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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

[Review] Bioshock: Infinite or Biocrock: Infantile? Part 1

I plan on splitting this review into two segments; the first, today's, is intended to be the "spoiler free" review. I define "spoiler" as something you wouldn't get from the marketing material or within the first 5 or so minutes of the game (and even then, only if it is obvious or innocuous and not story breaking). Because of that, I'll focus more on the gameplay and mechanics than the storyline today...which, I admit, for a game with "Bioshock" in its title is kind of like going to a fancy restaurant and then reviewing the silverware and dinner rolls. If you want my more detailed analysis of the story and how well Bioshock Infinite holds up to to its vaunted name; stay tuned for the spoilerific version...sadly, a review of that side of the game is woefully incomplete without revealing those details. Last note, I will be including a few screenshots, but I have endeavored to keep them in line with my aforementioned policy.

Starting Thoughts

I'll begin at the end of my review, the question of whether the game is good or not. Generally speaking yes, but it is not the second coming of gaming. Does it deserve the 96 metascore? I am not so certain.
They had me at "Giant Golden Angel"
Bioshock Infinite is one of those games that is a challenge to review; I've heard plenty of game critics and fans claim that the game should be solely reviewed on its own merits...but I don't buy that here. Putting the name "Bioshock" was a calculated choice by the developer; just as Nike chooses to put its swoosh on a shoe, or Halo is put on a Halo game. By adding that title, the developer is telling me to expect certain things. Now I will still examine the elements of the game on their own, but I will always be looking back at its predecessors.

Gameplay

The gameplay is what I would expect from the successor to Bioshock; typical FPS controls and interaction with the world. Story is once again told through audio-journals one finds throughout the world, and one often rummages through the trash for money and cake.
Nothing's as delicious as trash-food!
Suffice to say, so far as surface gameplay, the game is virtually identical to Bioshock 1 and 2. You explore and mass-murder in semi-open areas in areas that tend to be semi-thematic. However, the checkpoint system and lack of a player-initiated save option became giant foam-fingers pointing at "This is a console port!" in the back of my mind. I am the type of person who likes to have plenty of save files so I can go back to sections I enjoyed and replay them...can't really do that in Infinite. I get that Irrational Games wants as wide an audience as they can get, but perhaps part of Bioshock's success was that it started on PC then moved to Console, rather than the other way around.

Weapons

In terms of weapons, the game takes a step forward, then a few back. The variety of weapons has grown to ten and they are varied enough to allow a player to pick their favorites and stick with them. The devil is in the details though; unlike 1 and 2, you can only carry two weapons...another big foam finger pointing at "Console Port!" since it's a common feature of games like Halo. This would be all well and good in a world where you didn't spend your hard-earned Silver Eagles to upgrade weapons. Instead, as the game progresses I found I was dividing weapons into "classes" in my mind depending on whether I had upgraded them. Weapons I had put money into I grabbed, those I did not I completely ignored. On Hard difficulty, weapons you have not upgraded are not even worth looking at. I found that I was not weighing weapons based on my playstyle, I was weighing them on how much damage per ammo cap you could do...ironically, this puts the pistol, the first projectile weapon found, as one of the most effective in the game.
One of the only weapons you ever need.
Irrational also chose to remove the aesthetic changes that occurred when a weapon was upgraded in Bioshock 1 and 2. Now they might explain this on the grounds that in Infinite you are not attached to your weapons; you are supposed to pick up and drop them more frequently. However as someone with a fancy for the art and technical aspects, I was looking forward to seeing steampunk-esque upgrades to my equipment, and was disappointed that by the end of the game my weapons still looked as they did at the outset.

Thus, two design choices seem to be at odds...upgrades make me want to be attached to my weapons, but high enemy health (see below) and vastly disproportionate damage-per-full-ammo amounts on weapons meant that I was reluctant to constantly be tossing away empty weapons in favor of new ones. On Normal difficulty this could be done with reluctance, on Hard it was painful, and on 1999 mode I doubt it's even worth considering. Furthermore, the upgrades themselves were generally uninteresting and usually consisted of: damage, damage, clip size, recoil. Once again I had hoped to see upgrading guns be more interesting like in Bioshock 2 by giving them special effects or having special ammo types.

Some argue that the weapons overlap too much; an example being the Machine Gun, Repeater, Burst Rifle, and Crank Gun all fit the same general "Rapid Fire Rifle" category. However each does function in a different enough way to be interesting, allowing a player to weigh strengths and weaknesses as appropriate. I personally enjoy having these variant options.

Lastly; I was disappointed that the "melee" build tends to become too weak later on in the game. The Skyhook loses its punch about halfway through the game and has to be supported by powers to function. I miss this mainly because in Bioshock you had the "Wrench" built, and in Bioshock 2 the Drill was viable all the way to the end of the game.

Officer Muttonchops suddenly regretted his career choice
The melee executes were a nice inclusion, but the icon that signifies your ability to do one is very hard to see and fleeting. It would have helped if it appeared at the edge of your screen to indicate enemies off, because melee often makes it hard to see above the enemy's head, where the icon appears. When you do pull them off however, they are strangely grotesque but satisfying.

