Warning: This review contains major spoilers for the ending of BioShock Infinite.
The world of BioShock Infinite is rarely subtle. In shifting the type of exploratory activities from archaeology to anthropology – thanks to the floating city of Columbia being populated with live, less-crazy humans – the environmental storytelling which prior Shock games and all other immersive first-person titles accomplished so well doesn’t shift accordingly in Infinite. It offers not a study of human beings in action, but a study of human beings’ depictions of themselves in action. Essentially, it’s still a kind of archaeology, just with a new context. The sights and discoveries that Columbia offers are artificial: commanding statues, imposing busts, mechanical caricatures of “impure” races. Where Rapture was built upon an inclusive society – so long as one followed their philosophy – Columbia is excessively exclusive, and exploring it is akin to suffocating in a malodorous mixture of racism and religious zeal. What is accomplished with subtlety are a few references sprinkled throughout the journey that nod toward the final twist; self-serving winks which change context with a second playthrough. And those performances by barbershop quartet, The A Nachronisms.
Back to the less subtle aspects, such as everyone seemingly okay with the existence of plasmids. Sorry – I meant vigours. They feel completely out of place in Infinite. Where the original BioShock was all about crazy gene splicing because, hey, The Man ain’t here to stop us, the existence of similar grotesque powers in Infinite should be a big deal. But they’re just there, barely integrated into the story or the world itself. No one seems to mind.
But, look, they facilitate combat, so I guess we’ll roll with it. Someone seems to have brought some modern shooter conveniences back from another reality, too, as Infinite restricts Booker DeWitt to two weapons and gives him a recharging shield with an annoyingly intrusive screen shatter effect. Combined with the game’s new encounter design, this completely changes the kind of combat on offer. Where BioShock asked you to prepare for battle with a small handful of enemies, Infinite demands you improvise whilst slogging through much larger groups of foes.
The mechanics don’t really facilitate such improvisation until the final third of game, when Booker’s vigour selection and upgrades combine to create chain effects and dazzling combos, and the sky rails become more prominent. At this peak, Infinite’s combat is a brilliant dance intercut with tactical rollercoaster rides which serve to add a new and breathtaking dimension to the speed and positioning aspects of systemic combat. You have never done this in a first-person shooter before.
But getting to this point in Infinite is a trying task; you will come to resent the amount of combat present before you reach the moment where it gets truly fun. You’ll even need to wade through closed arenas with waves of respawning enemies. I actually possessed one enemy at the end of a wave to help fight in the next one, but the next wave didn’t trigger until the possession effect had worn off my new friend and he had killed himself as a result of its dissipation. Ugh. These stupid, arbitrary rules don’t belong in BioShock.
You will come to resent the amount of combat present before you reach the moment where it gets truly fun
Elizabeth’s powers are far reduced in the final game from Irrational’s initial lofty goals. No longer summoning storms or other effects to enhance Booker’s vigours, she now opens tears in specific points of the level to bring into reality new pieces of geometry, medkits, or allied turrets. It’s quite tame in action, though still offers an additional layer of rather specific combat options. More useful, however, is Elizabeth’s ability to pull a grenade launcher out of her arse and peg it to Booker from across the map. In some ways, she fulfils the role of the otherwise-excised combat consumable, though her unreliability is yet another aspect that pushes players toward thinking on their toes.
Still, I wish Elizabeth could open a tear to a reality where the difficulty level was somewhere between “Normal” and “Hard”. The former is too easy, whilst the latter requires more tactical thought but ultimately resorts to turning enemies into bullet sponges who don’t even react when getting shot in the head. The ability to tactically exploit vigour combinations is rendered moot by a conservative mana (AKA “Salts”) bar that will drain before you manage to crowd control the larger enemy numbers. Increasing your Salts capacity with the Infusion tonics found throughout Columbia at the expense of increasing shield capacity seriously jeopardises survivability, especially when a Handy Man enters the fray. And on top of all this, there’s close to no significant penalty for death in terms of time or resources, so there’s basically no tension. Infinite is not exactly a well-balanced singleplayer shooter. This is disappointing, because the systems here are so goddamn cool that, with a little tweaking, Infinite could offer some of the most satisfying weapon, power and environment interplay in years.
