Saturday, August 29, 2015

Rayman Legends (Wii U) Review

I love platformers. I love platformers a lot. Rayman Legends is a damn fine platformer. Set one-hundred years after the fantastic Rayman Origins, Legends finds Rayman and friends being rudely awakened from a century-long nap to see the Glade of Dreams once again overrun by nightmares, now stronger than ever, having created all new threats like armies of dragons and skydiving toads. Legends carries over the wonderful sense of humor and personality from Origins, while introducing a host of creative new levels and experiences. The game’s central hub is an art gallery of sorts that links to all of the game’s various worlds and modes from paintings. There’s a lot to see and do here: besides five core worlds and a sixth bonus world mostly comprised of remixed levels, there are also special daily and weekly challenge stages, a multiplayer football/soccer mini-game known as Kung Foot, a gallery of collectible creatures, and even forty unlockable remastered levels from Origins. I’m going to keep the focus on the core experience here, which is the new worlds the game offers, and it’s also important to note that, as it indicates in the title, I’m reviewing the Wii U version only and in addition to that, the single-player experience in particular (this will all be important later).

The first thing one likely notices about Rayman Legends is its enchanting art direction and visuals, which like Origins, are simply a treat to take in. Legends takes things a step even further than Origins though, incorporating more dynamic lighting and subtle 3D elements into the mix. The result is a beautiful technical achievement for video games. I’m amazed that video games have come so far technologically-speaking and can actually look like this and still move at a solid frame rate and function properly. I suppose it’s cliché to say, but it’s fitting that Legends’ many levels are accessed from easels in an art gallery, since each one can accurately be described as an animated painting. The game’s multi-layered world is rich with detail and texture, from strange tree people walking around in the far background to tiny dewdrops beading on a giant tree root that Rayman just slid down. Enchanting forests and creepy castles, beanstalks rising from palely-lit swamplands, and deep-sea caverns littered with metallic waste all come to life in this ocular banquet. Sometimes I wouldn’t move at a level’s start as I took a blissful moment to take in the game’s rich aesthetics.

Legends feels like a much more high energy, boisterous experience than its predecessor. It feels grand and epic and seems to be constantly moving at a frenetic pace, darting from one zany platforming challenge to the next in a more concise, more focused, and altogether briefer experience than Origins. Part of the game’s feeling of grandeur comes from its titular theme of “legends”, placing a focus on grand set-pieces and gigantic boss battles with massive dragons, toads, and luchadores. Rayman and friends control with a fluidity and motion that makes stringing runs and jumps together into a form of interactive poetry. More levels than ever before focus on an “endless runner” style of platforming, where one false jump or screw up means death (these levels are never frustrating though when one instantly respawns at a nearby checkpoint to try again; the real fun comes from trying to master them without failing though). It’s amazing that these kinds of levels work as well as they do, as one loose screw in the form of a misplaced platform or enemy could have turned them into an unwieldy mess; I can only imagine the amount of rigorous testing required to perfect the design of these challenges. What is amazing about the level design and control of Rayman Legends is how intuitive everything feels: somehow when running up a wall, hopping over pillars of fire backwards and upside down and leaping from bouncy drums to stacks of monsters, I always knew exactly what to do. Every precise jump I made felt exhilarating and sometimes it felt like a miracle that I had survived, but I know that in actuality it’s down to the game’s precisely crafted systems. I quite enjoyed perfecting the “Invasion” challenges, where monsters and gimmicks from another world take over sections of a level, which feel like an evolution of the speedrunning treasure chest chase levels from Origins, but unquestionably the standout running levels in the game are the musical levels. These sublime platforming masterpieces, where one’s every action is timed to the melody of wacky covers of famous songs like “Eye of the Tiger” and “Woo Hoo”, are a revelation, a highlight of the entire platforming genre, nevermind this game, and I’d love to see more stuff like them from this development team or others in the future. These levels are the showstopper, but one shouldn’t ignore a myriad of other fantastic levels as well. Generally, Legends has some of the tightest level design I’ve ever seen in any platformer.