Powers

The powers have improved to some degree; all eight of them are interesting and complement most potential playstyles...but some of them are found so late into the game that by then you've already changed your play to accommodate the lack. Generally speaking the powers are good; but I do miss Telekinesis. However, some of them are a little overpowered compared to each other. I could easily complete the game using only Murder of Crows...on my first playthrough, once I got MoC, I never used anything else. However, part of being in Bioshock is being a little overpowered, and the other powers have potential if used properly. Though the secondary mode of most powers was a "Creates a trap!" which while fun, made several of them blur together in my mind, and what could have been engaging "traps" ended up becoming rather boring. Shock Jockey could have created zapping walls the player drew, but instead just involved throwing out a small area of electricity.
This is how Murder of Crows makes you feel...but with Crows, not Bees...
The passive plasmids are replaced with "Gear" which are basically clothes you can wear. I found them to be of mixed interest...you get them at random intervals and it seems to be semi-random which gear you get (still confirming this with another playthrough). The problem is that they are more esoteric than those in previous games. I miss Chameleon, despite it being hilariously OP, because it made certain builds work. It's not a terrible system, but it's nothing I would write home about.

Health System

The original iterations used a simple health bar supplemented by hotkey first aid kits; and frankly back around release this mechanic did alright, but was beginning to show its age. In the modern gaming era, such thing would be almost archaic. However, regenerating health bars are also starting to make me weary. Infinite strikes a nice balance between the two by providing the player early on with a shield that recharges. When broken you take health damage; which can only be healed by finding health kits or food. This strikes a nice balance between the two potential health systems.

However, at times it did feel like death came rather sudden and unexpectedly, which is something few games get truly perfect. Some, like Hawken, give the impression that you are "about to die" too early, while others, like Infinite, give it too late. It comes too late because the amount of damage to bring you from "You're in trouble" health (complete with red screen edges) to "You're dead" is relatively small and goes FAST.

It also struck me strange that enemies did not have the shield; despite them apparently lying around Columbia. It's not a huge issue, but it did shake my immersion at times.

Enemies

This is another place where Irrational took a step forward, then two backwards. There are about 10-12 different types of enemies (depending on how you categorize them), but sadly I ended up mentally categorizing them into three types: few hitpoints, lots of hitpoints, and Handyman. The smaller types of enemies are on par with Bioshock; while the high-highpoint ones appear so infrequently that it felt like 98% of my combat was spent fighting "People with guns or sticks". I found I missed Big Daddies and Adam Corpses because they presented unique strategic opportunities amidst the levels; I would find myself taking into account the Big Daddy as I was clearing the level, then meticulously planning my attack. I don't get that same satisfaction in Infinite, because the closest thing to a Big Daddy, the Handyman, shows up at scripted points and is aggressive from the start. Instead, most of the game is spent with me progressing through an area, killing everything inside as I explore, then proceeding to the next. I'll likely forget about much of that within a few months, while I can still recall the time I was killing splicers in a narrow hallway and a Big Daddy rounded the corner as I lobbed a grenade...which immediately made that skirmish a LOT more interesting. Lastly; the Handyman was a lot less satisfying than the Big Daddy was to fight; probably because the Handyman is extremely agile and any encounter I had with them usually involved a lot of flat-out running away and occasional shooting; while fighting Big Daddies was about waiting for his openings and exploiting them.

In addition, there are some notable "jumps" in the difficulty, especially on higher difficulties, that can be jarring. As a friend of mine lamented; a specific boss fight later in the game makes it feel as though the difficulty was very sharply ramped up.

AI Partner

I promised to try and avoid spoilers, but if you don't know of this by now, you've been living under a rock. Alas I will try to respect my promise by being vague...so at some point in the game, you get an AI partner that will hang out with you for much of it. Initial fears by critics was that this would turn the entire game into a giant escort quest...which are so fondly remembered by most gamers. Thankfully, those fears were unfounded, and this is one place that the game shines. While your partner does not engage in combat at all, it will supply you occasionally with ammo, health and salts (mana/EVE). The interactions with your AI partner are amazing, and many times I found I would just stop and watch to see what it would do. I never once felt like I was stuck in an escort quest, and instead I had someone accompanying me. It never got stuck, and while Irrational "cheated" in many ways to smooth things over (your partner will occasionally teleport when off-screen to be with you) they never became so obvious as to offend. Your partner will even interact with environments and feed you lore. Finally, your partner is also one of the most interesting NPCs I have met in a game in a LONG time.

This is one place that Infinite SHINES. Yet, this would not be a review without some criticism. When first announced, they made it sound like the interaction between player and partner would be more pronounced in combat; in the form of the two using powers in tandem for greater effect. While this was not necessary a lie, the amount it actually plays in combat is much lower than initially suggested.

Setting and Mood

This is hard to discuss without spoilers, but suffice to say, this is another area in which the game shines. The very zones convey the mood the player should be feeling. The music is wonderful and perfectly tailored to where you hear it....whether its a soft religious hymn, a carefree barbershop quartet in sunny streets, or sharp violins punctuating the end of combat...and that's all within the first few minutes. Lighting, color, set pieces...I constantly felt like these places could exist (albeit in a weird reflection of the world).
Columbees? Columbia Quartet? I just want their hats.
Infinite certainly is less eerie overall than its predecessors (at least mostly), but it conveys through setting exactly what the player might feel. Like with the AI Partner, there were times I just stopped and let myself immerse in my surroundings. This is not without its flaws, but to discuss them would be to violate my spoiler policy; so take my word that overall the setting is good, but has some drawbacks.
Welcome to Utah Columbia!
Final Verdict

So the big question is whether this game deserves its 96 metacritic score. No, not it does not. Let me put it this way: Bioshock Infinite is a good game, but it is not a good Bioshock game. If I had to give it a metascore it would still be in the high 80's or low 90's, but to deserve a 96, it would have needed to take everything it's predecessors did and do it better. Really though, this part is hard to fill out without giving more information...so you'll need take me on what I've presented so far. Do not let the number of criticisms dissuade you, the game is still fantastic. However, I would recommend instead waiting for it to go on its first steam sale before grabbing it.

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