Skip to content
Apr 9 / Great Apes

Bioshock Infinite Was Great. And It Wasn’t.

If you follow me on Twitter, and I’d guess that you do if you’re reading this, starting nearly two weeks ago you probably saw me peppering Bioshock Infinite with some pretty lavish praise.  I described its environments as gorgeous, and they are; I described my experience of just wandering around the world looking at things, and I did.  To be sure, this is one of the most beautiful games to just look at that I have ever played.  But a game isn’t just a series of sprites or 3D models shoved together, it has other important elements like mechanics and story.  And in those respects Bioshock Infinite does not hold up nearly as well.  It’s a game that I very much enjoyed, but I enjoyed it despite some fairly serious (and somewhat numerous) flaws.  [Note that the will be significant plot SPOILERS in this post, so if you don’t want the game spoiled, stop reading.]


As to what’s enjoyable about the game, as I’ve said, its looks are simply stunning.  Columbia, the city in the sky, is itself a thing to behold, but it’s in some of the smaller set pieces that the artistic design really struck me.  One recurring trick that the game uses is to place light sources such that when you look up at a statue it appears to be shining brightly, an aura or halo of light encircling the head of the statue’s subject.  This provides a very nice unspoken support to the game’s religious themes.  In general the use of lighting is fantastic.  Because of the use of stained glass and other similar kinds of environmental features, entire scenes are coloured in ways that are both bizarre and beautiful.  It’s pretty unusual to see a room in a video game bathed in bright pink sunlight, but Bioshock Infinite uses that sort of effect extremely well.

Another element of the game’s visuals that works really well is the use of entryways.  Important statues or buildings are often viewable through an archway or door as you approach it, before you’re able to go through it, centering your attention to some of the game’s more impressive art design.  It’s a trick that works really well and even though it’s used repeatedly I never found it repetitive because the scenes that were being framed were often quite different in nature and appearance.

Image taken from Kotaku

One trick that the game uses in order to impart its sense of visual majesty is through unusually scaled objects.  A significant number of the objects in the game, from statues to doorways, signs to stairwells, are unusually large.  This helps these objects to become very visually striking on a television, where normally scaled objects may have struggled to stand out.  This element of the art design takes advantage of the fact that the game’s perspective is in first person, as these elements would have looked silly if the player character was visible on screen at all times.  Nevertheless, I did find that the scaling did some strange things with my perception in the game.  I often found it difficult to tell if I was standing or crouching because the camera always looks like it’s low to the ground on account of the sheer size of many of the objects strewn around the game’s environments.

Aside from the art, I found the combat in Bioshock Infinite to generally be superior to that of the original Bioshock.  The aiming felt much less floaty and the guns felt more effective.  The shift from enclosed spaces, so necessary in the original Bioshock because of the atmosphere of horror it intended to impart, to wide open spaces was a smart one.  It allows the combats to feel much more tactical and varied.  The inclusion of verticality in particular (with fights often taking place across multiple levels with balconies, bridges, etc.) really lends a much more dynamic feeling to the combat in the game.  The vigors were interesting, though I found that I used a much smaller combination of them than I did in the original Bioshock.  Early on in the game I basically stuck to Murder of Crows (to stun enemies) and Bucking Bronco (to throw them into the air), as I found disabling enemies to be a much more effective tactic than trying to increase my damage output.  Later on I used Murder of Crows less and Return to Sender (a bullet absorbing shield) more.  Still, in general I found the vigor/gunplay combo to be more interesting and effective than it was in the first Bioshock.


If you were to stop reading there I think you would come away with the impression that Bioshock Infinite is a pretty fantastic game with some fairly minor flaws.  Unfortunately, it’s a game with some fairly serious flaws.  Before getting into the story, which is an unmitigated mess of contradictions and general nonsense, I want to talk about some of the game design decisions that I found hampered my ability to enjoy the experience.

For all of the praise the game has received for being, basically, like no other first person shooter on the market (save the original Bioshock), it falls back on some fairly standard genre conventions and has some fairly indefensible design decisions.  While the game may aim for immersion, it is often extremely game-y.  Take, for example, the fact that the game constantly has you scavenging through virtually every container you come across (garbage bins, crates, mailboxes[?!?]) to find ammo and other useful items.  Why are there rockets in mailboxes?  Why are there bananas in weapon crates?

Official promotional screenshot

The game features one of the things I find most annoying in modern games, and that’s achievement pop-ups. I don’t mean the system level “you’ve earned a trophy!” pop-ups, which are annoying enough on their own.  I mean there are collection achievements that you get for doing a certain amount of some activity (finding all the in-game audio recordings, for example) and every time you find one the experience is interrupted with a pop-up using in-game assets to remind you how close you are to earning the achievement.  There is no way to turn these off (at least not that I could find), so you have no choice but to constantly be pestered about how close you are to some numerical objective unrelated to anything in the game proper.

There’s also the superfluous upgrade system which is in the game because, I guess, every game now needs to take advantage of the parts of our brain that like seeing numbers get bigger and our pack rat, gathering tendencies.  The main problem with the weapon upgrade system is that, because there’s not nearly enough money to upgrade every weapon, you end up investing in 2 or 3 and then use those exclusively throughout the game, rather than trying to learn about the full breadth of options available.  Because you can start investing in earlier weapons before later weapons become available, this creates a bias toward ignoring weapons introduced later on in the game.  I know that in my case I almost exclusively used the carbine except against larger enemies against whom I used the volley gun.  This problem also exists with the vigors, and as I said I only used 3 of them for the vast majority of the game.

