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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.

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.

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.

More Metacritic Madness

You likely already saw this story as it’s roughly a day old at this point but as I have been a little out of the News Loop the past week or so I just stumbled upon it today.

Seems that Irrational Games, the brilliant developer of games we all know and mostly love, is looking for Design Manager. Nothing odd about that.

The requirements all look somewhat standard: 6+ years as a game designer in the video game industry; 4+ years of experience managing direct reports; Shipped a minimum of 3 game titles from pre-production through ship; Proven knowledge of game design, theory and execution; A strong passion for and experience with First Person Shooters; Credit on at least one game with an 85+ Average Meta Critic Review Score.

Wait, what?

Now, I have no idea if there’s wiggle room here or not and I am curious if they meant to place that last line in the “pluses” category and not the “requirements” but you are seriously telling me that if you apply for this job at Irrational and you headed up the team on a game like Metro 2033, you’re out of luck — don’t even bother? But Max Payne 3 is on your resume? Sold!

I don’t want to be too hard on Irrational, the company makes wonderful products, but come on guys, what a ridiculous criteria for landing a job. A negative review from Tom Chick at Qt3 that drops a game to an 84 score could cost someone from working at Irrational?

See what you’ve done, Tom!? I hope you’re happy!

BioShock: Infinite Set for October 16 Release

Ken Levine via the Twitter dropped this little nugget this morning: BioShock Infinite will ship in the states on October 16th with an International release date of October 19th. Now, this is pretty standard “news” but consider this:

BioShock, the original, was released in August of 2007. August is a fairly slow time as far as releases are concerned. It’s still summer. It’s not quite holiday rush. It’s for games that publishers feel are “tweeners” and if you recall BioShock was in NO way a slam dunk from a sales perspective because everyone was harping on the “System Shock was great but sold poorly” mantra and BioShock was being compared to System Shock at every turn.

Fast forward to BioShock 2. New developer. Hit/miss buzz. 2K releases it on February 9, 2010. February is another interesting release window. It’s smack dab in the middle of the 2nd quarter fiscal year for public companies. Early February is an odd choice because people are still reeling a bit from holiday spending. This year we see games like The Darkness 2, Amalur, UFC 3, Syndicate, Neverdead, Ashura’s Wrath, etc. all dropped in February. February could also mean a release date push from 4th quarter.

March, on the other hand, is (usually) when big AAA releases start to flow again (unless you are releasing a Blizzard game but they are a very unique circumstance). Mass Effect 3, Resident Evil, etc. These are clearly not hard and fast rules and it’s easy to point out outliers when it comes to release dates but companies don’t throw darts at a calendar when they decide on when to drop a game on the public.

I do find it interesting that this is the first Q4 release for a BioShock game. That’s either random chance or 2K has more confidence in Infinite than the other two games in this series. And there’s a lot of eggs in this particular BioShock basket.

Oh, yeah, the press release. Here ’tis:

2K Games announced today that BioShock® Infinite will be available in North America on October 16, 2012 on the Xbox 360® video game and entertainment system from Microsoft, PlayStation®3 computer entertainment system and Windows PC. The title will be available internationally on October 19, 2012.

Developed by Irrational Games, BioShock Infinite won more than 75 editorial awards at E3 in 2011, including the Game Critics Awards’ Best of Show. The title has been named one of the most anticipated games of 2012 by more than 50 media outlets, including WIRED, USA Today, TIME, GameSpot, and GameTrailers. The BioShock franchise is one of the interactive entertainment industry’s most successful and critically acclaimed series, which has sold-in over 9 million units worldwide.

“After BioShock, we had a vision for a follow up that dwarfed the original in scope and ambition,” said Ken Levine (@iglevine), Creative Director of Irrational Games (@irrationalgames). “BioShock Infinite has been our sole focus for the last four years, and we can’t wait for fans to get their hands on it.”

BioShock Infinite puts players in the role of Booker DeWitt, a hard-bitten former Pinkerton agent, together with the revolutionary AI companion, Elizabeth. The two struggle to escape the sky-city of Columbia, in a 1912 America that might have been. Armed with an arsenal of new weapons and abilities, they face menacing enemies, in unique expansive environments. Classic BioShock gameplay joins innovations such as aerial combat on high-speed Sky-Lines in the service of a immersive storyline – an Irrational Games signature.