nowPlaying: Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock was one of the first Xbox 360 games I ever played. I bought the console from a friend, along with a few games, and that was the only one that looked interesting to me. (I had yet to go pick up my copy of Fallout 3, which was my reason for buying the console in the first place.) I remember being surprised at how much fun it was: Not your average first-person shooter, the game implements the use of biological powers called plasmids, which ultimately led to the fall of the game’s utopian underwater city, Rapture. The game introduced the Big Daddy, one of the most iconic video game characters to appear in recent time, and the story’s twist ending was something I hadn’t seen much in the world of video games.

I remember playing Bioshock 2 and finding it to be a little too familiar. It’s a solid game, but it didn’t offer much that the first game didn’t. Perhaps this is to be expected; the game is made by a different team.

The team behind the first Bioshock would later go on to make the third entry in the series, Bioshock Infinite. This one leaves the underwater city of Rapture in favor of the floating city of Columbia. It’s clear from the beginning that this isn’t going to be more of the same.

Welcome to Columbia.
Welcome to Columbia.

The protagonist of Bioshock Infinite, Booker Dewitt, is much more present than in past games. In recent years, there’s been an influx of silent protagonists. This is something that isn’t always successful in terms of storytelling; when done correctly, the player will feel like they’re in the game, but if not, it tends to feel more like you’re playing as a wall that other characters keep asking to do things. It’s refreshing to see the concept of the pre-made, vocal protagonist is still around and can still be successful.

While you don’t control what Booker Dewitt says, several decisions are left up to you, the player. These range from trivial to very difficult, but great care has been taken to make sure they aren’t out of place. This is the downside to playing as a pre-made protagonist: Sometimes you, the player, make them do things that character would never do. Bioshock Infinite treads this line perfectly. Nothing Booker does is out of place, and he reacts to things the way you’d expect him to react.

Strong storytelling isn’t limited to Booker Dewitt. Bioshock Infinite is one of the strongest games I’ve seen in a long time, in terms of story. Booker’s journey begins on a boat trip to a lighthouse, and takes him into a floating city. His mission: Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt. “Whatever that means” will likely be your first thought, and this is intentional: Booker is the kind of guy who does things he needs to do and doesn’t ask questions. At least, that’s how he starts out.

Things in Columbia quickly take a dark turn, and Booker finds himself fighting for his life, trying to reach a distant statue so he might “find the girl”. It seems Booker is Columbia’s prophesied antichrist figure, recognizable by the “AD” carved into the back of his right hand. Columbia’s prophet, Zachary Comstock, has seen Booker coming, and wants him stopped at all costs.

Columbia is made up of floating islands, and to traverse them, Booker will use a device called the Sky-Hook to latch on to rails connecting the islands. This makes for an interesting mechanic: While sliding along these rails, called Sky-Lines, combat is still possible, and sometimes even required.

The Sky-Hook also makes for a powerful melee weapon.
The Sky-Hook also makes for a powerful melee weapon.

While interesting, the Sky-Line and Sky-Hook system never realize their full potential. Whatever you do the first time you use them is probably going to be all you do with them throughout the game. Shooting from the Sky-Line is difficult, and you’ll most likely miss most of your targets. There also isn’t much complexity to be found: Most of the Sky-Lines in combat areas just take you in a circle around a platform your enemies will be shooting at you from. I couldn’t help but feel like a lot more could’ve been done with this system.

This brings me to my other main complaints about the game. Instead of the plasmids found in earlier games, Booker will use Vigors. The concept is the same: Your DNA is altered, allowing you to use biological attacks. If I had to summarize the game’s use of these, it would be “too much shock and not enough bio”. In most cases, you’ll just end up pulling the trigger of your regular old rifle until everyone else stops shooting at you. I found the Vigors to be mostly useless; one of them, called Devil’s Hand, was just about the only one I used, and it wasn’t particularly creative: Throw a ball of fire and it explodes. As far as first-person shooters go, they may as well have given you grenades.

The exception to the rule is a Vigor you acquire later in the game called Return to Sender. This one is easily my favorite, and the only one I found creative or even fun to use: Booker summons a ball of energy into his hand that allows him to catch incoming bullets and then throw them back at enemies. Doing this requires the use of Booker’s shield, so it isn’t unlimited, and timing is everything.

Return to Sender is particularly useful against Patriots, robotic renditions of the Founding Fathers equipped with machine guns.
Return to Sender is particularly useful against Patriots, robotic renditions of the Founding Fathers equipped with machine guns.

Return to Sender aside, Bisohock Infinite is a pretty basic first-person shooter. There isn’t much variety in the enemies (the iconic Big Daddies are nowhere to be found, instead replaced with Handymen, which are far more annoying than frightening or formidable). Where the game surpasses your run-of-the-mill FPS is in its art direction. You’ll be using the same guns to fight the same enemies you’ll find in any FPS, but they’re going to look a lot more beautiful.

