The Atrophying Design of Bioshock Infinite

You expect something of a sequel. In days of yore, instalments in a series acted as stepping stones in figuring out what works and what doesn’t and refining the formula for the next rendition.

Perhaps I’m getting old, so, as I’m beginning to wonder if this expectation is a relic of the past. Envious of Resident Evil, Dead Space 3 shifted gently away from its survival horror roots with co-op and cover mechanics. Reports on Dark Souls 2 ‘going AAA’ suggests adherence to an underperforming production model, collaterally deviating from what made the titles so attractive in the first place. It seems successful franchises are increasingly trending towards homogeneity in pursuit of a mythical mainstream audience cash cow.

Delighting in the trend, along came BioShock Infinite. Whereas the original BioShock and I were never quite pals, BioShock 2 cosied up to me right quick. Simply by permitting the use of Plasmids simultaneously with gunplay, BS2 married together the two formerly disparate halves of the city of Rapture – ADAM and dollars. For me, the new synergy of combat finally stirred connotations of a living, operable world.

So enamoured was I that the second trip to Rapture won me over for Infinite where all the marketing and hype generation fell flat.

But while I was anticipating an improved draft of what made BioShock 2 so engrossing, Infinite took to heart the siren call of a shallow fratboy demographic. For their Colombia appearance, elements from BS2 are near-universally receded: entire systems, like the need for scavenging and the use of currency, have been sheared away and merged to simplicity. To a returning eye BioShock 2 feels like the sequel to Infinite, the latter having devolved so much of its progenitor’s charm.

A significant portion of that comes about from the interlocking of systems and economies in each game, both for the virtual worlds and for the player. The nature of the economy immediately available to the player in combat informs behaviour inside and outside of the core shooting mechanics.

At any given time, BS2 trumps Infinite for weaponry. In BS2, the player has access to seven guns with three varieties of ammo each. After procurement, any weapon and ammo type remains accessible. BioShock Infinite has more guns but limits the player to carry two at a time. Each weapon has a single ammo type, shrinking the range of any individual gun to one lone function. The slimming economy of options means the player thinks less about choices and more about reacting.

Aside from reducing each weapon’s character and flavour, the difference also invokes a new mentality. Elimination of ammo types removes the need to scavenge for them as resources between shootouts. Further to that, the carry restriction forbids the player from cycling through options to fit an immediate need. Instead, she must scurry about the map under duress, combing for replacements for used up or inappropriate guns. While the use of weapons in BS2 was strategic, Infinite’s is ad hoc.

As a result, firearms in Infinite are largely designed to perform similarly to most one another, thinning the range to broaden the overlap. Along with decreased diversity, the streamlining does away with trap ammo types, the camera tool and its corresponding levelling up system. Trophy notifications are to pick up the slack of encouraging inventive tactics.

The same effect is carried forward to Infinite’s eight Vigors, corresponding to BS2’s Plasmids. Each power is tailored to either damage or stun, except the overlap between the offensive Vigors is diffused only by sparse appearances by enemy immunity or vulnerability to specific elements. Unlike Infinite, Plasmids in BS2 avoid redundancy by carrying across environmental and esoteric uses from BioShock 1 – Incinerate also melts ice, Winter Blast also facilitates hacking, Telekinesis also grabs collectables, etc. On top of this, BS2 offers more Plasmids than Infinite has Vigors but for the same number of available slots, mirroring an even greater dearth in Infinite’s implementation of gear.

Resembling Rapture’s Tonics, gear gives passive abilities equipable to four independent spaces as hats, shirts, pants or shoes. The nomenclature minimizes customizability to prevent players from equipping hats as pants. Contrasted with BioShock 2, which offered the player 46 different Tonics (some upgradable) to equip freely across up to 18 slots, the potential for playing around with the 24 collectable items of gear via four categories is significantly reduced.

Strangely gone, too, are oddball Tonics like Natural Camouflage and Fountain of Youth, while bot- and hacking-based powers are sacrificed alongside the shedding of those systems. Colombia is worse off for it.

Though the hacking of BS2 attracted some ire, between buyouts, powers, and the hacking tool enough stopgaps were in place to facilitate player interaction with security systems while bypassing the timed minigame. The security system provided another layer of Rapture to wrap around the player, Splicers, and Big Daddies. Remnants appear in Infinite as turrets and mosquitoes but the formerly rich system ripe for manipulation is reduced to scant use of tears and the Possession Vigor.

This largely characterizes an attempt to merge and discard many of BioShock 2’s elements. The Decoy and Security Command Plasmids are simmered down to rare tear-able allies, medic stations are replaced by summoned consumables and what little hacking would be left is reassigned to collectable lockpicks. This would be a worthwhile exchange if the contextual nature of tears was enhanced with hub level design. Unfortunately, Infinite is mostly an open-air corridor shooter, so the player seldom revisits familiar areas to tackle old environments in new ways.

