Thursday, February 27, 2014

To anyone spelunking these depths

Obviously I haven't written anything in a while.  So what's going on?  Did I die?  Did my passion evaporate?  Am I confined to an asylum?

Well, the answer to all those is no.

When you write 125ish essay-length articles on game design over a 2ish year period on a weekly basis, you tend to explore a lot of issues - and summoning up the passion to write on my own is just difficult when I have already delved into so many topics.  The games industry continues to go on and there are definitely games I enjoy playing and giving my thoughts on, as well as specific design trends and issues that arise worth commenting on, but keeping up that output has been difficult.

On that note, I've also been working not one, but two games industry jobs lately, and I no longer find myself with a great amount of free time anymore.  Working on a full time basis takes a lot out of you and I have less and less leisure time to spend this way.  Additionally, during 2013 I was actively writing a lot of content for GameBanshee.  Much of what I was playing and pontificating on was posted on that fine site, and remains there, but it may have impacted my output here.

This experience has been humbling in its own way - making me realize that writing on things and espousing my own knowledge, valuable in its way though it may be, is not necessarily the most effective or honest path to knowledge for me anymore.

I consider Critical Missive a success, and I enjoyed writing here as I did.  But, it's pretty obvious right now that I'm not in a position to continue putting out content on any sort of regular basis.  I'm still alive and active, but things are moving in different, and I feel, more productive and enriching directions, both personally and professionally.  That those two goals happen to align is, frankly, pretty great.

To anyone reading who might be stumbling across this site, all my backlogged content is free to read as you wish.   If you get even a fraction out of these articles what I did in writing them, then I'm happy for you, whether it inspires you to nod along, to think your own thoughts, or to rage on.

Regards,
Eric

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Deadlight Analysis

Truth be told, I haven't been playing too many new games lately.  Although I've been ensconcing myself within a veritable cloak of older titles, specifically Spiderweb Software's entire product backlog, I've been patiently waiting for two things: several Kickstarter projects (like Shadowrun Returns) to get off the ground, and for the Steam Summer Sale to pick up any titles I may have missed over the last several months.

One of these titles I picked up is a little game called Deadlight.  Released nearly a year ago in mid-2012, Deadlight is somewhat of a throwback to an era of platform games gone by.  Taking more inspiration from the original Prince of Persia, or Another World, than more typical games in the Super Mario Bros. lineage, it features heavy, deliberate controls, over-the-top puzzle- and trap-laden levels, and sets it all to the theme of "zombie apocalypse" that's all the rage these days.

It's rare for me to come across a game like Deadlight.  Not because it's a bad game, or because it's a good game - it's one that sits right there in the middle, occasionally reaching for greatness yet also failing regularly enough to be a frustrating game to play at times.  It's a game of extremes, and unlike a lot of more modern titles which tend not to work, its flaws aren't a matter of simplification, of bad interface design, of poor storytelling... this is a game where the biggest deficiencies come directly from its mechanics, controls and level design just not quite working.

Controls

Deadlight pays homage to classic slower-paced platform games by having a protagonist who feels less like a point in space with a character model attached, and more like a physical human being.  There's a strong feeling of momentum as you build up speed, you can trip and fall or get knocked over by enemies, and movement is weighty and deliberate.

It's very refreshing to see a platformer that actually does play like this.  In recent years, with games like Super Meat Boy, platformers have tended towards ultra-difficult micro-challenges which require complete and total mastery of the controls, but in doing so they have also reduced the complexity of the controls and the sense that the player's character is a real physical actor.  Stopping on a dime, extreme air control and so on are all things that we've become used to, so much so that going back to something just a little more "realistic" is actually pretty challenging, and requires significant re-learning.

Deadlight's controls and character physics are generally competent.  The controller layout takes a few minutes to get used to, with the buttons shuffled around just a little bit to make room for the various combat-related functions, but other than that, it's pretty easy to get to grips with.  Movement is analog, not digital, and the momentum and speed that you move at directly determine how far and high you can jump, with no air control to speak of.  You have to line up and time your movement very carefully, and the precise controls mean there is little to no room for ambiguity.  If you fail a jump, usually it's your fault.

