You got trouble, my friends, right here in River City. That’s Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with C and that stands for Columbia (with due apologies to Meredith Wilson). It’s the summer of 1912. To place things into historical perspective, the Republic of China is now about 7 months old, World War I is still a bit more than two years off, New Mexico and Arizona are brand new states (47th and 48th, respectively), Robert Scott has reached the South Pole, the first Japanese cherry trees were just planted in Washington, the world is still shocked over the sinking of the Titanic, the first issue of Pravda is published, and “Tarzan of the Apes” is still a couple of months away. This is also the year in which Meredith Wilson’s musical, “The Music Man”, is set (for those who keep track of such things).
Ken Levine and the folks at Irrational Games have produced another great game. It is Bioshock through and through. Fans of the first game will likely love it and gamers who never played the original are in for a treat. Here’s the short version (out of 10):
In no particular order, here is the long version:
I can’t say that the sound blew me away, but the music is generally very good to outstanding, depending on what you’re looking at. The period tone of the music is exceptionally well done. I would have liked to have heard a bit more ragtime or barbershop than I did, but I realize that the game isn’t a jukebox (a selective coin-operated player won’t be patented until 1918, btw). The music hovers in the background without necessarily drawing attention to itself unless you’re actively listening to it. In those instances, it’s perhaps a bit too faint and I have the music slider maxed. In periods of action, it’s maintains the emotion of the moment while being almost unnoticeable, which is as it should be.
In order to keep from disturbing the rest of the house, I try to keep the sound down to a reasonable level (yes, I have headphones, but they’re a pain), so I turn down the effects and leave dialog maxed. But to make sure that I don’t miss anything, I always run with subtitles turned on. There are way too many instances where the subtitles and the sound are a few seconds out of sync, making it very difficult to keep track of who is saying what. There are no subtitles for the audio recordings and Elizabeth (more on her in a bit) has the most annoying habit of doing scripted dialogue while those recordings are playing, so you’re trying to listen to one thing and read another at the same time. These are scripting things that could have (should have?) been addressed pre-release as they do detract from the game.
Voicing is very well done with major kudos to the audio folks and the voice talent. The dialogue comes across a bit flat in a few places, but the fact that it’s noticeable is a good indicator of the quality of the rest. Very well done when taken as a whole and those few flat spots are just a here-and-there kind of thing rather than whole segments of the game.
I’m not a big fan of giving voice to the player as it kind of forces the character into the developers’ mold rather than the player’s concept, but in this case it worked very well. It’s a matter of personal taste more than anything else, but DeWitt comes across exactly as he should. My only complaint in this area is that he has an annoying tendency to state the obvious. Yes, I know I should go over there to do something, but I’m busy doing something else at the moment, so would you shut up already?
I’m in awe of the art team. The city of Columbia is astonishingly detailed. Yes, there are lots of static objects that get used, reused, abused and the like. What video games don’t suffer from this? But the buildings look like they belong, the walkways and streets are completely in keeping with the rest of the setting. Stores, offices and interior spaces are very attractively done. It really feels like you have stepped back 100 years in time. There are occasional texture gaps where it’s kind of obvious that there is nothing (literally) back there and there are a few places that were not navmeshed very well, but these are all momentary immersion-breakers rather than glaring gaps. You’ll be wanting to explore every nook and cranny of Columbia just to see what the design team put out there.
Aside from the occasional reflection, you won’t see much of Booker DeWitt except for his hands. I’m of mixed mind on the lack of third-person perspective. Forcing you to stay in first-person keeps you focused on your actions and the environment in which you are operating and is generally more immersive than working in third person. There are also technical issues with flip-flopping between perspectives, so I’m going to go along with the developers’ picking one and sticking with it. It works and is consistent, so I’m good with it. The only oddball thing is the bandage on his right hand. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. It fits well with the story, but it suffers from some serious continuity issues as you go along.
Non-story NPCs are also well done. Their animations are smooth and natural. Skinning and costuming are very good. In comparison to story NPCs, they come across as a bit more cartoonish, but I’m fairly sure this was a compromise between budget and design. It’s nothing glaring and swarms of mobs are swarms of mobs, regardless of the game. Just don’t be expecting everyone you see to be hand-crafted.
