Bioshock Infinite – part 1

March 27, 2013


I’m currently in Day 2 of a horrific stomach bug, so I’m home again.  Yesterday, my day was spent finishing Bioshock Infinite.  Today, my day will largely be spent thinking about how to talk about it.

In fact, I may have to do this in two posts, ultimately – one post devoted purely to how the game actually plays and looks and sounds and feels, and then another post about the story, necessarily filled with lots of spoilers, because, for better and for worse, there are things that need to be talked about.  I think I can combine elements of the second into this first post without getting too spoilery, though – or at least I’ll do my best to keep spoilers well advertised.

You know, I don’t even know if I can do this properly yet.  I’m still getting my thoughts together about the game, and trying to reconcile the stuff I liked with the stuff that didn’t make any sense, and it’s frustrating because I want to write this post RIGHT NOW instead of hours or possibly days from now, when the thoughts actually arrive.

That said, this is someone on tumblr’s reaction to the Bioshock Infinite ending, and it sums up my reaction pretty well, too:

So.

THE GAME:  Whatever misgivings I might have about the story and certain other aspects of the game’s narrative, one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that Columbia is arguably an even more engrossing place than Rapture.  It is an astonishing place; pretty much every where you look you’ll see something amazing.  (I had to stop taking screenshots after a while, since it was getting ridiculous.  And if you’d like to see some of those screenshots, you can click this link.  I’ve labeled a few of them as spoiler-ish, and so you don’t have to see them unless you want to.  I hard a hard time choosing which one I wanted to be my desktop background – I ended up going with this one.)

My concern over the shooting and murdering wasn’t necessarily misplaced – indeed, Elizabeth and Booker have more than a few conversations about all the killing that goes on and how hard it might be to live with yourself after you’ve killed someone, and there’s a bit more I could say here but that should probably wait until the spoiler post.  The combat itself is fine; it’s never been why I like these games, but it works well enough.  Still, I was far more interested in exploring the world and opening locked doors and finding hidden passages and even listening to recordings.  As my friend Caro put it, regarding that last bit:

Yeah, so.  Mechanically, the combat works fine, although I really only used a few guns, and even fewer Vigors (i.e., Plasmids).  Some of the Vigors are introduced rather lazily, actually, and I almost missed picking a few of them up.  Not that it would’ve changed my playstyle very dramatically, though – I mainly used Shock and Fire (not their real names) for crowd control before mopping up baddies with machine guns and shotguns.  Most of the Vigors felt like afterthoughts, to be honest – as if the developers needed something to fill out the radial menu.

But there’s another reason we need to talk about those Vigors.  There’s a fantastic Gameological (AVClub) review which I might as well quote directly since John Teti says exactly what I was thinking, and the whole review is worth a read:

Other parts of the BioShock carryover simply don’t make sense. It’s all well and good that the plasmids of the old game have been rechristened as Vigors for Infinite, but in the [first] BioShock, plasmid abuse was an integral part of Rapture’s downfall. More to the point, plasmids made sense in the culture of Rapture, where self-worship was the norm, and man’s freedom to improve his lot was sacrosanct.

Where do Vigors fit into Columbia? I don’t know, and neither does Infinite. There are advertisements for Vigors all over the city, and you can find bottles of the stuff lying around, but very few Columbians use them. In a society that espouses racial purity, you’d think Vigors would be more of an issue. After all, they can turn a person into a demigod regardless of race. But this never comes up. If anything, [the main villain] Comstock appears to tacitly embrace the sale of Vigors. There’s a difference between plot holes, which are excusable, and a disregard for internal logic. Vigors belong to the latter category.

And along those lines, it seems downright odd that there would be so many ammunition vending machines all over the place, especially since there’s this whole uprising/revolution that Comstock is trying to hard to quell.  I can’t necessarily speak more about that until I get to the spoiler post, but purely in terms of game mechanics, it’s striding a very fine line between aiding the player in combat and distracting the player’s brain who’s trying to make sense of everything they see.  In a game like this, where you can tell that every single object has been placed with deliberate care and purpose, it just seems weird.

I should probably stop now, before I start saying things that I shouldn’t say in a non-spoiler post.

before the first few hours: Bioshock Infinite

March 26, 2013


I’d been suffering from shooter fatigue for quite a long time before I found that I was enjoying Far Cry 3 almost in spite of myself.   The endless slaughter of virtual enemies was still somewhat tiresome, but FC3 had enough distractions and side projects to take on that I felt like I could still enjoy what the game had to offer.