Often something as simple as picking up an object becomes difficult, as you slide past it as you run and need to walk back and forth across it a few times to trigger the pickup icon - so much easier if you could just stop at it.
That problem is "usually."  Despite the easy control layout, Deadlight has issues with the precision of character movement.  Because of the momentum attached to how you move around the game world, it can be quite difficult to stop, slow down or line up a jump as necessary, which is a problem in time-critical situations.  There's a noticeable lag to moving your character around, one that's only a split second. but often leads to miscalculation and, frequently, a game over screen.  Because the recovery time from an action is often based on your current momentum, and can vary significantly, you're often never quite sure when you'll be able to turn around, or slow enough to make a standing vertical jump.

Then there's input queuing.  Some degree of input queuing in games is always necessary.  Humans do not have frame-perfect reflexes and it's usually necessary to queue up input from the controller accordingly to do things not exactly when the user presses a button, but when the user expects something to happen.  Getting this delay correct, even if it's just a few milliseconds, is necessary to create controls that feel responsive.

Furthermore, if a game requires the player to perform complex control inputs quickly, such as pointing in a direction with the analog stick and pressing a button at the same time, there should be a grace period around those inputs so the action can be completed reliably under duress.  Last, there's input cancellation - if the player provides input for an action before the previous action is complete, should the game cancel what the player is doing and perform the new action immediately?  Does this happen always?  Sometimes?  For some inputs and not others?  When it gets right down to it, handling this sort of thing is surprisingly complicated and not at all something the average player is actually aware is happening during gameplay.

Deadlight handles this fairly well, but it doesn't quite hit the mark when it comes to allowing the player to cancel input.  It doesn't appear that there is any way to cancel an action once it's been initiated, until it's been completed.  This can be readily demonstrated by hanging over the side of a ledge - it's very common to end up accidentally mantling up the ledge back onto solid ground, rather than dropping down below, and if you press several button inputs even a second in advance, those inputs will be processed in direct order with no way to interrupt them.  If you press the B button to drop down from the ledge only to change your mind, even before the animation begins to happen, too bad - you're going down.  Though the controls are indeed precise, they don't quite have that perfect one-to-one connection between what you want to do, and what your character actually does.

Level Design

Deadlight's resemblance to older platformers isn't just in the controls, but in the level design as well.  Sometimes it draws influence from Prince of Persia, throwing the player into complex strings of traps and deadly bottomless pits, with success in avoiding these obstacles a matter of timing and accuracy.  Other times it more resembles a game like Metroid, with action elements that require the player to explore a large open room full of enemies and find the way forward.  Yet other times, it's a puzzle game, resembling a 2D Tomb Raider, where the player has to pull levers in the correct order, push crates around to form platforms, and so on.

This pacing and variety is Deadlight's greatest strength.  At any given time you could be partaking in a different kind of action, and when it works, it's grand.  The game is occasionally thrilling and exciting, or you'll have an "aha!" moment as finally the solution to a puzzle clicks into place.  Unfortunately, this variety can also be its biggest weakness.  The game frequently throws challenges at you that the controls simply aren't prepared to handle.  Deathtraps, enemy ambushes, fast-moving segments where the player moves forward at a constant pace, all of these things have little room for error and the controls simply aren't up to snuff.  When you're solving a puzzle or methodically trying to figure out how to move forward, the deliberate nature of the controls is appreciated, but the game tries to make them work in different contexts and fails, often miserably.

It might seem easy once you've done it, but try figuring out this brand-new puzzle and set of mechanics while under assault from several enemies.
Deadlight also often does a poor job of teaching the player new mechanics.  There's one especially egregious example found about an hour into the game - perhaps appropriately, it's set in a lengthy sewer level.  In this bit of the game, the player (for poorly-justified reasons) has to navigate a complex system of traps and obstacles, where the player learns about several new play elements:
  1. Bottomless pits full of spikes
  2. Large spike traps which stick out of the floor
  3. Swinging spike traps that come out of the background to impale the player
  4. Spike platforms that fall down and crush the player after running over a timed trigger
  5. Pressing a button to perform a roll upon falling onto the ground, allowing the player to avoid damage
  6. Signaling an NPC to operate a mechanism, such as an elevator
The problem with introducing so many mechanics at once, literally one room after another, is that the player often doesn't have time to get fully comfortable with one before moving on to the next.  Many of the challenges presented toss the player into time-limited situations, such as putting the player between a horde of zombies and a trap - figuring out how to avoid the trap and escape the enemies is extremely difficult when you only have about one or two seconds to do it.