Tying all of this experience’s grandness, energy, and beauty together is a wonderful musical score that is joyfully integrated into the experience in a way that only a video game can accomplish. The musical levels are the obvious example of how this game masterfully integrates music into every facet of the experience, but they are worth mentioning again, and again and again. But this display of musical creativity doesn’t stop with them: the score often changes multiple times in the same level, transitioning between each area to set the mood or situation. Nothing ever sits still In Rayman Legends; everything hinges on a playful interactivity that never lets up. The soundtrack here is grand and sweeping when flying through the air amidst the ruins of a sky castle and moody and mysterious when swimming further into the depths of a sunken industrial complex. It rises in tempo and pace as you land more perfect jumps and get further and further in one of the precise Invasion challenges. It sometimes brings to mind the whimsical animated films of Disney and at other times mimics something you might here in a James Bond film. This is a fun, moving, and brilliant soundtrack. The game’s main theme refused to leave my head every time I turned my Wii U off.

I hope it’s clear at this point that I feel that Legends is a platforming joy, but this otherwise fantastic experience is tragically marred by one very irritating flaw: the Murfy levels. Murfy is a fairy-like character that shows up in a handful of specific levels and that the player controls with the GamePad’s touch screen and uses to manipulate certain elements in the environment, such as cutting ropes or moving platforms. If one is playing cooperative multiplayer (which supports up to five players), one player would control Murfy with the GamePad while the other(s) would platform through a level (players can also control Murfy even in regular stages in multiplayer), but in single-player, an AI-controlled character automatically does the platforming in these levels while the player solely controls Murfy. I do not like the Murfy levels. I found these levels to be boring at best and teeth-gratingly frustrating at worst. It’s hard for me to put my finger on what exactly makes these levels not work. Maybe it’s my extreme disdain for when shoehorned gimmicks bring down a great game that would be so much better without them, maybe it’s the fact that what is clearly something designed around multiplayer has been forced into the single-player experience at its detriment. But I think what it really comes down to is that these levels make me feel like I’m watching someone else play the game while I tinker with some puzzle-game off in the corner on my low-res GamePad screen. It’s about expectations: I expect to be playing a fun platforming game, and when I go from a great platforming stage to a level where I do none of the platforming, and have to try to get a decent, but certainly not great AI that sometimes doesn’t behave like a rational human player do what I want it to do by manipulating elements in the level around it, it becomes very frustrating, and has no place in a platformer as fluid and fun and beautiful as Legends…at least in single-player. I can imagine the Murfy levels being quite fun with a group of friends, on both sides of the equation, and I think they’re a neat use of the GamePad in that regard. It’s just a shame that they were shoehorned into the single-player, and that they’re frequent enough (though thankfully still in the minority) to seriously intrude on my enjoyment of this game. Legends already feels a bit light on the number of new core levels, and the Murfy levels’ inclusion certainly compounds this issue.

I’m aware that the single-player Murfy levels play out differently in the versions of Legends that don’t have access to a touchscreen, such as the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. In these versions, the player apparently actually does the platforming themselves and Murfy is controlled by a few button prompts. I chose to purchase and play the Wii U version because that was the original version of the game before Ubisoft delayed it and ported it to other systems, and therefore the Wii U version is the developers’ original vision for the game, which is what I wanted to experience. That said, there’s a decent chance I’d enjoy the Murfy levels more if I was the one actually doing the platforming, so I would have at least appreciated having the option to play them this alternate way in the Wii U version. Perhaps the ideal situation, however, might have been having these levels off to the side in a separate co-op specific section of the game with more traditional levels in their place for single-player.