And then the Newtown shooting happened, and suddenly I felt sick again.

From that link, which I wrote back in December:

The narrative [in FC3] is where the game’s more or less fallen apart for me, is the thing.  While I appreciate that the game is actually attempting to say something (in that you start out as a whimpering trust-fund douchebag and gradually turn into a sociopathic killing-machine douchebag whose friends (the same friends who you’ve been trying to rescue) are super-creeped out by you and your murder-lust (they actually look into the camera (i.e., your eyes) as if they don’t recognize you)) – in other words, the game is saying that killing hundreds of people doesn’t necessarily make you a hero – the game also requires you to kill hundreds of people in order to advance the narrative; you don’t have a choice in the matter.

And then, a few paragraphs down, I wrote this:

I was originally going to start this post with a hypothetical challenge; would it be possible for me to play any games in 2013 that didn’t involve the firing of a gun?  Then I remembered that Bioshock InfiniteTomb Raider and GTA5 were coming, and that pretty much ended that – I won’t be missing any of those games unless my wife or my newborn son is on fire.  BUT.  I think I’m going to try and get through as much of 2013 as possible without playing any shooters.

Well, here we are.  I’ve finished Tomb Raider – and enjoyed it, for the most part.  And I have not played Gears of War: Judgment, or Crysis 3, or Metal Gear Revengeance, or Dead Space 3.

And when I get home tonight, I’m going to be firing up Bioshock Infinite.  It’s one of the only big AAA games that’s coming out this year that I promised I wouldn’t miss.  The original Bioshock is one of the watershed moments of this generation, after all – and even if the gameplay doesn’t quite hold up these days, the atmosphere and the storytelling still do.

But as much as I’m looking forward to checking it out, I’d be lying if I weren’t apprehensive about all the murdering I’m going to have to do.  What does it say about games as a medium when the game that’s being touted and hyped as the most important story-driven game of the generation still makes you kill lots of things as you get from Point A to Point B – and how one of the game’s selling points is that you can kill these things in lots of interesting and unique ways?

*   *   *

I’ve been trying with all my might to avoid any and all preview coverage of Bioshock Infinite.   This even extends to reviews; I’m aware that it’s been getting very high scores, but I’ve not read any actual reviews or analysis.  This has been very hard of late, as the game’s presence has blanketed pretty much every website I visit with ubiquitous advertising.

But I’m also contractually obliged to link to anything that Tom Bissell writes, and his Grantland interview with Ken Levine is, as usual, very interesting and informative without even really getting into the game itself.  They talk about the game mostly from a writer’s point of view; how game writing differs from novels and screenplays, and they even get into this shooting business a little bit:

[TB:]  Here’s the weird thing, to me, about BioShock. It draws in first-person-shooter nuts who love to electrocute people and set them on fire. It also draws in the disaffected philosophy PhD candidate and gives him something to think about while running amok. A belief of mine is that shooters are made for naughty children, and we all like to become naughty children sometimes. When a shooter can take that mischievous core impulse and enrich it with something that feels genuinely thoughtful, well, that’s lightning in a bottle, isn’t it?

[KL:] Look, I can’t say I’m a man of high taste. I’m a man of low taste. I like action movies and comic books — not that all comic books are of low taste. Not that all action movies are of low taste. I like things exploding. I like candy and cookies. I’m not a sophisticate in any way, shape, or form. My wife and I live the lives of 14-year-old kids; we just happen to be married and have enough disposable income that we don’t necessarily have a bedtime. If I could sit around and eat pizza and ice cream — and not fancy pizza — and watch Lord of the Rings and play video games, I’m a pretty happy guy.

Ken doesn’t quite answer the question, and even Tom’s question addresses the perception that I find somewhat troubling, which is that we should at least be grateful that Infinite is offering something more than just an opportunity to kill hundreds of things, even if killing hundreds of things is a vital, integral part of the experience.

Wouldn’t it be something if we could find something else to do to fill in the time between story beats besides shooting a gun?

