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Toon Zone Reviews Bioshock Infinite Too

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March Madness struck the video game market last month as three anticipated titles, each of them delayed multiple times, finally made their storefront debuts at once: the new Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid: Revengeance, and Bioshock: Infinite. I’ve followed the other two series in the past and I’ve never been into FPS games, so I least expected to be walking out of the store with the Bioshock choice. But the critical and fan response was so massive, deafening the hype over the other two, that even I got a bit curious. So I looked up footage of the game….and after seeing the first five minutes, I had to get Bioshock: Infinite as soon as possible.

It’s true. This is awesome. Infinite is far from a perfect game (we’ll get to the reasons why not in a bit). It’s just that the elements it gets right, it gets INCREDIBLY right. This game will engross you so much with spellbinding wonder that you’ll be stumbling around for days, glassy-eyed and bumping into things. You probably shouldn’t play it if you’re planning to drive anytime soon.

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BS:I takes place in an alternate turn of the 20th century where a major American metropolis, Columbia, secedes from the Union and literally escapes to the clouds, led by the cult leader Father Comstock. Unlike nearly every other FPS of its kind (which normally take place in a grayish ruined wasteland), Columbia is well-populated, bursting with activity and color. It rests among FFVII’s Midgar, the El Nido Archipelago from Chrono Cross, and Wind Waker’s overworld as one of the most captivating game environments ever created. The designs and detailed models are just something else. If that wasn’t enough, it takes an average of twelve hours to explore in its entirety and yet never gets old or recycles itself. Every area has its own separate theme and appearance, while simultaneously feeling like another part of the 1912 culture. There are a lot of delayed games where you have no idea where the effort went. Bioshock: Infinite feels like the kind of experience it would take six years to create.

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There’s more to the story than first appears, but what you need to know in the beginning is this: as a last chance offer to erase his gambling debts, Booker DeWitt must find Elizabeth, held prisoner somewhere in the floating nation of Columbia, and return with her. It takes at least a couple hours to reach her location, but if you’ve played “rescue mission” games in the past, you might be tempted to take your time. The creators heard you; Elizabeth is carefully crafted to be the least pain in the neck of any AI companion to date. She doesn’t need constant rescuing, she doesn’t get in your way, and she’s not a brainless damsel — on the contrary, she’s the smartest person in the game. A ton of programming work went into her behavior and actions, making her the least robotic of any character of her kind. And just when you think you can resist her charms, she also gives you money. All the time. About every two minutes or so you’ll hear “Booker, catch!” and obtain yet another coin she’s found on the ground. She also notices free items you didn’t if you remain in a room long enough. By providing a benefit for the players themselves, we’re pretty much manipulated into missing her whenever she’s not around.

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Columbia becomes doubly captivating as you unravel its secrets and meet more characters. As pretty as the architecture is, the culture and actions of its citizens are really dark — and correct for their time period. There’s been a bit of controversy about the amount of blatant racism seen in the game…from people who evidently don’t know their history. You think they made all this up? Many of the speeches and propaganda you run across are barely any different from actual things people were saying back then. Kudos to the team at Irrational Games for refusing to water down or soften any of it. The game also touches on other social issues of the era, such as us-vs-them nationalism and the cold treatment of workers in the Industrial Revolution. These are a bit more exaggerated (Columbians literally worship the Founding Fathers) but anyone familiar with American history will be nodding their heads at the satire.

I want to recommend this game for everyone — I really WANT to — but aggravatingly, there are two elements that force me to take it back. For one thing, as intelligent as this game is, its FPS elements are dumbed down and strictly by-the-book. Once a fight starts, Infinite becomes almost a different game. There are no puzzles or strategy involved in the gameplay — you just shoot. There are no real bosses to break the monotony either; every battle is just a slightly larger version of the battle before it. In fact there is only one enemy in the game that delivers what I would consider a true boss battle (you’ll know it when you see it).