The Murfy levels are my main gripe with Legends, but there are a few other points that I want to address that keep Legends from being truly all that it could be to me, and that ultimately make Origins hold perhaps a slightly higher place in my heart, although I’m still debating that (also Legends cheats by including levels from Origins). Let me try to explain. There are fewer main worlds in Legends than in Origins, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but even with so few worlds, some of them felt a bit underwhelming to me, or at least didn’t live up to a lot of their potential. I love the idea of the worlds themed around the Day of the Dead and Greek mythology, but the former largely felt like a retread of the food-themed world from Origins and the latter, which had so much potential in a game supposedly themed around legendary monsters, is largely set in featureless catacombs and lava-filled caverns that are fairly boring aesthetically, at least compared to the feast of riches the rest of the game (and Origins) provides. Where were the full levels set on a Mount Olympus-like environment, or the battles against Rayman-styled Greek gods and monsters? We only get a glimpse at this potential in the world’s boss fight stage and in its opening stage, which is *sigh* a Murfy level. Maybe I sound petty, and ironically the Greek-themed world has some of the funnest levels from a pure level-design standpoint, but this is simply how I felt playing the game; perhaps Legends was too hyped up for me, or perhaps the inspired worlds in Origins simply set the bar too high. The very big exception to my disappointment in the game’s world line-up is “20,000 Lums Under the Sea”, which is a bizarre and wonderful mixture of deep-sea industrial environments and stealth elements all wrapped up in a presentation inspired by secret agent clichés. It’s a bunch of my favorite video game tropes all wrapped up into one atmospheric package and is not only my favorite world in Legends but one of the coolest worlds in any platformer I’ve ever played. As a side note, I also love the underwater world from Origins; these games do underwater platforming damn well not only in terms of control and mechanics but also in regards to level design and aesthetics.

Speaking of Origins and the reasons why I might prefer it to Legends: besides not having any Murfy levels to suffer, I loved just about every world in Origins and although they may have generally relied more on familiar platformer tropes than Legends, they used these themes in captivating ways and I found most if not all of these lands to be creative and really fleshed-out. Origins’ own food-themed world in particular combines several different themes and tells a sort of story through its levels. I love that kind of stuff in platformers. Origins also simply feels like more of an adventure. There was a world map. There was progression. It felt like a journey through the Glade of Dreams that covered a wide range of territory. Legends is neat and focused; its levels are all neatly lined up in a row in the art gallery, and players can tackle them in a somewhat nonlinear fashion. Therefore, Legends feels more like a collection of awesome levels that Rayman and friends are just having fun with than an actual adventure to save the world like in Origins. Honestly, I can appreciate both approaches and I can see some preferring one or the other, but I think ultimately Origins’ approach just leaves more of an impact on me personally. Origins also has this unique atmosphere to it that I love, but then again I also love the grand and energetic atmosphere that Legends has. I guess I could compare the merits of both games here all day, but when it comes down to it, I feel Origins has stronger worlds and feels more like a story, and that combined with no Murfy levels makes me currently lean a little more in its direction.

Despite those dang Murfy levels and my other nitpicks about unfulfilled expectations from the game’s worlds, I still love Rayman Legends. Even though a Murfy level might make me rage during one moment due to some utterly stupid move on the part of the AI, the next expertly-constructed platforming level would make me grin from ear to ear and forget all about it. Despite the stuff that dragged the experience down in places for me, Legends’ best moments filled me with visceral joy like few other games can do. The fact that I find Origins to be the overall more complete and fulfilling experience in many ways and yet I still basically like both games equally is a testament to just how strong the strong parts of Legends are. This element of so much of the game being so good makes the stupid Murfy bits all the more frustrating to me, but oh well, I’ll shut up about that now. The bottom line is that Rayman Legends is a zany, superbly fun bundle of imagination and joy in these dark and depraved times of ours and you should play it. When one considers the inclusion of the forty levels from Rayman Origins in addition to the core Legends levels, plus Kung Foot and the daily and weekly challenge stages, the amount of imagination and wondrous fun to be found in this experience is, indeed, nothing short of legendary.

Plus I will never not smile when listening to this song.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea (PC) Thoughts

Spoiler Warning: I’ve tried to avoid major spoilers and don’t go into specific detail about any plot points, but you still might want to be wary of some vague spoilers here and there if you have not yet played this game, especially in the second paragraph.

