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BioShock Infinite's Combat Mechanics Regression
by Eric Schwarz on 04/15/13 06:00:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 
I recently completed BioShock Infinite, mostly because it was one of those big releases that I "just had to play" in order to keep up with what's currently big and popular.  While the game left an impression of sorts on me, mostly due to its artwork and its ending (which I will not discuss here), I found that the vast majority of the game was a serious, serious chore to play through.

The first BioShock was a great deal of fun to play for me, even with some of its immersion-killing mechanics, a story that wasn't nearly as clever as it thought it was, and a very weak final chapter to the game.  Even when I found myself growing tired with Rapture, the gameplay remained consistently engaging for me despite the rather poor feel to the shooting and other action.

BioShock Infinite makes it clear that Irrational Games put a lot of effort into improving the actual kinesthetic aspects of the gameplay, from the punchiness of weapons to the way enemies react to your gunfire and special powers.  Yet despite these positive changes, I found myself growing exceptionally bored with BioShock Infinite even just a few hours in.  My only conclusion was that this was a result of a wide systemic regression in the sophistication, depth and quality of the combat mechanics on display.

In this article I'd like to discuss exactly why BioShock Infinite, while entertaining to look at, simply isn't all that much fun to actually play.  Fair warning: this is a fairly long read.

Weapon Diversity

Weapon diversity in Infinite is not terrible, but it does nothing to reinvent or even attempt to innovative within the industry. You have, by my count, 10 guns in the game. There are duplicates of them which push that number higher, but they are basically identical except for the skins, slightly different stats (like higher damage but lower rate of fire), and they have to be upgraded separately for real justified reason.

  1. Pistol
  2. Hand Cannon
  3. Shotgun/Heater
  4. Carbine/Burstgun
  5. Machine Gun/Repeater
  6. Crank Gun
  7. RPG
  8. Volley Gun/Hail Fire
  9. Sniper Rifle

This list is about as generic as it gets. You have two kinds of pistol, two machine guns, one shotgun, and then specialty weapons in the form of a grenade launcher, rocket launcher and sniper rifle.  This isn't to say that this list of weapons is inadequate, but it lacks the inventiveness of System Shock or even the first two BioShock games.

The big problem with these guns, as I see it, is actually what many designers would consider to be a plus.  That is, all guns are equally effective in most situations. The pistol becomes obsolete almost immediately and is not worth using past Memorial Island or so, but just about everything else remains equally effective throughout the game.  Shotgun?  Machine gun?  Sniper rifle?  Though their actual use is slightly different (primarily in their effective range), the only actual downside to any of the guns is the inherent nature of each - that is, the shotgun is not useful at far distances, the sniper rifle is not effective at close range, etc.  What's worse, this is actually a result of conscious design decisions made by Irrational after complaints about the lack of effectiveness of many of BioShock's weapons - they really were trying to solve a problem, and in many ways they succeeded.

Going up against a tough enemy?  It's okay, every gun you use will be equally effective.
 

One of the dangers in striving for "perfect balance" as BioShock Infinite does is that you can end up with a game that feels very flat and soulless.  Outside of the competitive multiplayer community, I'm of the opinion that balance is something which needs to be "good enough" but nothing more.  Having features and options which are clearly superior or inferior might not be "ideal" but it lends a lot more personality to a game and makes the player consider the costs and benefits of each option - not to mention that it also lends a better sense of progression to the game.  In trying to ensure every option is equally effective in most situations, BioShock Infinite runs into the unfortunate problem if no weapons being especially preferable to any others.

The two-weapon-max system is a tacit admission of this by Irrational Games: if you could carry all guns you would have virtually no weaknesses in combat.  As there are no guns which are significantly better against certain enemies, or certain weapons which offer substantially different or interesting functionality, you end up sticking with the same guns throughout the whole game.  This in turn removes incentive to experiment.  And while there is a widely-held belief that two-weapon limits promote more tactical gameplay, when you have so few enemy types and all guns are so effective, there's not much point to limiting the player's capabilities further.  In other words: a two-weapon limit is only worthwhile if there are significant trade-offs in gameplay depending on which weapons the player chooses to carry.

The lack of interesting weapon upgrades and secondary capabilities is another big concern in Infinite.  Customization of your guns in Infinite is nothing more than a slight boost in effectiveness, and while upgrades are limited by the money you have available, you really don't have to make significant choices about what weapons to upgrade. since chances are you'll only be using a few weapons throughout the game anyway.  BioShock 2 had interesting capstone upgrades for its guns, like super-charging your Rivet Gun with bolts capable of setting enemies on fire, but these are conspicuously absent in Irrational's newest game.