Elizabeth, however, is a different matter. To my eye, she’s way too much like a Disney Princess. She is very painstakingly done, so this was a conscious design decision. I’m not trying to second-guess the developers on this, but I did expect her to be more like the pre-release concept art and less like Ariel with dark hair. Her animations are smooth, graceful and entirely in keeping with her character. She has a definite personality that is exceptionally well conveyed through the art and animation. Her clothing develops rips, tears, snags and picks up dirt and grime as you go and this stays with her. By the time you get to the end of the game, she has definitely been through the mill. This kind of attention to continuity is exceptionally rare with NPCs. In spite of that Disney look and a kind of prancing animation that gets a little old by the late game, she will be one of the most memorable NPCs you’ll come across.
Overall, gameplay is very well done and is true Bioshock from start to finish. Unlike many corridor-type shooters (and Bioshock Infinite is one, just with bigger corridors) your action and movement take place in three dimensions (when Skylines are available) and malleable (thanks to Elizabeth’s ability to add elements such as cover or automated allies, like turrets. You’ll need to be using both your weapons and your vigors (the Infinite equivalent of plasmids), so learn to use them. Vigors are upgradeable, so it wouldn’t hurt to specialize a bit, and is probably required if you play through in “1999 Mode”, which unlocks after you complete one play-through of the game.
There were several things that I found completely annoying in my first game, hence the 8.5 score for gameplay. The first has to do with the malleability of the environment. You can see the things that Elizabeth can bring in for you, which is nice, but their incessant encroaching into your field of view is downright distracting. Yes, I know I can ask her to bring in some cover over there, but would you please stop telling me that and let me deal with the fellow who is trying to shove a shotgun down my throat? It’s not that I think the feature is bad, because I don’t. My problem is the constant “in your face” way in which the game lets you know that the option is available. It needs to be toned down.
I did run into a few issues with NPCs clipping through static objects. Perhaps “clipping” isn’t the right word. It’s more like they occasionally don’t recognize that it’s there and just run right through it. Two examples with no major spoilers should adequately illustrate it. In your first visit to Finktown, you’ll come across the entrance to Shantytown, which will be unavailable for a little while. To keep you out, the developers placed some cargo crates inside the door. When I first opened them, Elizabeth ran through the crates to the other side, apparently realized she wasn’t supposed to do that and quickly came back through them. In another area, an NPC ran through a dining room table. In and of itself, it was no big deal, but I was chasing him at the time, so he had time to turn around and get off a couple of shots while I was trying to figure out how to get around the table to get to him.
On the subject of Elizabeth, she will generally want to stay in front of you. There are times, however, when her dialogue will say something to the effect of “you go ahead. I’ll wait down here.” Fine. I’m just exploring anyway. Two seconds later, she’s standing where she wasn’t and I’m left scratching my head and trying to figure out how she did that. Or I go through a doorway knowing that she’s right behind me only to find her in front of me on the other side of the door. Yes, she apparently teleports around and almost got shot a few times because of it. On the bright side, though, she will be the easiest NPC to escort that you have ever come across. Except for a couple of scripted sequences (where she isn’t in any danger, anyway), enemies just ignore her.
She tries to be helpful by offering you ammo, health and salts during battles. Helpful, but occasionally distracting. For example, she’ll sometimes offer you health when you’re down to about half. In and of itself, it’s no big deal, but if I already know where to pick up some health and what I really need is ammo, she won’t offer ammo until I’m either back up above half or have taken her offer. The rest of the time she’s very good about tossing money your way. I’m still not sure if this is something she just conjured up or something that I overlooked.
She will also point out loot that you might want to take a look at. However she isn’t real clear on just where that loot might be. “Oh, look. There’s a lockpick over there.” Huh? Where is “over there”? She doesn’t know when you’re carrying a full load of them, so points them out regardless. It took me about two-thirds of the game to realize that a 3-digit lockpick counter didn’t mean I got to carry three digits worth of lockpicks. I’m still not sure whether a few lockpicks that I couldn’t pick up were because my inventory was already full or whether they weren’t lootable. I suspect the former since I didn’t run into that issue with anything else.
