Playing with Constants and Variables: A Bioshock Infinite Review

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After what seemed like infinite delays, Bioshock Infinite finally hit store shelves at the end of March. As Irrational’s second entry in the series, does it live up to legacy of the original Bioshock, one of the highest rated video games of all time?

Are games art? That loaded question has been floating around the internet and in editorials for some time now, and the original Bioshock frequently was the impetus behind that argument. Bioshock Infinite is sure to continue that conversation since it establishes Ken Levine and Irrational Games as a video game “auteur”. In the film world the term “auteur” refers to a director who establishes a well respected artistic style in his films and creates a body of work that is identifiable as his own due to constants within all his works.

There is always going to be a man and a bizarre city in Levine’s Bioshock games. There is always going to be a narrative twist. On the gameplay side, there will always be upgradable weaponry and powers. There also are always going to be vending machines in said cities that place a heavy emphasis on scrounging for resources and money for the player. Those are the constants. But Bioshock Infinite is more than just “Bioshock in the sky”. There are variables in the Bioshock formula, as well.

The biggest change is the setting. Columbia is visually and functionally quite different from Rapture. As you’d expect while comparing a city in the sky to a city at the bottom of the sea, Columbia is much brighter and less claustrophobic. It is decked out with Americana and religious imagery and its inhabitants are not visibly insane or grotesque like the denizens of Rapture. In fact, contrary to Rapture, in Columbia everything seems to be fine on the surface and it doesn’t seem to be a city that is destroying itself…yet.

The more vibrant and frequently outdoor aesthetic makes Infinite a noticeable departure from the creepiness that was in the original Bioshock. While that game could maybe be shoehorned into the horror genre, you can’t say the same for Infinite. That said, don’t expect to go through this game without a few creepy and disturbing moments coupled with a constant sense that there’s something sinister behind all the bright colors. Some fans may bemoan the loss of scares in this Bioshock, but Levine and crew believe that the horror aspect is a variable that is not as important as what he chose to remain as constants between the two games.

The core gameplay from the original Bioshock remains one of those constants. The game still functions primarily as a first person shooter. The powers you control, eight in all, are similar to what we saw in Bioshock, but with slight variations. “Salts” stand in for “EVE” as the substance you deplete while using those “Vigors”. Most of these Vigors have a secondary function, like the ability to be placed as traps as opposed to being used as a projectile. You can mix and match these powers to create interesting attacks like “Electric Crows”, which, shockingly, sends forth a flock of electrified crows at the target.  You are free to fire your weapon in your right hand while using the Vigor in your left, which creates more tactical combinations. While the elemental themes remain constant from previous Bioshock games, each of the eight Vigors is technically new and unique.   The combinations and strategies you can employ recapture that classic Bioshock magic where if you are having trouble getting past a certain section, you know you likely haven’t used all the abilities you have at your disposal in the most effective way possible. Like much of the game, these Vigors toe the line between being something altogether new and something very similar to what we’ve seen before.

The gameplay in Infinite is not simply a rehashing of old ideas, however. There are some major variations in the Bioshock formula that are introduced in Infinite. Gene Tonics are gone, replaced by Gear, i.e. special clothing that can be quipped that gives the player certain passive boosts to stats or abilities. There are head, torso, arms, and legs slots that can be equipped at one time, but there are several different options for each body part slot. Mixing and matching gear is a good way to get the most out of your wardrobe during different scenarios.

The wrench is gone as your melee weapon, replaced with a gear/hook apparatus that is used to traverse the Columbia’s signature  sky-rails. Using this weapon can lead to gory finishing moves the likes of which we haven’t seen in previous Bioshock games.

In fact, I must digress here and quickly comment that Bioshock Infinite is surprisingly gory. Gears grind into faces, headshots explode craniums, and fire attacks melt people away to their skeletons. It is quite jarring at first, but perhaps due to the more colorful and seemingly serene nature of Columbia, the added violence needs to be there to remind the player just how perilous and disturbing this utopia turned dystopia can be.

The gameplay gets its biggest tweaking with the inclusion of the skylines, a rail system that Columbia utilizes to transport cargo. These can be used to speed around the higher areas of a level, dodging fire, moving quickly, setting up hit and run attacks, and even can be used in “skyline strike” attacks where you target someone below for a devastating drop down attack. This new gameplay feature is important because it lends a lot of speed and verticality to the action in the game. It also ties the action to the setting in a very concrete way. It is probably the most notable and entertaining new feature that separates this game from previous installments in the Bioshock franchise. Columbia is the star of the show and that’s largely due to the use of the Skylines.