Another even worse example is seen when the game tries to teach the player the roll mechanic described above.  The player falls down into a pipeline, sliding down at a set pace that can't be controlled, and has to contend with not one, but two floor spike traps, and the brand-new swinging spike trap that comes in from the background.  While this is happening (not before), tutorial text appears on screen to teach the player the roll move - a move that the player's never seen or done before that point.  In the crucial learning phase, not only will the player die trying to read the tutorial text, the player may even die multiple times just trying to navigate the previous obstacles before the real test - the new roll move - can ever be attempted.  And then, even when the player gets far enough to try the move, it might not even work simply thanks to the player's incorrect execution.

That's the real problem with Deadlight's level design through and through.  Even if the controls and mechanics are solid and working just fine, it's often not clear what the player is supposed to be doing at a given time, or whether failure is the result of bad execution on the player's part, or of simply not attempting the correct solution.  When you choose poorly, you die, and have to try again, going through a several-second-long death and load screen, and sometimes unskippable scripted scenes too.  These instant death traps are fine when you're putting the player to the test and it's clear exactly what needs to be done, but just casually, or during crucial learning phases?  It's not just unfair, it's also not fun.

Visual Language

The greatest success of a platformer often doesn't come down to its controls, to its gameplay mechanics, or to other obvious things.  Instead, it's often the visual language that a platformer uses that is able to make or break it.  By visual language, I'm specifically referring to the way in which the game is able to communicate mechanical details through its artwork to the player, in a way which can be intuitively grasped on a near-unconscious level.  If the game can't present critical information correctly at all times, then its visual design has failed.

The original Super Mario Bros. remains a fantastic example of this done right.  Despite the limited technology of the time, Super Mario Bros. successfully communicates everything the player needs to know about the game by creating a visual language which is easy to understand and to identify at a glance.  For instance, the bright blue or dark backgrounds contrast naturally with the darker brown and green bricks used in the foreground, making it extremely easy to tell which parts of the game world the player can actually platform across.  The world itself is divided up into blocks, which share a uniform size and shape that remains consistent throughout the game - making it very easy to judge distances or heights.  The game always moves left to right, so it's always clear which direction you should be going to make progress.

Deadlight tries to create its own visual language, albeit somewhat in reverse.  The game uses a bold silhouette art style that keeps everything in the foreground black, while the background remains brightly lit and often quite colorful and vibrant (for a zombie-themed game, that is).  The game is lusciously detailed and a ton of care and effort has clearly gone into making sure that the core game mechanics remain easy to understand no matter how pretty the complex backdrops are.

The problem is that Deadlight then sees fit to frequently violate the very tenets it sets for itself.  While playing the game, I found myself constantly finding it difficult to tell exactly where to go, what objects I could jump on, whether a wall could be climbed over or not, and so on.  Although the game does keep its "silhouette" idea intact the majority of the time, it's very frequent to see objects with significant depth being used on the main 2D gameplay plane - an overturned truck might actually be a platform, for instance, or a chain link fence could be a hidden ladder.  There are also moments in the game where "middleground" details are important, like overturned bookshelves that can be used as cover from gunfire coming from the background, or traps which swing out and smack your protagonist as he walks by, or zombies that shuffle into the 2D plane.  These aren't highlighted any differently by the game's visuals, so it's not clear if they're important or not until you've learned the hard way - usually by dying, or at least taking some damage.

Can I grab onto those air conditioners on the right wall?  All of them, or just some?  Can I grab onto that wire or is it just scenery? Will that broken scaffolding kill me?  Only one way to find out, and it probably includes a game over screen.
The issue, I think, mostly comes down to the perspective introduced with 3D graphics.  The game is able to maintain its silhouetted visual style most of the time, but when the time comes for the camera to move or for the game to start to tell its story or develop atmosphere through the graphics, the silhouetted foreground and well-lit background tend to get jumbled up with each other.  Furthermore, some objects are interactive - such as elevators, boxes and so on - but they aren't silhouetted despite occupying the same 2D plane as the protagonist and most of the "platforms" you need to navigate.  You can't have them silhouetted because the player needs to know that they're distinct from the static elements of the game world, but with no clear "middleground" language defined it becomes very difficult at times to separate the "game" parts from the graphics.

