Were I any sort of professional video game journalist and not a degenerate unemployable hobbyist, perhaps I would give a game more than four hours of play time to suck me in before I saw fit to air grievances with said game in public. But alas, no one is paying me to do any of this, and I’ve been in this racket long enough to understand that’s unlikely to change any time soon. Integrity and professionalism are constraints that only talented, credentialed, and compensated writers need concern themselves with. Since none of those adjectives describe me, I am free to slag on BioShock: Infinite publicly, and to my heart’s content.
It’s not that I hate BioShock: Infinite, or even think it’s all that bad. However, after spending a few hours with it, I’m not sure it holds up well today. I’ve said this before and I’ll probably say it again: The late 2000’s and early 2010’s were a deeply awkward time for video games, especially for Triple A titles with ambitions to tell a great story. Games with big dreams and big budgets hadn’t figured out how to channel their resources towards crafting a focused, gameplay-centered experience. Instead, we were given games with quick time events and moral choice systems and Grand Theft Auto games that really, really wanted you to spend most of your time hanging out with your overbearing cousin.
My first thought as I’ve been digging into BioShock: Infinite has been how much it suffers from this trend. My second thought has been recognition of what an asshole I am, because I know in my heart of hearts that, because BioShock: Infinite is technically a first-person shooter, I’m secretly comparing it to the 2016 DOOM remake at all times, and DOOM 2016 is not a fair point of comparison for anything or anybody.
DOOM 2016, the only other first-person shooter I’ve played in the past year, is a flawless game. Not one element of the DOOM 2016 experience is frivolous or wasted. You can explore as much as you want and will be directly, immediately rewarded fro doing so, but you don’t have to explore at all if you don’t want to. Cutscenes are kept to a bare minimum, both in terms of quantity and length; all supplementary story and lore materials are entirely optional. The game is laser-focused on making itself as fun as possible, and it achieves this lofty goal with tight controls, tight level design, and relentless, cathartic action.
But, even acknowledging that just about every game this side of Super Mario Bros. 3 would suffer by comparison to DOOM 2016, holding it against BioShock: Infinite is self-evidently unfair. BioShock: Infinite may also be a first-person shooter, but it’s not even sort of trying to provide the same sort of experience. Whereas DOOM 2016 emphasizes action, BioShock: Infinite is meant as a more contemplative affair. You could credibly argue that the only thing the two games really have in common is the first-person perspective. While I would hesitate to classify it as a full-on Action RPG, it adopts an RPG-like sense of pacing (hold this thought). Instead of dropping you into a series of run-and-gun setpieces, you’re dropped into an imaginative and fully realized dystopia for you to explore, chock full of world-building audio logs and NPC dialogues. Combat is infrequent and occasionally avoidable, while story interludes are frequent and involved, because the story itself is what takes center stage. It is a different game designed for a different purpose, and a fair evaluation must of BioShock: Infinite must acknowledge this.
And yet, the more I try to open my mind to what the game is trying to do, the less I like it. To start at the most elemental level, while the controls themselves are responsive and all, the default keyboard setup is a hot mess. The long-standard WASD movement scheme is relegated to alternate movement mapping in favor of the arrow keys, which is simply baffling. I haven’t used the arrow keys for FPS movement since Duke Nukem 3D, and I have no idea how that’s supposed to make sense in a game that uses free mouse aim.
But at least I can still use WASD to move. Everything else is un-streamlined (which is to say seemingly every in-game function is assigned a unique key), poorly mapped, and difficult to improve. V to melee? Z to zoom aim? F to interact with objects? J to play audio logs!? Yeah, that’s as low stakes as a key function can be, but who maps J to anything in an FPS!? Why does playing audio logs require it’s own button, anyway?
And while I can re-map to my heart’s content, I’m struggling to do so in a way that makes sense. The problem with re-mapping is that changing one assignment necessitates changing another, and since just about every single unique function in the game has its own key, sensibly re-mapping the keyboard controls requires good planning and exceptional foresight, neither of which are my best skills. I spent a good 10 minutes trying to find a sensible re-map for melee attacks before switching back to V. At first, I wanted it to be F (just like DOOM 2016), but F is the use key. I usually prefer E for use, but E is assigned to weapon cycling, and I can’t bump that to one of the number keys because those are each mapped to one of the magic attacks (called Vigors). So instead, I started out changing melee to G, but that was too far of a finger stretch for regular use. Then I changed it to C, which is assigned to crouch, but since crouch is also Left Ctrl I figured I’d be fine, but since I’m moving with WASD trying to use C for anything while under duress is a nightmare and R is already reload and Q cycles Vigors and Left Shift is already run if C didn’t work X is gonna be even worse for melee attacks and, come to think of it, if pressing X in combat is a nightmare why is Z mapped to zoom aim when you’re gonna be using that under duress exclusively and god fucking dammit why can’t I make the keyboard mapping make any sense!?!? I feel like it shouldn’t be this difficult to design an FPS keyboard mapping scheme, and yet here I am, completely baffled as to how to fix it. I might have to scrounge around and see if any of my old Xbox 360 controllers still work, and hope playing with a controller makes the controls make sense.