An appropriate tagline for BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea, the DLC follow-up to BioShock Infinite, might be “Irrational Games returns to what they do best”. They tried something similar but different with the sky-high action in the sunny city of Columbia, and while I’m glad BioShock’s successor took us to a new setting, I can’t deny that there’s nothing quite like the halls of the deep-sea city of Rapture. I love the opening section of Burial at Sea: Episode One because we get the rare chance to experience a small piece of a dystopian society when it was still a utopia. Stepping out of Booker’s office and exploring a Rapture that is bright, clean, and active with citizens who haven’t lost their minds is a treat, and I love the more open nature of this starting environment as well as the environments in Burial at Sea as a whole. Walking through the populated bars and shops of Rapture, with massive windows looking out on the city’s neon-lit skyscrapers (seascrapers?) made me reflect on how cool living in a city at the bottom of the ocean would be…before it all goes to hell, of course. The transition to shooting and violence also feels much more organic and less jarring than in Infinite proper, as Booker and Elizabeth are first attacked by the mad artist, Sander Cohen, and then sent on a one-way bathysphere trip to Frank Fontaine’s massive sunken department store turned prison, an incredibly hostile environment crawling with Splicers that resembles the Rapture we know and love from the original BioShock. This was a fairly smart way to have a game that takes place in Rapture before it fell and still have a first person shooter where you freeze people and shoot them with a shotgun. Exploring the derelict clothing departments of “Sub-Rapture”, feeling on edge every time a crazed Splicer lurking somewhere out of sight would ramble into my headphones, I felt a kind of tension that Infinite lacked. Perhaps it’s the closer quarters, or the often smaller groups of enemies, or the respawning enemies that kept me on edge, but something about the combat here just clicks with me more than in Infinite; it feels easier to manage but also more impactful somehow. It’s too bad Episode One seems to enjoy withholding resources such as plasmid-powering EVE and money from the player, because the episode’s short length means plasmids and weapons will mostly go without full upgrades and I felt like I was constantly running out of EVE and ammo in the middle of a fight, which limited my options in a brawl. I would have loved to have fully upgraded the Old Man Winter plasmid, which I had a blast combining with Bucking Bronco to freeze enemies in midair before they fell to the ground and shattered into icy bits. Also unfortunately: Episode One’s narrative starts out strong, but ends with a silly twist that only serves to muddle Infinite’s already muddled narrative even more. To be fair though, this is only part one of a two-part story…

Burial at Sea: Episode Two once again opens in a unique and interesting way, in a beautiful-looking and memorable sequence that is somehow simultaneously silly and inspiring. If there’s one thing Irrational seems to nail, it’s opening its games. Immediately after the opening, the narrative becomes even more messy and convoluted though. After making a shallow effort to explain the logic behind the twist at the end of Episode One, the story then throws an even more abstruse twist into the mix that feels like a contrived attempt to explain why Elizabeth can’t use her Tear powers anymore and that just raises more questions and injects more plot holes. Despite all this, once things got rolling I felt way more connected to Elizabeth as a playable character than I ever did to Booker (although I think much of me caring a lot about Elizabeth is owed to Courtnee Draper’s great voice performance as opposed to the game’s writing). I felt close to Elizabeth after playing Infinite and Episode One and cared about where her story went. By the end of Episode Two, however, Burial at Sea seems to be much more concerned with tying into the original BioShock in neat ways than delivering a satisfactory conclusion to Elizabeth’s story, which I found to be disrespectful to her character. While I think the tie-ins to the original are, as I said, neat, I wish the original BioShock had remained something separate and the links between it and Infinite had remained tenuous; instead, Burial at Sea ends up being a straight link to the original, shoving its overt connections in the player’s face and tying everything together in a neat bow. It’s an interquel, and ultimately little more than a prologue for the original game that overall cheapens Infinite as its own distinct entity and that doesn’t do justice to the character of Elizabeth, a character that I’ve been invested in this whole saga and whose ultimate fate basically amounts to being a catalyst for the events of the first game. It could’ve been worse and the story does do a fair job of linking Elizabeth’s story with the story of Jack and the Little Sisters, as well as overall connecting Infinite with the original, but I can’t help but feel Elizabeth as a character got cheated. I’m just a bit mixed on the whole affair; I’ll admit that having all the Irrational BioShock games being one big sealed up story does feel somewhat satisfying, but this overt link certainly wasn’t needed and I question whether or not it devalues the original, rather than adds to it.

