Monday, April 1, 2013

BioShock Infinite – Washed in the blood of the lamb

I will try to keep this review of the game as spoiler free as possible, but there may be plot points divulged that may take away from the surprises so if you want to enter this untouched I’ll say in short this is a game that must be played.  Now for the longer version, if you have ever studied quantum physics or read any Robert Heinlein books like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, or The Number of the Beast you’ll be familiar with the literary conceit used to drive the story of BioShock Infinite forward.  BioShock like Assasin’s Creed has taken core scientific and philosophical facts and reshaped them in to marvelous fiction, where Assasin’s Creed makes a J.J. Abrams bombast BioShock creates a more nuanced Nolanesque experience.  In this case, Quantum Mechanics (also known as Quantum Physics or Quantum Theory) started to coagulate in to the branch of physics today with Max Planck’s quantum hypothesis in 1900 and the philosophical interpretations by Niles Bohr regarding causality.  Quantum physics has long been a device in the sci-fi genre to allow for the use of alternate realities or dimensions.  In this case, we’re taking science and twisting it a touch to make it fit the reality and allow for a deep story and unlike Heinlein’s twisted time travel/dimension hopping stories of men going back in time to have sex with their mothers to get them pregnant with themselves, or uncomfortably sexually liberated family units traveling in flying cars we’re given something meatier and more compelling.

For the purposes of this review I’m going to break the content in to three sections, the first is technological focusing on the code behind the game’s visuals and sound, the second component will be mechanical discussing the gameplay elements, and the final component will be artistic and wrapped up with a summary concluding my thoughts on the work, given BioShock’s legacy and the importance people may place on the story that way you can skip the last portion if you’re afraid of spoilers (anything mentioned up until now can be gleaned from trailers so no need to apologize yet).

At the end of a console generation we are reaching the limits of hardware on the two consoles but that doesn’t prevent a compelling experience.  The visuals for the game, on all three platforms, are impressive.  It’s quite easy to make a game that’s full of shadows and darkness and imparts an emotional weight but when using light it is a much more difficult medium.  Like watercolours a lot of people paint in it, but few do it well.  The setting of Columbia as the city in the clouds means you will by necessity be creating a setting full of light and sunshine, the temptation is to just crank the bloom up to 100 and go from there but that wasn’t done here.  The use of light is handled amazingly, like BioShock the Irrational Games team relied on the workhorse Unreal Engine (this time the Unreal 3 engine) tweaking and modifying it. 

Due to its setting they went with a stylized design that gave them maximum flexibility.  There are far more realistic looking games even using the same engine but the fluidity and lighting effects would probably not have been possible if they had strived for that degree of visual detail.  The use of diffuse lighting, haze and the prudent use of bloom create a stunning and smooth running experience.  The water and lighting techniques are stunning compared to the first BioShock which in comparison looks flat but between platforms you can see truly see the differences, the lack of aliasing on the Xbox makes for a “jaggy” experience which is to be expected, the PlayStation 3 while better for the “jaggies” and has a more realistic lighting experience than the 360 neither can hold a candle to the atmospheric quality of the PC.  That all being said, not a one of them is so far to make it a bad experience on any platform, all three are visually compelling and hold their own.  With no multiplayer component it’s a safe bet to purchase this for your favourite platform of choice.

Now, the Mechanics are a different story.  The gameplay mechanics of BioShock and in this case BioShock Infinite’s spiritual grandparents System Shock and System Shock 2, System Shock 2’s complex and deep leveling system created an experience where you felt you had real control over your character and through this franchise an immersion in to the environment.  BioShock (the first) gave you plasmids and weapon customization but it felt like that depth from its predecessor was a mere puddle compared to the ocean of options available.  BioShock Infinite attempts to resolve this, while removing the hacking component which felt out of place in the Diselpunk world of BioShock and would seem even more ridiculous in the Steampunk setting of Columbia Elizabeth is used to take care of these chores but in its place Vigors (the Plasmids of this game) and guns are much more customizable than their predecessors in the first two BioShock games.  Given your ability swap between two vigors to create “Combo” effects it makes for an interesting and fun mechanic.  Though still lacking the depth of System Shock it’s still a fun experience and it’s recommended you spend those Silver Eagles to power up your abilities as soon as possible since they and your tweaked out guns will be needed.

The only real problem I found is one of accuracy, being primarily a PC gamer I’m used to the mouse and keyboard accuracy but even compared to other FPS games on the consoles BioShock has always been “drifty” and that’s still the case here, if you value accuracy not play on the consoles.  That being said the “snap aim” feature that’s a mainstay of modern console shooters is here.  For those unfamiliar, get nearly on target; click the “aim” button.  This will snap to iron sights or targeting scope and then quickly pop off your shot.  You have about a half second or so where you’ll be snapped to right on target, with a hand cannon properly supplemented this can mean a one shot kill.  Even with this help it's still very tricky especially when you're trying to use the "sky-lines" a series of roller coasters that you can skim along adding an interesting layer to combat. The good thing is, with Elizabeth scrounging for ammo in the background I rarely found myself in need.  Even in the most intense firefights I only needed to switch out weapons from my favourite pairings (hand cannon and shotgun for high power and room clearing capability or hand cannon and pistol for high power and rapid accurate fire).  You’ll find your magic combo but once I got my hands on that hand cannon I was pretty much set for the game.

