my two weapons of choice and my two or three most-used vigors the fighting sections of the game were basically done. How do you switch at that point? Some of the vigors you don’t get until the game’s almost over.
Kimber: As somebody who doesn’t really care about reality in games, I’ll come right out and say that I think it’s stupid to not let people buy everything if they want to. But that’s not a BioShock-specific rant, so whatever. You wanna sum this up, Aj?
Aja: A lot of this stuff is pretty nitpicky, and so I guess that’s a good sign. Like, I enjoyed playing the game. I just think that at least in contrast to a full development cycle where we were promised something as groundbreaking as BioShock the finished product was underwhelming. Fun outside of that context, sure, but: basic. Just another FPS, albeit one with a more elaborate, ambitious story.
Kimber: Good segue!
Aja: I just don’t want to ruin your show.
This is the first part of a two-part review. You can read the second part here.