REVIEW: BioShock Infinite

Do the skew

“Console skewing” is back in full force, to nobody’s surprise.  Everything about the interface and graphics screams “made for consoles”, much like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Skyrim (along with every other historically-PC game).  BioShock Infinite is a perfect example of developers catering to the lowest common denominator, and this trend is something to hate.  No part of the interface emphasizes the mouse or keyboard; you don’t hover over things to see a description, drag-and-drop things around the screen, right-click to see a list of options, or type words to name save files or anything.  The main options screen for seeing your objectives and customizing your character is hidden behind a single button press (typical console restriction) which is never revealed to the player in the game!  You wouldn’t tell somebody to press Start and Select to pause and use menus, so why tell PC players to press “O” for their options?  Screw ’em, let them figure it out.

If you do stumble across the menu, you’ll find a clunky, bullshit, console-style menu, divided into simplistic “tabs” with vertical lists and minimal options.  You’ll want to zip through it with efficiency, but you’ll find this impossible.  Where your mouse is hovering doesn’t match which option is highlighted, clicking is inaccurate and frustrating.  Learning to navigate the countless vending machines scattered throughout Columbia is a pitiful experience for PC users, as you find yourself using the mouse wheel and the Enter button instead of proper mouse control.


Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder

The visuals are equally unimpressive, and also a byproduct of console skewing.  Even though your PC is nine times more powerful than the Xbox 360, you’ll be sharing the same lousy assets.  I honestly can’t understand why people are so entranced by the graphics and aesthetics of the game.  I found it to be downright ugly half the time, and suspiciously over-processed the other half.  Below is a raw screen capture of a common art asset you’ll find throughout the game: a basket of fruit.  Go ahead and click on it to see it in full-size horror:


Sure, at 40 yards away this would look fine, but this isn’t some background doodad.  Almost everything from rose bushes to bookshelves looks this bad.

But dear reader, let me guess: this is another example of me judging the game by the wrong standard?  Just like the broken logic of inconsistent fall damage, or Vigors that only you can use, this ’96-era model and texture shouldn’t be considered gross or lazy — it’s vintage!  It’s got that “style” that feels hand-crafted and charming.  It’s very hipster like that.  You might not get it.  And why not create another get out of jail free card here, too?  You could argue that it would be ridiculous if every piece of fruit and basket were properly modeled, because then we’d end up with the misleading expectation that we can interact with it!  Really, Irrational Games is doing you a favor by not making it look good.  Wouldn’t it be awful if you saw dozens of fully-rendered individual apples sitting in a finely crafted basket, only to discover that it’s a pointless lump of nothing?  Now we don’t even begin to think that it has a function!  Booker is required to eat a cornucopia of fruit in order to refill his health, but this is obviously not a place to refill your health.  Great job, guys.  You’ll stroll past many of these eyesores with bleeding desperation and be unable to savor its life-giving, low-polygon nectar.


Pushing my buttons

I have to comment on the unforgivably bad default key bindings in BioShock Infinite.  Almost every single function was stupid, and while I know that “it’s a matter of preference” and you can change it if you want to, I’ve never had to re-bind so many buttons in a PC game, ever.  Control schemes are a way for a developer to suggest which things you’ll be using the most, so I tend to respect them.  Why wouldn’t I?  Buttons on the outskirts of my reach are probably not supposed to be used in a panic, while those comfortably in reach are more likely to be important, right?  I’d think so.  This is why Infinite‘s controls piss me off so much; they just don’t make sense.

Right-clicking is devoted to spending your precious Vigors, which you can only do a few times before your “salts” are gone, at which point the second-most important button becomes dead weight.  Of course we couldn’t bind something unlimited and supplementary to the right mouse button, like our melee attack or iron sights, because those both are better served on the bottom row of the keyboard: the “V” and “Z” keys, respectfully.  Yes, I want to stretch my index finger awkwardly down and tap the “V” key when I’m in the midst of frantic, close-quarters combat.  Then if I need to do a (moronic and grotesque) “finishing move”, I’ll even hold the button down and give up on the idea of moving to the right for a while, because you know, I tend to use my index finger to move that direction!  If you’re reading this on a PC, go ahead and practice holding the “V” key now while in the WASD position.  Notice how it hurts your hand?  Now, quickly, you have to zoom in on a bad guy!  Go into your iron sights mode (“Z” key)!  Don’t leave the WASD position!  You are now painfully stretching 2 of 3 fingers away from the movement controls to do basic combat functions.  But hey, at least you can switch your weapon fluidly by tapping the “E” button any time you want.  You do that constantly, right?  That’s why we also devoted the mouse wheel to it!

Granted, most PC gamers probably don’t mind using the middle mouse button (mouse wheel) to use iron sights, and plenty have special gaming mice with 5 configurable buttons or something.  You may even take satisfaction in rebinding your games this way.  But the bottom line is, the default keys should be optimal for the majority of people, and by trusting that this was the case, I was frustrated for hours.