The equipment system in the game is even worse.  In theory it allows you to customise your character, but in reality most of the pieces of equipment have little if any effect on how you play the game.  I certainly didn’t feel like I could create a character “build” like you would in a role-playing game (or, for that matter, like you could in the first Bioshock).  This problem is compounded by the fact that which piece of equipment you acquire from an item box is randomised, so there’s no way to plan or construct a character.  Dishonored did this with its bone charms, which served a similar purpose, and I don’t really understand why games seem to be doing this.  It leads to less, not more, variety as you learn that the results of your foraging are unreliable and that you should learn to play the game without their benefits.


So that’s the gameplay, but now we get to the thing about the game that I really found untenable, and that’s the story.  Going into all of my problems with it would easily be a couple thousand word blog entry on its own, so I’ll try to keep this somewhat focussed in order to keep it at a readable length.  First of all, there’s only just barely a consistent plot that runs through most of the game.  The initial set-up makes it feel like there will be two prominent themes present in the game: religion and racism.  Both of these topics are all but dropped for huge portions of the game (especially the race angle), and by the resolution of the story they’re pretty much ignored in favour of the weird sci-fi multiple universes mumbo jumbo that has taken over.  The game frequently drops you into long-winded scenarios that have nothing obvious to do with the plot at hand and serve only to make the game longer; I’m thinking, particularly, of the large section in Finktown, which touches on race issues but only in a very cursory sense and is mostly just a back-and-forth series of fetch quests.

In general the pacing of the game is bizarre.  There are at least three times in the game where your character has ostensibly completed all of the tasks that they need to in order to leave Columbia with Elizabeth, only to have some major, unforseen set-back deposit you in a completely new location with an entirely new goal (and often having to track down Elizabeth yet again).  The first Bioshock was about a city that had been created with a purpose and then examined what happenned when that purpose actually played out among a society of supposedly like-minded individuals; Bioshock Infinite creates a city and then has you running around it arbitrarily doing things that don’t really advance the story in any clear way.

Official promotional screenshot

One of the game’s most visually striking sections is in the Soldier’s Field level, where Booker walks through museum exhibits dedicated to 2 wars he fought in.  The idea of this museum is fascinating in theory.  It breaks down in practice.  Instead of chasing Comstock, the game’s antagonist, Booker suddenly finds himself being harassed by an old war buddy (who is himself after Comstock); this war buddy claims that all of Booker’s old war buddies are themselves in Columbia and they all want Booker to kill them because . . . I’m not really sure why.  I’m not sure what the point of this entire lengthy section of the game is, except to provide a flimsy excuse for the character to need to shoot things in cool looking environments.  It’s one of a number of places where the game introduces a new antagonist, distracting from the main plot, only to completely discard that antagonist for the vast majority of the game.

The story is so alarmingly disjointed that I got the impression that huge sections of the game (or at least the story) were likely rewritten during production, and the game was pushed out the door without time to make it all fit together in any sensible fashion.  The fact that the plot seems to diverge a good deal from early promotional videos, combined with the game’s sudden delay as it neared its original release date, suggests to me that this may be the case.

OK, so the ending.  I’m among the many people who didn’t like Mass Effect 3‘s ending, for reasons I’ve written about before, but Bioshock Infinite‘s ending is certainly worse.  ME3‘s ending was unsatisfying and felt like a cop-out, but it was at least coherent.  Bioshock Infinite‘s ending is basically nonsense.  I could go on and on about how absurd the game becomes as it reaches its climax (like the time-travelling element suddenly introduced at nearly the last moment), but I’ll key in on just a couple of points just to highlight how nonsensical it is.

Prior to the start of the game, Booker has amassed a large gambling debt.  In order to pay off this debt, he agrees to give his creditor his baby daughter.  His creditor turns out to be working for Comstock.  Comstock turns out to be a different version of Booker in other universes.  So, in effect, Booker owes a gambling debt to a version of himself in a different universe?  How?  Why?  Comstock is not presented in any of the universes the game examines as running a gambling business or being involved in any way with gambling.  Further, Booker has apparently made the decision to give over his daughter to pay off the debt in multiple universes.  So multiple Bookers have amassed gambling debts owed to multiple other Bookers, all in different universes?  The whole thing makes no sense.

And then there is the ending to the game, where Elizabeth reveals to Booker that he is Comstock and the only way to prevent Comstock from being born in all of the possible universes is for Booker to kill himself prior to the point at which, in some universes, he adopts the new persona.  OK, so the first thing here is that it’s entirely unclear why there is one master universe up until the point at which Booker chooses whether to become baptised and become Comstock and why there are then an infinite number of universes that spring forth at exactly that time, which is what the game must be implying if there is a “master” Booker who can be killed, preventing all of the splinter universes.

But more importantly, the story runs into the kind of impossible looping logic that virtually all stories involving time travelling run into, and it goes like this: In order to prevent Comstock from coming into being, Booker has to be killed before the point at which he becomes Comstock.  The person who reveals this to him (and who ultimately kills him) is Elizabeth, his daughter.  In order for Elizabeth to gain the power to see and affect these multiple universes, she must be raised by Comstock and the Luteces, whose experiments give her this power.  When Elizabeth kills Booker, she prevents Comstock from ever coming into existence.  But in doing so, she must prevent herself from ever being experimented on by the Luteces, which means she must prevent herself from gaining the ability to travel across time and universes, which means she can’t kill Booker, which means Comstock must be exist.  And on and on in a circle forever.  This is the ultimate problem that any story about time travelling runs into, and Bioshock is felled by it as well.

So, in conclusion, there are some elements of Bioshock Infinite that I really enjoyed.  The art direction and level design is excellent, and the combat can be very fun at times.  But the experience is degraded by a strict adherence to “video game-y” elements borrowed from other games and a story that devolves into a nonsensical mess by the time it thinks it has resolved.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.