I feel I should begin my "BioShock Infinite" review with a small disclaimer. I have not played the previous two installments in the franchise in their entirety, so perhaps that may stand as the reason why, despite "BioShock Infinite"'s extraordinary artistic achievements, I found the game to be lacking. I am an outlier in this regard, I think, if the nearly flawless metacritic score is any indication.
I feel the sub-head up there captures the spirit of what I'm trying to say. "All that glitters is not gold" is an old saying, attributed in some circles to J.R.R. Tolkien but foremost in my mind as part of the Led Zepplin classic "Stairway To Heaven." That song title also captures what I feel is the point of this "BioShock Infinite" review. "BioShock Infinite" will forever be called beautiful and gorgeous and stunning. It glitters, but is not gold. It is a marvelous, ornate staircase that leads to nowhere real. But those faithful to the franchise will likely call it heaven.
I am not one of those faithful, and my "BioShock Infinite" review is of a game that spent too much time being majestic and deep and not enough time being fun. For me, the notion of fun is inseparable from the concept of a "game." It is not enough that I enjoy what I see and hear and read, I need to enjoy what I do. And "BioShock Infinite" did not leave me enough space in its stuffy, exhaustive artistic glory to give me the sense that I had anything to contribute. This game never made me feel like a player, it made me feel like an audience.
The chief reason behind the absent feeling I got while controlling protagonist Booker DeWitt is that the combat system in "BioShock Infinite" is so vanilla it makes vanilla look like chocolate. Bland, anonymous enemies in pseudo-colonial military gear charge into rooms and take minimal cover or effort to avoid being riddled with bullets. A few specialized enemy types mix things up a bit, but even they fail to intimidate. (And yes, I increased the difficulty.)
Being indomitable requires almost zero effort on the part of the player. Health, ammo and vigor-charging "salts" abound and, should the drones get the best of you, your companion Elizabeth will be quick to supply more ammo, more health and, if necessary, a revival. I got the sense that the folks at Irrational Games didn't want me to die or be challenged so that they could continue telling me their epic, wonderful story.
And a great story it is. Historical fiction meets steampunk fantasy meets classic damsel-in-distress. "BioShock Infinite" gives us a hero with a tortured past working to clear away a crushing debt at the behest of powerful mystery men. Every second I spent absorbing Columbia's rich tapestry of intrigue, religious fervor and escapism was blissful. When I wasn't in combat I found myself marveling at the art and architecture behind the floating city, from the most realistic sunlight I've ever seen in a game down to the joys of discovering a unique moment, like the barbershop quartet performing the Beach Boys' classic "God Only Knows." It truly took my breath away.
Unfortunately, those moments of astonished exploration are interrupted by the "here comes the bad guys" combat set-ups. If I had been given license to simply wander around Columbia and experience none of the gruesome combat then I would certainly agree with the multitude of voices calling this game a marvel. But the gamer inside me can't look past the fact that I wasn't having fun doing what I spent $60 to do: play a game.
Do I want to see the story through to the end? Absolutely. But after 12 hours in the game I found myself bored of the mindless meatbags charging down elegantly designed staircases only to have their brains splattered time and again on the smooth, realistic marble floors. Maybe it's just that "BioShock Infinite" is too nice to feel real as an FPS title. Most FPS games have war and grit and crime as their backdrop. We often find ourselves in hostile alien worlds or smoky battlefields when we're looking through the reticle. The vintage clothing and old-timey polish on the citizens and surroundings of Columbia provide too much contrast for the quick-time kill cam images of Booker sawing a man's head in half.
I have no doubts that "BioShock Infinite" will be remembered as one of the pinnacle artistic achievement of this current console generation. It is a fitting swan song for the eight-year run of the Xbox 360 and the PS3, and is a phenomenal accomplishment given the relatively low-tech hardware that sits inside those humming boxes. Your cell phone likely has more RAM than both the 360 and PS3 combined, a fact that never ceases to amaze me when I play a game that looks this good and delivers so much content.
I realize that my "BioShock Infinite" review is not what most people are reporting. I have to wonder if I'm missing something, if some fundamental aspect of the game will reveal itself me to me in the 13th or 14th hour of gameplay and give me the thrills and chills I'm seeking. I desperately want to be wrong. I can't help but feel that a game this well-designed, this smart, just HAS to be good. In fact, when it comes to graphics and story and the little details that make an environment seem alive, it IS good.
But "BioShock Infinite" just isn't fun. A game that would feel the same watching someone play it as it would playing it yourself is not a game I want to buy. But I did. And once I get through the whole thing, if my opinion changes or I realize that the emperor is, in fact, NOT naked after all then I will stick an update right under here admitting that I was way off in my assessment of the game.
Until then, I stand by my opinion. "BioShock Infinite" is a pretty, empty game.