Bioshock infinite is the epitome of a modern shooter, the graduated son and successor of Call of Duty that will only fail to bring in as many sales because it doesn’t have multiplayer. Shooting galleries have never been so polished. The game is filled to the brim with decadent and richly detailed environments with a variety of unique art assets that make many locations, especially those you don’t actually fight in, feel unique. These environments are rendered with some of the best lighting methods currently available, and the palette for the game spans the range, perfectly capturing the city of Columbia and completely avoiding the trap that many modern shooters fall into of having hideously monotone palettes. There is a massive amount of recorded dialog for all locations and a variety of situations. The story is well detailed with tons of dialog on all sides tying events together and characters are given many moments to show personality in scripted events. It falls apart in some ways if you examine a bit too closely, but it’s good enough for most people. The story mostly comes under fire because people are searching for a good reason to hate the game because we can all perceive that it is going to be a landmark game, for better or worse. For those of you that love games, it is likely to be for the worse.
The dominant central idea of the modern shooter and to a lesser degree, the modern game, is escapism. It is to create a reality that one can slip into and act out fantasy. People by and large don’t enjoy playing games as much as they enjoy going on adventures with young girls through spacetime, taking down an authoritarian religious regime. They like things that put them in the moment and prioritize things like that to nearly all else. This is something that Call of Duty has been known to do excellently, and that Bioshock Infinite continues to do very well. It has scripted sequences where you can walk around while characters talk to you. It has quips back and forth between Booker and Elizabeth and generally great character driven interactions with all the named characters. It has little scenes where you can make choices and some dialog plays out. On the whole it emphasizes a consistent narrative that is immutable in every aspect above any measure of interaction the player actually has with the game. The game is not really subject to variable interpretation. There are not many different ways to interpret the mechanics of the game or styles of gameplay to focus on, despite attempts to make it seem otherwise with upgrade paths. No matter what, you’re likely to play the game similarly to nearly everyone else who plays the game and that is largely the intention. The game capitalizes on “immersion” rather than “engagement”.
Bioshock Infinite is a game that is designed to be “experienced” rather than played. It is not a challenge requiring the player to understand or reinterpret information and try out different methods to figure the game out. It plays on first person shooter conventions that are common to the genre and nearly all of its players already are familiar with. The edges of the game are sanded off such that completing the game is a matter of time rather than a matter of skill. 1999 mode is locked from the start because of worry that players may be unable to complete it (being the only mode with actual game overs), because it is a game designed to show every part of itself off and never leave the player in a situation they cannot escape from with enough time. This is made clear through several mechanics, the regenerating health, the revival system when you die, and Elizabeth’s scrounging for cash/ammo/salts/health.
The Health system consists of a regenerating shield on top of your normal health bar. Regenerating health has come under fire in recent times for a number of reasons, so this configuration enables them to punish the player for getting hit too much by placing them close to death while still guaranteeing that, no matter what, they will always have enough health to press on. In the case that the player runs out of health completely, they will appear at a door, or Elizabeth will revive them, and they will lose some money. Dying this way partially regenerates the health of the enemies that are still alive and leaves the dead ones as such and it returns you with full shields, half your health, and a significant amount of ammo and salts. The checkpoint it deposits you at is a location in the area that is guaranteed to be safe from enemies on spawn and all the enemies in the area are no longer alerted to your presence. Only on 1999 mode does revival cost $100 and will dump you to the main menu if you cannot pay up. Between all these means of retrieving ammo and recovering health, you have very little chance of getting stuck at any point in the game.
Unlike prior Bioshock games you are limited to carrying only 2 weapons. The result of this is that instead of a selection of reasonably unique weapons like the previous games they were forced to give most of the weapons similar damage outputs and effective ranges. Prior Bioshock games, and indeed, FPS games in general, were capable of having a diverse selection of weapons with varying specializations that were each useful in varying situations. In a game with 2 weapons on the player at any given time, only so much specialization is really allowable or the majority of weapons lose out when it comes time to choose between weapons for the player. In 2 weapon games, weapon selection stops being about responding to the situation and starts being about optimizing for the weapons the player thinks has the best output. It stops being tradeoffs and starts being a sorting list for what is most effective in the most situations with anything remotely specialized losing out unless it’s on hand right when you need it, like when a sniper rifle is handed to you in an area with many far off enemies and no close threats. This is why the machine gun, repeater, carbine, pistol, and burst gun all feel and operate very similarly and are therefore common so the player has a ready stock of different mid-range weapons with decent damage output to swap between when one runs out of ammo. Those that are less specialized like the hand cannon (admittedly more generic than the others but not identical to the prior category in function), sniper rifle, RPG, and Shotgun.
The guns all feel really weak, even the more powerful ones like the sniper rifle, which don’t kill regular enemies in one hit unless you get a headshot, and on tougher enemies do fuck-all. The tougher enemies frequently allowed you to knock off their helmets so you could shoot directly at their head. This was a great idea, but shooting their head didn’t do a noticeable amount of extra damage like on common enemies, and having the helmet on or off didn’t actually change the amount of damage you did to the head. In general, every enemy that wasn’t a common foot soldier took way more damage to kill than is really reasonable. RPGs, typically a fallback for larger tougher enemies, barely scratched them. After receiving undertow, it’s much simpler to push these enemies over railings as the fall kills them instantly.