There's no secondary fire or ammo types available for guns either, which means they have very little versatility overall; this cuts out combat variety, resource management and overall depth that previous Shock titles had.  For instance, BioShock 2 did much better by having more unique secondary ammo types, like trap ammunition, which gave the player many more options in combat and substantially improved the versatility of all available weapons.  In Infinite, even the basic anti-armor and anti-personnel ammo would have been appreciated, but it's absent for no clear reason.

Last, it's worth mentioning the actual effectiveness of weapons against certain types of enemies.  Titles that BioShock Infinite draws significant inspiration from, such as Half-Life 2 and Halo, have far more diverse weapons available, each of which are designed less to be a full-time companion and more to be a counter for specific types of enemies and effective in particular environments.  Yet in Infinite, there is no "Handyman-killer", no way to deal with the Fireman faster; one gun's as good as the next because the enemies don't require you to vary your arsenel to defeat them.

The end result of all of these problems is that, for a shooter, BioShock Infinite simply has rather weak gunplay.  A good shooter doesn't just have action that feels good and satisfying in a primal way; it needs to challenge the player and force him/her to adapt to new situations, and use the mechanics available to defeat enemies in new ways every combat encounter.  Without this, Infinite's gunfights grow tired and boring even a few hours in.

Vigors

In BioShock, Plasmids had their functionality split across multiple types: you had burst damage, stun, damage over time, traps, telekinesis, and mind control. There was also some nuance in how these Plasmids were used. For example, freezing an enemy would render him/her "immune" to damage, but would allow you to shatter him/her for an instant kill if enough damage was inflicted before he/she thawed. Meanwhile, electricity could be used to zap all enemies in a pool of water, giving it specific functional use depending on the environment.

What's more, Plasmids could be used to solve puzzles. Many optional areas could only be accessed if you had the correct Plasmid equipped. Though eventually you would get all of them, this small amount of puzzle solving (using Telekinesis to grab a key to a door through a broken window, using Inferno to melt ice freezing a door) gave a nice bit of variety to the game and more importantly gave you a small trade-off in which Plasmids you equipped and took with you; it was impossible to bring everything so you had to pick and choose.

Last, Telekinesis was a pretty interesting power that opened up several new opportunities in combat. Sure, it was mostly useful for picking up and throwing explosive barrels at enemies, but this gave a good reason to use the physics engine in BioShock. Though not as developed as Half-Life 2's Gravity Gun, it still justified all those objects lying around as more than just scenery.

There are two main problems with Vigors in BioShock Infinite. The first and most obvious is that functionality has been mapped to all Vigors with only superficial cosmetic differences between them. In BioShock, Plasmids were split into a handful of categories and each was only really good at one thing, requiring you to pay some attention to your load-out. Infinite, by contrast, maps "stun", "trap" and "direct damage" functionality to almost every Vigor. In other words, almost all Vigors are equally good at everything.

Let's break it down.

  1. Devil's Kiss. Primary use is as a grenade. This grenade does burst damage, damage over time, and stuns enemies. Secondary is a stationary land mine which inflicts stun, burst damage and damage over time.
  2. Murder of Crows. Primary use is crowd control. The crows stun enemies and do damage over time. Secondary is a stationary land mine that releases crows, dealing damage over time and stunning enemies.
  3. Shock Jockey. Primary use is a single-target stun and burst damage; can be upgraded to chain between multiple enemies, turning it into a crowd control ability. Secondary is a group of three stationary land mines which stun and deal burst damage.
  4. Bucking Bronco. Primary use is a stun, and enemies can take damage when falling after the stun wears off. Secondary is a stationary land mine that inflicts a longer stun.
  5. Undertow. Primary use is a stun with a knockback effect, also deals burst damage based on how far enemies are knocked back. Secondary disables a single enemy.
  6. Return to Sender. Primary use is a shield that blocks gunfire. Secondary allows the player to absorb incoming fire and deploy it as a stationary land mine trap.
  7. Charge. Primary charges at an enemy, closing distance quickly and dealing burst damage. Secondary allows the charge to be built up to inflict more damage.
  8. Possession. Primary causes an enemy robot to fight for the player temporarily; can be upgraded to work on living targets. This is effectively a stun/crowd control ability, as one enemy is disabled and the others turn their attention towards it instead of the player. Secondary is a land mine that possesses the enemy that steps on it.

