Friday, March 29, 2013

Bioshock Infinite (2013) Irrational Games

I finished Bioshock Infinite this afternoon and since I did reviews for Bioshock and Bioshock 2 (08/15/2007 and 09/11/2012 respectively) I figured I should do a review of the latest installment.  I had been avoiding as much press and marketing about BI as possible except for checking out the teaser a year or so back.  I enjoyed most of the first two games (some minor quibbles) and wanted the same unknowing going into BI as when I first visited Rapture (one of my favorite game experiences - except for the last act).

As much as I loved exploring Rapture I am glad that Irrational Games created a new world for me to explore.  What a world it is.  I'm going to have a hard time making this review as spoiler free as possible, not because of the story - which is good and the critics are lauding but it ends up being a bit well, pot head philosophy for my tastes, but because I don't want to give away the fun of discovery.

It's an excellent game experience, maybe not worth buying right out of the gate what with all the DLC and GOTY edition inevitably coming down the pike, but it delivered a solid fifteen hours of game play (though I don't know how much of that was devoted to backtracking and looking for collectibles, etc).   For me, what drew me in were the same elements that drew me into Rapture, the setting and bizarre sense of, perhaps not immersion, but surprise at some of the subtler elements which seem meaningless but enhance the over-all experience.  This isn't an explore roaming adventure RPG type of game, in fact it's pretty linear, but each area has its own stuff to look at.  As with Bioshock I ended up reading signs, eavesdropping, and moving at a leisurely pace like a tourist on holiday.  I read a menu board, I listened to a barber shop quartet, I laughed at the historical references (one of which relates to a RL conversation I had about a month ago about when certain states enter the Union), I wondered if people would get a good number of the jokes and references because they are trivial and vaguely esoteric (if you're smart and over the age of thirty, or are well versed in pop culture and history before the age of cell phones you'll get the jokes and references).

Aside: If you're knowledgeable about American history from say 1880-1915 you'll definitely take interest in how the game handles race issues, eugenics, robber barons, etc.  Hell, if I taught a class on the time period I would assign the game.

I really dug the mechanics of combat, standard FPS controller layout, but combat was pretty fluid.  The enemy AI was solid though there were a number of times I could just bottleneck them in a hall or doorway and meat grinder them.  Two things any game should have these days are enemies who notice when Fred just drops dead next to them suddenly (and then ring the shit-storm bell) and don't turn a hallway into an abbatior a la Better Tomorrow II (If Fred, then Smitty get shot in a doorway in front of me I'm gonna huck a grenade and get the hell into cover and pretend to reload in order to trick the attacker).

Hooray, no QTE!  Thank you, Irrational Games!

The special vigour skills (formerly known as plasmids) are okay but nothing particularly grand, especially when compared to Bioshock (HORNETS!) or Dishonored (RATS!).  I am a little non-plussed by BI's skills because on the console you can only have two equipped at a time, sure you can switch them out easily (hold down L1/LB and a wheel pops up, thank god I didn't have to Skyrim through a menu), and on a PC you can just hotkey everything but switching them out mid-battle didn't encourage experimentation.  I ended up using two pairs of skills Possession & Electricity and Fire & Swarm.  The other skills just gathered dust.

Only being able to carry two weapons is becoming more a standard in games, one that I approve of, three or four weapons max (say melee, two hand guns, and a rifle or other two handed weapon - I've often thought that a slot system would work well the number of weapons you can carry is based on holsters, etc combined with weapons taking up a certain number of slots based on weight and size).  For BI I found that between exploring and my standard forage methods (along with a rule of thumb that one of the weapons I carry is the same as what the enemy carries - e.g. an AK-47 so I have ample opportunity to have ammo) I didn't really have to worry about running out of ammo.  Once I maxed the amount of vigour I could use I ended up going with a standard carbine and heavy revolver combo.  I could make most shots that would require a sniper rifle with the carbine and the revolver was a one shotter once I got it modded out.  This is not say that there aren't quite a few different types of weapons in the game.  I just ended up sticking with what worked for me.

There was minimal screen clutter (I guess enough people griped out all the UI clutter in the first two games).  Thank you, Irrational Games.

And I have thank them for making one of the best supporting AI characters I have ever had the pleasure of working with.  Imagine, a supporting NPC who isn't totally fucking useless and/or made of tissue paper (granted if I had to be escorted out of a firefight I'd be pretty useless but I also wouldn't go running into a wall of bullets - after the firefight I'd be looting every corpse for ammo and gear and collectibles).  She is a joy to work with, enough of a help to keep things interesting but not a crutch.  During a firefight, if she has the resources she'll throw you what you actually need, not "Oh you have a splinter,  here's the biggest medpack I could find!" You don't need to babysit or micromanage her, she gets her ass into cover when the shooting starts.  If you're just looting mundane shit she sticks close but will look at stuff or just lean against a wall, she'll mention if something is worth finding.  Most importantly, she's not fucking annoying or just tits.  I actually kind of like her and reminded myself once that her eyes were "up there" and not in her corset.  A female character in a game I like and respect?  Shit, I dunno if that's happened since Beyond Good and Evil (an absolutely top shelf game you must play, especially since it's been rereleased in HD).

The protagonist ain't so bad himself.  Now, it's so very hard to not make comparisons to the protagonist (and his story arc) of Bioshock (the "Would You Kindly" scene has got to be one of the best in video game history).  That being said Booker DeWitt is a kind of standard down on his luck "man with a tortured past" kind of guy.  DeWitt's voice actor Troy Baker sells it though (he has done a shit ton of good voice work - upon checking out his imdb profile - huh, from Dallas, he's kind of cute, uh, yeah, tough guy shit).  There were a few moments where he really needed to sell it - remember the guy who did Max Payne's voice work (James McCaffrey) during the really dark turns?  Baker manages to do that.

The music is top notch.  I really don't want to give away spoilers on the music.

Bioshock Infinite is an excellent game and one I recommend.  "Where's the but?"  The buts are I don't know if there's much replay value and there's a chunk of the last third which felt, unnecessary.  Not the ending but the third act just kind of gets a bit wonky, like it belonged in another game.

The replay is, I am curious about this and if you know - don't tell me, well, there are a handful of "choices" to be made in the but I'm seriously doubting if they really make all that much of a difference.  If they created a whole new story based on the choices I'd be interested but as it is I'll buy the game when all the DLC comes out and it's twenty bucks before I play it again (and be an asshole to every one as I am during second play thoughs).

The elements which drew me in during the first two thirds of the game were lacking in the last third, Infinite suffers from - though certainly not as badly - the last third of Bioshock.  The set-piece near the end was slog - though certainly not as bad as the boss fights of Deus Ex: Revolution).

Quibbles aside.  Play it.  I prefer Dishonored for mayhem and exploration but Bioshock Infinite is a gaming experience well worth having.  Just don't get high and talk to me about the ending.

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