It takes more than looks to make a great game (which Bioshock Infinite is). With breathtaking visuals but standard gameplay and game time (a playthrough will take about 8-10 hours), where Infinite succeeds is its story, and this really takes off when you meet “the girl”, Elizabeth.

It’s difficult to meet Elizabeth and not be immediately reminded of a Disney character (Belle from Beauty and the Beast comes to mind). She’s a young, naive girl who’s spent her life alone in a tower with her books (and a certain guardian I won’t spoil for you). Sounds easy, right? Find the girl, protect the girl, get her to New York, wipe away the debt. Looks can be deceiving; Elizabeth is no sucker, and she’s not going to obey Booker as easily as Booker obeys the man who hired him. She has a mind of her own, and this lends to what is perhaps the game’s biggest charm.

The first time Booker meets Elizabeth, she attacks him with a book on quantum physics. and thus, a legend was born.
The first time Booker meets Elizabeth, she attacks him with a book on quantum physics. and thus, a legend was born.

Elizabeth makes for an interesting character in so many ways. I said she has a mind of her own, and this extends to the gameplay itself: Elizabeth will be with you for most of the game. She’ll stay out of the way during combat, searching for ammo and health for Booker, sometimes finding money, lockpicks, and other useful items. The game’s AI is often mentioned, and with good reason. She’ll walk ahead of you toward your goal, sit down, chat with strangers, lean against walls, look through shelves; Elizabeth acts like a human being. She’ll talk with Booker about everything from his mission to her missing pinky finger. Her personality and programming make her one of the most likable video game characters I’ve ever met.

It’s hard to talk about the game’s story without ruining it. From the point you meet Elizabeth onward, Bioshock Infinite carries one of the strongest stories in video gaming. You’ll meet a lot of characters and factions with their own reasons and purposes, and the story carries what would otherwise be a decent game into greatness. Enemies become friends, motives change. Something as small as the tip of a pinky finger can have life-altering ramifications.

When the screen finally cut to black and the credits began to roll, my first thought was “That’s it?” This quickly gave rise to “What in the world did I just witness?” which was then followed by me sitting in silence for about a half hour playing back everything I’d just experienced in my head. What seems at first like a tangled, nonsensical web of plot holes becomes a complex, intricate, purposeful and meaningful series of events the more you pick at it, the further you unravel it, and I’m not convinced it’s possible to straighten everything out. There’s a reason the title contains the word “Infinite”.

Look up any list of the most mind-blowing endings in video game history, and you’ll probably see the first Bioshock on it. Bioshock Infinite puts it to shame. If I hadn’t rented the game, I would have popped it right back into my Xbox and played through it again to see what else I could see. I look forward to my next playthrough (but I’m aiming for PC next time; the Xbox 360 version suffers from an unfortunate amount of lag, especially during the last battle).

The game’s developer, Irrational Games, recently announced a massive scaling-down, as well as an intent to make no further Bioshock games. I have no doubt their publisher, 2K Games, will assign another team to make sequels, but it’ll be hard to see them as true Bioshock games. Bioshock ends with Infinite; you can’t take a story this well planned and executed and simply add on to it. It’s rare in the world of video games to see a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite create one of the exceptions to this rule, and I think I’d be happier if they remained that way.

All images taken from the official website and not owned by me.

What I’ve Been Up To 5/16 Edition

Hey everyone! I haven’t posted here in a while, but I’m busier than ever! Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Editing!

I’ve been making some minor pre-edit adjustments to the novel I finished in April, which is tentatively titled The Foreland. I think these are pretty much finished, and now I’m going to let the manuscript sit for a few more weeks before I really get down to editing.

I’ve also been proofreading a manuscript by my good friend Seth Thomas. He printed a copy of it for me to write and draw all over, and I’ve been trying to do so every night.

Reading!

I just finished Mile 81, a novella by Stephen King. You can find my review of it on Goodreads. I’m still debating what to read next, but City of Illusions by Ursula K. Le Guin is pretty high up on my list.

Writing!

I’ve been taken on as a staff writer for a Nintendo fan website, Nintendocon. Be sure to follow it for the latest news, reviews, and analysis.

Publishing!

Laura, the wonderful artist who did the cover for After the Bite, has been kind enough to draft up a new version. This one has much better title text, is easier to see, and is (hopefully) much better-looking in print (I’ll know for sure as soon as my copies arrive).

The people behind /r/shutupandwrite’s Critiquecast have been kind enough to critique my microfiction piece “The Reaper Runs Faster”. If you don’t know what Critiquecast is, it’s a podcast in which a group of amateur writers critiques other amateur writers, with hilarious and probably not-safe-for-work results. It’s a lot of fun, and you should check the podcast out.

