Warning: Spoilers for the BioShock series
Before I get into the real meat of my argument, I want to make something quite clear: I really like BioShock Infinite.
It is a good shooter that features lovely graphics and art design. Even by 2016 standards, BioShock Infinite is a stunner in motion. The title doesn’t always stick the landing with its heavy themes of nationalism, racism, and religion, but most games released by AAA publishers are frankly too cowardly to try. And when it does hit the right notes, the game is uniquely thought provoking.
The character of Elizabeth and the AI behind her are both incredible achievements. Both Elizabeth and protagonist Booker DeWitt are excellently realized and voice acted, which helps sell the mind bending, sometimes even moving plot. BioShock Infinite is a damn good video game and there are not enough big budget games out there like it.
Note: From this point forward I will refer to the first game as BioShock and BioShock Infinite as simply Infinite.
But BioShock is a great video game. Everything about it fits together perfectly, from the oppressive atmosphere of Rapture, to the first time you encounter a lumbering Big Daddy, to the takedown of Ayn Rand’s idea of utopia, to the startling “Would You Kindly” twist.
Initial critical consensus called Infinite a return to form after BioShock 2. This is odd to me, because BioShock 2 is actually really good, and Infinite makes a point of greatly reducing gameplay mechanics that made the first two games tick in favor of a pure action experience marketed to the masses. The name “BioShock” is only used because of its brand recogniton.
I mean, just look at the cover art:
And the game experienced a predictable critical backlash, a lot of it focused around its increased emphasis on moment to moment action. The original BioShock was a violent game, but the situation that the game world was in necessitated that violence. Infinite takes the action movie violence to a ridiculous degree, and the level of violence doesn’t match the story, which for all of its twists and turns, is a journey shared by two people and their relationship growing through it. And a quick Google search yields plenty of think pieces from fans and journalists that enjoy the game, but feel like the game can’t outrun the original’s shadow.
This game really isn’t trying to be BioShock, both to its credit and detriment. As a result, almost all of the criticism leveled at the game eventually ties into its relationship with the original.
The plot of the original BioShock revolves around side effects of genetic tampering, which are exacerbated by Rapture’s Randian ideals of not regulating the practice. ADAM, EVE, the Plasmids, The Splicers, The Little Sisters, The Big Daddies, were all the causes or results of the “BioShock” that gave the game its title. While the game is about much more than genetic experimentation thematically, it is a backdrop that can’t be ignored.
Infinite revolves more around the threats of extreme xenophobia, racism, and religious persecution mixed with a little time travel and a musings on parallel universes thrown in. “Infinite” makes sense, especially in regards to the ending, but the first part of the title is an artifact and tells you nothing about the game you are playing. Elizabeth showing Booker a link between the current reality and that of Rapture’s is Infinite trying to sell you on the idea that it should be called a BioShock game.
Here is series creator Ken Levine on the title:
To me, there’s two things that make a BioShock game BioShock. They take place in a world that is both fantastic and ridiculous. Something that you’ve never seen before and something that nobody else could create except Irrational, but it’s also strangely grounded and believable. The other thing that makes it a BioShock game, it’s about having a huge toolset of power and a huge range of challenges, and you being able to drive how you solve those challenges.
Infinite nails the first part. The concept of a floating city is both fantastic and ridiculous, but grounded with some unfortunately real issues our society faces. Columbia doesn’t have the unsettling power that Rapture does, but is an incredibly detailed, beautifully realized setting for a video game. The first time you see it in full is an absolutely breathtaking experience, and I recommend playing for that moment of wonder alone. To be fair, Rapture does feel more lived in, more realized... You know what? I will stop there on that comparison. It is a topic for another article.
But the second part? I am not sure that Infinite fulfills the criteria that Levine has set for his series.
BioShock is very much a first person shooter, but encourages players to take a more heady approach and gives them tools to do so. Sure, you could just go in and attack that Big Daddy with a shotgun, but it probably will end in sadness.
Wouldn’t it be smarter if you hacked the surrounding turrets and security systems to give you a fully automatic edge? Wouldn’t it make more sense to set some trap bolts or sticky bombs and bait the drill armed monster into them?Why not first use your power (called Plasmids in BioShock) to hypnotize the Big Daddy and use it to kill all of the pesky Splicers before dealing with it directly?
Infinite takes nearly all of the strategy out of the fighting and replaces it with bombast, speed, and a focus on firearms. Infinite has a habit of throwing a lot of enemies at you at once. Encounters take place in large, open set pieces instead of narrow corridors. It features Sky-Lines, rails that you can traverse to quickly move around the map to either confront or avoid attackers.
You have a good toolset, but with a narrower focus compared to what you had available in BioShock. There is no hacking system in Infinite. The overall amount of powers (Vigors in Infinite) is reduced from 11 in BioShock to eight in Infinite. Also, all of the powers are for direct combat purposes outside of Possession, which allows you to possess either man or machine for a short amount of time. By contrast, five of the 11 in BioShock are primarily used for more indirect means of dealing with foes.
Infinite allows access to all eight of your powers at any time but only two guns. BioShock allows you access to all of your weapons and starts you off with two active slots for the game’s eleven powers, but you can buy four more to bring your total to six.
This is a weird decision, considering the importance of shooting. You often find yourself hurting for ammo for your weapon of choice and are either forced to pick up lesser weapons to get by, or hope Elizabeth throws you some ammo.
Generally speaking, you will run out of mana to use Vigors, and none of them are particularly useful to deal with the two guys in that window that keep plunking you in the head with bullets anyway.
You do have some opportunities to plan ahead using Elizabeth’s reality warping powers to spawn cover or a turret or by using the enhanced versions of Vigors to lay a couple of traps, but that only helps you get through the first enemy wave. Encounters quickly devolve into a shooting gallery.
The combat is a real joy when everything is clicking, but only the use of superpowers makes it feel vaguely similar to how you fight and solve problems in BioShock 1 and 2.
Infinite also removed or reduced the few role playing elements that the series had. In BioShock, Gene Tonics were passive abilities that impacted combat, hacking, or health and mana management.
Using tonics, you can choose to make yourself an expert hacker and wreck havoc on your foes by turning all of the machines in Rapture against them. You can either make yourself a damage dealing terror or a tank that absorbs a ton of punishment electrocute anyone who dares strikes you. You could make yourself invisible to Splicers simply by standing still. The game subtly tells you to emphasize some of these skills, or you risk becoming a jack of all trades, but a master of none.
Using different combinations of Tonics and Plasmids gives your character a build that best fit your style. Alternately, it allows you to alter your skills on the fly for a different kinds of fights, provided you have the right unlocks. It isn’t Skyrim or anything, but there are some recognizable RPG elements that directly impact how you play that game. Infinite simply doesn’t have that.
Infinite handles passives with Gear, clothing that gives specific bonuses and abilities. Gear has many of the effects that are analagous to earlier Gene Tonics, but only four pieces of Gear can be worn at one time and like Vigors, their effects are always related to direct combat.
All of this adds up to the feeling that Infinite was built as an ambitious, time jumping first person shooter meant simply to echo BioShock and appeal to the broadest audience possible.
I am not pushing for Infinite to be forgotten about or removed from canon or anything. I do, however, advocate the idea of Infinite as being viewed as a spiritual successor to the original game, just as BioShock was the spiritual successor to SystemShock.
I like to write about video games. If you want to see me play them, check out twitch.tv/omegaredpanda. Also, follow me on Twitter and check out my newest venture: The Awesome Bomb Wrestling Podcast. We’re not good wrestling podcast, we’re not a bad wrestling podcast, we’re THE wrestling podcast.