On the topic of Elizabeth, thankfully there was mechanic built in where you were required to protect her.  She didn’t take damage and took care of herself, in fact during the heat of combat she will scour the battlefield and when you are running low on health, ammo or salts (the “mana” for your vigors) toss you a refill.  While this is great, and her ability to pick locks removes the annoying and distracting hacking elements it does also at times take some of the challenge out of the game.  Having played on Normal this may be less of an issue in harder play throughs or 1999 mode (the souped up super hard mode which from what I understand changes baseline health, ammo distribution and gives you less flexibility with your vigors so choose wisely).

Now, the story, as mentioned previously the BioShock series is known for its compelling source material.  In the first two stories you were dealing with Objectivism and Rand’s philosophical hypocrisy.  Interestingly the game was released at the same time as the rise of the Tea Party who make Rand their godhead.  This game on the other hand makes a study of American Exceptionalism, a political philosophy that places America as a “unique” country.  One of the first “modern” nations and due to its foundation on the basis of liberty and democracy places it in a role as an “evangelist” this is then tied to sibling philosophies of Manifest Destiny (the belief that America should “spread through the New World” and was the battle cry of the Jacksonian Democrats.  Combined with the Evangelical movement and it’s early days at the turn of the century it is a compelling back drop which also paints an ugly picture of those Jacksonian Democrats and the realities of the time, let’s just say if you were a Jew, Black, Asian or Irish Columbia would not have been a happy place for you.  The thing is, in 1912, these were the realities of the time.  You are Booker Dewitt, a veteran of the battle of Wounded Knee one of the more shameful chapters of American history.  You have fallen on bad times and you’re a man on a mission.  “Give us the girl, and wipe away the debt” is your mantra. 

It starts as a pretty straight forward “Recue the princess” plot… just you’re a gambling debt laden former Pinkerton detective/thug who’s trying to just get out from under whatever he’s under.  You find yourself in this Rockwell painting of a world but there’s puss under the surface of this shiny wound.  The Vox Populi are a workers movement, unlike the first BioShock which used Communism/Big Government as the boogieman Andrew Ryan was fighting Vox Populi are a group who’s goals seem noble enough.  Equality and fairness, but in fact are a segment of the Anarchist movement which was thriving and a major source of labour strife during the early part of the 20th century.  And this is where the BioShock games truly thrive; who could have thought a videogame could use American Exceptionalism, the Anarchist Movement, Quantum Physics, and Pinkerton detectives to tell a story let alone one with echos of current American politics in the same way the original BioShock.  This is what art and storytelling in gaming should strive towards, social commentary of a truly literate and meaningful way.

As the story unfolds, you build a rapport with Booker.  His running commentary gives us something we didn’t have in previous BioShock entries, a sense of character to our avatar.  Not just a running death machine that lets out a few grunts but someone we can sympathise with who doesn’t seem to quite know what he’s there for other than to get the girl and get to New York.  Soon after entering Columbia you notice it’s not like elsewhere in the world.  Vigors grant people exceptional power and upon meeting the young woman Elizabeth you find she has an even more exceptional power.  One to open “tears” in the fabric of space/time and if you pay attention to when you first meet her in combination with an earlier Barbershop song you’ll see one of the interesting clues, it’s almost like a Discworld gag about how some things just drift through the multiverse.  One of the first tears opened is to Paris, but a Paris with an interesting Cinema sign that any Star Wars fan worth their salts will immediately know is not quite right.

The story progresses with you and Elizabeth slowly forming a partnership, then a friendship, and finally a genuine affection for one another.  In a touching moment you even take the time to sing together if you pick up the guitar at the right time.  This makes her more than a plot element or a pet used to fetch health and bullets but a character you genuinely care for.  By the beginning of the third act I was truly desperate to save her, but I also was starting to see the patterns and I knew where this story was going but I had to continue it was that compelling because I wanted it to not be true.  Like the film 12 Monkeys I knew how this was going to end but I had to see it through to see if there would be some kind of last minute twist but mainly because I loved these characters so much I was there with them for the ride.  Whilst not as bleak as 12 Monkeys it’s pretty darn tragic at times and really has a gravitas few other games come close to.  The conclusion is a satisfying (if philosophically loaded) one that may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it was like a Joss Whedon story it’s one that the players need, not the one they want and for an industry that’s build on sequels it was a pretty ballsy decision for the development team to make in how they ended it..  That being said how they will fold in the pending DLC is beyond me.  Messing with this story at this point would seem disrespectful but the lucky thing is when it comes to the multiverse and quantum mechanics there are always more dimensions to explore.  Let’s just hope it shies away from the ridiculous Evil George Washington that Assasin’s Creed 3 went for and does something more meaningful.

In conclusion, visually compelling and while not the most mechanically sound this is a game worth
owning and even more importantly worth playing more than once.  There are layers plummed, there are echos of some of the finest sci-fi ever written with characters that are interesting and nuanced and you can even feel pity for and find yourself sympathising with people even as you hate them for what they’ve done.  Added to this are your own pair of cats who walk through walls, just of a very Cheshire nature a compelling mix of story, gameplay and art that makes every second a pleasure.  One recommendation though, when you do play it makes sure to sit through the credits.  There are more than a few treats to behold for the ear and the eye.  And any game where you get to watch a Gatling gun wielding robot Lincoln fight a Gatling gun wielding robot Washington is too cool for school.

~ Matt Ardill

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