Notice a trend in all of these? Only Charge, Return to Sender and Possession are even remotely unique in their function; even so, they have a lot of mechanical overlap with the other powers. Some of them do require upgrades to gain that functionality, but effectively this reduces the uniqueness of these powers even more.

It is worth noting that there is no way to freeze enemies in Infinite to inflict a special "freeze" status stun. Furthermore, the stun effect applied by Vigors in Infinite is much more generic in that all stunned enemies, no matter what Vigor applied the effect to them, take double damage from weapons. This means that the key differentiating factor between most Vigors is whether they do damage over time or allow you to deal bonus damage via stun.

Second, there's the major problem that Vigors have extremely limited environmental use compared to the first BioShock.  The two most common environmental uses for Vigors are Devil's Kiss, which allows the player to set fire to oil slicks (fairly rare) and Undertow, which lets the player fling enemies to their deaths (common, but only in the final 10% of the game). All other environmental effects, like Shock Jockey's ability to instantly kill enemies standing in water, are nearly non-existent; I don't think I saw a single place to use this effect in the entire game except for immediately after I gained the Vigor, and a tutorial prompt instructed me to try the technique on some enemies.


Vigors in Infinite don't really lose much functionality over those from the original game, but they do lose their more unique qualities and are defined much more by superficial aesthetic differences.

What's more, the non-combat trade-offs to Vigors are completely absent. There are no places in the game where you can use Vigors to gain access to hidden/closed areas, except one, which requires Devil's Kiss and appears very late in the game. That's all. While the stuff in BioShock you could do with Plasmids was hardly challenging or heady, at least it was there, and consistently, as part of mandatory gameplay.  Although this article is primarily a combat mechanics analysis, the value of pacing combat encounters with exploration can't be understated, and whereas Plasmids in BioShock were used to augment exploration gameplay, Vigors in Infinite are not, which results in much more monotonous exploration gameplay.

One other major change in Infinite is that, since the player can carry all Vigors at once, he/she does not have to pick a specific load-out.  This also means that there is no risk/reward or trade-off in bringing a given Vigor over another with you, either for combat purposes or exploration purposes.  What should be Vigor-specific benefits, like being able to melt ice to open doors, gain extra money from vending machines or shock enemies in puddles of water, are now basically global abilities only limited by how quickly the player can open the inventory and change the equipped power (or hit a hotkey).

I will admit fully that there is one thing about Vigors in BioShock Infinite that is better, and that is the fact that upgrades are more creative in that they add additional functionality. This way you can get more out of a specific Vigor, effectively trading money for more salts, or a unique augment. But as mentioned above, this also reduces the uniqueness of the Vigors and thus is somewhat of a double-edged sword.  Considering that you can take as many Vigors with you as you want, I don't think that upgrades even have much place in this game.  It would have made more sense to instead introduce more Vigors with more diverse functions during the course of the story, which would also have required more switching between them during combat and would have allowed the player to get their hands on a new power to play with more often.

Enemy Behavior

Enemy AI in BioShock Infinite is, to put it bluntly, quite simplistic. Standard enemies appear to have two states. One is an idle state in which the player is not detected, and enemies simply stand in place or patrol. This happens until the enemies are alerted to the player (usually by the player stepping into their field of view or making a loud noise, or attacking them), in which case all enemies in an area will instantly be alerted to the player's exact presence and intent.

Alert (combat) state has enemies do one of two things. They either stand at a distance and periodically fire at the player while ducking in and out of cover, or they "wander" between cover points while periodically firing at the player. Enemies do not appear to use any sort of group tactics such as flanking, however, given that the player fights many enemies at once and they have a variety of weapons, this is often enough to keep the player occupied. The same can be said of suppressing fire. For example, an enemy who carries an RPG will fire it at the player incessantly, stopping only to reload, regardless of whether the player is; this creates a suppression-like effect, but it is not used intelligently. It appears, upon further observation, that enemies do not actually attempt to hunt down the player. Many enemies will stand in place doing nothing during combat, and many also do not take the opportunity to fire on the player when he/she is distracted.

Enemies only appear to use
Skylines in scripted sequences. They will hook on to the Skylines, ride them to a destination, and then jump down to fight any nearby enemies. These enemies do not appear to ever get back on the Skylines, likely because their AI is incapable of actually doing this, and they only jump onto them as an entrance animation into a level (or possibly are spawned out of nowhere).  This means that one of the player's most effective tactics, that of exploiting the mobility of the Skylines to retreat, heal, or drop-stomp enemies, is not something the AI can use, which puts the player well, well above the base enemy effectiveness.

