This week, Zero Punctuation review BioShock: Infinite.
I think the best explanation for Ken Levine's career is that there's some kind of matronly school teacher standing behind him repeatedly going, "Now do it again, but properly this time." It starts with System Shock 2 basically being System Shock but without the shitty cyberspace minigame, or looking like someone drank a load of cerulean paint and vomited on Ultima Underworld. Then there was BioShock, basically being System Shock 2 with more imagination and no longer having to put 6 points into 'Exotic Weapons Proficiency' to figure out how to twat people over the head with a piece of jagged rock. And now we have BioShock Infinite, which is basically BioShock but now with the word "Infinite" on the end. And when the protagonist with a shadowy and unwittingly significant past arrives at the lighthouse that is the secret entrance to a corrupted idealist utopia, he takes the stairs leading up this time.
Don't take this the wrong way though. BioShock Infinite is a retread, but it's the good kind of retread that uses a formula that works to explore new ideas, and it's a worthy sequel to the original.
"Don't you mean second sequel, Yahtzee?"
Booker DeWitt is a cynical private detective and amazingly not-silent protagonist who makes the most of that talent to read aloud every single sign he passes and then go "Huh" in an increasingly irritating way. He's sent to the floating sky city of Columbia to rescue a mysterious young girl and then escape the city with her, although one wonders why that part proves so difficult. Surely the maximum amount of time one could be trapped in a cloud city would be however long it takes to make a parachute out of a pair of curtains.
The first significant way Infinite differs from the first two Shock sisters is that Bio and System were horror games in which you were late for the party and have to piece the events of the party on a gloomy hungover Sunday morning, whereas Infinite is a pulpy, swashbuckling adventure and you're just in time for the party, because the party is you. Columbia starts off perfectly fine resembling an idyllic, cartoonishly racist Disneyland, until Father Comstock, city leader and alleged prophet, marks out DeWitt as the guy who's destined to fuck everyone up, so he's forced to fuck everyone up after they all turn on him for being the guy who was going to fuck everyone up.
Comparisons to BioShock are as inevitable as a bear shitting on a Catholic (or however that phrase goes,) and under that light Infinite falls kinda short. What's disappointing is that the villain is basically just a racist nutter who wants to blow up the world. I listen to him frothing about how his carpet made of black people should be grateful he hasn't trod in any dog shit lately, and he becomes hard to take seriously. The truly great villain is one who talks sense; Andrew Ryan had some weird ideas about sweat ownership, but he was articulate, dangerously intelligent, and wouldn't let someone like Comstock run the fucking hot tap.
Also Elizabeth the wide-eyed Little Sister amalgamation has the ability to manipulate the fabric of reality, which is always a can of worms for any story to open. And the game starts threatening to disappear up its own butt. Reality manipulation becomes what ADAM was in the first game; a crutch to hold up the weirder parts of the plot, a crutch being very important for walking when parts of you are stuck up your own butt. And events get a bit hard to follow when alternative realities are colliding all over the place — not that one would want to follow someone who's heading straight up their own butt.
The continuing presence of Plasmids, or, in this case, Vigors, is a bit of a sticking point for me, because in BioShock 1 they were an essential part of the plot as well as the gameplay, representing the fall of Rapture because everyone was getting too spliced up to jerk off to Atlas Shrugged more than twice a day. But now they're just sort of there; maybe they fell out of a reality rift to the convenience dimension. Which is not to say it's not still fun to electrocute people with naught but your winning smile, and in fact there's not much to complain about on the whole gameplay front.
I do have a minor issue in that, like BioShock 1, there's still a bit of gulf in enemy threat levels; it doesn't take too many upgrades for the standard human enemies to be threatening only to whoever has to shampoo the carpet. I ended up being able to chain lightning entire rooms to death halfway through the first racial slur. But it seems like every other enemy they throw at you can take damage like your mum takes cheap gin, followed by the entire room full of sailors that were buying it for her. And another condition Infinite seems to have inherited from its forebear is shitty final level syndrome, A.K.A., the "Shinfles". The semi-optional tower defense sections in Assassin's Creed: Revelations and Black Ops 2 were a bit of a pinecone in the fruit salad, but the only thing worse is a completely not-optional one.
So how does Infinite beat out BioShock? Well I remember saying that a game set in an underwater city with no swimming gameplay seemed like a bit of a missed connection, and I was afraid Bioshock Infinite would similarly miss the potential by restricting the gameplay to the usual modern shooter ground-based skirmishes under very pretty skyboxes, where the jump button exists only to taunt you with the momentary belief that perhaps you could climb over the strategically placed piles of rubble that mark the inevitable invisible walls. But thankfully the Sky-Hook rail traveling system is a lot of fun and adds a whole lot to the huge open-air feel of the maps as well as the swashbuckling tone to the action. I'd swoop down from on high, machine gunning racists, then jump off and kick the last survivor off the ledge and feel like Errol fucking Flynn. I was almost afraid of landing in case I got bounced away on balls like a couple of hairy space hoppers.
And it certainly has a better ending than BioShock, which isn't saying a whole lot. A situation wherein a man with a gun is ordering you to dig a shallow grave in the woods would probably end better than BioShock 1 did. But for all the alternate realities splurging confusingly around the story's mid to late period, Infinite somehow manages to tie it all together with an ending that really stuck with me, and made me want to go back and pick through the whole thing again going "Oh, so that was the significance of the 4 gay blokes."
It is, however, hairy space hopper levels of pretentious. It comes and goes in and out of its own butt the whole way through but the ending is the point of maximum "own butt" penetration; it wallows in a bit of abstract meta-narrative - wanky wanky word word - that doesn't really serve the essential plot points, and I found myself thinking, "If this ends with us meeting God and God looks like Ken Levine, then I'm gonna fucking punch someone." But, you know what? If it isn't boring and gives us something to talk about then it can't be bad. And Infinite isn't bad; it's good, perhaps even great. You see, sometimes it's kinda nice to be up somebody's butt if it's cosy and warm and they've put some interesting conversation pieces up there.
A fellow of infinite jest: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Does anyone else think the picture of Elizabeth on the back of the box looks distractingly like a young Olivia Coleman
Lucky no-one on the surface planted any beanstalks lately.