The developers were evidently aware of this problem, because several objects in the game are indicated using a blue sheen which stands out pretty well from everything else.  However, this highlights the fact that the game's art direction isn't as strong as it needs to be, and it also means that sometimes it's actually too easy to figure out what to do in a level, as you can simply look at what's highlighted in the scene and interact with it appropriately to move on, effectively diminishing the challenge that puzzle-solving might otherwise pose.  That you rely on this highlight to figure out how to move forward speaks to the generally poor visual design overall - if things worked to begin with, this band-aid wouldn't be necessary.

I'm not saying that you can't do this kind of game in 3D, but it's far more difficult.  When you compare Mark of the Ninja, a fully 2D platform game, to Deadlight, there's no contest: in Mark of the Ninja there is clear contrast between interactive objects of different types, the platforms you can jump on, and the background.  The game's visual language is such that there is virtually no ambiguity and thus scenes can be read quickly.  The solution to having the player adapt to challenges in time-critical situations for Mark of the Ninja was to make the game easy to read at a glance, allowing immediate skill-based execution to begin; for Deadlight, it was to have the player die over and over until he or she can figure out what objects are interactive, which parts of the level are platforms and then finally execute.

 Closing Thoughts

I don't think Deadlight is a bad game, but as I've said, it's one of those games that can be both tons of fun to play and exceptionally, controller-throwingly frustrating.  It's not like the game is buggy, or broken, or ugly, or unplayable - it's just not quite good enough to hit the goals it strives for, and that makes it disappointing more than anything else.  However, I'm very glad I played it - because it's a learning experience in seeing both what works, and what doesn't work about it.  It also demonstrates that a successful platformer is often balanced on a razor's edge between frustrations of different sorts, and shows what happens when sometimes a foot slips one way or the other.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

BioShock Infinite: On the Importance of the Authorial Contract

BioShock Infinite is a game that was able to achieve an incredible amount of success in the gaming community, not necessary in terms of raw sales, but as a cultural phenomenon.  For weeks, it was just about the only thing the gaming world seemed to be talking about.  What does the ending mean?  Did you notice all those new things upon replaying it?  Is there deeper symbolism at work?

Yet for me, personally, the story of BioShock Infinite was not one which inspired much wonder, whimsy or intrigue.  Indeed, it was quite the opposite: I found it frustrating, awkward, poorly paced, and ultimately it took a lot of willpower for me to even finish the game, so frustrated was I with how it played out.  This puts me in the minority.  I think it's fair to say that most people will agree that Infinite's ending overshadows the rest of the story; a much more interesting question to ask is exactly why that is in the first place.

In this article I'll be using the idea of the authorial contract to illustrate why, as an ending, BioShock Infinite is brilliant, but as an overall story, it struggles.  And yes, there will be spoilers.

The Authorial Contract

In the realm of literature, I've come across the idea of the authorial contract a few times in the past, though the exact definition and details tend to vary based on who's using it, and when.  For the record, please understand that this is my own take on the idea, and might differ from it as used by others.

The authorial contract is of prime importance to any storytelling medium.  It can be best explained as the contract created between the audience and the author.  It is, effectively, and in successive order, an agreement wherein the author establishes the tone of the work, the themes discussed, the rules of the world, the characters who inhabit that world, and, last, the plot events which make up the story.

An easy way to think about this is to bring up the idea of genre.  In film, we collectively have an understanding of what constitutes a horror film, versus a comedy film, versus a drama film.  There are certain rules of theme and tone which are specific to each, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, and we all expect a given work to adhere to those.  It is very telling that sometimes a film can make the most impact by defying expectations - but as we all know, this is usually a very delicate balancing act that has a lot of potential to go wrong.  One person's satire is another person's drama, after all, and it's not uncommon for subversion to be lost on an audience.

From there, characters, plot events and so on are all expected to consistently follow from those rules of genre.  We all know the tropes - the cabin in the woods, the group of college students, each representing a stereotypical young person (the nerd, the cheerleader, the jock), the rule that certain people are going to be killed off by the monster one by one, until only one remains to fight it away.  Like tone and theme, characters must be in keeping with the genre of the film, or it can lead to confusion of the story.