There are four unique "heavy" enemies in BioShock Infinite which appear to have some more interesting AI. However, their behaviors are still very simplistic and predictable, and they are only defined by their special properties and not so much any intelligent behaviors. Incidentally these are also the only enemies in the entire game who ever use Vigors, and even then they only use a very small number of them and in limited ways.

  1. Fireman. The Fireman is a basic heavy enemy that is encountered frequently. Its main defining trait is a higher health pool and its ability to throw Devil's Kiss grenades at the player. When in melee range, it will perform melee attacks, and will sometimes charge the player as well. When at low health it will attempt a "suicide run" and blow itself up as close to the player as possible.
  2. Crow. The Crow is weaker than the Fireman. Its primary attack involves using the Murder of Crows ability, causing damage over time to the player. The Crow will turn invisible and hop from place to place, only betrayed by the moving swarm of crows which follow it as it moves.  Its only real defining trait is its gimmick of turning semi-invisible.
  3. Motorized Patriot. This large enemy is effectively a tank, as it has moderate to high damage output and a very large health bar. It is equipped with a Crank Gun, a Gatling gun with limited availability throughout the game. The Motorized Patriot has no significant AI behaviors. It simply walks towards the player in an attempt to establish line of sight, and then opens fire with its weapon. It repeats this until destroyed.
  4. Handyman. The Handyman is a melee brute with the largest health pool in the entire game. It is very fast and attacks in melee using a number of strikes, some of which can cause a knockback effect to the player. The Handyman's most distinctive characteristic is its ability to jump long distances and follow the player almost anywhere. The Handyman holds the distinction among enemies as possibly being the only one capable of losing track of the player, requiring some time to re-acquire the target before pursuit resumes. This is the player's only real advantage against the Handyman, as otherwise he is too fast and too powerful to outrun or out-damage.

Aside from the Handyman, none of these enemies have any behaviors that could be described as especially complex. Their biggest threat collectively is their high amount of health compared to other enemies and the limited effectiveness of Vigors on them, requiring the player to devote more time to kill them. Otherwise they do not present much challenge, especially if encountered alone.


Unique enemies in Infinite are tougher, but their stock-standard behaviors and lack of variety betray the fact that they're really only challenging because they have big, inflated health bars.

BioShock, though it had significantly more limited enemy variety, had more interesting enemy abilities and behaviors, though the actual "AI" of these enemies was, in reality, probably less advanced than that of Infinite's. The standard Splicer enemies were numerous, but they would attack the player based on equipment and Plasmids they had equipped. Some Splicers commanded Sentry Bots against the player, which could be hacked and turned against their owners; others had the Electro Bolt power, rendering them immune to electricity damage and allowing them to use Electro Bolt in combat against the player; yet others had the Inferno power, making them immune to fire and allowing them to torch the player.

Of course, BioShock also had Big Daddies. Big Daddies were far more sophisticated creatures than others with more varied behaviors. For example, they could gain or lose acquisition of the player. They had different states of alertness and had ambient behaviors in the environment that could be used to the player's advantage. They could fire at range or they could charge in for melee attacks. They could use their powerful drills to deal immense damage close-up. They could throw grenades and proximity mines at the player at a distance to deny areas of the level to him/her.  This isn't revolutionary stuff, but it's far beyond Infinite's near-suicidal zombie-soldiers.

What is especially lacking in BioShock Infinite is the "AI ecosystem" from the first BioShock. Although dramatically stripped down from its initial intent, this AI ecosystem allowed the players to manipulate enemies into interesting behaviors. For example, the player could set traps near a Big Daddy, and when it triggered them, it would often assume that some nearby Splicers were responsible and not the player. If the player hacked Security Cameras or Turrets, these mechanized allies would acquire the Big Daddy's focus instead of the player, allowing indirect ways to take it out. It was even possible to use Possession on a Big Daddy and then bring it into battle so that enemy Splicers would kill it for the player.  Of course, these same rules applied to other enemies in the game world as well.  Though not necessarily complex, this system allowed for a great deal of experimentation in combat which is completely lacking from Infinite's "guns and grenades" model.

Gear

In BioShock Infinite, Gear are modifiers that the player can equip in order to customize his or her play-style. Gear slots are fixed and finite, with only a set number of slots and only certain Gear able to fit into specific slots. For example, you can only wear one hat at one time, or one shirt, or one pair of pants.