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Combat is mostly the same as previous games in the series, and while rampant bloody destruction fit the world of Rapture in Bioshock 1, it feels out of place here. Men will rush up to you with billy clubs, completely oblivious to the giant machine gun you’re holding in front of you. You don’t get the option of tranquilizing them or sneaking around them altogether; to advance to the next room, all MUST die in gruesomely violent fashion. The game even seems aware of its protagonist’s own cruelty, as whenever you’re mowing enemies down, Elizabeth looks at you like you’re insane. But what’s a player supposed to do — your hand is forced! For all they’ve set up, the violence feels out of place and off-putting, and worse yet, contradictory to the moral themes the story explores.

“You and the girl talk, she says she now realizes that sometimes you have to kill hundreds of people because the switch for a gondola doesn’t work. You explain that it’s bad to enjoy the only thing in the game that you actually do.”

One of my favorite games of all time is Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. In Snake Eater not only is the story strong and the graphics lovingly hand-crafted, it has excellent gameplay to match. Bioshock: Infinite’s gunfights are just something you do to get to the next part of the story. Clearly, they tried to spice it up: some of these later battles have you riding rails at top speed while throwing electric spells at multiple targets all around the field, including machine gun robots. But it’s just window dressing over basic FPS tropes. It feels like all gimmicky spectacle and no substance, or to be extra-catty, like there should be a little dog that pops up and laughs at you at the end.

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ARFARFARF! You missed!

The other problem with the game is the fact that you can’t save on your own. The game automatically saves for you when you reach certain points, and only then. Doubling back to those points does nothing. There are a few doors in the game that save every time you enter them, creating makeshift save points, but not all of them do this and they’re far between. I have no idea why Take-Two Inc. forced this hassle upon us, and I wouldn’t know if it’s different in other versions (I’m using the PS3 edition). The PS3 version does have an advantage in that all first-run copies contain the complete original Bioshock as well. If you don’t have it yet, this makes for a great twofer package, though Bioshock 1 is a 12 GB install that takes 45 minutes to complete.

In truth, though, the game could have the worst gameplay in the world and it still wouldn’t matter, because it’s a diabolically sneaky Scheherazade, addicting you to unraveling its story. You can gripe about the shallow battles and lack of free save points all you want, but in the end, you won’t be able to stop until you’ve seen every last minute of it. And when you get to the end, it’s still not over. The revelations in BS:I’s infamous ending demand a second playthrough, through which you’ll notice a ton of planted moments significant only for those in on the secret. Expect plenty of “oh you guyyyys!” moments as you notice yet another allusion you passed by the first time.

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If you’re still trying to decide whether or not you should play this game, I would come to a decision soon if I were you. The less you know about the game’s plotline, the better an experience you’ll have, and as more and more people finish it I find it harder to avoid spoilers with each passing day. For such a story-driven title, this is a problem. If you could go back in time and see Alien or Empire Strikes Back with no knowledge of what was in them, just like the original audience did….you’d do it, right? Take the hint. Bioshock: Infinite is one of the most significant games of this generation. You MUST play this, and for maximum enjoyment, you must play it as soon as possible.

BONUS REVIEW!

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Bioshock: Infinite is the first game that I loved so much I had to find the artbook for it ($39.99 MSRP, Dark Horse). In most stores this is sealed in plastic and can’t be leafed through, so here’s a quick description of what’s inside.

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A lot of the game’s production is revealed here, though commentary is minimal. Early sketches reveal a more horror-themed atmosphere similar to previous Bioshock games, giant monsters that resemble Big Daddy more than Songbird, and Salts and Vigors explicitly called Plasmids. Gradually a more unique style emerges.

It’s 200 pages long and filled with gorgeous concept art, abandoned enemies, design evolution for all the major characters, and, yes, a much-appreciated gallery of propaganda posters (though the more racist ones aren’t included, I guess for obvious reasons). It also contains no spoilers for the ending or discussion of any major twists in the storyline, so it can be read at any time.