For a game about multiple realities, I can’t help but feel there’s another reality where this game was better.
Infinite could attach a fuse to your mind and use it to carve Mount Rushmore.
Alright, I know the prejump was harsh. Bioshock: Infinite is a damn fine game by any metric. But there’s something missing from this experience that makes it feel like a false prophet and its flock of perfect reviews isn’t helping. Let me show you what I mean. Here’s the 2011 E3 demonstration of the game that won all sorts of awards.
This part of the game plays out entirely differently in the released version. And that’s fine. The footage was from two years ago; of course it’s going to change. What disappoints me is not that it changed, but that we lost almost every moment of this and other trailers that made me sit up and say “wow!”
Sure the skyline fighting and magic powers are still there. Those even got some improvement. But Elizibeth no longer struggles with her powers or acts with a sense of humor to keep herself cheerful. Situations don’t evolve around you as you decide which rioters to ignore and which ones to stop. Zeppelins aren’t summoned by distress signals and aren’t destroyed dynamically like avoidable minibosses. In fact if you check out the screenshots on Infinite’s “Season Pass” page on Steam, not one of them depicts a single moment that takes place in the released game. The advertised version of this game seemed to blur the line between player agency and character narrative. In these cut moments the player character, Booker Dewitt, would comment on his actions as if he, not the player, had chosen them. This brilliance is gone, replaced by a few circular monorails and gunplay that fails to distinguish itself from Bioshock 2.
I’m not sure why this happened. Obviously changing from the polished product we see in the trailers to the launched version of the game involved a conscious creative choice. It’s also possible the trailer footage was carefully navigated like the Hollywood set of a low-budget western, depicting unfinished sequences that wound up too complicated to complete. But some of the creative choices perplex me, well… infinitely. For example, check out this early gameplay trailer showing the introduction of the Handyman, minibosses analogous to Bioshock’s Big Daddy.
Plenty of build-up; silhouette cast against a thunderstorm; huge combo moves with Elizabeth (which aren’t present in the released gameplay by the way) pushing the monster off the world in a fight that is both controlled and extremely satisfying. In the released version of the game your first fight with a Handyman involves no such ceremony. In a random street in the middle of the day Elizabeth announces “Handyman,” as if reading a billboard aloud and a banal gun fight ensues. And that illustrates the long term problem. Little of the gameplay feels truly satisfying. Even the first boss fight is an anticlimax in exactly the same style as Bioshock 2.
I said at the top that Infinite is a fine game and I meant it. If disappointment alone was valid criticism Fable wouldn’t have sequels. To contrast Infinite’s routine gameplay is a story that is sure to be talked about for years to come. If you played Bioshock, then would you kindly recall the moment you realized your true purpose in Rapture. I’m sure we all have fond memories of that physics-defying golf club. Where Bioshock used your complicities to twist its plot, Infinite builds depth upon a heap of accumulating questions diving deeper down the rabbit hole than I could have imagined.
Infinite will leave you pondering the plot and implications in a stunned stupor while your glazed eyes reflect the scrolling credits. Once you think you have a handle on the experience you were just a part of, you’ll want to play it again and/or talk about it endlessly with friends to make sure you understood everything; which you didn’t. Infinite isn’t just mind blowing. Infinite could attach a fuse to your mind and use it to carve Mount Rushmore.
The central gameplay involves equal parts scavenging and fighting. The violence distinguishes itself from other first person shooters with Vigors. Identical in nature to Bioshock’s plasmids, vigors allow you to lift and push enemies/debris/bullets or zap them with an array of elements and/or crows. Unlike Bioshock it’s never really explained why your enemies don’t use Vigors. They’re common enough in the world to be given out as novelties and these people are supposedly intelligent, unlike Rapture’s zombie lunatics. Some enemies have special powers themed after certain vigors but their limited abilities bear little resemblance to the vigors you use.
The skylines used for transport around the flying city are meant to add dimensionality to combat, but all they tend to do is run circles around a given arena doing little more than transform Infinite into a rail shooter. Far from what we saw in the initial trailers, airships only fly in at scripted times so the rails aren’t a necessary or even helpful tool to combat except when the game has specifically deemed them necessary for a particular fight.
The game’s dimensional rifts, caused by the tampering in quantum physics that keeps the city aloft, can be utilized to phase certain objects in and out of existence. These acts are performed by Elizabeth, who otherwise spends combat rummaging through pocket dimensions to find more ammo or health packs for you. I came to care for Elizabeth and missed her in the times when she wasn’t present. Rarely is a character so well detailed and genuinely vital to both the narrative and the gameplay as Elizabeth.
Nothing about Infinite’s gameplay is particularly revolutionary. But it’s certainly no slog as every level is permeated with characterization and dialogue from engaging people whose stories you’ll want to learn. If you’re the type of gamer who can forgive anything for a good story, Infinite will be your game of the year for sure. And if you’re the type who cares more about cinematic combat than story, you could do a lot worse than Infinite. But then you could do a lot worse than Bioshock 2, and that’s significantly cheaper.