Anyway, while the narrative  and the idea of Infinite, Burial at Sea, and the original BioShock all being one seamless, connected story is a point of contention for me, I actually quite like the other aspects of Episode Two’s design, even more than Episode One. Episode Two is a much lengthier and more complete and focused experience than Episode One, and makes that previous chapter feel like simply a warm-up. This time, the player finally takes on the playable role of Elizabeth, who has basically been the main character this whole story anyway (finally playing as her just feels right), and Episode Two places a large focus on stealth, on running and hiding and sneaking up on enemies. It accomplishes this in part by giving the player new plasmids and weapons, such the ability to turn invisible and see through walls and a crossbow equipped with tranquilizer darts and knockout gas, that encourage players to go about things in a quieter, and shockingly, non-lethal way. Players still have the ability to kill foes, but the game is principally designed around stealth and right from the outset, the narrative makes this clear (the more moral way of doing things is perhaps shoved a little too much in the player’s face early on). I’m disappointed that choosing to kill or not unfortunately doesn’t seem to have much significant impact on anything in the end, but I appreciate the new options and gameplay approach and like that the less violent combat choice suits Elizabeth, who isn’t a pathological killer like Booker. Stealthily creeping through huge environments crawling with Splicers, sneaking through vents, using sneak attacks and trying to use a limited amount of tranquilizer darts puts a whole new spin on the classic BioShock design and makes Episode Two feel like a whole new experience. Trying to survive with only the crossbow and non-lethal means, which is the way I played, also makes for a much more challenging and tense experience.  All this really pays off, as the game feels incredibly fresh, despite taking place in the familiar Rapture setting. I also love the environments in Episode Two, which feel varied and include a handful of creepy lab sections that focus on building atmosphere and story rather than combat, and quite frankly, I love that shit.

Overall, Burial at Sea is a mostly welcome return to Rapture, and despite my reservations about the narrative, I overall enjoyed it quite a lot, perhaps even more than Infinite proper. Episode Two is easily the star half of the package, not only because I’m a sucker for stealth games, but because of how well the stealth elements blend with the atmosphere and tenseness of the scenario. Elizabeth is alone, stranded without her reality-bending powers and with little to defend herself in a hellish deep-sea prison filled with ranting maniacs who will kill her on sight. She’s vulnerable, but also highly intelligent and extremely capable. All of this combined with Elizabeth’s heightened sense of humanity compared to Booker invested me in her character and the experience on a more serious level than anything in the Infinite saga prior, making me carefully consider every step I took and adding a sense of weight to the proceedings that flying around as Mr. DeWitt, sawing into people’s necks and electrocuting them until their heads popped off, before eating potato chips and chocolate bars off the floor seemed to lack (though some of that latter aspect is still present, admittedly). Episode Two also rarely felt repetitive and was never boring for me and some parts will probably stick out in my mind as notable moments in any game I’ve played, such as the unique opening and one late-game sequence that is notable for how uncomfortable it made me, which was definitely the intent.

As for my final thoughts on the whole “BioShock Infinite saga” as I’ve labeled it, having completed all of it now, I’ll say that it was an engaging ride, and one worth taking, but a flawed one. I think the original BioShock still stands on its own as a fantastic experience and while Infinite and Burial at Sea weren’t needed, they’re an…interesting follow-up. I admire the ambition of the developers, but the end result is a fun, engaging, pretty-looking, but messy experience. For more thoughts on BioShock Infinite proper, check out my previous post on the subject. The BioShock series as developed by Irrational Games is sealed up now, and it’s also sealed up when it comes to my capacity for it. Sure, 2K Games will likely continue to cash in on the series, and more stories could be told in a new city, or in Columbia or Rapture, but the narrative certainly doesn’t demand it and I most likely won’t be taking the trip if that day comes. Especially if it’s another trip to Rapture. Burial at Sea pretty much opened the lid on any remaining mysteries with the city, and its story feels told.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Some Thoughts on BioShock Infinite

I’ve been tossing BioShock Infinite around in my head for the past week or so since I completed it and I just can’t seem to decide whether I think the game is annoyingly overrated, something I actually enjoyed quite a lot, or something I overall liked, but was underwhelmed by in several ways. So I thought I’d hash it out with myself here for a few paragraphs and if the game is still relevant to you, maybe you’ll find some food for thought or perhaps want to add something after reading this. I mainly want to discuss the game’s atmosphere and narrative, as those are the points which I find myself thinking about the most.