Almost all Gear effects in Infinite are some variety of dealing additional damage to enemies. For example, one piece of Gear lets the player do fire damage when using a melee attack; another might give a chance of inflicting electric damage when shooting at an enemy. Other Gear has more subtle effects, like powering up critical hit damage or making enemies drop more ammunition. There are a few pieces of Gear which are truly interesting, like Ghost Posse, which has a chance of "reanimating" dropped weapons into temporary allies, but even so these are really nothing more than damage output modifiers.

Meanwhile, the original BioShock gave the player passive upgrades using items called Gene Tonics. Like Plasmids, Gene Tonics could only be equipped in limited numbers, and the player would have to choose which ones to take with him/her. Gene Tonics were effectively modifiers on play-style, allowing the player to open up new possibilities in combat (and non-combat situations), or make existing abilities and weapons more effective. Gene Tonics were different than Gear in that the number of total Gene Tonic slots available had to be upgraded, and there was no limit on which Gene Tonics could go in which slots (inevitably leading to some slightly overpowered builds, but as I said above, "perfect balance" isn't needed in an asymmetric single-player game anyway).


"Magic pants" didn't make any sense in Fallout 3 and it doesn't make any more sense in Infinite.  Ooh, let me guess, it's because quantum, right?

However, Gene Tonics had overall far more interesting effects and required more thought in how you equipped them than Gear does. No more obvious is this in the Wrench Jockey line of Gene Tonics. The Wrench is the weakest weapon in the game, dealing less damage than anything else and having no functional range to it. However, with the correct Gene Tonics the player could actually be free of ammo management, by allowing the Wrench to do more damage, and perform special effects like freezing enemies. It was possible to, with the right selection of upgrades, defeat a Big Daddy entirely using the Wrench.  Of course, there were significant downsides to this play-style, namely the lack of ranged attacks available, but that made it all the more interesting to use.

One other equally interesting example was the Natural Camouflage upgrade. This Gene Tonic effectively turned the player invisible while standing still. This Gene Tonic almost single-handedly made real, honest-to-goodness stealth a viable option in BioShock and also allowed the player to spring ambushes, or more easily direct attention towards hacked Turrets and Sentry Bots, or even bypass enemies entirely, something which is impossible in Infinite. When combined with the Wrench Lurker type powers it made the player a veritable assassin.

While arguably from a design perspective it might not have been the best idea to make the Wrench one of the more effective weapons in the game, or let the player bypass so much combat so easily, the trade-off is that the player at least had to create a character build that enabled that play-style, both through smart selection of Gene Tonics as well as purchasing the correct upgrades over time. Again, none of this is present at all in Infinite, and instead you get one character archetype: that of the "first-person shooter guy".

Health Mechanics

In BioShock, the player had a finite, upgradeable health bar which would only be replenished using health kits, using medical stations, or by eating food scattered around the environment. The player could carry up to 9 health kits at once, and use them at leisure to heal, either in combat or out of combat. Health kits were relatively rare compared to other items and often had to be purchased. Medical stations, meanwhile, were somewhat rare devices placed on walls that allowed the player to pay money for healing, or alternately they could be destroyed to loot a portable health kit or two. Food only had limited healing properties, however, the abundance of food in the environment made it a viable alternative to other healing options when not in combat.

In BioShock Infinite, this system has remained somewhat the same. There are, however, a number of key departures:

  1. The player cannot carry any portable health kits. All healing items are instant-use.
  2. Medical stations have been removed, but the player can purchase instant-use health kits from Dollar Bill vending machines in combat.
  3. Food items heal less than they did in BioShock, and are about half as effective.
  4. Elizabeth will throw the player health kits when he/she gets low on health, provided Elizabeth's "cooldown" on item sharing has expired.
  5. The player possesses a shield bar which, unlike the health bar, regenerates. The shield is at 50% of the health bar's size, but can be upgraded to reach 100% of its size. However, if health is fully upgraded then the shield still only maxes out at 50% of the health bar. Shields have a recharge period of about 3 seconds provided no further damage is inflicted on the player.

Immediately, it becomes obvious that these mechanics have been lifted largely from Halo, just like the "multiple grenade types and two weapons" models seen above. Though borrowed, the idea of a regenerating shield and a non-regenerating health bar is actually a fairly good one because it does not significantly punish the player for small mistakes, only for larger ones which actually break through the shield. This is especially suited to games intended to be played using a gamepad, as the more sluggish and imprecise controls available mean mistakes are easier to make, and the limited turning speed caused by analogue stick controls means the player requires more time to assess and evade threats.