So one of the reasons why I was so quiet last week was because I was working on a review of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon for the New York Videogame Critics Circle, which can be found here. This was my first experience writing a review the way the professionals do it:  with a free download code given out …

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Finished Tomb Raider.  Currently at around 93% completion, and I’m not sure I give a shit about finding the last few things there are to find.  Lara is fully leveled up, as are her weapons (not that there are that many people to fight), and the stuff that’s left (mostly GPS caches) doesn’t have much of …

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the first few hours: Tomb Raider

March 7, 2013


[For some reason I feel it necessary to tell you that there’s a bunch of other posts I’m working on, including a special Subway Gamer 3DS post and a revival of the Everything Old is New Again feature (as I play the 3DS version of Ocarina of Time).  In the meantime, I need to talk about Tomb Raider, so here we go.]

I started writing this post yesterday, but I lost interest in it after a while; I couldn’t quite figure out what I was trying to say, and it soon became clear that I just hadn’t played enough of the game to know how I felt about it.  Of course, the whole point of these “first few hours” posts is to provide gut reactions and first impressions, but still – I wanted to at least get past the early tutorial stuff and experience a bit more of what the game had to offer, as that first hour is pretty linear.

So now I’m around 4 hours in; I just made base camp outside the helicopter in the shanty town, if that means anything to those of you who might’ve finished it already.  And I can sum up my experience thusly:  I am enjoying it very much, even if it is not quite the game I’d like it to be.

I never played the original Tomb Raider gamesand from what I understand I’m not necessarily missing all that much.  I did enjoy the 360 games, though – LegendAnniversary, and even Underworld, to a lesser extent.  And the XBLA top-down co-op game that came out a few years ago was quite fun, too.  Those games did well enough for me in the  exploration-to-combat gameplay ratio to make them entertaining; the combat felt obligatory, but at least it was over pretty quickly.  The stories were utterly ridiculous, but I didn’t really care – I liked exploring the tombs and solving the puzzles, and that was enough for me.   As for Lara Croft herself, well, she seemed to be a comic book character with superhuman parkour abilities and some overly generous (some might say borderline-gratuitous) physical endowments.  If I were a 13-year-old boy, it would be one thing.  But as a mid-30s man, it started to get a little embarrassing – sadly, this is pretty much par for the course as far as female videogame characters go.

character design

(source)

This reboot is clearly less about globetrotting and raiding tombs and more about trying to redefine who Lara is – she is young, inexperienced, and is frequently in a great deal of pain.   She is, refreshingly, not gratuitously sexualized; if anything, one could argue that she is perhaps overly victimized.  Terrible things happen to her with a frequency that would be almost comical if she weren’t constantly gasping in agony.

The key part of that last paragraph, though, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that there are hardly any literal tombs to raid – there are certainly some optional tombs to explore, but the three that I’ve found so far consist of basically one puzzle each and took me around 3 minutes to figure out and solve.   That being said, there are certainly a lot of environmental traversal puzzles, and tons of hidden objects to find, and I do enjoy those parts immensely.

In many respects, Tomb Raider reminds me less of, say, Uncharted, and a bit more of Far Cry 3 – especially as there’s one section in Tomb Raider where Lara has to climb a radio tower.  It’s a lot more linear than FC3, but that’s actually OK; the game gives me clearly explained reasons for pushing forward, and so while there’s no countdown urging me to the next objective, I find myself eager to see what happens next.

*       *       *

It’s been interesting (and a little confusing) to hear other people’s reactions to this new Tomb Raider reboot.   I’m only around 4 hours into it, after all, and I can’t necessarily speak to the things these professional critics are responding to – even when they talk in a non-spoilery way.  Rock Paper Shotgun’s review details an experience almost completely different from what I’ve been going through – their guy talks about this feeling of the game constantly interrupting you and your control over the action, but I haven’t really felt that way at all.  And this week’s Giant Bombcast discusses, among other things, the disconnect between Lara’s intense discomfort and revulsion at the things she has to do (like killing people), and the unlocks and perks you can unlock that let Lara perform incredibly gruesome kill maneuvers.

The Bombers also talk about what they wish this game actually was, though, and in that I can absolutely agree.  While I appreciate that the combat in the game is actually pretty good, it’s still the part that I like the least.  What I (and they) love is the exploration and puzzle solving.  I felt this way in Far Cry 3, and Uncharted (both 2 and especially 3), and even Skyrim to a certain extent (not that there’s many puzzles to solve in Skyrim, of course).  I would love a game that forgoes combat altogether and simply gives you a world to explore and solve.  That sort of game is probably too risky to spend AAA development money on, but it’s clear to me from listening to critics and talking with friends that there’s definitely an audience for that sort of experience; hell, look at the success that Dark Souls found in catering to a niche audience.

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