Infinite catapults between moments of intense violence and moments of wonder, but this only highlights the inconsistencies in tone and themes throughout the story.

None of this is to say that you shouldn't create stories that are bold, or different, or have unique twists on ideas, or unconventional characters.  But, you need a starting point to ground your story in if you are going to try to tell something different.  Without expectations set up from the beginning, it's very difficult to knock them down properly.

The authorial contract, then, can be said to be the informal agreement between the author of the work on display, and the audience who is experiencing that work.  This agreement is, essentially, that the author will agree to the fundamental rules, themes, and tones of the work throughout - that the work will not experience a sudden change in genre, or that it will not be resolved by an illogical plot event if the rest of the work has been shown to be exceptionally logical.  There are exceptions allowed, of course - but only within reason as justified by the author to the audience.

If you've been watching MrBtongue's game commentary videos, you might just have come across the question, "what do they eat?" in the context of Fallout 3 and New Vegas.  Specifically, he uses the question as a way to express how the authors of both those games created rules for their respective game worlds.  Bethesda, for Fallout 3, did not devote much time to questions such as what the populace eats, how they get their food, how they organize politically, why they build towns around dormant nuclear bombs, and so on; Obsidian, for New Vegas, put express emphasis on creating a world that made sense.

The argument (and one I agree with) is that New Vegas is much more successful as an interactive story because the tone, themes and overall verisimilitude of the game world are not violated; in Fallout 3, these violations are so common and arbitrary that it becomes impossible to take its story seriously.  Just like you wouldn't find a game of chess against a friend very entertaining because she keeps changing the rules every turn to suit her, a story cannot violate the rules set by the author.

Thus, when this happens, the authorial contract breaks down.  Because the work does not take pains to logically answer questions which arise from the particularities of its authorial contract, the audience cannot take that contract seriously anymore. The audience loses faith in the work and the contract becomes invalid.

Tone, Theme and Verisimilitude

BioShock Infinite is, if nothing else, adventurous.  It is a game that covers all sorts of ideas: you've got those themes of rebirth alluded to in the baptism motif, the growth from childhood and innocence to adulthood and innocence fading, both seen in Elizabeth's character and in the floating city of Columbia itself, and many more smaller ones along the way.  In many respects, Infinite is actually quite thematically rich and often expertly achieved.

The problem is that Infinite goes to great lengths to establish themes, tone, characters and setting, yet it has extreme difficulty in actually reconciling all of its ideas into a consistent work.  For all its bold and interesting ideas, its biggest weakness is that it actually can't stick to one set of them and keep them going throughout its length.

What do I mean by this?  Let's take Columbia itself.  Columbia is a wondrous, incredible place.  It's a huge, floating city lifted by technological innovations so advanced, they might as well be magic.  It's got big balloons and rockets that let it fly all over the world.  The people there live in a veritable Disney Land, with beautiful parks, amusements, and a true excitement for the joy of life.  The first thing one thinks when entering into Columbia is "damn, why don't I live here?"

Yet Columbia has dark secrets.  Its religion, the literal worship of Comstock and the Founding Fathers as gods, initially comes across as misplaced but ultimately harmless, but slowly warps into something resembling an obscene, deluded cult.  We learn that the gold-paved streets were built on the backs of slaves, and it's their toil that keeps the city floating.  Those same people who are so content and happy every day secretly fear for their lives as the Vox Populi and other threats stay just beyond in the shadows of the undercity.

Columbia is a beautiful place, almost out of a storybook.  Its drastic transformation into a warzone over the course of the game, however, also prompts us to ask more insightful questions about it - for which it has no answers.
When we start out BioShock Infinite, we have a fantastic world, and fantastic gameplay to go along with it.  The combat is fast and exciting; the Skyrails that allow the player to ride all over the floating islands, perilously avoiding 20,000-foot falls, inspire a sense of adventure.  In many ways, Infinite is a swashbuckling fantasy.

And then you have the racism.  And the exceptional amounts of blood and gore.  And the progressively darker and darker themes which work their way in as the game goes on.  And quantum physics, and time travel, and so much more.  And the world itself is not equipped to adequately explain all of these.