Like its predecessor (the original BioShock), Infinite excels in world-building and saturating the player with its potent atmosphere and sense of place. The floating city of Columbia is a fully-realized world full of details and its sights and sounds would often stick in my mind long after I’d stopped playing the game. To put it simply: Infinite is an engrossing experience. The opening of Infinite is reflective of the original, except instead of descending below a dingy lighthouse to a grim, murky city beneath the sea, players ascend a dingy lighthouse to a beautiful, sunlit city above the clouds. This feeling of familiar yet contrasting themes is prevalent throughout the game. While this aspect works to the game’s benefit in several ways, it’s also somewhat of a double-edged sword because I believe that much of the reason why Infinite didn’t impress me as much as it could have is because the original BioShock impressed me years ago with similar material. That said, Infinite still stands on its own much more than BioShock 2, which felt redundant and unnecessary to me.

All that said, I find the ways Infinite does differentiate itself to be interesting. For example, protagonist Booker DeWitt’s first steps in Columbia proper are not spent fending off deranged maniacs with a wrench, but simply strolling through sunlit streets and a fairground lined with gift shops, carnival games, and people relaxing and chatting jovially. I find this to be a unique strength of Infinite that sets it apart from the original: that we arrive in Columbia when the city is still living and breathing, instead of after its downfall. Indeed, many of my favorite sections in the game are the ones where you can just walk around and take in the world around you without having to shoot at anything. I think one of the smartest sequences of events in the game follows Booker as he explores the mysterious Monument Island Tower, which concludes in a thrilling escape sequence, followed by Booker waking up in a beautiful beach environment. A rosy late afternoon sun, a self-sustained “ocean” that ends in waterfalls that tumble into the sky, a Ferris wheel off in the distance, and people wearing old-timey swimming trunks (the game is set in 1912) relaxing among the sand set the scene. I was free to walk up to people and get some amusing commentary, eat stray hot dogs and cotton candy, or focus on the main task at hand of searching for Elizabeth (who Booker was sent to Columbia to find), who happens to be gaily dancing at the end of a dock nearby. Later on, as the sun further sets, Booker and Elizabeth go for a twilit stroll around a boardwalk environment complete with an ice cream shop and a bookstore, and even though there were people sitting on a bench having a contest about who could be a more racist white person, the atmosphere and visuals (the game’s luscious, stylistic art direction definitely stands out) were lovely, and I was fully immersed in the world. In these moments, I thought about how I’d like to play a game like this, where I just walk around and talk to people and further a narrative. When soon after this same area is suddenly turned into a gunfight arena, with soldiers who yelled garbled insults at me before I electrocuted them and summoned a murder of crows to pick away at their flesh before blasting their head with a shotgun into a fountain of blood, I couldn’t help but sigh a bit, even if I was having fun. Often, it felt like the combat just gets in the way in BioShock Infinite.

Of course, as pretty as Columbia looks, through its white citizens’ racist, xenophobic mumblings and their troubling devotion to “the prophet”, among other details here and there, it’s clear that this city has something ugly bubbling beneath the surface ready to pop. Earlier on in the experience, Booker’s sunny stroll through the fairground comes to an abrupt end when he jams a guy’s face into a spinning hook-blade, followed by murdering the local police force in a hail of cartoonish blood. I’ll admit, this abrupt change to ridiculously over-the-top and unnecessary violence was incredibly jarring at first and it threatened to shatter my immersion completely. And while I’m still mixed on Infinite’s portrayal and use of violence, the more the experience went on, the more I found a grim appreciation for the contrast between the ridiculous mass murdering and the colorful, almost whimsical visuals. On some level, this combination of the cartoony art direction and absurd violence works and since our protagonist is a violent man who seems to solve all his problems by bashing someone’s skull in, at least it fits his personality (and also the theme of Columbia looking pretty on the outside, but being ugly underneath). The contrast between the more calm walks around populated areas of Columbia and the wild, chaotic combat sections also lends the game an entertaining pace, even if at times it feels like the game falls into a repetitive formula of “shoot a bunch of people, loot a bunch of trash cans, rinse and repeat”. At the same time, some sections are soiled by the game’s incessant need to throw chatty soldiers at Booker, such as one of my otherwise favorite parts of the game, which is the spooky, slow-paced Comstock House environment, which didn’t need the soldiers and would have done just fine with the creepy searchlight creatures and brainwashed inmates wearing pajamas and ceramic masks.