Another issue was weapon upgrades. In the original Bioshock, you got to carry several weapons, which were not droppable. You could add a couple of upgrades to each of them, but upgrade stations were limited in number and one-shot deals. In Bioshock Infinite, you can only carry two weapons, so you’ll be swapping them out frequently. You can also add several upgrades to each. The upgrade stations are plentiful and can be used multiple times. I ended up running most of the game with a fully tricked-out machine gun and sniper rifle before I realized that dropping a weapon did not mean that I would lose the upgrades. I think the game could have been a bit more clear on that point from the outset.
There are occasional run-ins with heavy hitters. I’m not sure whether to call these “boss fights” or not, but they were punishingly brutal and serve to illustrate another problem: death is meaningless. Like Bioshock, where you reappeared in the last Vita-Chamber you passed, dying in Columbia means you’re automatically brought back to life, minus some health and salts and a few coins. Since the game runs on a checkpoint save system, this kind of makes sense,but I would have rather seen bona fide game saves and death being a “reload or quit?” situation. This may be a holdover from the console development, but it doesn’t make much sense on a PC.
All in all, though, the gameplay was great and very smooth. I experienced exactly zero crashes (quite an achievement for a just-released game these days), although I did make sure that I updated my graphics drivers to the latest version before starting. There were a few points where there was some significant lagging and the fans on my graphics cards (dual GeForce 550Ti) sounded like an airport runway most of the time, so this is not a game for a low-end machine, at least not at a good level of detail.
Story and Replay
The storyline is very good. DeWitt and Elizabeth quickly establish themselves as very memorable and relatable characters. You’ll find yourself caring about both of them and also caring about some of the side characters. For others, you’ll care about them, but only to the extent of wanting to do a little percussive maintenance on their skulls (yeah, an 8-pound hammer ought to be about right). In many ways, the story is one of discovery rather than accomplishment and it works very well on many levels.
The story itself is very linear. This is not my favorite way of running a game, but I can live with it. With that in mind, you’re just going to proceed from objective to objective with little else to distract you from the story being told. There are a few side quests along the way, but they’re almost all of the type where you found a container that you can’t open and need to find whatever it is that opens it. In other cases you found the key, but need to find the container. Minor diversions along the story’s highway rather than true side-quests.
Those who have read certain sci-fi or fantasy books (which shall go unnamed lest I inadvertently spoil the story) and/or those who are at least passingly familiar with some of the weirder implications of Feynman diagrams will see the ending coming from a mile off. The issue is not with what is told, but what is not told, which neatly leads to my only major problem with the story.
My biggest complaint about the story is that the ending involves a lot of exposition. This was Ken Levine’s choice as the main writer and I’m not going to fault him (much) for it. He did an outstanding job of building his backstory, establishing the story line and he stuck to it masterfully. Although the setting will be mostly familiar, certain elements of the backstory could not be filled in until the end or else there wouldn’t have been much of a surprise to it.
So Ken chose to dribble out bits and pieces of of that backstory (it keeps you looking for those Voxphones), but left out certain pieces of critical information which would have tied it all together prematurely. I understand what he was trying to do and admire the way in which he pulled it off. But, as with most things, it involves a trade-0ff. In this case, lots of exposition during the dénouement. So take that 9 rating for the story as more of an indicator of a subjective preference than any objective failings. The story is very engaging and you’ll love the way the characters tell it.
There will be lots of unanswered questions by the time you get to the end, but nothing major and (mercifully) no “pick your favorite color” Starchild. While Bioshock Infinite does not have the potential to suck up 1000+ hours of your life (my first run-through took 19 hours with lots of exploring), I can just about guarantee that if you’ve been paying attention to the story, there will be enough unanswered questions that you’ll be firing up a new game almost as soon as you’re done with the first one.
Bioshock Infinite more than lives up to the standard established by the original. For fans of first-person shooters, this will be a game that you’ll want to add to your collection and it’s a game that you’ll fondly remember long after you finish it (for the second or third or fourth time).