Remember what I described about verisimilitude above?  Verisimilitude is not necessarily realism, but it is the degree to which a setting is consistent with the rules as defined by the author.  In that fantastic Disney Land, we don't need to know how the city floats, we don't need to know about the harsh lives of the underclasses, we don't need to know about the significance of Elizabeth's first period.  Yet as all these more complex, darker themes enter the equation, we begin to have a conflict with what we've been shown.  The world that we could once accept as happy and whimsical is no longer that; it's been exposed as a more grounded, realistic, gritty place.

Yet, the game never really gives you those answers.  Instead of providing explanations for why things make sense, it resorts of to technobabble that doesn't even sound remotely plausible.  The technology that could once be rationalized away as magical suddenly is magical, and we can no longer buy those trite explanations.  With the emergence of those themes of race and equality, we can't help but ask all sorts of questions about how the city works and how its people live.

Where are all the houses?  Where do they get their supplies?  How did they possibly build such a place?  How much did it cost?  How did the United States government let them get away with this?  Why is there smog and dirty air in the slums, even though the city floats and moves around?  Shouldn't it be extremely windy all the time up there?  How the hell did they build a giant lake in the sky?  Wouldn't the water all fall off?  When Elizabeth and Booker are escaping the Songbird, they fall into a huge body of water near a collapsed bridge, but then they wash up on shore at a much smaller body of water, and there's no collapsed bridge anywhere, so how did they get there?  Why are the police officers willing to fight and die in their thousands to stop one man?  Wait, is Booker so stupid as to not cover up his hand immediately after he notices the posters indicating he is Columbia's devil?  Are you saying that Fink was able to produce all of this technology 50 years in advance of his own simply by catching glimpses through tears?  Why does nobody else use Vigors or these incredible modified weapons, if they're lying everywhere?  Why did we have to go through that pointlessly overlong and extended section fighting Slate and his soldiers even though he was old friends with Booker?  Was he just insane?  How does all this time travel and infinite universe stuff work anyway?  If Elizabeth was locked in a tower for her entire life, by herself, why isn't she a socially stunted, pale, physically atrophied frail individual, instead of a manic pixie dream girl for the intended male audience?

Some of these questions do have hand-waves in the game, but that's not good enough anymore.  Suddenly the game world is too big, too detailed, and requires far too great a leap of faith to accept what's going on.  When the world was a simple Disney Land that we could accept as a swashbuckling adventure, we didn't think about this sort of thing because it wasn't needed to enjoy the plot; indeed, we didn't even expect to have to think about such things, following the conventions of genre.  Yet when we were given a different Columbia to believe in, one which couldn't be taken so easily on faith alone, that Columbia was found extremely wanting.

This, for me, is where the contract stretched to the breaking point.  For those who enjoy stories that are driven more by characters and dramatic events and less by the raw logical details of the plot and setting, this probably isn't enough to cause serious problems for the enjoyment of the story.  Yet even so, that certainly did not prepare me for what was to come.

The Ending

The ending is, as I've mentioned, the thing that made BioShock Infinite really endure in discussion.  People are still talking about and debating all of its minutia, ranging from relatively minor character details, to the implications on the nature of reality.  It's interesting and, in some ways, very inspiring stuff, and for those who have got a lot out of it, I'm gladl.  I also think it was a risky move for Irrational Games that paid off quite well - there have been many game endings in the last couple of years that have caught the flak of fans, so to see it turn out well rather than into a PR nightmare must be comforting.

So let's get started, and here's where the spoilers truly begin: when you introduce time travel and infinite dimensions into story, you are going to cause some serious, serious problems for yourself as an author, and you are also going to strain the believability of your story to the breaking point.  While it's possible to create very surprising, interesting or intriguing twists using such narrative tools, it can also cause unforeseen problems to your story that could end up actually invalidating the whole thing in the first place.

Stories and settings with time travel need to have clearly defined rules in order to make sense.  There need to be limits, structure, of some kind, in order to preserve narrative tension and allow the audience to understand what is going on.  If it's possible for anything to happen, you effectively have a non-story, because all dramatic tension can easily be resolved or explained away.

