02 April 2013

BioShock Infinite is a Masterpiece, But a Flawed One

NB: Spoilers Ahead

BioShock Infinite is a masterpiece. Yet it is not a without faults.

People have said they have been bowled over by it. It has a plethora of 10/10 scores on Metacritic. Without question Infinite is one of the finest games of this, perhaps any, generation. But by no means is it perfect.

No moment in the game swept me off my feet (either literally or figuratively) but it remains both highly admirable and utterly commendable in terms of what it was trying to do. There is no getting around it, at least for me, Infinite is a flawed gem.

As anyone who has played the game will be aware a moment a little past halfway through has you retrace your steps several times in a bid to find and permanently put to rest Elizabeth's mother. Somewhat earlier, players are also required to return to the same location, a gun shop, several times. At least with the gun shop each visit occurred after entering a tear and, as such, each visit was slightly different.

Games regularly perform this tactic of set replication, it's an effective cost cutting tool after all. Yet it fells particularly noticeable in Infinite, perhaps because of the limited nature of the path available, there are no sky lines here, no alternative routes. You pass through Columbia's financial district into the market district. Then you turn return to the Bank of the Prophet in the financial district and, yes, you guessed it, proceed through the market.

In a game such as Dishonoured, for example, when areas are repeated (beyond the Hounds Pits Pub which serves as the central hub area for the game) there is at least some time between revisits. This section of the game slows the narrative and seems an obvious, however understandable, attempt at recycling assets.

Then there are minor design oversights. Each time the game is loaded the tutorial messages display again when you pick up a new Gear for instance. Players have read the messages and most likely remember them, there's no need to show them more than once or twice.

Players may also have noticed the game has only one save file option. Now, there's a case to be made that this makes sense given the Infinite's universe and themes. Just read up on the no-cloning theorem of quantum mechanics, or don't. The point is it makes sense given what Irrational were exploring within the game.

However, this is an example of the developer putting the game universe ahead of the gameplay, or rather, in this case, the game design. Other examples of this include the airlock in Mass Effect, something which was bizarrely replicated when passing through security on the Citadel in Mass Effect 2 and the scanner by the war room in Mass Effect 3.

There are also the muskets in Assassin's Creed 3. Sure, they make sense given the game's historical setting but not in terms of actually playing the game, especially when Ezio was running around Venice two centuries earlier with a gun that could be loaded and fired faster.

These are instances of developers putting things which make sense in the narrative they've constructed and the world they're building, but generally not to the gamers who go on to play these games and come across these issues.

Booker is also limited in that he can only carry two weapons. Certainly vigors such as Bucking Bronco give the former Pendleton agent a distinct advantage but sooner or later Elizabeth will call out that she's found ammo when you've run low. Being able to carry more than two weapons would even the odds in some of the larger fights.

Infinite's good at giving you the weapons you need as you need them but sometimes you find yourself wishing you'd brought that sniper rifle you had to leave behind.

Here, Adrien Chmielarz, talks about Infinite's opening moments:

"BioShock Infinite's opening is confusing, I cannot spoil it for you because I have no idea what was going on. There was this guy, weird things in a lighthouse, and then I was in Columbia."

Chmielarz points to the fact that the Lutece siblings comment on which one should be rowing, and whether or not Booker should be as well. Yet there are only one set of oars. In retrospect, further clarity is shed on the brother and sister, and the nature of their existence, much later in the game. Yet at this point they, and everything that is occurring, is very much an enigma.

There's something to be said for a mystery. Lost is still exactly that. Yet it helps to have some inclination as to what is going on.

You may laugh off Chmielarz's arguments and argue Bulletstorm and BioShock are at two very different ends of the spectrum, and apart from being shooters they largely are, but that doesn't invalidate his views and they are well worth reading.

If I were to review Infinite I would give it a 9/10. It's a truly excellent game, but it's not gaming's messiah as some would seem to claim.

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