Another notable variable is Elizabeth, the girl you’re tasked to retrieve to wipe away your debt at the game’s outset. This girl is more than a typical damsel in distress, however. Much of the game consists of having her at your side and she is a powerful ally. She has the ability to create tears in reality which open up doors to  alternate dimensions. The narrative implications of this ability are vast, but the gameplay implications are also interesting. You can call on Elizabeth to basically create things that aren’t originally there in order to aid you in your battles. She’ll create cover, robotic allies, hooks that allow you to reach new areas, and she can even spawn new weapons and resources. Additionally, Elizabeth will also aid you in your scrounging, occasionally giving you money, health, ammo, or salts, as needed. She also will pick locks for you if you are carrying the necessary number of lock-picks to pick whatever lock you want Elizabeth to open. On lower difficulty settings, Elizabeth almost makes the game too easy, as it seems she’ll give you whatever you need when you need it.

To combat all the powers and resources available to you and Elizabeth, Irrational has cooked up some formidable enemies for you to face. Standard human enemies aren’t too imposing, but once they get some armor and a rocket launcher, they become a problem. Enemies with sniper rifles can kill you in two quick shots no matter how well upgraded your health and shields are.

Motorized Patriots, the much publicized crank- gun- wielding robotic enemies, are difficult to face head on, but a little bit of lateral thinking should make them not terribly difficult to dispatch.

The Handyman, Infinite’s version of the Big Daddy, is another matter altogether. This cyborg enemy-type will doggedly chase you down and pummel you at close quarters.  Attempting to escape them on the sky rails is often a bad idea because the Handyman has the ability to electrify the rails, damaging anyone on them. You must aim at their exposed heart to take them down quickly, but good luck doing that while one is baring down on you. I had my best results staying far from them and getting in some pot shots with a sniper rifle before the angry beast could locate me. In one instance, a Handyman thankfully glitched and kept walking into a corner where he was easy pickings for my cowardly long range attacks. The Handyman is nowhere near as interesting thematically or functionally as the Big Daddies were. They simply lack the variety in attacks and mystique that the Big Daddies in the original Bioshock had in spades. Handymen are one of the biggest missteps in the game. The plight of a former human who is weaponized in a strange suit is too familiar to Bioshock fans to be shocking or interesting at this point and fighting them is a more of a chore than a fun challenge. They are the top tier of the game’s enemies, however, as songbird, Elizabeth’s giant mechanical guardian, is sadly never faced in a battle in the game.

While we’re talking about some of the game’s minimal flaws, I must mention that the game’s FPS controls are a little stiff, much like the original Bioshock. I recommend increasing the look sensitivity to much higher than the default setting. Despite these small problems, the gameplay is fun, varied, and does a good job at promoting exploration while advancing plot and pacing the action in an entertaining way.

But the real star of Infinite is its story. This is where we go back into the games as art and Levine as an auteur discussion. The game starts out with obvious allusions to the original Biochock. There’s always a lighthouse, a man, and a city. These are constants. But we all know that there will be twists in the game’s story, and Infinite delivers there as well. Those familiar with Levine’s work in Bioshock will predict a twist or two in the narrative, but the layers of revelations that are made by the end of Infinite are so deep, I defy anyone to say that they predicted everything.  I won’t spoil anything here but suffice it so say that like the original Bioshock the relationships and identities of the main characters are not what they originally seem. The game’s opening objective of saving the girl to wipe away your debt is not exactly the most important thing on your mind by the game’s end.

 

The story is deep, engaging, and chock full of foreshadowing and allusions. The motifs of baptism, rebirth, drowning, and constants and variables show up all over the game.  A second play-through and searching for all the voxophones (Infinite’s version of the audio logs from Rapture) will further deepen the rabbit hole that is the story for those who wish to fully explore it.  On the surface the game is about the dangers of patriotism and religion when taken to extremes, but in the end the game is more about fate and theories of infinite possible universes tethered together by meta-universal constants. You’re going to want to have your geeky-sci fi thinking cap on for this one.

It is implied through allusions and the multiple universes with constants and variables motif that Bioshock Infinite is another version of the same story that is in the original Bioshock. It is intriguing and self-referential to make a thematic reason for a sequel like this to exist and have similar narrative and functional components. It also could be a clever justification for sticking to an established formula. That is why the theme of constants and variables can be applied within the game’s fiction and applied to the game itself as an entry in a series.  In some instances it seems Infinite plays it safe with its constants, but it is imitating one of the best reviewed games of all time. The variables introduced in Infinite are almost all welcome changes to the series and after having finished the game, once you process what the ending means, you can’t help but want to play it some more. It feels wrong to call this game a simple sequel to Bioshock. Ken Levine didn’t have a second game-child, he had a similar child in an alternate universe. Bioshock Infinite is a re-imagining of one of the greatest games ever. There are some constants that could have changed more like stiff shooting controls and familiar powers. Some of the variables are also not completely positive changes, such as the Handymen and the loss of that horror aesthetic. Yet Columbia is still a worthy successor to Rapture. What’s one thing that is undeniably a constant and not a variable in Bioshock games? Quality.

AYCG SCORE 9 out of 10

 

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