I've not bought a new game for ages, so the release of Bioshock Infinite took me by surprise. The original Bioshock is, far and away, one of the best games ever made. It's sequel was less compelling, but this third installment has tempted me since the first trailers over 2 years ago.
It's ridiculous how long this game took to make, and it shows in how well finished it feels. The maps are compelling in layout, and rich in detail - and obvious care has gone into the playtesting stage to make sure combat is balanced.
I loved the original Bioshock, if nothing else for the interesting new combat mechanic (allowing you to wield Plasmids, genetic upgrades giving you super powers, alongside normal weapons).
But it was more than that. The setting was Rapture; an undersea "utopia", that had met a dark end. The storyline was clever, and the juxtaposition of Little Sisters (small, disturbed, children, harvesting ADAM from corpses) against Big Daddies (the Sister's awesome, metallic, protectors) added certain elements of moral dilema.
It wasn't an especially deep game. There was complexity, the story unfolded in small pieces as you went through the map, but everything flowed naturally. No, what was great about Bioshock was how immersive the entire game was. Every map was lovingly laid out, the story fitted carefully into each settings. You'd pick up a recording (a lot of the story was set out in recordings of the main characters, left around the world) and listen to it.. as it ended fixed dialogue cut in, and then a fight scene ensued. Everything came together in a way that felt complete.
Of course, it had weak moments. The story peaked far too early, leading to a very very long end game. And the AI was imperfect.
To Infinity and Beyond
We'll skip over Bioshock 2, which was a less than compelling sequel (hurriedly built maps and confusing story) and straight into the newest incarnation.
First impressions are; excellent, but no match for it's predecessor.
The care and attention is still there, a lot of effort has gone into making the maps flow naturally. And the setting, Colombia, is again beautifully imagined (1930s US city, floating in the air!). But it is sad to see so many elements of the original storyline reused; the main protagonists are an aloof, probably insane, dictator (Comstock) and some of his ex-allies. This matches almost exactly the plot of Bioshock 1.
There are some unique new features. Your female companion, Elizabeth, is a compelling character (compared to many other games where they are merely eye candy) who comes in handy in a fight (supplying you with ammo, etc.). She also picks locks and can open "tears" in the fabric of space - to enter entirely different realities.
Plasmids are reimagined as "Vigors" - and if anything are an improvement over the original game. Now they have multiple upgrade paths (rather than merely getting stronger over time) and can be set as traps as well as used actively in attacks. The traps mechanism helps make combat more fun and tactical, especially with improved AI which means your enemy can and will flank you.
The major addition to the game comes in the form of "skylines" - rails running around and between maps that you can hook onto a flit around. This can add a whole new dimension to combat; you can jump on a line and soar round behind your enemies before landing in their midst, causing some carnage, and flitting off again before they can respond. Note I said "can", the skyline controls have clearly been set up for console controllers, and on a PC/keyboard it can feel clunky and awkward to control. That's disappointing.
The major let down is the story - it is so complicated! There is a central backstory, relating to the Battle of Wounded Knee, linking your character, Comstock and several others - that explains why you are there, and indeed why the Prophet hates you so much. Then there is the internal struggles of Columbia, which take multiple streams. There is Elizabeth and her unusual powers, a racist undercurrent (non-whites are subclasses who do all the work in the background) which feeds some kind of anarchist rebellion and internal power struggles between Comstock and some of his former allies.
All in all these are not bad plot ideas, on their own they are interesting enough. However all together they become complex and intertwined, separating the important from the mundane makes your head hurt. The beauty of the first game was that although the storyline was complicated, it had one clear thread to follow. In Infinite this is not helped by the fact that the conclusion is, well, damn confusing and doesn't really leave you feeling fulfilled. Without adding any spoilers; Irrational Games have clearly aimed for a controversial and surprising ending, and have, very narrowly, missed.
Another problem is that the maps don't flow so naturally. Unlike Rapture, Columbia is still inhabited by normal people. This makes the game mechanics very odd - one minute you're walking down a promenade amongst crowds of people - sporting a very big shotgun - the next you bump into a passerby and the fuzz descend on you. It could work well; Comstock is supposed to be hunting you down and the game could turn into a sort of "action thriller" where they trace you and attack. But, really, it feels haphazard. You can turn a corner on a crowded street and suddenly everywhere is empty except for men with guns.
Finally the dialogue doesn't flow as naturally as the original game. Audio logs will be interrupted by cut scenes, for example. Or, the most annoying of all, you often "lose" Elizabeth in the distance, and will only hear your half of a conversation with her.
That aside the game is generally well made, and the action compelling enough. Fighting on normal mode is surprisingly tough going (I died a few times at first before getting into the swing of things) and hard mode is worth the moniker.
Columbia is quintessentially 1930s America, both a pleasant break from the dank surroundings of Rapture, and a unique setting in itself. The ariel element is underused (at times it feels merely to be a method of separating the maps) and I miss the ability to move between areas as in the original game (Infinite is, ironically, much more linear).
All in all Infinite is a most enjoyable game, with some unique elements, and is a "finished" as the original. But it isn't a patch on the first, both in storyline and immersiveness. There is just too much regurgitated from the original, and too little progression (technology and theme-wise) to make it an epic in itself.