The important thing to keep in mind when playing Bioshock: Infinite is that it is not Bioshock. It is not Bioshock 2, either. You can’t even call it Bioshock 3. It is its own game, and in truth Ken Levine may have been better off calling the game something else, were it not for a couple of factors. One of them being how a familiar franchise has a better chance of selling this late into the console cycle.
I write this note because there are a number of complaints about how Bioshock: Infinite does certain things or lacks certain things that Bioshock had, which just seems to be repeating all the complaints about how Bioshock was missing stuff that System Shock 2 had. Be it amongst the enthusiast press or the enthusiast consumers, it seems the constant trend is to want a new and different experience, while simultaneously feeding back the old game in a higher resolution with some fancy new doo-dads that the game industry has since invented.
This is not to say that Bioshock: Infinite isn’t more straight-forward than its predecessor. It most certainly is, as the levels are generally very linear with the occasional off-shoot to explore rather than an entire section you’ll likely find yourself backtracking through. Gone are the hacking mini-games, which I recall so many complaining about back in 2007, replaced by a simple Vigor (Infinite’s variant of the plasmid) that will possess a man or machine to temporarily fight on your side.
Yes, Bioshock: Infinite was designed for the more common gamer in more ways than the box art. At least, it comes off to me that way. I cannot speak for Ken Levine, but it seems that Infinite was designed to appeal to the sort of player that only purchases Halo, Call of Duty and Madden every year.
Is this automatically a bad thing? Have we more enthusiastic consumers been betrayed for the sake of the almighty dollar? I would say no, as the costs for a game like Infinite are great. The scope of Infinite is a large one, and in order to afford such a large game money must be made.
I think Ken Levine knew where to cut corners, where to make sacrifices, for the sake of accessibility. As a result, Bioshock: Infinite is a game that can not only appeal to the Call of Duty or Halo crowd, but draw them into something much more substantial. Instead of standing upon a pedestal, looking down at this crowd of so-called “frat gamers”, it reaches down and extends its hand to elevate them up.
Combat is not all regenerating shields and two-gun limitations, though. While most of the base play has been simplified into a more action-packed experience, the environment has been restructured to provide more exciting options. Tears through reality allow the player to pull in objects such as gun turrets or more ammunition to assist on the battlefield. Sky lines and freight hooks allow the player to leap across the battlefield, crashing into their victims from above. Gear scatters the world of Columbia, granting various advantages and modifications when strapped to our gun-toting protagonist.
This more action-oriented nature of the game is much more fitting to the setting of Columbia. In the original Bioshock you were exploring the decaying ruins of a once vibrant city. The only thing more unsettling than the emptiness were the occasional signs of life, humans transformed into twisted, psychotic monsters skulking about the halls. The tone and atmosphere was different. You were seeing a city in a state of disarray after an uprising had already occurred.
Bioshock: Infinite leads you up to Columbia, a city that starts out with a blissfully ignorant populace that truly believes they live in a Utopia. It has not yet fallen apart, and only does so when protagonist Booker DeWitt appears. His arrival snowballs into being a mere fugitive to helping start a revolution, one that would never have succeeded if it weren’t for Booker’s interference.
In other words, Columbia is Rapture before the fall. As a result, it will not and cannot play like the slower-paced Bioshock. The story calls for a much more fast-paced, action-oriented focus. At least, where combat is concerned.
The open environments are, at times, Infinite’s downfall. The world of Columbia is a beautiful and wondrous thing, perhaps more so than Rapture even was. The first several hours of the game will grant you plenty of time to soak the world and its citizens in. Yet over time the focus will grow to be less on the world itself and on hunting for nooks, crannies, and side paths to discover secrets, treasure hordes, and audio recordings. Most of the time you will be rewarded in nothing more than health, ammunition, and cash, and you’ll only need one out of three of those. The Voxophones, the storage device containing the audio logs, are as wonderful as ever, detailing the events and characters of the world and providing greater depth to the events of the story. Yet these are not as frequent as would be desired considering all the times the player will be shoving their nose into the many alleys and trenches of Columbia, all to find a trash can filled with cake and ammunition for health and a gun that are already full.
This is a mere gripe, however. Every corner you turn Columbia is providing something new to look at. These corners may, at their basest level, just be a side distraction to pad game length and provide secret treasures, but the environment crafted around them is always given an identity. It could be one of the most memorable scenes in Bioshock: Infinite will be a simple little corner where you found a Voxophone, rather than any of the major set pieces.
As for the story and setting itself, it, too, is a very different beast than the original Bioshock. Truth told, I don’t know if I’m even fit to truly discuss it. I cannot help but think Ken Levine is trying to say something about video games with its ending, similarly to “Would you kindly?”, but there’s so much going on that I think it’s silly to assume only one thing is being said at all.
On one hand I feel like a statement about the replayability of games and potentially even the meaningless of the setting. Yet there also seems to be something deeper there, something spiritual. Of course, given the use of religious themes and ideas in Bioshock: Infinite I cannot help but wonder if I am merely projecting. It is a dense, rich setting, but it does not come out and state anything about patriotism, jingoism, racism, or theism. Not outright, at least. If it does, it does so in a subtle manner.
Yet these many venues of interpretation are not so clear at first. In fact, a lot of Bioshock: Infinite seems empty, perhaps even silly, at first. Characters that you have to fight seemingly because “video games”, whose logic and personalities seem quite questionable. By the end of the game, though, little lights begin to flicker. Suddenly, that outburst of Slate’s, that cry of “He wasn’t there!”, has greater meaning. It even hints at the ending. It suddenly begs the game to be replayed in a new light, and not simply for the reasons you may rewatch, say, The Sixth Sense.
Despite knowing the ending, replaying Bioshock: Infinite will provide a new experience from the first time played…or, perhaps, that is just the illusion.
Bioshock: Infinite may have simplified gameplay capable of appealing to a wider audience, but if anything the story is much more difficult to penetrate with any clarity. There is a lot more being said here than anything Bioshock had to say, and it does so in a manner that works best in a video game setting.
If you want the honest truth, I think I like the gameplay of the original Bioshock better. Most certainly. Yet I feel like I got more out of the story to Bioshock: Infinite. It has managed to stand out from its predecessor, and I think will be one of the most important games as we close out this console generation.