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Columbia Falls: Why Bioshock Infinite Sucks

BioShock Infinite

Last night, I was playing the much-ballyhooed Bioshock Infinite. I had rescued Elizabeth, a dead-on cross between a Disney princess and one of the kids from Akira voiced by someone that sounds straight out of drama school, from her towering monument. We wound up on a beach. Sunbathers relaxed in the warm, Maxfield Parrish-like glow that blankets virtually every visual in the game. It was a peaceful scene after a hectic action sequence. As I’ve done in System Shock 2, Bioshock, and Bioshock 2, I dutifully looted everything in sight. Right there on the beach, in a picnic basket, I found some machine gun bullets. Suddenly the world of the sky city Columbia- which is really described mostly through advertising posters and cute graphic design- fell apart and I was just playing another idiotic shooter with tedious looting, ho-hum gunplay, and pointless bloodshed that does nothing for the story but provide the player with something to do in between the movie parts.

Columbia fell apart again when I made it to the vaunted Hall of Heroes sequence that some have mentioned as a high point in the game. It’s a walk-through carnival exhibit/museum celebrating the military exploits of Columbia’s founder- who apparently took great liberties in embellishing his role in quelling the Boxer Rebellion and his participation at Wounded Knee. Suddenly- as former Gameshark writer Mitch Dyer once said- that this game wants to have Something to Say About America was literally blasting me in the face with far more deadly accuracy than any of the braindead AI thugs that routinely run up and try to bludgeon you while you shoot flocks of birds and rocket launchers at them. I suppose if I weren’t 37 years old and hadn’t already sorted out that America has a history of revisionism, hubris, bloodshed, and outright racism I might have been shocked or fooled into thinking that this supposedly ambitious, supposedly intelligent shooter had a profound or meaningful statement to make. But it doesn’t. Throughout the entire segment, I was all too aware that I was playing a video game trying far too hard to be meaningful or resonant. It comes across as silly, childish, and naïve. Like a fifteen year old telling you that the government is, you know, real bad man.

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The politics are trite enough but the world of Columbia- and in fact, the entire game that is Bioshock Infinite- is a house of cards that completely collapses every time you dig through a trash bin to find a hot dog and some money or when you rob an ice cream shop’s cash drawer and the family eating there just sits, going through a repeated animation. Or when you walk around carrying a shotgun in a penny arcade and no one minds. And also when you do things like jump 50 feet in the air to hook a “sky hook” onto a latch and slide around on rails just like Samus did in the floating city that was in Metroid Prime 3. No review I’ve read has mentioned this similarity.

The problem is that so much attention to detail- even if it is facile, juvenile, and completely superficial- tricks the player into thinking that the frankly quite dated gameplay is something more than it actually is, and when the façade drops as video gamey concepts intrude (like a hat that gives you combat bonuses) what is revealed is a stunningly mediocre game with little actual substance. It looks incredibly expensive. It’s cosplay-ready. It apparently won 80 Major Awards before it was released according to one banner ad. Tom Chick’s negative review was flamed to hell. It’s one of the few recent games to hit the high 90s on Metacritic. So it has to be good, doesn’t it? Right?

Mind you, I loved Bioshock and I loved Bioshock 2 even more. Those games had Big Heady Themes too and they had some of the exact same mechanics. It’s not too hard to map the “vigors” to the “plasmids” if you want to compare the whole left hand magic thing, which is totally incongruous with this game’s setting. Those games were shooters as well, and so was System Shock 2. But those games knew their places, and they had more restraint. There was so much more subtlety and ambiguity rather than ambition and excess. They weren’t trying to shock you with OMG racism. The second Bioshock had one of the most profound statements about parenthood I’ve ever seen in a video game, and it also had some amazing tactical combat. The first game had atmosphere, mystery, and this incredible sense of aftermath. Bioshock Infinite has none of the above, even though it copies the much less interesting parts of its predecessors down the line. Without the more compelling qualities of the past games, it’s just a dumb shooter. Don’t kid yourself.

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That anyone is finding the writing intelligent or thoughtful blows my mind. Last night, when I hit one of the big plot twists, I almost felt insulted that it was presented as one. Elizabeth bellowing “yeah, well, just because I want a puppy doesn’t mean I’m going to get one!” had me laughing. I mean, seriously. Who writes this shit? Haven’t we outgrown “this is great writing…for a video game” yet?

