Ah Bioshock Infinite, where to begin. I'm still not sure how I feel about this game. I've been flip flopping between liking and hating it since I began playing it, and I'm still not sure how I feel now that I'm done. I definitely found the game compelling, but at the same time it felt hollow compared to the standard set by the original Bioshock. All the same pieces were there, but once the puzzle was together the picture didn't really match the beauty of its predecessor. This should be a fairly lengthy one, so buckle in. Also bear in mind that most of my comparisons will be between the original Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. I don't hate Bioshock 2 the way that so many people seem to, but it's so fundamentally similar to the original that I don't feel the need to make this a three way comparison piece. Of course, *SPOILERS* to follow.
Let me just get my biggest gripe with the game out of the way first. This game is, essentially, Baby's First Bioshock. All the tension of the original is gone the moment you first meet Elizabeth. It is at this point that the game literally throws health, salts, ammo, and money at you at every turn. I became quite proficient with the wrench in the original Bioshock because I had to. Conserving ammo was an absolute must if you wanted to even think of taking down Big Daddies or the bosses. Even toward the end of the game, I found myself running out of ammo with the guns I actually liked and having to switch to the less useful ones (looking at you RPG) because I wasn't playing as smartly. Not so with Infinite. Even with the ability to only carry two guns at a time (another change that I take great offense to) you're basically never in danger of running out of ammo. Sure you might burn through your stock momentarily, but Elizabeth is always there to pull some Repeater ammo out of nowhere (apparently she opens tears when you're not looking and stocks up) to help you out. This created the biggest issue, as there is literally no tension in the battles. Elizabeth is almost always there with whatever you need when you need it and, in the rare instances in which she doesn't, you respawn immediately in the same conditions that you left. There are no real repercussions to simply charging into a battle with no strategy. The addition of tears to battles seem like they could be interesting initially but quickly devolve into rinse and repeat affairs. There are three different types of tears that can be opened in a battle; helper automatons, item drops, and cover, but only the first two are worth opening. Since Infinite isn't designed as a cover based shooter, there is no real reason to use cover. You don't recover health if you hide from enemy fire as you do in other cover shooters, and enemies don't hunker down in battle. While cover can provide some help, particularly if you're waiting for Elizabeth to throw you something, more often than not enemies ambush Booker while you're waiting around. So really, as soon as you see a tear that allows you to summon one of the various automatons, you should do so. They'll often wipe out a nice portion of the enemies before you can even start the battle up.
The gear is another area of Infinite that takes an interesting concept from Bioshock, gene tonics, and simplifies it to a fault. By assigning gear to one of four areas, you can add special attributes to Booker. The issue I have with this is that most of the good gear that I found either was for the head or torso. In Bioshock I could have had all of these powers no problem, but Infinite forced me to choose between several powers that would add actual value to my character simply because they all were assigned to the same body parts. The choice to only allow four power-ups to be equipped at a time certainly adds a new layer of strategy, as you can't super power yourself as you could in Bioshock, but the lack of distribution of good powers hinders the gear system from truly shining. A good portion of the gears add effects to the melee attack, a very welcome addition, but the melee is sorely underutilized. Vigors and ammo is so plentiful that I rarely found the need to tap into my melee powers, so the gear powers became nearly useless. Enough griping about the facets of combat though, the story is what drew most people to Bioshock Infinite and it's the biggest source of confusion to me.
Let's begin by saying that the story was not as interesting as the original. By his own admission, Ken Levine didn't set out to make any kind of grand stands with Infinite. He simply wanted to tell the story of Booker and Elizabeth, and all the other ideologies brought up over the course of the game were secondary. Perhaps that was the biggest issue, as nothing seems as fleshed out as in Bioshock. Grand ideas are introduced and simply discarded as you travel through alternate universes which produce more and more hostiles to mow down. Daisy Fitzroy, a potentially interesting anti-Comstock guerilla leader, is turned into nothing more than a psychopath the moment she gains weapons from Booker. American Exceptionalism is at the forefront in the first few hours of the game, but tossed aside as Columbia falls apart. Comstock's place as a leader and what his cult like influence does to people is ignored as we blast through wave after wave of his obviously devoted followers. The origins of Songbird and why it is bound to Elizabeth is dropped almost as soon as it is introduced. Even the troubling aspects of Booker's past are mostly ignored as we travel toward the inevitable clash with Comstock. Had the game not flirted with these elements, the story might not seem like such a letdown in comparison to Bioshock.
I have no issue with a game having a simple story; my love of Nintendo games speaks volumes about that, but Infinite doesn't set out to have a simple story. Infinite continues to attempt to make more of its story to the very end, with the travels through time and space via the lighthouses, which further muddies the notion that the game is just about Booker and Elizabeth. Speaking of the end of the game, the quick foray to Rapture infuriates me. There was no reason to go back there other than to draw on the positive feelings that gamers have for that game. Returning to previous locales in a series can be a wonderful thing, if there is a reason for it. Unfortunately, the seconds spent in Rapture did nothing more than say, "Hey! Here's the place from the last game! Remember that one?" Absolutely dreadful.
Enough griping though, I'll end on a high note. The game is technically a wonderful game. It has a strong art design, good gameplay, and the story (for all its frustrations once it's finished) is very compelling. This is a game that I literally could not stop playing. When I had to in order to do real world stuff, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I still really can't stop thinking about it. Perhaps that's the true mark of a great game. It's opened a few very strong dialogues among coworkers and I, and we've had some great discussion based on the ideas from within Infinite. For all its frustrating elements, I think I've come to the conclusion that I do like this game.Its greatest fault is that it came out after Bioshock. Had Infinite come out first, or even had a different title, I would have had a far more favorable opinion of it. As is, it will forever be marked as a sequel that didn't live up to its pedigree.