Compare this with BS2’s level and quest design. Frequent and optional Little Sister subquests require the player to map out and retread each area to gather ADAM while under siege. Prior to each gather, the player is given time to inhabit the surrounding space.

Where originally this was a hostile and unfamiliar area, the player makes it familiar, accommodating, defensible. Various traps are set. Security systems are exploited. Medical stations are booby trapped. Health, Eve and ammo are collected in anticipation. Decoys and Cyclones are placed. For two gathers per Little Sister , one to three Little Sisters per level and one Big Sister finale top it off, the player can opt to exercise full command over BS2’s systems.

The system deviations of Infinite ultimately accumulate in a difference of narrative subtext. In Colombia, Booker is an outsider in an environment united in hostility towards him, contrary to feints at social themes. He is channelled from area to area by the forward momentum of his mission, so most of his experiencing of Colombia is as a constant stranger and sightseer. Colombia is large in span and comparatively open-plan; correspondingly, the player is made agoraphobic, hiding behind walls as shields recharge.

Inversely, the tight corridors of Rapture are far more cluttered and claustrophobic – even the open areas of its squares feel hemmed in with debris. Through Jack and Subject Delta, the player’s alienation from Rapture moults into adaptation and subsequent integration into the dystopia’s wrecked culture and economy.

As each new hub-like sector of Rapture is traversed and mapped out mentally, the player becomes more accustomed to the layout and cognizant of the environment as a virtual space. The map feature aids the compulsion for recognition – bot shutdown panels are here, medic stations here, Gatherer’s Garden here. Big Sister battles represent the pinnacle challenge for the player per level – drop the Little Sister at the most appropriate vent, or dash to the most defensible position and set up camp before revelling in the combat mechanics.

Between all these elements, the gameplay of BS2 reflects and feeds into the city’s ecosystem. Collection of ammo, weapons, powers, health items and EVE hypos funds player exploitation of combat mechanics. Exploration is further dictated by the pursuit of currency – health and EVE items in the medium term, ADAM, dollars and Power to the People machines in the long run.

As the player progressively bonds with Rapture’s ecosystem, familiarity with the maps trends upwards. Subject Delta becomes this unstoppable force, downing health kits and EVE hypos to soak up damage while exchanging blows with enemy combatants. Resource collection and management describes this economy; after each firefight, the hunt to top up stock begins again.

Infinite does not retain this exchange – players are not asked to occupy Colombia. All semblance of an ecosystem is minimized, distancing the player from this magnificent floating city. Currency is streamlined – dollars buy everything – removing player motivation to explore for weapon upgrades through an abundance of Minuteman’s Armory machines. EVE hypos are disposed of entirely, so instead player must pause mid-fight and scurry for Salts. Likewise, health kits are replaced with a recharging shield, transforming combat from indomitable and resource-fuelled to that of a rudimentary cover-shooter. Exploitation of Rapture’s security is exchanged for exogenous tears, a distinctly not-this-Colombia mechanic of calling for back-up.

This narrative shift from slow integration to perpetual tourist describes Infinite’s core shooting mechanics as fleeting rather than cumulative. While the same fundamentals are extracted from BioShock 1 and 2, their gunplay was suited to Rapture’s tight corridors and closed rooms. Infinite imports a control scheme that endorses shooting from the hip, ideal for close-to-mid range combat, and places you in large open areas. The seams are patched by Skylines, designed to facilitate mobility and close the gap between player and enemy, but it’s all too often ossified by Booker’s lack of endurance and the open level design.

The cover shooter nature of Infinite compounds the matter. While many Vigors feature trap functions, wide-spun rooms and the removal of Salt item stocks renders them useless. Infinite provides the player with gameplay options, suggesting choices and opportunities but failing to facilitate the player’s tactical options. With a shield, combat output is emphasised in damage-per-second before you need to return to cover and wait for the recharge. With Vigors, use drains your Salt pool and demands an immediate resort to scavenging. With hip-shooting you need to close in on any target, but widely distributed enemies hinder flanking. Skylines, the one novel invention of Infinite, are too clumsy and too few.

The incompatibility of most of these systems can be summed up in terms of adjusted priorities. Where BioShock 2 improved upon the groundwork laid by the first, Infinite co-opts its lineage for a frenetic and messy scrapbook to other modern shooters. Rather than taking the formula from past games and perfecting it or pointing it in new directions, it’s boiled down to the barest possible incarnation and regurgitated into an inappropriate spatial context. The few sincere additions to the mix fail to link the whole mess into one cohesive system. Perhaps the next sequel will fare better.

Ironically, both games involve the player striving to rescue a messianic daughter-figure trapped within a fantastical city by her tyrannical parent. Had Infinite had taken more than just story cues from the BioShock name, it might have surpassed BioShock 2 as the pinnacle of the series’ gameplay.