McMillan’s Codex 26 By C.T. McMillan
Audiences seem split between having better story over gameplay, or vice versa. Some do not like Metal Gear Solid for being all story and some do not like Call of Duty for being all gameplay. In the case of Bioshock Infinite, there is only one way you can go.
The combat of Infinite is an arduous hurdle. It is clear not much thought went into its development during the game’s creation. Irrational Games has a history of making good shooters with director Ken Levine responsible for System Shock 2 and the first Bioshock. Such a legacy was lost as Infinite is probably the worst shooter I have ever played.
Clunky and stiff. Levels often devolve into shooting galleries as enemies pour in and swarm you. Usually a whole complement of ammunition is necessary to put down just one enemy if you can stay on target as he moves like a meth-head dodging cars on a highway. There is an obvious effort to make the combat fast-paced, but the process of moving and shooting is slow and staggered. You take your time to focus on an enemy and ten others will mob you. Thankfully, when you die you start right where you left off, but you die often, and make frustratingly little progress.
A few details make combat tolerable. You have the option to use the Vigor system, powers that give you all manner of abilities. Some include Possession that lets you control of enemies, Devil’s Kiss where you can throw explosives, and Murder of Crows that summons a mass of birds. Throughout each level is a Sky-Line, a track that you can ride to reach higher vantage points or get out of firefights. You can shoot as you move, but with the stiff controls doing so is an inconvenient challenge.
Besides gameplay, Infinite succeeds in everything else. The game takes place on Columbia, an airborne city populated by religious fanatics who worship the Founding Fathers. It is a militant Christian utopia that perpetuates the Woodrow Wilson Era of racial purity. European immigrants and colored persons are segregated to industrial jobs in the slums and treated less than human compared to American whites. There is even a cult that worships John Wilkes Booth and a museum lionizing the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Columbia itself is a marvel to behold. Using a steam-punk aesthetic, the world is brought to vivid life in every anachronistic detail. The balloons that keep buildings afloat are made of colorful red, white, and blue canvass. Structures are a mix of Victorian and Antebellum with bright red brick and shiny white. Streets are cobbled and there is always a statue of a Founding Father or an American flag fluttering in the wind. Clothing is consistent with the early 20th century and weapons are given a steam-punk twist with moving parts and obsolete technology.
One of the best parts of Infinite is your companion Elizabeth, a seemingly ordinary young woman with the ability to manipulate tears in reality. Where many games fail at fun companion characters, the responsibility of looking after her is nonexistent. You can play the whole game and not worry about keeping her alive. She will also help you get ammo and bring you back to life when you die. What makes her so interesting is how her personality and growth is on display. She will interact with world on her own, throw out comments every now and then, and lean against walls at rest points. Almost everything she says is unique and full of heart, breaking the tension between intense firefights. It is mesmerizing to behold thanks to fantastic animation and voice work by actress Courtnee Draper.
The damsel in distress is a story used often in videogames. That is what Infinite appears to be, but it goes places games have never gone before. The game is a spiritual successor to the original Bioshock, the story of an underwater objectivist utopia. The worlds of Bioshock and Infinite are very similar and the latter makes that point all the more obvious upon revelation of its main themes of hypertime and parallel dimension theory.
Hypertime is the concept that every decision you make creates branching timelines that exist in their own universes. Throughout the game are clues that allude to the possibility that the player, Booker DeWhitt, has been to Columbia before and is intimately involved in its being. The biggest tell are encounters with the Lutece twins, an omniscient brother sister pair that seem to be everywhere, constantly mentioning how they anticipate alternate outcomes.
Propaganda posters referring to a False Shepard show a claw marked with the letters “AD,” a sign branded on your own hand. Elizabeth has the power to open tears to other dimensions to bring things through. She can also travel and make changes to the present to a limited capacity. When everything reaches a climax, the story is challenging, but the game does thoroughly explain what is going on. Pay attention, and accept what is said.
Like XCOM, Bioshock Infinite is a challenging and frustrating experience. The terrible combat would mean its demise if the story and world were not exceptional in every way. If you can get through the stiff and clunky shooting mechanics, the revelations and interactions with Elizabeth make this colorful game worth the struggle.
C.T. McMillan (Episode 169) is a film critic and devout gamer. He has a Bachelors for Creative Writing in Entertainment from Full Sail University.