Long Distance Charges: BioShock Infinite’s Combat

BioShock Infinite has been out since last Tuesday but this is, I guess, my BioShock Infinite weekMy Dinner with Andre but with a lot more shooting. Like, waaay more shooting. It is, after all, a shooter. The question being raised on Twitter as of late by the likes of Braid creator Jonathan Blow and Fez designer Phil Fish has been whether or not it needed to be.

Personally, I don’t think it needed to be such a traditional shooter, but I do feel like some sort of consistent action element drives home the sense of both literally and figuratively battling against a wave of zealotry and insanity. Having to actually fight against something and actively push a metaphorical Sisyphean rock up a seemingly interminable hill adds flavor and context to the adventure, urgency to the matter at hand beyond discovering the secrets of Columbia and its inhabitants.

The problems brought up, however, are still very valid points. Blow, for instance, talks about how recharging health/shields guts the firefights of significance; they become akin to swatting away flies that simply continue to hover just out of reach. It also breaks player training when story progression and thus difficulty escalation forces enemies that can wipe out shields and health in a single hit, forcing users to forget everything they’d learned to that point and wholly change the game’s structure. Fish put it perhaps most succinctly.

I do, unfortunately, understand where he’s coming from. As the game starts out, you simply are set to explore, to soak in the entire world around you totally and completely. Feel free to just look around, poke in and out of crates and barrels and read every sign not once or twice but three times over. You can let the wonderment wash over you like a beaming ray of light cracking through a broken storm. It feels warm and cozy just long enough until the unease of being in the totally whacked world of Columbia takes over (I mean, jeez, those religious Halloween ghost cosplayers are really unsettling).

And I would disagree with him, if not for the second half of the game. But let me be clear: BioShock Infinite‘s combat is still pretty great. Most of the encounters actually feel well structured, as if someone had deliberately placed most of the dudes you’re about to kill and pointed them in a certain direction for maximum potency.

The Sky-Lines, too, add a much appreciated sense of verticality to the proceedings. It’s a very different sort compared to the way Uncharted does it, but Infinite does just fine on its own. It became a quick route to macro crowd management. If any one particular area got too hot, you could just zip away, survey the scene, take a breather, and then dive back in with great striking bombast. It feels so freeing to be able to soar between areas and still be lethal during the transit while affording more brain power to thinking out my strategy.

This leads to a massively varied amount of scenarios you can find yourself in, and you almost always have the gear to handle it. The weapons are of the generic shooter variety (shotgun, machine gun, rifle, etc.), but each one feels so much more distinct than in any Call of Duty or Medal of Honor. In modern military FPS games, I always feel like I can sort my arms according to close range, long range, and “oh shit this thing needs to die right the fuck now” import and any weapon within the same category will be almost entirely identical.

The weapons offered found scattered around Columbia, however, feel so incredibly unique and different from one another. The machine gun and the repeater, for instance, come across initially as basically the same weapon. Middling range and similar feel, but the difference in firing rate and power cause them to have drastically different applications. Very specific occasions would arise to where I would be wielding one and really wish for the other and they would happen often, whereas in Modern Warfare I just always wish I had more ammo for like anything.

The vigors, an analog to the plasmids of the waterlogged Rapture, are more of a roller coaster of quality. Shock Jockey, for instance, is basically Electro Bolt from BioShock and feels very tired, though it is still quite useful. But something like Murder of Crows, once upgraded, is fantastic in both use and smashing banality with a hammer. Its slower, swirling traversal gives it a much more powerful implication and the corpses it leaves behind actually turn into more Murder of Crows traps. That is what Infinite needs to trade it to truly differentiate vigors from plasmids and only does it about half the time.

Speaking of halves, the second half of the game, as I said before, is where this all breaks down and begins to show some cracks. In the beginning portions of Infinite, you’ll find that a majority of your encounters are comprised of melee fighters. Most, if not all, of your foes will charge at you and run amok all up ons you. Then, it will occasionally pepper bad guys with guns somewhere around one-third and two-thirds of the way through a battle. This adds a great sense of “FUCK FUCK FUCK” since their mostly inconsequential (if properly mitigated with cover and appropriate ambulation) potshots will force you to contend with the horde in hot pursuit. It’s fantastic and aggressively encourages you to change up your weapons and tactics on the fly, picking up and dropping guns as you run and calling in water puddle and oil slick tears to vigor away some of the chasers.

But the second half of the game flips the composition, squeezing the equation in the wrong direction. You have to face down with an increasing number of enemies that wield guns and fewer that charge you with nothing more than a pipe and a love for William Wallace. So now instead of two or three incoming shooters that make you shuffle around the entire level to avoid both them and the brutes, you have fire coming in from all sides. This reduces your effective movement range to a few thousand square feet separated by wide chasms of bullets and bombs.

With such an ineffective cover system (i.e. there is none; you just huddle up against things that you hope are big enough to cover you but they never are for Booker DeWitt has shoulders that would make Dwight Howard jealous), this makes the minute management of shifting around a half wall not very fun. Then the act of trying to find where the shots are coming from is so unbelievably difficult that you wonder if they’re really coming at all (they are. They always are).

This reduces battles to finding somewhere with suitable cover and a wide enough area to where you can manage two or three guys at a time. You’ll hove around an area, trying to kite one dude towards you at a time, hoping the melee foes come up before you have to deal with gunners. Then, after you’ve shot everyone coming after you, the music will still play and you know there’s someone out there you’ll have to go and find in the worst game of hide-and-seek ever. It’s frustrating and not very engaging since all of the agency you had before—six or so hours of topnotch combat design and implementation—is stabbed in the back and left bleeding in its cell.

That’s not to say, though, that the latter half is all bad. There are some genuinely fantastic battles. Having a Handyman crash the party is always super tense and I can’t say I don’t love it when a Fireman, so close to death, hops on a rail and I jump on going the other way so as to surprise him on the other side. The combat is still fun and it still is capable of producing some incredible moments that I can’t recall experiencing in many other games, but while they are the peaks to a series of hills and valleys, the first half is nothing but a constant upwards slope.

Given that comparison, it’s hard to fault BioShock Infinite. Touching on perfection for much of the game may be better than simply lusting after it the whole time. And it kind of is just the bullet-ridden cherry on top of the racist sundae. Having an absolutely fun game to play would simply make me want to play through it again on hard rather than cruise through again on easy just to experience the whole thing one more time. Jonathan Blow may be onto something with the shield bashing (badum, chssh!); the reprieve between battles seems less than ideal when you have moments of exhalation every few seconds. But this time I think it turned out all right.


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