Is Bioshock Infinite gratuitous and dumbed down, or an intelligent take on the modern shooter?
Columbia sells itself as a shining Uptopia, a floating haven of opportunity and abundance, of bright blue skies and golden times. The people of this fantastical city seemingly desire little; both materialistically and spiritually fulfilled, their city is colours, and light, and perfect summer days...
...at least, that's what the brochure would tell you.
From the very moment you step aboard this aeronautical marvel, the sinister undertones slide up beside you and slip their clammy palms into your own, with smiles a mile wide and eyes that stare right through you as silk voices purr sweetness.
We're shown a place of beauty, we're shown content people discussing their perfect lives, but on close inspection these shimmering surfaces are cracked and stained... tones of prejudice and intolerance, ignorance and delusion, pettiness and sneering bitterness. It's not just your every-day-garden-variety stuff, this feels absolutely insidious, like the materials that built the place have been soaked in it.
From the very first moment there is obviously something very wrong here, and you can almost feel the heat of danger and violence boiling behind the veneer.
The first hour or so of Bioshock Infinite is spent making these discoveries.
A raffle is taking place, gaily dressed citizens gather beneath a brightly coloured stage as an extravagantly voiced announcer plays off of their eagerness and excitement. A beautiful young girl calls out to you and offers you her basket; she invites you to take a ball, on which a number is written. The chatter dies down as the announcer begins. For a moment, the nagging feeling may seem a little distant, perhaps these are just ordinary people after all with the same flaws and dreams as everyone? Perhaps you were being too judgmental? Perhaps it was all in your head.
The first sign that something is definitely wrong is the announcer’s introduction of his assistant as “the prettiest white girl in Columbia”. Why the need to make emphasis of her race? Why does the crowd not seem to notice the remark? Suddenly the announcer's voice has taken on a different tone... Then the prize is brought out: an interracial couple tied to a post. The winner (you) receiving the first throw. Then it all goes to hell.
The hatred that you'd felt simmering beneath the surface suddenly erupts in a frenzy of splintered skulls and spattering brain matter as a man's head is shredded to pieces inches from your own, and in the moments that follow, as the chaos descends, as you've snapped the necks, gouged the faces, and hacked to pieces half a dozen human beings, the danger that seemed like a distant whisper becomes a crashing roar. Columbia is violence and peril, excess and exploitation, and the sinister undertones just slapped you upside the head with a sledge hammer.
However, is this combustion of claret and little chunks of what used to be people a gratuitous exploitation of gamer's cathartic desires, or is it a well-scripted and realised contrast?
To me, it felt much more like the latter.
Bioshock Infinite is a shooter. This is not (gets megaphone, stands on top of well worn soap-box), I repeat not, a bad thing.
Bioshock Infinite, in comparison to the earlier games in the series, is a more streamlined and cinematic experience with less intricacy, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
It's simply different. Whereas Bioshock felt more like an adventure game with emphasis on resource management, crafting, and interaction with your environment and less instances of combat (some were entirely optional), Bioshock Infinite is primarily a shooter with a much faster pace urged forward by a strong character driven narrative with moments of optional exploration and streamlined interaction and item handling.
The focus of actual gameplay is very much the combat. And this is where the game has taken a running leap ahead of its predecessors. The shooting is fluid and solid, movement is sharp and refined. There is now a sprint button where before there was only 'a slow down even more' button, Vigors (Plasmids) can now be dual wielded with weapons and fired simultaneously, you can combo Vigors to explosive effect (suspend a group of enemies with Bronco then detonate the lot with Devil's Kiss, or Possess a patriot then charge it with Shock Jockey and it'll roam about electrocuting the room!), a rail system roller-coasters across the skyline that you can attach to and propel yourself toward or way from danger, and (the best part, for me at least) there's musical accompaniment (drum booms and symbol crashes) to well placed head-shots and critical hits!
You can still hack machines to fight for you, but instead of being presented with a mini game that would take you out of the moment, you fling a Vigor at your target and the process automates from there. This allows battles to retain their pace; just because its simplified doesn't make it stupid.
Bioshock Infinite is viewed by some as a dumbed down sign of the times, but to me it feels more like an intelligent and heartfelt take on the modern FPS rather than a lesser version of its pedigree. The point is, the focus has shifted slightly, for better or worse, and as the primary means of a shooter is to, well, let you kill things, Bioshock Infinite (being a shooter) lets you do just that. A lot.
And as the focus of Bioshock Infinite's combat is heavily charged, fast-paced battles with the necessity of quick reflexes and thinking being the decider (on harder difficulties especially), and as these battles fit the narrative (civil war, oppression, etc...) there is tonally very little fit for less violent means. War is hell, and bloody, and Bioshock Infinite is war.
And the violence is not lost on the narrative either. Elizabeth's early game cheery innocence is soon turned to disgust as she witnesses Booker (you) remove the ability to breath oxygen from a room full of would-be-assassins, and while her positivity is resilient at first, the more you witness together, the more she takes part in it, the less the sunshine breaks through the clouds.
Bioshock Infinite isn't a simplified version of Bioshock, it's a Irrational Game's take on the modern shooter wrapped in Bioshock ribbons. It's a modern shooter with warmth, intelligence, grace, and identity. It streamlines aspects of the original but not because it isn't smart, but because it suits the pace and feel of this particular adventure more. This isn't as much about exploration or interactivity, it's more about being swept along by the story and reveling in the excellent combat mechanics. It's almost a different type of game entirely, and there's room in our world for both!
And the violence isn't gratuitous. It's vivid, certainly, but it's completely in keeping with the tone of the game. Columbia is a place seething with anger, screaming in fear, and fracturing with desperation. The pressure builds, and ruptures, and the brutality is befitting.
It's easy to compare Bioshock Infinite with Bioshock and say it failed because it's not the same well, that to me is missing the point, and to say the violence isn't justified is ignoring what compels so much of the narrative.
Bioshock Infinite isn't Bioshock, and Bioshock Infinite is violent, and it works just fine.