The problem with Infinite is its implementation and the way the shield interacts with the way enemies cause damage, particularly in the interplay with the heavy enemies. Normally, the dual health and shield system works fairly well. Most of the time enemies aren't going to break through the player's shield, but if they do, it's not the end of the world and the player can usually recover thanks to health items placed in the environment and Elizabeth's frequent assistance. Enemies have hitscan weapons which makes avoiding damage through direct player skill extremely difficult, but most of the time the player will only die when surrounded and attacked in melee, or when an enemy with a powerful weapon like a Sniper Rifle or RPG appears, which is capable of breaking through the shield and thus exposing the player to enemy fire.


Infinite mechanics are a weird mish-mash of Halo and System Shock 2, and this awkward fusion lacks the elegance and depth of either system, nor does it seem to quite understand why each was fun in its own context.

Unfortunately, heavy enemies upset this balance significantly. The most obvious example of this is the Handyman. The Handyman is capable of following the player everywhere, and he only attacks in melee range. The Handyman's melee strikes are so powerful that they are capable of instantly breaking through the player's shields and dropping the player's health down to the "red zone" all in one shot. Furthermore, the Handyman is very fast, requiring that the player sprint to avoid his assault.

However, Handymen are also always encountered with a battalion of other enemies at the ready. This presents a significant problem: when the player is constantly running from the Handyman, either by sprinting or using the Skylines, he/she cannot take the time to shoot at the regular enemies. However, the regular enemies can shoot back at the player. This means the player's shields are probably going to be constantly very low when fighting the Handyman, removing the "error buffer" that the shields provide. Because the Handyman moves so quickly and hits so hard, and is immune to most Vigor effects, actually trying to shoot back at the Handyman will almost always result in the player taking very significant damage. On the harder difficulty modes, this means that the player becomes almost entirely dependent on Elizabeth to provide health kits, as well as the Dollar Bill vending machines. As a result, these fights take an exceptionally long time to complete (easily 5-10 minutes or even more) and, since the Handyman will regain health when the player dies and respawns, this means the player will be constantly losing resources (money) for dying and on health kits and ammo, while making no progress.

In other words, these fights take a very long time, and the longer they go on for, the harder they get. On hard mode and "1999 mode" the Handyman fights reveal the distinct mechanical contradictions in combining unreliable healing, non-regenerating health, unavoidable hitscan weapons and enemies which have huge health bars and near-unavoidable attacks, as well as the player's inability to both move quickly and shoot at the same time. While standard combat is unchallenging enough for these to rarely be a problem, it becomes a serious concern when the game throws its toughest enemies at the player, sometimes many at once. 

Level Design

The major departure in Infinite over BioShock is that the levels the player explores are almost entirely linear.  Furthermore, rather than being designed as "real places" with obviously identifiable functions and at least somewhat plausible architecture, almost every environment in Infinite has been designed as a combat arena.  There are many parts of the game in which the player is locked into prolonged battles against waves of enemies in specially-constructed "stadiums", so much so that it becomes a gameplay crutch for the game as it attempts to pad out its length, especially during the middle portions of the campaign.

The original BioShock didn't have the most varied, original or interesting level design, as most of it was copied from the System Shock 2 playbook, but what it did have was non-linearity and player freedom.  In BioShock, combat was usually something the player entered into on his/her own terms.  Different environments had multiple entrances, exists, floors, and many environmental props to use to one's advantage, sometimes in more way than one.  Because of this, enemies also did not immediately "aggro" when the player got close, which gave the player a chance to tactically assess options available, plan, and execute.

Infinite's focus on combat arenas entered in linear succession, featuring respawning enemies, or just straight-up linear corridors or on-rails sections, lacks the biggest strength of BioShock, which was its freedom to decide how to tackle an encounter.  Although you do get choices during the game and you can use a number of different tactics, almost everything has to be done "on the fly" and it's often impossible to adequately prepare for anything because of the way enemies spawn in or ambush the player constantly.  Furthermore, this restriction on level design interacts negatively with the two-weapon limit discussed above, as now it's much harder to enter into a battle on your own terms and play to the strengths of your loadout.

I criticized BioShock for being a trumped-up Doom with a more sophisticated story on top, but at least it inherited many of the strengths of that game's level design. 

