This Post is originally available on wearearcade.com and i'm sharing it here to gather opinion and for a little bit of archival purposes.
WARNING THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR BIOSHOCK INFINITE.
Now its important that I state up front that despite the possible negativity that may come across in my thoughts is in no means a reflection of how I feel about the overall quality Bioshock infinite, if anything Bioshock Infinite is a startling and stunning experience that is both the product of an astoundingly talented mind in the shame of the games director and writer Ken Levine but also of an incredibly talented team at irrational. Its also one of the early highlights of 2013 and this console generation.
Bioshock infinite is a game that you owe it to yourself to play through at least once.
Its also important to note, that I played through the game twice. Firstly through on normal to experience the story before spoilers ruined the experience for me and secondly in the unlocked 1999 mode.
My experiences through the game differed greatly both times although I was experiencing exactly the same content, but more importantly my thoughts on the game as a whole did not changes at all. If anything they strengthened.
The problem is that Bioshock Infinite lacks something very small that the original Bioshock does not. Simply, glue.
While every element of Bioshock Infinite is connected by narrative themes, design, both visual and game design, story and messages the game has clear separate boundaries. While this does not make the game a less then enjoyable experience there is a sense of disappointment once its all over. One that says a lot more about the issues with games as a narrative medium on the whole as well as an entertainment format.
Bioshock is one world that is made up of three distinctly related yet also totally separate parts. Story, World narrative and Gameplay; these parts cross over each other, stacked like folded edges of an old box sometimes blurred but still obvious when you look.
The overriding feeling you get from Infinite is that its a mix of shooting gallery and interactive digital play.
On two separate occasions I heard stories from people that painted a negative sounding reflection of the game experience.
The first from a work friend who after a large amount of time with the game said I really like it but the combat, it just doest feel fun. Its like a meat grinder. Wave after wave of enemy just come at you constantly.
While the combat in Infinite is acceptable and on paper has interesting and forward thinking mechanics this sense of a lack of depth cant just be brushed aside.
On my own first playthrough I felt this too, that the combat more often then not becomes a chore and not another interesting element that you look forward to. That even though this is a good story in a vivid and stunning world that the combat in the needless grind that you do to see the next bit of the play.
The other comment that stood out to me was from my partner, she shared the feeling of the game being a bit of a chore sometimes when it comes to the combat but what really struck her was the disparity between the experience she was expecting and what she got.
While re-watching one of the trailers she just simply said. yes, this, this is what I was looking forward to and I got something else.
This is not a terrible issue, early demos and trailers are there to create a feel for the game were going to get. Yet I cant help but feel that developers, publishers and PR do not really look at the disparity between how a game is marketed and how its actually received or perceived during play.
Is it even important for them to have to stick to initial perceptions?
It is maybe time developers and publishers did stop and look at how the games they are promoting & creating are coming across. The issue with video games in general is that they are exclusive and nearly never inclusive. Irrational painted a picture of a deep and involving narrative about a beautiful and flawed world that appealed to a wide range of people. They sold an experience to as many people as they could because rightly so they want all those people to play that experience but then bore no though to people not enjoying the parts between.
My aforementioned partner is by no means new to games, FPS or the Bioshock series being somewhat of a fan of the first and even second title, but when I mentioned the issues she had with the game to another member of the games press they said more or less maybe its just because it was that they were not expecting the shooting in the game.
To an extent this is a logical reaction but it really shouldnt be. We as gamers and the games community on all sides are so used to the notion of people not being good at something and so it being their fault and not the games that we brush the issue off like it doesnt matter. When the very problem is preventing so many from experiencing the very games we are attempting to sell as immersive and artistic.
Going back to the issues of gameplay and this distinct division between gameplay and story. The sense of the game being an elaborate play is apt.
As I said before the games more combat orientated elements feel like they should work. In fact on small doses the combat is somewhat easier to get to grips with then it was in Bioshock. So where are the issues in this area?
Firstly and most obviously is the Serious Sam aspect to the common enemy, more often then not there is little tactical action to be had. Yes the game throws different types of enemies at you each with different weaknesses or attack powers but ultimately they all come more or less directly at you all guns or powers blazing. Victory and loss never feels interesting and more often then not cheap.
When you fall its not because you made a mistake or got outsmarted but more often then not you just couldnt move into cover fast enough as everyone stood or ran at you and shot over and over again.
There are moments that do impress combat wise, small snatches of the game where the combat is interesting but these are few and far between. Moments you would expect to be so are not as fun as one would at first hope.
The Handymen, while having a couple of interesting behaviors are some of the most infuriating enemy encounters in the game. Being as mindless as the smaller enemies you face for the most part. Leaping and sliding at you often times in near unavoidable attack animations. Being somehow faster and more damaging then any other enemy yet also near impervious to damage even on lower levels of challenge. Their only real mix up being to use the electrocute the skylines (another feature somewhat scaled back since the original trailers) every time you spend too long on them.
This would make for a fun experience because by enlarge the times you get to mix the skylines into your combat is quite fun; that is if it were not for the excessive speed the beasts show. Even once you manage to escape an area where fighting one head on would be a disaster and land in a temporary safe area, are you faced with one landing next to you, causing often impossible to avoid splash damage. What could be an interesting mix up to the combat turns into run shoot twice, run.
This would be all well and good, but theres no feeling of skill, a lack of accomplishment. On harder modes like 1999 I personally fought one for two hours before a fortunate in game glitch caused the handymans animation cycle to stall allowing me to dangle from a skyline and unload every weapon I had into him, three times.