As always, I’m working to try to get short stories and novels published traditionally. I’ll be a lot more specific about this if and when I have anything specific to announce.

That’s the gist of what I’ve been up to. What about you?

Pre-E3 Comments

E3 is coming up in just a few days (June 5-7) and I’m excited for some things, curious about some things, and a little worried about others. Here are my thoughts on the expo.

Sony

I’ve owned every current generation console but the PS3 is the only one I subsequently sold. To be fair, when I had it there were few games available. I played Resistance, which was fun but very short (took maybe 5 hours to beat) and had little replay value. I played Folklore, though I use the term “played” loosely because in the two hours I had the disc spinning in my system I think I played for maybe fifteen minutes, and the rest of that time was spent watching cutscenes and scrolling through text. I rented Uncharted which was a lot of fun but wasn’t a good enough reason for me to keep the console.

There are a lot more and a lot better games out now, but nothing I’d be willing to buy the system again for, especially now that I have an Xbox 360. That said, some games come close. What I’m looking for from Sony is a lineup that finally crosses that threshold. The Last Guardian might have been the game to do it, but the likelihood that we’ll see anything from it is pretty low. I don’t want to use the term “vaporware” but things are not looking great for this game. The Last of Us also looks very promising, and I think if any developer is going to bring me back to the Playstation, it’ll likely be Naughty Dog. I’m a sucker for Studio Ghibli, so Ni No Kuni is high on my radar. Then there’s Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale, Sony’s inevitable ripoff of answer to Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. franchise.  I’ll keep my eye on this one, but Sony doesn’t have anything remotely close to the franchise-specific fanbase Nintendo has, and most likely at least one character in this game will have appeared in SSB already (Solid Snake). Besides that, Masahiro Sakurai (the man behind Super Smash) is a gaming genius, and I don’t think Sony will reach the same level of creativity we’ll find in his series.

Overall, I’m mildly interested in what Sony has to offer.

Microsoft

I have some interest in what Microsoft is doing with Halo 4, but beyond that the company will have to pull some surprises to catch my attention. The Fable series never reached its potential with me, and releasing a Kinect-exclusive title is not going to fix that. I’m far more excited to see some third-party games for the Xbox. What I expect to see is two days of people talking about how great the Kinect is and why I should buy one, which in my view is two days of wasted time. Back to Halo 4, Bungie isn’t developing this one, but I like to remain optimistic, so I’ll keep my eye on it. Overall I’m uninterested in what Microsoft has to offer, but factor in third-party games and we have an entirely different story.

Nintendo

Nintendo is probably going to have the most of my attention. They should be announcing final details on the Wii U. Unfortunately, I expect the Wii U to be about the same as the Wii: It’ll be great for a year or maybe two. After that, Nintendo’s competitors will release systems twice as powerful, causing Nintendo to hemorrhage third-party support. The tablet controller will hopefully move the industry away from the motion control pit it has fallen into, but basically we’re replacing one gimmick with another. Sure, some games used the Wii’s motion control the right way, but nearly all were by Nintendo itself, and the mass amount of games left over primarily consisted of shovelware. The Wii U’s tablet controller might do the same, though it seems like the touch screen is being viewed more as an accessory than a tenant (considering it can be entirely disabled while using the tablet screen as the console’s main screen). Something else I’m concerned about is the system’s 1-2 controller limit. Yes, I know you can connect up to 4 Wii Remotes, but what’s the point? It hasn’t worked so far; you can use any controller for Super Smash Bros. Brawl but the game is still nearly unplayable with anything but the Gamecube controller. Using the 3DS as a controller seems feasible, but only if the 1-2 controller limit doesn’t still apply (as in I can use a Wii U tablet, my brother can use a Wii U tablet, and my sister can use a 3DS all at once). I would also like to see DVD support. I feel like I’m really not asking for much here. I know it’s a video game system, but being able to watch movies without switching out my HDMI device would be awesome. I really want to know for sure Nintendo is going to do the right things when it comes to online play. I’m sick of friend codes, and I’m sick of having one profile per system. We were promised these things would be fixed with the 3DS. They were not. I still need friend codes, I still can’t talk to people I’m playing with despite the system having a microphone built into it, and there are only a handful of games that can even be played online. I don’t play online often, but it would be nice if I didn’t have to jump hurdles those times I do.

Nintendo’s game lineup will surely be promising. There’s a new Animal Crossing, which I’m mildly excited for. A new Fire Emblem will definitely have my attention. Rumor has it we’ll hear about a new Pikmin, which I can’t wait for. I’m not expecting any news on new Zelda or Super Smash games, but either would be a very welcome surprise.

Overall, I’m most excited for Nintendo’s conference.