The violence is more evidence of this game’s stupefying immaturity. For the first 30 or so minutes of the game, I was kind of buying it and I was enjoying the process of discovery. The intro is very well done. There is a sense of revelation and wonder. But then, out of nowhere, I’m chopping some guy up with the sky hook and suddenly I’m a one-man butcher shop mowing down people. The sense of adventure and imagination is gone, replaced by dull slaughter. Every gunfight is dull as dishwater in the game, and even on the hardest difficulty there are no tactics or strategies required. The vigors are boring because they’re just the plasmids. I’m just shooting people because, well, that’s what you do in video games, right? And I say this as a person that likes shooters.

So Irrational has gone and done pretty much the same thing they’ve done since System Shock 2 with the only upgrades being budgetary or technical. Everything else feels like a downgrade. It’s a game rife with hubris and preposterous self-importance, desperately trying to hide that it’s just as shallow and meaningless as a Call of Duty campaign. Tonight will likely be my last night playing it before I look up the ending on Wikipedia and go back to playing Injustice, or possibly even firing up Metro 2033 to get ready for Last Light. I don’t know why I’ve given this game so many chances to validate itself. Maybe it’s because I can’t believe it’s been so widely praised. Or that so many people have been fooled into thinking that this game is anywhere near greatness.

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Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

29 thoughts to “Columbia Falls: Why Bioshock Infinite Sucks”

  1. The only vigor worth using is Charge. But then again you might as well go back to playing Mass Effect.

  2. You know that one kid thing in Akira that looks like Louie Anderson? In the 80’s English dubbed version, he was actually voiced by Louie Anderson but wasn’t credited for it.

  3. This mirrors some of my feelings on the original Bioshock. After finally getting to play the game (I only had a PS3 so I had to wait for that port) I remember being floored by how mediocre the whole experience was. To my eyes, they basically took Metroid Prime and added in an extremely short and half-assed “you are actually evil” plotline that dozens of RPGs had done before (FF9, KOTOR, Xenogears, Baldur’s Gate, etc). And then made everything piss easy for reasons that were unclear. But hey, it still totally proves that games can be art according to three-quarters of the internet (who apparently only play shooters or something). Anyway, it’s not surprising to hear that Irrational decided to trot out the same stuff with a better coat of paint.

    1. +1 bro. You have no idea what a relief it is to know I’m not the only one that had that impression of Bioshock. I was so bitterly disappointed by it after all the hype, I couldn’t bring myself to reinvest in any fashion with Infinite. Sounds like my cynicism has served me well.

  4. “The problem is that so much attention to detail- even if it is facile, juvenile, and completely superficial- tricks the player into thinking that the frankly quite dated gameplay is something more than it actually is”

    Well this basically sums up my feelings about the first Bioshock. The only part in that game I remember had quite fun was “the artist level” since it introduced a nice degree of exploration and progress, the game had a really cool combat system but you really never needed all the combos/plasmids/weapons).

  5. Just wanted to echo those disappointed with the original Bioshock. It was the game that drove me to upgrade to the current generation, and it was the first game of that generation I played. And it was nothing better than okay.

    It is brilliantly atmospheric, and deserves praise for that. But the actual play mechanics are just acceptably workmanlike, nothing special. The much vaunted million and one combos to kill stuff that got so much praise just fell flat for me. Why bother experimenting with weapon and plasmid combos when mowing things down with a machine gun is just as effective?

    I’ve avoided Dishonoured so far because the same thing was a basis for a lot of the praise. I don’t see why having different methods to accomplish a goal is a particularly interesting thing to have, unless some are better than others in different situations. In Bioshock, they weren’t.

    And it was too easy. But the level of gushing praise that Infinite had received made me think the franchise might be worth another shot. Thanks for warning me off.

    1. It’s funny, the #1 response to “Bioshock Infinte actually kind of sucks” seems to be “well, I didn’t like the first one anyway”.

      In retrospect, I kind of think that maybe Bioshock’s power was that it came out in 2008- really right as this console generation was reaching its apex. It felt smarter, different, and at the same time it went back almost ten years to elements from System Shock 2. It had ambitious ideas, and it a lot compelling elements that sort of overrode the basic shooter gameplay. If I played Bioshock now, I wonder if I would have liked it as much myself after games like Journey, Bastion, Catherine, and so forth that have had higher-minded ideas…but not rote shooter gameplay.

      1. When you say it “went back almost ten years to elements from System Shock 2.” you mean, it watered down a few bits of SS2, dumbed down or took out the only hard bits (particularly the ones that made your choices in the game matter) and sold it as the second coming of the messiah. This is my biggest bugbear with Bioshock.