Like many modern games, BioShock Infinite’s conception of difficulty relies exclusively on boosting enemy HP and damage output. This does technically make the game more difficult, but the whole point of higher difficulty modes isn’t just to make enemies take more damage and kill you more easily, it’s to challenge the player to use the mechanics to their full capability, or at least it should be. Enemies aren’t more aggressive or intelligent on higher difficulties, the player isn’t challenged to understand the mechanics more deeply or think about their choices, they just have to burn through more enemy HP. They could have had more enemies, or new abilities on enemies, or had them be more aggressive, but none of these things are really present.
The game’s one unique mechanic, tears, are not really much to talk about. More than anything it was really just a diegetic reason to have tons of ammo, health and weapons lying around. It’s not much to talk about because there isn’t much decision making to be had with tears. There’s never a reason one tear is really to be prioritized over any other. The tears creating cover are frequently redundant. The tears creating ammo are used as you need them, much like normal reserves of ammo. The tears creating robotic help are useful in earlier levels, but the fundamental problem is that at no point is deciding which tear to open really an interesting choice. You can only have one open at a time, but there are no situations where choosing between tears is a difficult choice or where you would really want or need more than one open. Tears are by no means a game defining mechanic or introduce any new tactics for dealing with enemies, they function more as a tool for the designers to ensure the players get through the game.
Progression through the game is linear, not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but one has to wonder how this really relates back to System Shock anymore. Bioshock was already a far cry from System Shock and Infinite seems only to share scrounging through various receptacles for resources, special powers, upgrades to your weapons, and audio logs from various people. Infinite even lost Bioshock’s original claim to fame, the roaming boss battles. It has a mode that calls back to 1999, but nothing in any part of the game calls back to 1999. 1999 mode itself doesn’t even have features that really emulate the difficulty of a game from 1999. Back around that actual year, games were 3-4 times as fast, let you jump 3 times as high, carry 9 different weapons that all had specialized functions, had nonlinear levels to explore, and reasonable, if a bit archaic, keybinds.
Older first person shooter games sported an arsenal that was frankly pretty astounding, lasers, homing rockets, explosive mines, crossbows, guns with rebounding projectiles, grenades, stun weapons, plasma weapons, and all sorts of variations on the usual weapons. The normal weapons were all specialized to serve different roles from one another to suit different situations, like pistols in half life being useful late in the game because they have a lot of ammo and are very accurate for picking off enemies at a long distance. By contrast, rockets and other explosives do a ton of damage, way more than the standard enemy has, making them inefficient for tackling small enemies and much more useful against larger ones with tons of health. In Bioshock Infinite, all weapons are equally viable in nearly every situation and switching between them is just a matter of swapping ammo reserves rather than trying to counter a dynamic situation or different types of enemies.
Bioshock infinite wants to take you on a “wild ride” and you don’t really have any say in how that ride goes. It’s not a game about the joys of discovery or exploration. It’s not a game about mastering a bunch of unique weapons. It’s not a game about solving puzzles or pathfinding. Extra subversively, it’s a game that wants to make a grab at the largest audience it can. It’s clear through its marketing and choice of features that it wants to appeal to the old FPS crowd too. The old crowd hates regenerating health, so it’s half regenerating, half normal. The old crowd hates iron sights, so hip fire was kept relatively accurate. The old crowd loves hard difficulty and permanent choices, so 1999 mode was added. They even had the gall to include literally one combination lock in the entire game and to make the code 0451 (the code to the first door in Deus Ex was 0451, the first door in system shock was 451, and a door in System Shock 2 was 45100). The game doesn’t use keypads or combination locks anywhere else in the game because it’s not a game about solving combinations or finding passwords or exploration. Including a combination lock JUST to have a reference to an older game, that Infinite is no faithful successor of, is completely disingenuous.
Bioshock Infinite is the ultimate evolution of the first person shooter, closer than anything to a film that pulls you through in a first person perspective, with the shooting used to tie the whole thing together. Shooters were originally about freedom, discovery, power, and mastery. Bioshock Infinite is about putting you in the center of action you have little to do with, making out everything you do to have a greater impact than it actually does, it’s about convincing you that your choices have meaning, and very importantly, it’s about grabbing the call of duty audience by placing it in a very different niche than call of duty, even though it is essentially the same ideology and ethos. Bioshock Infinite isn’t Medal of Honor or Battlefield, styling itself after realistic warfare. Columbia is vibrant and filled with color. It’s a positively unreal place and it gives you supernatural powers to play around with. From a marketing perspective, it has all the features everyone in the Call of Duty audience wants without being a direct competitor. It catches the audience turned off by gunmetal gray realistic shooters while mechanically being identical. BioShock is the perfect game for the current generation of players that is more obsessed with style than substance, that cares more about how things are represented than what they are. FPS is dead, long live FPS.