Friday, April 26, 2013

Games Review: Bioshock Infinite

I have come to believe that Gaming is in flux at the moment, unsure, as an industry and community, how it wants to be seen. In the last few years Video Games have become an important part of the entertainment business, economically powerful, big games with big marketting engines meaning that big releases can get coverage on the news in the same way a major book or movie might be. So it wants to play with the older kids, but at the same it's also self-concious about it's own immaturity. The Games-as-art debate swirls around it's feet, constantly. The desire for creator-led authorship fights with the desire for player agency. The up-front cost of development fights with the long-tail of DLC and Direct Download sales. Its a pretty exciting time, in many ways.

Bioshock Infinite feels, in many ways, like a child of these times. It wants to tell you a story - a specific story, about specific people - but it also wants you, the player, to feel like you dictate proceedings. It's a big budget studio game that wants to talk about emotions, ethics, economics and race. Its a game that lets you tear enemies faces off with a grapple hook, but also wants to talk convincingly about the futility of cycles of violence. If Bioshock Infinite is nothing else - it's bloody interesting to talk about.

So, you play Booker DeWitt, broke and destitute Private Eye hired by a man he can't quite remember to go to a city flying in the sky - a city he's never heard of - to rescue or kidnap a young girl, Elizabeth. The city, Columbia, was founded by a charismatic cult leader, ceded from the United States, and lurks above the clouds, a delightfully evocative White Supremacists paradise built with technology harvested from "tears" into other times and places. The comparisons to Bioshock's Rapture should be fairly obvious from the get-go, and the game makes little pretense otherwise as it hits familiar beats on your arrival.

There is however a big difference and it's this: Bioshock is the story of Rapture, it's rise, decline and fall, Rapture is the star, the centre of the game to which everything else is dressing. Here, Columbia is the dressing to the story of Elizabeth and Booker, a rich and detailed setting that never quite convinces as a real place. Its a stage set for it's story to play out on, and I think your love of the game will hang very much on your engagement with that story.

And it works for me, in no small part because of Elizabeth. We've had companion characters in past games, but Elizabeth is the game, and she's wonderfully animated and acted. Brought up alone in a tower, protected by a giant mechanical bird, her story is one of rapid disillusionment, followed by finding her own strength and way in the world, moving from being led by Booker to leading him onwards. The relationship between the two leads I found compelling and interesting, and different, and the rest of the game hangs on it and is carried along.

Bioshock Infinite wants to talk about a lot of other things along the way. Its depiction of turn-of-the-century US racism is one of the starkest I've seen, a brave choice in a lot of ways given how much gaming shies away from this sort of thing. And given that it has been accused of getting it badly wrong (I don't think it does, but I understand the reason for the criticism) from some quarters probably shows the industry does. It wants to talk about the nature of violence and oppression, and about how fighting monsters can make you a monster, and the need for redemption and forgiveness. A lot of this gets lost as the game moves towards its meta-text heavy finale, but I prefer to credit it for raising this sort of thing, rather than criticism it for not engaging with the subjects fully.

Away from the subject matter, Infinite is a solidly fun shooter fond of chucking waves of assorted enemies at you to dispatch in a variety of fun and gruesome ways. Zipping around the skylines is amazingly good fun, the guns are solid and reliably "shooty", and the vigors (magic powers like electric bolts, fireballs and flocks of ravens) are diverse and extremely useful. Elizabeth's ability to summon "tears" with gun turrets, ammo packs or cover is a mechanic that adds a lot, but again adds to the "stagey" feel of a lot of the games presentation. Oh, and The Songbird is an utterly fantastic - and terrifying - piece of design work, and its regular appearances are all highlights of the game.

I found the whole experience of the game fascinating. It wants to be so much, and talk about so much, and carries and aspiration that I found hard not to admire. It doesn't hit all it's marks, I think, but its main story is fantastic, resolution clever and, if I'm being honest, pretty damn brave for a game that competing with titles which can be summed up as "Generic McShooterson goes to Desertland" for shelf space. It strains against it's own bonds, struggles against the conventions it can't be free of, and sometimes it just ends up hurting itself, other times its fleetingly breaks free into the sunshine, and flies.