Full Narrative Spoilers Ahead (If you read on, I’m going to assume you’ve finished the game)

Unlike its predecessor, Infinite places a great focus on a compelling central narrative that everything else seems to revolve around. In BioShock, there is a central story and it’s quite interesting, but I remember the true focus of the experience being all the smaller stories and side characters that serve to flesh out the true star of the game, the incomparable setting of the undersea city of Rapture. In Infinite, it’s the opposite: the city of Columbia and its inhabitants serve the story of the game’s central characters, and the star here feels like Elizabeth and the personalities that surround her. For me, BioShock Infinite is ultimately an experience with a lot of fascinating elements that does well enough with what it has, but fails to truly live up to the potential of any of these elements. I feel so much more could have been done with Elizabeth’s jail-keeper, the Songbird, for instance, both from a gameplay standpoint and a narrative one, and that’s where BioShock mainly falls short of its potential for me: it’s narrative.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of multiple realities and the idea that doorways could be opened between them, and Infinite does a decent enough job exploring the concept, but so much more could have been done outside of chasing a gunsmith around and making machine gun turrets appear out of nowhere. I was intrigued when the narrative first took Elizabeth and Booker into an alternate version of Columbia, but just when it really starts to have fun with the concept (introducing a reality where a different Booker DeWitt is a martyr of the Vox Populi), this idea sort of falls away. Later on, time travel of sorts is introduced into the mix as an older Elizabeth pulls Booker into a far future where Comstock succeeded in brainwashing her to be his successor, and the resulting Comstock House sequence, as I already mentioned, is one of my favorite sections in the game, but this event only served to remind me of how much more could have been done when the ability to traverse multiple realities and timelines is involved. Several of my favorite works of art have tackled time travel and multiple realities and took the concepts way further and in more interesting directions than Infinite; Chrono Cross and The Dark Tower novels to name a few.

But perhaps the reason I feel this area was underutilized has more to do with Infinite saving its most interesting concepts until the very end, and ultimately having a good story with fascinating ideas, but a messy delivery. Chrono Cross introduces the existence of two parallel realities where two versions of the same person can go down very different life paths at the very beginning of the game, and proceeds to explore the concept for the remainder. Infinite chooses to introduce us to such a concept in the last five minutes in order to produce the “gotcha!” effect and no doubt prompt the player to replay the whole thing to see how all this adds up. Perhaps there are merits to this approach, and perhaps if I do replay the game my feelings will change, but I can’t help but feel a bit cheated. I love the concept of basing a story around two versions of the same person from different realities who went down very different life paths, and who ultimately conflict with each other, but I feel that so much more could have been explored here. Furthermore, I question how much the revelation of Booker and Comstock being two different versions of the same person really adds to the story outside of “huh, well that’s interesting”. Perhaps one might argue that the multiple realities and all that jazz aren’t the focus, but just devices used to tell the heart of the story here, which is the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth. But in this regard, I feel the game also falls a bit short of its potential. I love Infinite’s themes of redemption and self-hate and the idea of Booker being a father trying to redeem himself for giving up Elizabeth puts a fascinating lens on their relationship, which given more time to sink in, may have left an incredible emotional impact. Maybe it would have been better if the revelations of Booker being Elizabeth’s father and also of Booker and Comstock being related came earlier and the narrative had some time to play with these ideas and build on them and use them to its advantage. I can think of another game (which I won’t spoil) that has a similar theme of someone with buried memories trying to redeem themselves for hurting a loved one that is much more emotionally resonate because not only is the relationship between the two parties clear from the outset, but after the big revelation the player has time to take in the weight of the truth and the ending lets it simmer, providing more emotional closure for both the game’s protagonist and the player.