The most disappointing encounter though was Lady Comstock, or what may or may not be a spectral ghost like take on her. These encounters were a chore that involved essentially infinitely spawning basic enemies that constantly got in your way while you battled a less then interesting boss character.
Yes people have rightly complained about the ending boss encounter to the original Bioshock but instead of thinking of a better solution to boss encounters irrational simplified it even more and made us fight it three times.
The tedium reaches a peak during the final moments though placing you in charge of protecting a vulnerable thing that you have manage while dealing with wave after wave of mindless enemies And heavy airships. For a game that we were promised we wouldnt have to worry about protecting out partner during the game proper. That this wasnt another escort mission to be presented with one at the very end of the game as its substitution for a boss encounter is ironic and even insulting.
Yes even this encounter sounds good on paper, the songbird character you though was going to be a threat actually becomes a weapon for you to use in battle. You get to command this powerful man/bird/cyborg/thing to attack those who would do you harm but the use of even this feature becomes underwhelming with its mapping to the x (or in ps3 square) button. Often the use of this commend isnt picked up, or is badly timed with Elizabeth offering important items like health or weapon ammo.
So in tense moments where you are taking damage, your airship and ward are taking damage and youre attempting to shoot another airship out of the sky you are instead interrupted with a longer then youd realise animation that takes up enough time for you to get shot down or the airship to also get shot down.
Probably the biggest disappointment comes from the boys of silence. An enemy type that if implemented as originally planned would have really reinvented the way you played the game. As it is they are relegated to a small section at the end of the game, now behaving like explosive takes on the original games cameras. The first encounter with one is actually unavoidable, leaving you as to wondering what you have done wrong. Couple this with the now inconsequential design to the character and you are left feeling like these distinct creatures were left in the game because, well itd be a shame to waste them right?
They are an element that once again, serves a use, yet still feel like wasted potential. Another part of the game we could have been miss-sold on.
So we should step away from the combat of the game and look instead to the other factors. Like I said before Infinite feels like a really interesting play, set in a stunningly well put together world that you are rewarded with for enduring the combat.
While the combat has a contextual reason for being there both with regards to the story and the world narrative, it doesnt feel connected. The strongest moments you experience in Bioshock Infinite take place during its opening moments. From the second you read the quite on screen at the start to the questions already swilling in your head as you climb the lighthouse, ascend into the physical heavens and land on Columbia you are taken for a stunning visual ride. The world is glorious and striking to behold, your early steps out into the streets and shops of the city really help to paint a picture of a world brighter and darker then any other. All the way through until the narratively important raffle scene the game is a ride that just works as a coherent whole. Even after making your first; in your mind important; choice of many important choices and you face the local police force the game feels coherent and strong.
Its the moments immediately after the first battle where the game splits almost instantly into three distinct parts.
The worlds narrative backdrop of social and political strife is always there but feels more and more weak over time. The vox populi and their struggles go from interesting narrative, to ok subplot to eventually basic mindless bad guys to kill.
Yes theres an initially strong narrative reason for the characters to exist, but the second you step into alternate realities twice over the potential depth to the world and its peoples struggles are gone.
The world narrative affects the game visually and physically but without really having a deep bearing on the story.
The choices you are promised, or at least teased with at the start of the game and ultimately in early trailers for the game turn out to be devoid of gravitas. You choose a or b and later you still get some equipment.
What we get in reality is a series of well visualised scenes that we get to shoot people in or watch the story from. The story marches on regardless, and while the scenes, story and world narrative have moments of great strength they remain un realised potential.
Now this leads to the ultimate question with regards to the story we are partaking in, do we really have any bearing on that? We know that through the game we have had no effect at all on the world narrative so haw about the somewhat smaller story narrative.
Well the impact we have here is even less then that which we have on the rest of the world. Instead of being a powerhouse of storytelling in the gaming medium Bioshock Infinite is an interactive play. We can jump, move around and look at different scenes from different angles but the story rolls on regardless.
This is true of other games but here the critical and player reaction initially seems to paint the game as one that really spoke on behalf of the medium as a tool for storytelling. When really its using old tools in a very traditional way.
For real examples of the medium as a tool for the potential for storytelling you need to look at games like Journey and Papa & Yo. Both tell a story, but in a way thats distinctly impossible in any other art form or medium.
While Papo & Yo is flawed in its conventional gaming elements its points of narrative invention and subtext are astoundingly important for the medium. There are moments that require you to impact them in order for them to in turn impact on you.
Journey is distinctively different from Papo, almost totally devoid of traditional storytelling but managing to through carefully paced and though out gameplay moments convey a story to you that is at all times the same and individual from those of other players.
While Infinite tells a stunning and thoughtful sci-fi adventure romp, its still something that could potentially be told in any other format.
The problem isnt that Bioshock Infinite is a bad game, it's quite the opposite it's a fun whole that makes you want to come back for more. 1999 mode is a worthy challenge that actually makes you take more time over the combat and turns most of the combat into something close to a tactical experience. Bar a few Handymen and Ghosts.
I actually had more fun on my second time through, collecting all the hidden items, spotting like secrets and easter eggs, taking each moment as its own. You could view this as a consequence of finally freeing myself of the story. Having seen it in its entirety the game was no longer something in the way of the story but instead a fun and simplistic draw. I could come up with good tactics to use against my endless attackers.
In the end 1999 mode my second time through was both more enjoyable and much easier to take on. It was more fun.
The problem is that this simple revelation could be speaking volumes about the game as a whole and in turn how we still view games based on hype, production and topic.