It often feels quite disconnected from the story, though, which is already fiddly to begin with. But the first problem with the narrative occurs immediately. A title card displaying a quote from one of Lutece’s books reads “The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist…”. It’s an immediate and desperate attempt to plug the plot hole that would have had Booker (but not the player) remembering everything that happened prior to entering the lighthouse. Though the game’s concept of false memories is briefly explored further whilst messing with alternate versions of Chen Lin, it is a crutch around which the entire plot delivery hinges on. And that’s how desperate attempts to plug plot holes work: the earlier you work it into the fiction, the more likely the audience is to accept it. Far better handled is the manner in which Infinite hints at Booker’s status as an outsider to the game’s dimension with regular nosebleeds. They tease at something. They make you curious. It’s that subtlety we were talking about earlier. They don’t hit you in the face with a rule that you need to accept.
The entire thing is structured around the reveal of a twist
And this speaks to the second, and most significant, issue with Infinite’s story. The entire thing is structured around the reveal of a twist. Anything that does not serve this twist is excised, explained away or forgotten about. The final confrontation with Comstock himself is telling; though he tried and failed to send entire armies to stop Booker, it’s only now – right at the end of the game – that he realised he could have just told Elizabeth about her origin as Booker’s daughter, and Booker being an alternate version of himself. Something that would have taken less than a minute.
Of course, that would not facilitate a dramatic reveal. Though Infinite’s twist is possessed of a genuinely dramatic delivery, it’s when reflecting upon the entire plot with full context that everything starts to fizzle. The first BioShock’s ‘Would you kindly?’ moment worked both in context and as a kind of subversive dig at the nature of gaming linearity. Here, the twist requires us to swallow too many contrived conveniences that exist only to set up this reveal. Is this really what BioShock is about? Plot twists? Has Ken Levine made himself the Damon Lindelof of videogames? Whilst much of the smaller or standalone moments in Infinite are well-written and accompanied by pitch-perfect voice acting and animation, the big picture stuff is all-too-often problematic, with a return to Rapture more self-indulgent than mind-blowing.
This isn’t helped by the third issue, which concerns the amount of information made available to the player, and the manner in which it is delivered. See, every piece of science fiction that dabbles into multiverses and all that wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff needs to define its own interpretation of how the ‘rules’ of travel between time and dimensions works. There’s a good chance such exposition can fall to tedium, which is why the film Looper delivered one of the best explanations in years: just shut up and enjoy the fucking movie.
Infinite gets no easy pass precisely because it is basing its entire plot delivery around its aforementioned twist that deeply depends upon players accepting the game’s own interpretation of the rules. Yet the rules are treated as incidental, with absolutely critical information concerning them sometimes relegated to out-of-the-way audio logs. Do not mistake this for subtlety. Stumbling into the Lutece’s house and discovering the original tear machine – the actual source of Elizabeth’s powers – elicits no comment from her and barely a word from Booker. This stuff is so much more interesting than protracted shootouts with the ghost of Elizabeth’s dead not-mother, and its presentation betrays the kind of ‘show, don’t tell’ philosophy which immersive first-person games usually adhere to so well.
Then there are the rules which aren’t given definite behaviours at all. The haziness of Elizabeth’s powers after destroying the Siphon (a building-sized machine that still dampens her powers even when she’s not in the building, for some reason, is it wireless?) further complicates the dramatic impact of the ending. If Elizabeth is fixated on ridding Comstock from the million variant universes she now has access to, what good would drowning one variation of Booker in one universe have? The answer: Oh, it’s an umbrella universe of some kind; a place where all other universes are suddenly affected.
Look, Elizabeth’s rise to what can only be described as Infinite’s interpretation of a god is a fascinating idea for a story. But the Luteces are the real gods here; where Elizabeth only gains omniscience, the ability to see what’s ‘behind every door’, Rosalind and Robert are also possessed of omnipresence right from the game’s opening. As much as Infinite exploits Elizabeth to play upon the player’s pathos, it’s the Luteces who are far more interesting, more important, and far better-written than anyone else in the game. And they work better because they have a clear consistent set of rules – that omniscience, and omnipresence – which they adhere to. That might sound too broad to really work as a set of rules, but that’s the point – these people are gods, and they are having fun with it.
So if the Luteces are gods, what is Elizabeth? Part Disney princess, part vending machine in a corset. Her interactions with the world outside of key scripted sequence are rather minimal. But it doesn’t matter about that – we implicitly accept the limited actions of companion NPCs when playing games like this. It’s when they do react, when they do vocalise, that is important. And it only takes one small thing to break the illusion. Here, it’s Elizabeth’s cheerful tones and sarcastic remarks when asked to pick a lock after being completely traumatised in many of those scripted sequences which shatters the idea of her not only as a human being, but even just as an NPC with consistent emotional reactions. Look, lady, just throw me some Salts, would you? I’m running low again.