        The game looked great and the back story was fantastic- there was a LOT to like, but the game mechanics were not one of them- at least for me. Infinite just looks like more of the same, and by the sounds is patronising to boot. They seem to be aiming for Spec Ops: The Line levels of message delivery, but they’re hitting more around the level of The Little Mermaid.

        But hey, it’s good enough for vidya games right? Only kids play vidya games.

      1. Totally. Was really disappointed in what turned out to be a GTA clone with cowboys.

        Your taste in music, board games and books may be terrible, but we seem to share a lot of opinions on video games. I’ll have to pay closer attention in future

  6. Oh no you didn’t! I sense a great disturbance in the Force…as if thousands of angry Internet voices cried out, and were suddenly ignored.

    I thought the skyhook was a ton of fun. I enjoyed zipping all over the place and knocking guys out. If System Shock 2 and the first Bioshock played more like horror games, then Infinite played like an Indiana Jones adventure. Yeah, the mechanics are pretty much exactly the same, but messing around with the different powers and weapons kept me entertained. It probably helped that I was playing it on easy just to enjoy screwing around without having to worry about finding the most broken weapon and sticking with it forever.

    Seriously though, I agree with you about the “ZOMG AMURICA IZ EVIL” stuff. It’s heavy-handed and far too black and white (ha, you see what I did there?) and not nearly as interesting as the nuance of Andrew Ryan as a villain. I could at least sympathize with what Ryan was trying to do. That having been said, you should get to the ending. In the third act, the game basically takes a hard left turn away from the “OMG RACISM” themes and changes gears entirely. And I think I love it.

    My reading of it is that it basically attempts to explain why the game pretty much plays exactly the same as the previous Bioshock, and System Shock before it. I think it’s actually a great ending, personally. The execution of the game overall is far from perfect, but the ending is pretty wildly ambitious. Maybe I’m just making excuses for lazy game design, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. If Bioshock had a big statement to make about player agency, then Infinite has a big meta-commentary about the state of AAA gaming as a whole. I might be reading too much into this.

    1. What THE HELL does the Skyhook actually do? It’s not really a grapple or a hookshot…it’s just like the Glaive from Krull on a pistol grip. And how can Booker jump like 100 feet to a hook point? And where does Elizabeth get hers that just suddenly appears?

      I can’t imagine playing on easy. Do the bad guys just walk up and lay down? I was on hard and I didn’t die a single time in playing about halfway through the game. I mean, come on…it has a freaking Halo recharge shield…how the hell does that make any sense in this game?

      I did read Wikipedia so I’m aware of the cut-rate Doctor Who turn the plot takes…it does sound like it gives up on its silly “America, sometimes it’s bad” tropes in favor of mushy SF concepts.

      That’s a great point about nuance…Andrew Ryan was completely compelling and the dystopian concept was so much more thoroughly realized- and ambiguous. Ryan isn’t wrong- he was just wrong-headed. There’s a tragedy there, and Ryan’s cool intellectualism is such a sharp difference from Comstock’s bellowing evangelism and strident proclamations. It’s so cartoonish.

      Did Bioshock make a statement about player agency? Was it “do I shoot the man in the face or throw bees at him”?

      1. You mean in terms of gameplay, or how does it actually work? In terms of gameplay, it lets you get around a large battlefield quickly during a large scale fight against a ton of guys in a big open environment. It gives you an out when you get pinned down. It works the best when there are skylines in the area, which admittedly doesn’t happen often enough in the game. But the fights where the rails are in play, I had a lot of fun with. As for how it actually works in the plot, uh…magnets?

        Bioshock’s big statement about player agency was the whole “would you kindly” twist. The game is basically saying you, the player, are a slave to the designer. You did everything asked of you by the game without a second thought because it was your “mission objective” or whatever. You can’t change anything. You, as the player, have no agency. In the plot, this is explained by the subconscious conditioning mind control thing when Ryan says “would you kindly”. But the game never actually forces you to do anything. Like Ryan says, a man chooses, a slave obeys. When I got to this point, my brain promptly exploded and I put down the controller and slow clapped to my TV.

        And then they went and ruined it by having you murder Andrew Ryan in a cutscene that takes control away from the player and undermines the entire message. This still pisses me off to this day. That was such an awesome twist! What I would have done is either a) allow the player to move, but slowly force them into position, or b) just lock the player in the room and don’t allow them to leave until they murder Ryan. Your only choice is to turn the game off. Are you a man or a slave?