These prolonged arena-type combat encounters are a trick you can do a few times in a shooter and get away with, as it'll keep its impact.  Rely on it entirely, and pretty soon you have combat that is boring and frustrating.  In Infinite, I felt like I was constantly getting jumped by monsters, sometimes out of literal closets, or getting stuck in overly long battles with no way to take a break and return later, and any attempts I made to prepare in advance went by the wayside when I realized that at certain points in the battle, new enemies would enter the fray, with no warning, sometimes literally spawning out of nowhere.  It got old very, very fast.

I'm not saying that linearity is in itself a bad thing.  Half-Life 2 is one of my favorite shooters of the modern era, and it is crushingly linear, but it also has pacing in its combat by providing the player with a wide variety of scenarios and objectives to accomplish, whether that's taking out a big boss enemy, scrounging to find special ammo for a required weapon, rushing from house to house to avoid incoming fire from above, running down enemies in a dune buggy or hovercraft, using mounted turrets, taking out small groups or individuals without drawing greater attention, or, yes, fighting in arenas.  BioShock Infinite could have benefited much from giving the player more to do than shoot in corridors, fight in arenas and watch cutscenes; anything it does differently is usually a case of "too little, too late."

Gameplay Gimmicks

Descending from System Shock 2, BioShock was perhaps most well known for its gameplay gimmicks.  The Plasmids and Big Daddies were already covered, but one I didn't touch on so much was the inclusion of hacking.  Though almost universally derided because of its mini-game, hacking in BioShock was actually a very interesting system that was substantially improved on in BioShock 2.

The most obvious use of hacking was to turn Turrets to the player's own side.  Normally Turrets could be taken out relatively easily with a few swift shots, but it was often much more tactically advantageous to approach a turret and hack it instead.  This allowed for the player to ensure a level of safety in the more open environments and gave a measure of control against wandering enemies.  It was also an interesting and effective progress indicator - instead of relying on seas of bodies left behind, looking for the green lights of friendly machines was a way of keeping tabs on where you'd been.

But there was much more to hacking, thanks to the inclusion of Security Cameras.  In a game with more open-ended levels, there needs to be a mechanic in place that puts some limitations on where the player can go and what they can do, and how easy this is.  Security Cameras were BioShock's way of giving the player risk and reward in exploration, and encouraging caution when navigating unfamiliar territory.  Security Cameras, when triggered, would sound an alarm and cause enemies to chase the player, as well as respawning Sentry Bots, until the player either paid a fee to shut off security, or waited out the alarm.

In my opinion, this was one of the best design choices in BioShock.  Although effectively cribbed from System Shock 2, it made the world feel hostile and alive.  Not only was there danger from enemies placed in the level, but being attacked by respawning creatures and machines had multiple narrative and gameplay implications.  It meant that the player was never truly safe anywhere (until all Security Cameras were hacked or destroyed), it gave players who wanted combat more combat, while punishing stealthy players who screwed up, and it meant there were ways to gain more resources by defeating the enemies that came to attack during an alarm.


Hacking in BioShock was not very fun, but it had more tactical applications than the Possession power in Infinite.

BioShock 2 actually improved upon this system by introducing a real-time hacking mini-game that was much, much faster than the old one.  BioShock's complicated pipe puzzle mini-game was loathed by many, mostly because it was fairly easy to master yet took a long time to perform.  It also froze time, which meant there was very little risk/reward in trying to hack something.  If you failed, you could just try again.  BioShock 2 did three great things:

  1. It added another level of resource management in the form of Hack Darts
  2. It allowed the player to hack from range, at the expense of needing to switch away from the currently equipped weapon
  3. It replaced the boring mini-game with a much faster and more satisfying mini-game that nevertheless had real-time cost and thus was risky to use in combat

All of these things added up to make hacking in BioShock 2 more versatile and less of an exploit.  Tying hacking to Hack Tools especially was a beautiful idea because there were rarely enough Hack Tools available to actually hack everything in the environment, so players had to pick and choose whether to destroy machines, use their valuable Hack Tools, or spend money on more of them.  This superior systems and mechanics design was one of the reasons I had more fun with BioShock 2 as a game, over either Infinite or the first BioShock.

Infinite, unfortunately, is not really able to achieve the same level of excellence as far as its gameplay gimmicks go.  Hacking has been removed, but has been streamlined into the Possession ability, a Vigor which works both on living enemies as well as machines.  In theory, it's a nice idea, but it lacks the subtlety and nuance of BioShock 2's Hack Darts.