I haven’t even mentioned the zip lines which feature prominently in the game. While they’re a cool idea, you are responsible for controlling your own acceleration and deceleration, which is mapped to the arrow keys. That’s not a problem by itself, but it’s a huge problem when every zip line section puts you in a confusing perspective, necessitating that you look around using the mouse to have a chance of understanding just where exactly you’re going, and where any nearby threats may be. These sections are probably a lot more fun with a controller, since even if the acceleration is mapped to the direction pad, said pad is right next to the left analog stick, so moving and looking at the same time is not a ergonomic nightmare. Again, I have no idea who could have thought it was a good idea to combine arrow key movement with mouse look, but I’m certain they’re not my friend.
All of this is to say that the PC controls put me in an uncharitable mood to begin with, and this is even before I get to my complaints about the pacing. Like many RPGs, Bioshock lets you acclimate for a while before any combat happens. Once again, this isn’t a problem in and of itself, but this game takes forever and a half to get moving. I had played almost an hour before I got into any combat, whatsoever, and once I had, I soon discovered that combat is the exception in Bioshock: Infinite. It’s infrequent, and rarely lasts all that long when it does occur. You can easily go more than 20-30 minutes without getting into a single fight, even after the Intro. And while combat is happening, it’s sort of dull. Enemy groups are thin, and their patterns are simplistic. Vigors are either game-breaking or useless. There are almost too many ways to deal with enemies, which is terrible for a chronic overthinker like me. What’s more, this being a BioShock game and all, death is but a slap on the wrist. You lose a bit of money and maybe a bit of progress, and you get right back to it.
Here I am compelled to mention that I did play the original BioShock on my old Xbox 360 many, many years ago, and have fond memories of the experience. As I recall, it took less time to get going, and combat was both more frequent and more fun. Yes, death was just as lightly punished in that first game as it is here, but there was also more of it, and it was very easy to get in over your head fighting multiple waves of enemies. Thus, the quick respawns were a helpful convenience; instead of forcing you to reload and start the fight over, the game was kind and let you get back in the fray more or less the way you left it when you last expired. In Infinite, it removes what few stakes combat seems to have.
The original Bioshock also did a much better job balancing its story with its gameplay, which is another way of saying that ultimately, having fun playing BioShock was the point of playing BioShock. I’m beginning to wonder whether Infinite is even supposed to be all that much fun in the first place. There’s a lot of slow story sections and sections that are little more than pseudo-interactive cutscenes. There’s a particular early section in which you make a daring escape from an impenetrable, collapsing metal construction while being chased down by a giant mechanical eagle, which culminates in disaster as you crash into the sea below. Sounds awesome, right? Perhaps it would have been if you did anything more to facilitate this escape than slowly amble down a series of corridors (running seemed to be disabled through most of these, for no adequately explored reason). I didn’t feel like I was doing anything to make this happen; rather, the game had me along for the ride. Afterwards, I was treated to another long stretch of exploring before anything exciting happened. There are plenty of other scenes where the game gives you nothing to do but stand around while plot happens. Story is more important than gameplay in BioShock: Infinite, and don’t you forget it.
So the controls are messed up and the pacing is fucked and the combat is boring, but wait, I still have nitpicky concerns! Exploration is minimally rewarded, save for supplementary story bits. You can search some objects but not other, similar objects. This would make sense if you could only search objects with loot, but for some reason there’s plenty of searchable stuff containing nothing whatsoever. There’s tons of NPCs and no way to talk to them; the only purpose they serve is to provide incidental dialogue. This slows the game down even further, since hearing out all (or even a representative smattering) of these dialogues takes time. And again, all this dialogue is just extra world-building; no NPC will ever tell you anything useful. The game does little to reward different play styles, which is baffling given how many combat options you have, and is also something I remember the original BioShock excelling at. Use Vigors whenever you can, and shoot only if you must, and only from afar. Try to focus on melee and short range combat, and death is certain. At one point, I was forced to use a sniper rifle, and any game that forces me to use a sniper rifle at any time for any reason is gonna get on my shit list (and yes, using the scope is done with zoom aim, which is mapped to Z. It’s brutal.) Your traveling companion has a habit of starting a conversation when you’re listening to audio logs. That may seem nitpicky, but trying to listen to two things at once is a massive pet peeve of mine, and I’m not sure how that’s still happening years after release, and after who knows how many patches.
Perhaps I’m being unfair, but at this point in my BioShock: Infinite journey, I can’t help but be disappointed. I have fond memories of the first game, and Infinite came highly praised and highly recommended. Hell, I would have happily paid full price for it back in 2013, had my 360 been working at the time. Maybe my experience will improve – I really do think I need to try it with a controller – but better controls can’t fix the pacing, and if the pace picks up, it can’t fix the other problems. I’ll keep trying, but I’m not optimistic.
As always, the root problem is expectation. I was excited to play BioShock: Infinite going in because I thought I was guaranteed to love it. That’s on me, and in recognition of this error I will never expect to enjoy anything ever again, ensuring all will be well.
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