        So yeah, I love this twist but the execution kinda sucks.

        Anyway, Infinite has something sort of along the same lines with the “constants and variables” theme at the end. You see multiple other copies of Booker and Elizabeth during the sea of lighthouses part. My interpretation of this is that it represented other players who were also playing the game. In fact, the only way that could have been cooler is if it was actually networked and those were literally other players online at the same time playing through the ending, a la Dark Souls. That would have been awesome.

        Elizabeth is talking about how there are certain “variables”, i.e. small choices you can make, but in the end they don’t matter because there are constants that don’t change. People actually complained about exactly this in reviews; how you get certain choices like whether to kill the crazy general dude (forgot his name offhand), and exactly how you dispatch the hordes of enemies, but none of it matters. It doesn’t change how the story plays out. The whole Rapture sequence even suggests that Rapture is another one of the possibilities out there, and it’s suggested that Booker/Comstock could have become Andrew Ryan in another reality because you can work the bathyspheres and they were coded to Ryan’s DNA. That would also explain how they ended up with Vigors as Plasmids, and how the game pretty much plays exactly like the first Bioshock.

        This is why I love the ending to Infinite. It’s just a ton of cool possibilities to think about. I think MovieBob said it best:

        “Oh, you’ve got just ONE big-idea theoretical-scifi concept built into your narrative to justify the video-gamey parts of your video-game? That’s really cute.”
        – Bioshock Infinite, talking to the Assassin’s Creed series

        It’s entirely possible that I (and everyone else) am reading way too much into this and basically using world building to excuse lazy gameplay design. It may not all make sense, but it’s big and heady and screw it, I don’t see other AAA games even attempting to give you this much to talk about after they’re done. Maybe that says more about the sorry state of video games as a story-telling medium than anything else.

  7. Yeah, I just got to the “I want a puppy but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna get one” part and I just had to stop playing and googled “Bioshock Infinite sucks” and got here.

    The game is so bland and repetitive and just so damn stupid. The combat is ridiculous, the city in the sky novelty gets old really fast and there’s this overwhelming feeling that someone is trying really hard to be gritty and shocking while it’s all just so obvious. I’m majorly disappointed in this game. The Hall of Heroes is the high point of the game? Can’t wait to get to the low point, what’s it gonna be? You decide whether to blow up the statue of Abraham Lincoln or John Wilkes Booth? Wait, no, you just don’t get decide anything here, do you. It’s like taking a ride on railroad through a racist Disneyland where you shoot at everything and have to put up with the most annoying Disney princess of all time.

    Anyway, your article voices all my complaints about the game, so thanks for that.

    1. Sweet motheramercy, that line…that was pretty much my “time to send this back to Gamefly” moment. Well, at least it did SOME good and lured you here to find kindred spirits. Welcome!

      The thing about the whole “city in the sky” thing that gets me is that practically NO ONE has mentioned how similar to a major area in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption it is. Skylines and everything. You’re dead right, everything in the game is obvious. Nowhere is that more evident than the Hall of Heroes, which is probably the clumsiest, most childish attempt at satire I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It really kind of sums up the whole game- a carnival ride where you get punched in the face repeatedly by extreme violence and po-faced socio-political messages that are less mature than a Circle Jerks song.

      Elizabeth is such a disaster of a character, I can’t believe that the whole Disney princess comparison isn’t brought up more SHE IS A DISNEY PRINCESS. Not that there’s anything wrong with Disney or princesses, but to pretend that her character is anything other than that is laughable. What’s even more laughable is when you’re in the middle of a firefight, blazing away with a chaingun (social commentary here, folks…right?) and she’s literally running in front of it, looking around frantically for bullets or hotdogs to throw to you. Talk about female empowerment, she’s a fucking gopher. The ultimate fetch-bitch. Oh, but she has magic powers (/spooky voice)…that makes her a strong female character…doesn’t it? Somebody?

      I guess if you’re 15 years old and your idea of female empowerment mostly comes from anime and Gears of War, I dunno.

      This game is a fraud, straight up. Every message, every commentary, every angle it takes is frail and phony.

      The thing is, I’m _shocked_ at how much I detest this game.

  8. Thanks man. You nailed just about everything I’ve been meaning to say about the subject. I had great hopes for this game. But after the magic and timeless wonder of ‘Dishonored’ the 30 minutes I spent with this game felt like a freakin rip-off. But I’m cool though. Some people still like it.