Infinite ends with Booker deciding that drowning himself will wash away all his sins, but how exactly does that work again? And how exactly did Booker redeem himself? Initially, he felt guilt for committing atrocities as a Pinkerton agent and a soldier. Later, he feels crushing guilt for giving away his daughter to pay off a debt. So he atones for all this by…going to Columbia and committing even more violent atrocities and finally deciding to drown himself to cancel out Comstock’s existence (who he blames for the whole thing), but wouldn’t that also cancel out Elizabeth’s existence? And maybe I’m missing something here, but how is this one version of Booker DeWitt dying supposed to prevent other Bookers from becoming Comstocks again? Or does Booker know this won’t accomplish anything, and just wants to end his life due to his guilt and sorrow? Also, the coin flip instigated by the Luteces early in the game as well as the alternate Booker who became the martyr for the Vox Populi seem to suggest that the Luteces have recruited many other Bookers to rescue Elizabeth, but the Elizabeth that lost her finger is the daughter of only the Booker we play as, right? Are the Luteces recruiting different versions of Booker to rescue different versions of Elizabeth? And if there are other Comstocks who kidnapped other Elizabeths from other Bookers, that means there are other Luteces who created machines and if the Luteces we know are “scattered across the possibility space” then how do they reconcile with their infinite other number of selves? Or...wait! Did it ever explain why Elizabeth has reality manipulating powers? And what exactly was the Luteces’ goal again? For that matter, if they have the power to go anywhere and traverse time and space as they see fit, why do they need Booker’s help? Is doing things themselves against the “rules”? Are they just trying to help Booker? And if people get nosebleeds and remember dying in alternate realities, wouldn’t Booker have had a nosebleed in the other realities since he died in the one where he’s a martyr? How does that all work again? And what about that ghost? And what about…

Ok, I’m done now. You see, my final point is that I feel like BioShock Infinite has a compelling narrative that’s more concerned with telling an engaging story, a page-turner if you will, than it is with having any kind of consistency or holding up under scrutiny of all its rules (or lack thereof) and details. I’m not saying I’m against a story that makes me think, I’m just not sure Infinite’s narrative is worth all the thought. To the game’s credit, I was engaged all the way through and kept wanting to know what would happen next, especially during the game’s ending sequence, which I found to be both beautiful and captivating. The scene when Booker and Elizabeth are gazing out across an endless ocean at an infinite number of lighthouses with an infinite number of doors is a beautiful sight, and this coupled with the mystery and compulsion to keep wanting to know what was behind each consecutive door made me reflect on why I love video games and the unique things an interactive medium can do so much. Even still, when all was said and done, I couldn’t help but look back and think about how the game plays with several fascinating ideas, but doesn’t really go the mile with any one of them, instead gluing them all together and turning out something good, fine enough, but not great like it could have been and not, in my eyes, something truly special. I’m sure there are countless essays, videos and diagrams out there that will tell me how wrong I am, how all of Infinite’s many threads align perfectly and how its narrative is truly a work of genius, and I’m curious to check them out, but right now, all I see is an otherwise engaging narrative that fails to live up to its potential, both emotionally and intellectually.

In Conclusion (Narrative Spoilers End Here)

BioShock Infinite immersed me, entertained me, and engrossed me. I overall like it, but I don’t love it. It’s not an experience that I feel is absolute required playing, a glorious achievement for the medium, a triumph in interactive storytelling, or whatever other bombastic praise I’ve seen critics heap on it. If others consider Infinite a masterpiece on their own terms, that’s fine and I’d love to hear their thoughts, but for me it’s an overall good game with several strong points, but I guess I’ve either seen better or can imagine better or maybe both. Also, many of the game’s strong points owe a great deal to the original BioShock, which is the game that had a much greater impact on me. Perhaps it’s because Infinite followed that game six years later, and fails to really do anything as ambitious or “wow-ing” as its predecessor that I’m just a little underwhelmed by it. But perhaps it’s unfair to criticize this game so heavily based on expectations of what it could have been or might have been because Infinite is certainly worth playing and ultimately a good successor to the original that does a lot of things well; I just don’t think it’s worth peeing your pants over, and I don’t think it’s as spectacular and forward-thinking for video games as I’ve heard some claim (the original BioShock deserved such praise at the time, but what does Infinite add to that legacy that’s so significant? This is what I’m missing). Where Infinite does deserve praise, however, is in its ability to mostly successfully mix so many different components such as strong art direction, great world-building and atmosphere, a well-realized AI companion in Elizabeth who I did find myself quite attached to by the end, ambitious storytelling that is flawed but nonetheless engaging, and exciting (though repetitive) combat mechanics. Infinite does all of these things and admittedly does all of them well, just for me anyway, I suppose it ends up being an experience less than the sum of its parts.