This is a classic problem, which I've seen many times before.  One of the most obvious (and hilarious) examples I've known in recent times, and has been my go-to for illustrating these sorts of problems, is in Star Trek: First Contact.  In First Contact, the Borg are an alien race bent on assimilating humanity.  They develop access to time travel technology, and use it to go back to the time Earth was going to have first contact with the Vulcans - preventing them from ever being "raised up" into a new age of technology and stopping them from becoming players on the galactic stage.  Of course, the crew of the Enterprise also travel back in time to stop the Borg.

Except, the obvious question that arises is, if you have access to time travel, why don't you just travel back to a time well before that and eliminate your enemy well in advance of them being able to stop you?  Why not travel back to the Middle Ages, where the people would be utterly helpless but still sufficiently populated?  Instead, the Borg put their whole plan in jeopardy by not trying to conquer humanity at a much earlier, easier time.  Now, there are ways to explain it away, to hand-wave the problem, but it certainly is something that casts a serious shadow on the rest of the story, and makes it very hard to take seriously beyond that point.

Wait, why didn't Marty just go back in time to make himself never go back in time in the first place?!  Er, I'm confused...
This is the exact same problem that BioShock Infinite has, except with Infinite, it's even more damning.  By introducing literally infinite universes, where all possible things happen, do happen, it creates a problem in that even its dramatic twist ending can be completely invalidated.  Every action, including the resolution to the story where Elizabeth drowns Booker at his decision point that sets the whole story in motion, can be said to have simply not happened, because another Elizabeth out there (in fact, an equal number of Elizabeths) would have decided to say no.

The nuances of time travel also cast serious problems over the story.  We learn during the course of the game that the Lutece twins traveled back in time to take the young Anna from Booker and raise her as Elizabeth.  In the process, her finger was cut off and left in her original reality, which is implied to have given her her special powers.  Yet, couldn't the Lutece twins simply go back in time, or to another reality, and take another Elizabeth who doesn't have her finger severed in that manner?  All of this casts serious doubts over what their plans even were in the first place, and their competence as scientists.

Again, I'm not saying there aren't possible explanations for what happened in the story, but ultimately these explanations are going to be entirely subjective.  When you are dealing with infinity, it's up to the audience to invest meaning in a given possibility; the author is only creating the framework for understanding.  If you buy into a given explanation, don't be surprised if someone else disagrees with you for other reasons that you yourself never even considered before.

The key thing to note here, is that BioShock Infinite effectively sabotages its own story in the act of creating an interesting, discussion-provoking ending.  A story, not even a good one, needs to have rules, it needs to have limits, and it can't rely on the audience constructing their own meaning out of infinite possibility.  BioShock Infinite's story was already stretched very, very thin due to all of the issues with theme, tone, characters, setting and plot events mentioned above (and that was only a tiny fraction of them).  With this ending, the story completely and utterly breaks.  In trying to say something profound, it actually says nothing at all.

Closing Thoughts

Plot holes themselves don't make a bad story. What makes a bad story is when the problems in it cause the audience to abandon the authorial contract; those sorts of issues are only one possible tension point. Plot holes can be overlooked, justified or ignored if the consistency of the work overall is not affected, because the audience wants the story to work. BioShock Infinite has problems with plot holes, yes, but by literally introducing a clause that lets the author do anything he or she wants, and then simultaneously asking the audience to decide what the story should be to begin with, those problems expand into infinite directions.

Part of me wants to say that this was the intention all along: that Infinite was not meant to be a story, but a meta-narrative commentary, and that the real story was the reaction it would get from the gaming world at large.  That's a possibility worth considering, and I think Ken Levine and the rest of the Irrational team might be clever enough for that.  But, if that were the case, then everything else about the game is completely incidental.  The gameplay, the setting, the characters, that 99% of everything else in Infinite has no real purpose or even consistency.  It trips over the rug on the way out the door, and then behaves like it meant to do that all along.  It is not unfair to suggest that that is all an act.

The ultimate irony is that in a game about wondrous floating cities, rebirth and religious parallels, confusing science with faith, and more, those are all the least impressive, thought-provoking or even important things to its story.  They're all setup for a punchline that nobody ever told.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

BioShock Infinite's Combat Mechanics Regression

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 second of which actually had some great weapons in it and was far better as shooter than both cother titles in the series, but never mind that for now).

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.


Skyrails 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.