  9. The whole tackiness of graphics, over-the-board colors leading to sensory overload doesn’t help the game experience either.
    But I suspect the main thing is that the lead designer (Ken Levine) has a hell of a grudge against some things, both religious and social. And I don’t want to go any deeper in that, cuz that’s a stale pond.

  10. this is my first bioshock game (playing it in ps3 with bioshock included).
    While it may probably not be a bad game, i’m very sure that it is not a very great game also.

    Honestly i think they should made this something like a third person shooter, like uncharted. I cannot feel for the main protagonist as i can’t see him or his expressions. The tunnel vision effect of the FPS also seems to rob the game of its charm (the very good looking aesthetic design)

    game play-wise there is nothing much to complain nor to praise. It’s a very typical fps. Resistance 3 for me is more compelling and engaging than this Bioshock infinite as it provide a little variability in challenges. The game feels like you’re being drag to one gun fight into another very similar gun fight. After a while it gets tediously boring to the point that a always fell asleep.

    yes its not a bad game. its a boring game.

  11. It’s not so much that BS:I sucks, rather that it disappoints on so many levels.

    The game does nothing new and nothing about it is groundbreaking. It’s a shooting game in the style of ‘Shock’ shooting games; you can power stuff up, there’s a magic system, the bad guys tend to turn up in mobs – it’s true to its heritage, but nothing more.

    What about that ending, though?

    The themes that BS:I tries to cover have been covered many, many times by many, many SF authors over the decades. Usually more successfully. The ending was ok, but a OMG I’M RE-THINKING EVERYTHING moment it wasn’t.

    The largest disappointment, though, wasn’t the game itself but how the gaming press reviewed it. Those 10/10 reviews were either corrupt, stupid or simply not wanting to be the odd man out. What a bunch of slack-jawed, “industry” friendly hacks they prove to be. I will never trust any of them again.

    Anyway: Thanks Michael for giving me a chance to vent my spleen!

  12. I can’t believe you didn’t mention the “modern FPS” convention of only being able to carry 2 weapons at a time. Christ! The combat already blows hard, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that I have to run around like an asshole looking for another gun and getting shot in the back because both of my guns are out of bullets and the 5 enemies attacking me still have health bars that are half-full. I’ve been playing FPS games since 1994(DOOM 2) and I’m really good at them, but the whole time I suffered through this preachy, overly dramatic cutscene of a game I was dying constantly, not due to shitty playing but rather a broken combat system.

    And good god, could someone please explain/justify Vigors to us? Plasmids made sense within the plot of Bioshock; they were the result of a bunch of uninhibited smart people being lumped together in their own city, encouraged to pump out scientific breakthroughs. When in the plot do they address Vigors? Did I miss it? Am I stupid?

    I didn’t understand the ending to this game when I got it 30 minutes ago. That’s probably due to the fact that I’m heterosexual. So I wikipedia’d the plot and I SHIT YOU NOT, the explanation for Elizabeth being able to create tears is because part of her finger got left behind in another reality!!!!!! I may well be a raging moron here, but how exactly does that validate those type of powers? And am I the only person who thought the ending was a giant letdown? Not only is there no final boss(we get a fucking super-extended horsedick of a cutscene instead), but the big solution to the problems faced throughout the ENTIRE GAME…………is suicide? Weak. I felt like I was watching that movie with Bruce Willis where he’s trying to kill that kid and then the main character kills himself to fix everything…Looper or some shit like that. I’m going out on a limb here, but I think that’s a pussy way to end an FPS. Call me crazy, I know. I dunno man, whenever games use time travel/time-line distortion/altering time as a plot element, it never really works and it always feels like a way to be lazy with the story instead of coming up with something truly brilliant. Maybe I’m off base though.

    All I know is, this game doesn’t even come CLOSE to System Shock 2. I’ll take those dated graphics over this pile of goat shit anyday.

    1. I forgot to mention another gripe also. If you look past the glittery graphics, the actual level design is usually always symmetrical. Weak again. As a person who still makes maps for DOOM-engine games as a hobby, one of the first things you are taught to avoid is adhering to symmetry in level design. Frankly it makes things predictable and boring.

    2. Not to mention, shouldn’t anybody who gets pulled into a different world have those powers? Surely they would have left behind some sort of skin cells so that they exist simultaneously in two different worlds?
      Ultimately this is one of the laziest stories ever told in gaming, and the minute I begin to understand something I realize that it is contradicted by something else.

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