Third Party

There will be a plethora of other games announced, demoed, and detailed at E3, so I won’t talk about them all. I’d like to touch on some of my favorites so far, though. Bethesda’s Skyrim will be getting its first big DLC, Dawnguard. I’ve seen the trailer and it looks awesome. Elder Scrolls Online has my interest as well, but if Bethesda really wanted to blow me away they’d give us some info on Fallout 4. Fallout 3 is the reason I bought an Xbox, it’s probably my favorite video game of all time. However, Skyrim just came out last year, so I’m not expecting anything on a new Fallout for a while.

Capcom definitely has my attention with Resident Evil 6. RE4 is another of my all-time favorites, and a predictable and sometimes plain stupid story didn’t hinder RE5 from being ridiculously fun at all. RE6 looks very promising, bringing back zombies (and mass amounts of them) as well as the meeting of Chris Redfield and Leon Kennedy fans have been waiting for for over a decade. Revelations for the 3DS saw a return to form for the series, keeping the over-the-shoulder perspective but bringing back the claustrophobic, atmospheric terror earlier games had. The game also kept many moments of all-out action, bringing the best merger of the series’ two forms yet. Hopefully RE6 will continue this (I can see Leon’s story being fear-oriented and Chris’s leaning closer to action) as both formats work very well for the series.

EA’s Dead Space 3 is a game I’ll keep my eye on. Dead Space is probably the most frightening video game I’ve ever played. The game mastered atmosphere, reminding us that a quiet, echoing knock can be leagues more terrifying than a big squishy baddy running toward you, or that a giant mutated creature can be scary but sometimes you can be more scared by what turns out to be nothing at all. Dead Space 2, while a lot of fun, was an epic failure on that front. The atmosphere and suspense were all but gone, replaced by increasingly tough bad guys running at you from the shadows. It was a bit of a letdown, but the creative enemies and weapons (javelin gun hehehe) and the more character-driven story almost made up for it. Almost. I hope Dead Space 3 can reconcile the two.

Square Enix will hopefully drop some info on Kingdom Hearts. Dream Drop Distance looks fun, and rumors are circulating about a collection which would feature all of the games thus far, all leading up to Kingdom Hearts 3. Besides the numbered titles, the rest of the series seems to have tremendously lost track. Where KH1 and to a lesser extent KH2 were designed to be a seamless blending of the worlds of Final Fantasy and Disney, the handheld entries have turned it into the go-to series for those of us who thought The Matrix needed a little more Winnie the Pooh. The games remain fun, which is arguably the most important thing for a video game, but the story has become convoluted to say the least. I’m hoping for a Kingdom Hearts 3 to get the series back on track.

What I’d like to see less of:

Motion control. When the Wii was announced I saw limitless potential. Maybe 5% of that was ever realized. Sony and Microsoft then took it further, and all three of the companies got it all wrong. Nintendo seemed to be on the right path for a while, but things went south fast, culminating in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. MotionPlus was supposed to save motion control, but instead it over-corrected it. When Skyward Sword works, it works beautifully. Unfortunately, this is marred by instances of the Wii Remote being utterly unable to respond to what I’m actually doing. What could have been the best Zelda ever turned into a frustrating, sometimes unworkable monument to the failure of motion-controlled gaming.

I can’t remember how many times I’ve lost a game because I sneezed or a dog walked in front of the motion sensor bar. I have no interest in the Kinect at all, which is good because the room my Xbox 360 is in is both too dark and too small to even use one. Sony’s Move is a cheap Wii-mote ripoff and doesn’t even pretend not to be, and while the consensus is that it functions a little better, it isn’t really useful in any way.

Motion control was meant to bring a layer of depth to video games that hadn’t been achieved yet. Instead it brought a gimmick of epic proportions and legions of useless shovelware. These days, Sony and Microsoft lifting off whatever new “feature” Nintendo comes up with is basically a staple of the gaming industry. I very much hope that with the Wii U, Nintendo gets this controller thing right. When a video game company leads the market with an innovation that is actually useful (see: shoulder buttons, analog control, rumble support) things are better for all of us. The motion-control plague inflicted upon us by the Wii is nigh unforgiveable. Luckily, the touch-screen-as-companion is an innovation already tested and proven true by the DS and 3DS, and again I see that potential I saw when the Wii was first announced (if I can’t play Fallout 4 with the Wii U tablet as my own personal Pip-Boy 3000, what good are either of them?) but only time will tell.

I don’t want to hear about how cool Reggie Fils-Aime is, nor do I want to hear about how cool Kevin Butler is (which is decidedly worse considering he doesn’t even exist). I don’t want to hear about how the Kinect is the future of everything and the best thing ever invented and I should buy one. I certainly don’t ever want to see a 3DS-launch-like sexism parade, and announcing a system without actually revealing anything but the controller is kind of like announcing a new car by showing pictures of its steering wheel. E3 shouldn’t be about a company’s beefed-up accomplishments. It needs to be about video games. The big three console makers should take a page from third party developers and just show us the games.