For one, Possession requires no special resources, only Salts, of which there are plenty everywhere (and Elizabeth is more than happy to give you more if you run out).  Second, Possession does not have the same measure of risk/reward associated with it.  There is only a very brief interruption in your damage output when using Possession, about half a second, so there is little trade-off.  Possession also homes in very directly on the nearest target, making accuracy almost a moot point.  Third, Possession does not require a mini-game.  While normally I hate mini-games, the hacking mini-game in BioShock 2 was nearly perfect: a simple reflex challenge that was easy to do in isolation, but in the heat of combat, mistakes could very easily be made.  It was fast enough to not get tedious, but also required discipline to master while fighting.  It served its purpose perfectly, but Possession is effectively just another form of crowd control instead of something special.

The second big gameplay gimmick in BioShock Infinite is the inclusion of Tears, which were hyped up a good deal before the game came out.  In reality, Tears are not actually that interesting.  They allow the player to summon various aids into combat - cover, ammo and supplies, easier access to higher ground, allies, decoys and so on.  Only one Tear can be "in play" at once.  I really like this idea in practice because it lets the player control the battlefield.  Unfortunately, the actual benefit from these Tears is not that significant most of the time, nor is there much if any risk/reward associated with them.  You simply activate the one you want, exhaust it, then activate the other; the limit of only one active Tear at once is never a concern.

Skylines were one of the more promising elements of Infinite's combat, but a lack of interesting use for them in level design and a lack of intelligent AI to take advantage of them made them somewhat underwhelming.
 

What's more is that Tears, even though they present more combat options to the player, actually feel, to me, somewhat limiting.  By giving the player all these choices almost literally on a silver platter (with their grey, glowing and circular appearance), it becomes a bit too obvious what is possible in a fight.  It's almost like a quest compass, but for your combat options - instead of exploring your available choices you are simply following the interface pop-ups.  This is ultimately going to be subjective, but by highlighting the options right out of the gate I didn't feel like I was being clever in combat by finding secrets to use against enemies, but instead playing "as intended", guided by the heavy hand of a designer on my shoulder.

The third gameplay gimmick in BioShock Infinite is the inclusion of Skylines, which I've already brought up.  These were discussed much all throughout Infinite's development, possibly more so than any other features in the game.  The promise of the Skylines was to allow the player to dart and dash between the floating city's platforms, swashbuckling enemies riding along-side and leaping to and fro in dramatic fashion.  It sounds fantastic in concept, but like much of Infinite, the execution feels like wasted potential.

Indeed, there are only a handful of fights in Infinite that actually use Skylines, and rarely do they feel necessary, instead a simple means of transportation between islands, a way to retreat, or to abuse the enemy AI by jump-stomping them repeatedly for easy instant kills.  Skylines are definitely a worthwhile addition to the game, but they aren't used nearly enough, and when they are it too often feels like an "I win" button that can be used to get out of almost any bad situation.  It is very telling that the most dramatic and entertaining instances of Skylines in the game actually appear in cutscenes and scripted sequences, instead of gameplay.

Closing Thoughts

BioShock Infinite's combat mechanics are a strange amalgam of the original System Shock 2 and BioShock ideas with comparatively newer Halo-style ideas. However, these new ideas reduce the overall number of options the player has in combat, they make the weapons and powers available to the player less interesting, they make character builds far more generic through limited Gear options, and they make the player dependent on an unreliable health system in the form of Elizabeth and vending machines which cannot be directly managed much of the time.

What's worse, combat in BioShock Infinite is far removed from semi-tactical model employed in the first two BioShock games. The idea of preparing for combat encounters no longer exists. There is much less room for experimentation in dealing with enemies, and the different enemies themselves do not require significantly different tactics to take out. Infinite is certainly not a bad game mechanically, but it is a major step back from the best elements of BioShock and especially BioShock 2, and feels less like an elegant and well-conceived system and more like a mish-mash of mostly half-baked ideas, many of them pulled from other games, and not even executed any better than the other games in the same series.

I don't know what the reason is for this.  Perhaps it's the result of Infinite's protracted development.  Maybe it was because the Irrational team truly didn't know what they wanted to do.  Maybe Elizabeth's promised AI never got advanced enough to build combat around it, leaving the remaining ideas insufficient to fill the gaps.  Yet I can't help but think it really just boils down to the fact that Infinite's gameplay was of a secondary concern behind its visual presentation and attempts at artistry.


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