Blast from the Past
FBT returns to one of his most hated games ...
When the teaser trailer for Infinite landed, I was beside myself; we see a Big Daddy in the water as we hear the sounds of drowning - whoa. Would You Kindly be awesome? But it turns out to be an aquarium ornament. We’re flung out of a window but instead of water pouring in, there’s nothing but air, and then a rose vine appears and catches us, thanks to some steampunky-looking girl. It wasn’t Bioshock. Turned out it wasn’t Infinite either.
Elizabeth, the rose-flinging saviour wasn’t some Plasmid-charged super-sidekick; she just lobbed ammo and explained the plot. The window-throwing creature was a little daddy and the sky-bound setting, Columbia, with its nationalism, racism and religious extremism was just window-dressing; instead we tried to shoot through primary-school-level quantum theory and multiverse guff. Just reminding myself of Infinite is getting me angry.
Yet Infinite is constantly referred to as one of the best games of all time. Maybe my Bioshock love clouded my judgement. If I drop the ‘Bioshock’ and just play ‘Infinite’, is it a good game?
Still a Blast?
God no. When I did a complete play-through review/therapy session, I thought Infinite was the most indulgent, smug game ever. It was a two-part review I had to get so much hate out. But I was wrong. It’s just a total cheat, a cover-up of a mess. Buckle up, here we go …
I don’t get why Infinite got so many good reviews on release. It’s a master class in style over substance. If its style was a hastily put together school project. Folks waffled about it’s deep-dive into America’s troubled race history - It’s not, it’s just a shooter set in a KKK Town. Critics blathered about its head-twisting multiverse setting; just saying ‘quantum entanglement’ doesn’t make portals clever or explain a floating city; Irrational just read the Wikipedia article on Quantum Mechanics and figured ‘we can do anything’ but the Quantum Reality is they disappeared up their Quantum arse, got Quantum lost and ended up slapping ‘multiverse’ on it to explain how fragmented and nonsensical it is.
The plot, sort of, is Booker, a gumshoe cliché has been sent to Columbia, a floating city still in America’s Jim Crow era, to recover a girl - Elizabeth, the daughter of Columbia’s ruler, the Prophet. What follows is a completely abstract, absurd sequence of events where we bounce between realities, ignoring narrative holes you could sail Columbia through as we find a way to escape and stop the Prophet from launching an attack on the ground below. Along the way we explore Booker’s past, Liz’s powers and all the ways reality can tangentialize, or as Liz puts it, figure out the constants and variables. As I put it, the nonsense and bollocks.
The opening where we reach Columbia is dripping in great noir. I despised the Luteces (and still do) but this time I try to pretend their wittering has some impact - they discuss Booker in present, past and future tenses, and it feels threatening and ominous, as does the stormy lighthouse opening; Infinite is setting us up for a seriously twisted trip/letdown.
The ominous tone continues in Columbia. Beautiful architecture, sunny parks and an idyllic feel; it seems a lovely place as pinstriped, boater hat-wearing whites promenade and enjoy spectacles while ‘blacks’ sweep the floors and tend the toilets. Oh... Posters warn of the threat of non-Whites and demand the absolute worship of the Prophet. Problem is, while it’s a rage-inducing environment it’s just a fairground we walk through - Booker has no impact, it is just the backdrop. You can no more interfere with Columbia than you can a Doom level. Liz on the other hand ...
Liz has the ability to open ‘tears’ to other realities, allowing her to bring in objects or perks, or making them big enough to pass through. This is the first logic own-goal; suddenly, structure, plotting, timelines don’t have to matter - it's revealed she exists in two realities; and therefore she can open an infinite number of others? Even if you accept the logic, the first question is ‘why do we need an airship to escape, open a tear to a new reality and let’s go?!’ In cut-scenes she does it for a trapped bee, and even opens a tear big enough to let in a twister, but not us?!
Liz keeps rabbiting on about how this is happening and giving excuses as to why we can’t use it to escape, but she sounds like a kid pulled up to the front of the class to explain a problem and is making it up. There are infinite ways infinite realities could help. She admits at one point she doesn’t know what’s going on; she even suggests she’s creating those realities with her mind. What?! How?! How did you even get to that? Detention for you young lady.