This is probably also a result of console skewing, but I thought it deserved its own section.


The price of blood

BioShock Infinite isn’t the most linear game on the market, but it’s also no sandbox experience, so you would expect the AI to function pretty well.  You’ve got relatively controlled environments, a big selection of weapons that all do the same exact thing, and superpowers that tend to override anything else going on, and therefore don’t add to the complexity.  Sneaking through a house with a pistol, I happened across a few men and promptly shot both of them in their heads.  A third man, in the next room, called out to me and threatened to kill me.  I walked quietly into the room and found him angrily shouting at a wall, refusing to face the doorway.  Running up behind him, he didn’t have the sense to turn around, and kept talking to a fireplace.  He also was shot in the head of course.

bioshock choke

A common theme in the game was me shooting people in the head with very little consequence, which feels surprisingly like defeat.  Elizabeth doesn’t even act shocked that I killed every homeless person I found without hesitation, taking the bananas out of their pockets and casting forth a wave of supernatural crows to peck their eyeballs.  I tried to shoot the children in the head, but found that they were unshootable.  Which reminds me of the most hilarious scene in my playthrough:

  • Walk through Hoboville
  • Kill every homeless person I meet to see if it matters
  • Eventually reach a quaint tavern, where people don’t seem to notice that the street outside is now carpeted with their friends and family’s bodies
  • After walking around the room for a bit, I systematically kill everyone except the last man standing, who I allow to cower in the corner and beg for mercy
  • Go downstairs
  • Meet a shy little boy, who I try to shoot in the head
  • He’s invincible
  • See a glowing guitar leaning next to a shelf
  • Pick up the guitar, automatically take a seat in a chair, and play a fun little melody for the boy, who peeks out from under the stairs for a moment, as if enchanted by something magical
  • Put down the guitar
  • Try to shoot him in the face again, but can’t
  • Go upstairs and finish off the still-traumatized citizen before leaving

The game is full of moments that are equally dumb.  When Comstock starts talking over the speakers and all the guards kneel down and start praying/listening, you can kill every one of them without them so much as flinching.  I don’t know if this is supposed to be some kind of magical mind control spell (I didn’t play all the audio logs) but it felt like a hamfisted way of showing his influence.  If the guards are mindless drones, I just feel sorry for them, and I want to free them from their mental prisons; if they’re free and functional humans, this is unforgivably bad writing.  Are we supposed to believe Comstock’s generic prophet status is enough to inspire suicidal stillness in the face of a maniac like myself?  Even in the Bible, everybody from God to Moses to Elijah to Jesus Christ himself has a hard time inspiring real obedience in people, despite their miracles and wonders and threats and exhortations.  Faith is a struggle for the most devout of worshipers in the face of mortal danger, and the whole Comstock brainwashing story chooses to simplify it down to “EVIL WHITE GUY EVERYBODY LISTENS TO”.  Is this supposed to pass for commentary?

Besides, prejudice is about privilege and perks, not devotion and self-sacrifice.  Most bigots don’t even care about the “crusade” they’re a part of — they just want to be on the winning side.  It makes life easier.  Charismatic leaders, propaganda, and other unifying crap exists to make sure everybody has the same talking points, like FOX News or IGN.  There’s a world of difference between obediently slaughtering helpless victims and obediently getting slaughtered because Hitler happens to be talking to you.

bioshock fitzroy

Speaking of helpless victims, let’s go back to Daisy Fitzroy and that kid, which might be the winner of Worst Video Game Sequence of The Year.

It’s truly a Stanley Parable moment to be suddenly asked to save a child’s life by pressing a single button at a specific spot.  But actually, it’s even worse than The Stanley Parable, because no matter how long you wait, she never actually goes through with it in this game.  There’s not even the illusion of consequence, just a big presumption that you’ll do what they expect like a trained dog.  She appears out of nowhere, for no logical reason, covered in blood and raving mad even though she’s the leader of an army and might be more useful at the helm of that city-wide movement.  She happens to be behind bulletproof glass, and there happens to be a vent immediately next to that spot.  She happens to not be paying attention at the moment, despite Elizabeth loudly announcing the plan to crawl through the vent and kill her.  (Elizabeth happens to suddenly consider crawling through vents and killing people, which will never happen again.)  It happens to be dark in the room, and Fitzroy happens to be so damn lazy and preoccupied with the little kid — who she could have shot or stabbed within a split-second if she was really serious — that she doesn’t happen to notice Elizabeth.  She happens to feel like having a conversation with Booker when she’s confronted, and then happens to not react violently when she gets poked from behind by a pair of scissors.

Does that sound like good writing to you?

Oh well, we need to establish that Elizabeth is more than a bleeding heart, so that’s fine.  I mean, we need to know that she’s willing to get her hands dirty if there’s something Truly Important at stake (even though this particular kid will only be killed in this particular dimension, and also not be saved in countless other ones).  So you see, all the flimsy coincidences are justified by the obligatory Character Development Moment.  Logic be damned, we’re winning hearts and minds!

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