Rumours persist that originally Liz would, on command, use Tears to bring forth all sorts of destruction but it was cut. She can bring in minor perks during fights, but we can’t use realities unless the story says so. Instead, Booker gains ‘Vigors’, which are poorly explained, poor-man’s Plasmids that make no sense in the context of Columbia. It should be a shooter Portal but there’s no actual gamer use for her ability, and the items she does offer might as well already be on the battlefield - when you see a few dotted around, you just go ‘oh, fight coming up’. There's so much shooter potential in a side-kick who can open portals, but no.
And the shooting is upsettingly generic. We’re five miles in the air and that’s not factored into the gameplay? You can't fall overboard! If you do, you’re just zapped back on the deck. You can’t jump across buildings, fall, get blown overboard, shoot enemies over the side, it’s completely irrelevant as a location. We have rails we can travel along, thanks to a ‘skyhook’ which is magnetized (which makes as much sense as the multiverse) but can only jump when it’s highlighted, removing all excitement and desperation. Plus, once you start with the shooting, it never changes. Nothing evolves, getting harder or better, riskier or more clear - you could drop into the final battle and see no difference between it and the first.
What's also suspect is that we flit between realities but none have any major changes. They are all essentially the same, perhaps just further along the timeline which helps keep the story moving. For a game exploring Infinite possibilities it’s limited in scope.
Later, the ‘Vox’, a rebellion by the lower classes targets us, but they’re the same enemies from earlier, just reskinned. The only change is when the Vox appears, the game’s politics get as uncomfortable as the fighting is pedestrian.
Infinite was already skating on thin ice with the religious and racial background elements, not to mention that infamous stoning scene, but when the Vox turn on Booker - for vague reasons as it is, Liz justifies us shooting them by arguing they’re no better than the Prophet because they use violence. Erm, think they had a pretty good reason … The switch feels off, convenient, half-baked.
And it is - supposedly Infinite got so unwieldy they had to cut as much as two-thirds of the game and it suffers because of it, events glommed over by Liz’s ‘quantum theory innit’ excuses. It’s doubly frustrating because it feels intelligent, compelling, but then does something stupid and covers it by implying we're the stupid ones for not understanding Quantum Theory – they even resurrect Liz’s Mum at one point then don't really explain it, but Ghostmom opens a door for us so whatever. In the end, all those realities must be closed by returning to the point they all were created from, so that neatly side-steps any inconsistency, unresolved element, removes any questions - it never happened and it doesn’t matter. And then a post—credit scene has us see Booker awaken so either the tangents started after this moment which makes no sense, or … it was all a dream?! Bah!
So, I was right, Infinite sucks. Did then, does now. Did, does, don't. Liz is a redundant plot-explainer, being miles above the earth means nothing, the firefights are basic, the story is nonsense and the whole game is a cheat. And I’ve not fallen back on Bioshock comparisons once. But thanks to the DLC that’s about to change.
Set before and after the New Years War, Part One of Burial at Sea briefly shows pre-war Rapture in all its glory; shiny, successful and beautiful. This is what Infinite should have been, a prequel leading up to the war. But of course, they ruin Rapture too. We're quickly shipped off to a typically decimated part of Rapture, while Part Two has us play as Liz - but she’s lost her powers. Why turn her into a powerless stealth character? It’s basically a walking sim that messily ties Infinite into Rapture in a way that makes absolutely no sense. It ends with a little girl we were supposed to find revealed as one of the Little Sisters Jack saved - but what if Jack was a Harvester? Bollocks. Plus it skips the New Year’s Eve War. Coward.
Supposedly a new Bioshock is in development. Who knows if Rapture will rise again. I hope so, it can’t sink any lower than this. I still love many of the concepts in Infinite, the choice vs fate tragedy; it could have been extraordinary but it just overwhelms itself until it has to cheat; using tears alters memory? And ages you? That’s a convenience not a twist and every plot point is like that. You thought we wouldn't notice? It could have just stuck to the two realities, us switching, affecting and resolving them, perhaps good in one or being bad in the other. It would have been clean, exciting, and just as good; a focused, thought-provoking story about fate and inevitability. But no. We get all the realities, and they’re all the same - and no, that's not the point.
It could be argued no game can stand up to much scrutiny but this isn’t a case of being unable to suspend my disbelief, Infinite demands you pay attention but when you do, you realise it’s making it up as it goes along. If there is anyone looking to explore Columbia, either as a Bioshock Universe game or a standalone, it’s just hot air.