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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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Comments


Michael Albertsen
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Bioshock was a huge step down from System Shock 2 in terms of mechanics, so this should come as no surprise. It certainly didn't surprise me.

However, what the article seems to overlook is that by enforcing the two-weapon limit - the game will be a lot more interesting to replay. I actually complained that I was able to carry everything in the original Bioshock. System Shock 2 did it best - because you could only carry a limited amount - but you had more freedom to choose exactly what to prioritise. Beyond that, System Shock 2 had a ton of re-playability through the three different classes and the various skills.

Bioshock Infinite has MUCH better gunplay than Bioshock, though, and I found the weapons to be much more satisfying in terms of feel and viability. That may have been luck, because I prefer standard weapons like the Carbine and the Sniper rifle - and those are apparently among the best weapons in the game. But I'm looking forward to replaying it and going with a different load out.

Another problem with Bioshock was the Plasmid redundancy and the fact that you could afford to upgrade pretty much everything by mid-game. Infinite Vigor upgrades are much more expensive, so you have to focus on a few. Again, that's exactly the kind of thing that drives replayability and makes your choices interesting.

But people are focusing on the wrong things. Bioshock Infinite isn't just a shooter.

It's an amazing interactive story that just happens to use shooter gameplay as a foundation. It's true that mechanics are less interesting overall than they were in Bioshock - but they're also less important, because the game delivers something absolutely fantastic that no other game has managed to deliver. The shooting isn't the main gameplay - exploring is.

I'm talking about a level of detail in terms of exploration that's unprecedented, and I'm talking about an AI partner that feels more real than EVERY single AI in EVERY single other game out there.

It makes you feel like a part of a real place in a way that's just unheard of.

It also introduces a genuine novelty in the form of Skylines and that's a pretty big new gameplay mechanic. It's arguable how much it brings to the experience - but I found it to be very fun and engaging.

But, most of all, it manages to tell a story that's utterly compelling and it does so without feeling like a series of cut scenes. Beyond that, it has the most profound ending I've ever experienced in a computer game.

If bitching about mechanics regression that everyone in the know should have expected is the best people can come up with when talking about the game, I have to say I'm not impressed.

Thomas Baltzer
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"If bitching about mechanics regression that everyone in the know should have expected is the best people can come up with when talking about the game, I have to say I'm not impressed."


I find it profoundly disturbing that you not only assumed a regression in mechanics was a foregone conclusion but that many others anticipated this as well. With as much as Levine hyped this thing I was expecting nectar and ambrosia, not 7-Up and Flaming Hot Cheetos.

Eric Schwarz
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Right, I guess I should just shut my mouth and be happy Ken Levine decided to bless me with any game at all. How dare I have expectations that gameplay should grow, evolve and improve over time.

Alexander Symington
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It seems to me that most serious discourse on Infinite has actually already focused on (often pretty severe) criticism of its story and thematic coherency. For example, the links I've read from this blog, while interesting, are mainly or almost exclusively about story and theme:-

http://gamasutra.com/blogs/AdrianChmielarz/20130412/190419/How_Bi
oshock_Infinite_Revolutionized_Video_Games.php

Mainstream reviews are more evenly divided between discussion of storytelling and systems, but they are of very little use in deciding whether either is worth experiencing because they consist mainly of superficial exposition about both without any significant analysis.

That's why I found Eric's article very useful, and actually quite refreshing. As much as has been written about the game, there doesn't seem to be a lot else out there about simply how it feels to play, which if BS1 is anything to go by will, as with most other games, define the vast majority of the time player spends with Infinite, and indeed most of its emotional impact.

Luis Guimaraes
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Finally an article on the actual Game Design of the title. And a very good one. Thanks for writing this, Eric.

It's surely and inferior game from the previous entries int he series. I can't help but think about the A-word was a possible root-cause of the gameplay downgrade that put the title in the shadow of it's predecessors and siblings.

Just copy-pasting a comment I wrote in another article that isn't as fit for it as this one, about some of the thinks I had against the game, with small additions:

No Stealth

Even the lesser sibling Bioshock 2 still kept the stealth action of the game intact, why on earth would you take the best part of the game away in the "super awesome" sequel? They could have given us some teleport tears to switch around the level. Would have been awesome to plan attacks from any desirable angle, plant traps everywhere, take a few enemies out with melee and then start the all-out insanity, or bait them around mid-combat and use more traps in less straight-forward ways.

But no, there's nothing of stealth anymore except for very sparse situations where sniping them or placing traps around is all the planing that can go on as trying a backstab approach is not possible in the sequel because they will notice you if you get close.

Risk vs. Reward

The simplistic "stealing things" mechanic felt like it was there to serve as fix for the lack of the passive and powerful Big Daddy that you had to decide if, when and how would it be a good move to try to engage them in combat.

No Greed

I miss the "greed" feel that came with storing health-packs, eve, strong ammo types, cameras, turrets, and the best of all, detectives. But with only two weapons, no crafting and no hacking, the player just can't acquire anything quantifiable beyond money.

Ammo is never a problem as you always have lots of coin to spend and vending machines are everywhere. You never had to decide weather you destroy that turret or hack it for when you come around, or if you keep the health station for use to harvest it to grab the health pack and go away. You also never happen to carry a recipient around with telekinesis so you can collect it's important lot latter when you make room for it. There's very little choice to make.

That's even sadder because the game had an awesome feature that could make it so much interesting to play: the Tears.

Tears

The tears could certainly bring in the existence of a super cool "the lost room" place to use as a greed fix for players like me that are always playing as if "the winter is coming". That could even make the 2 weapon limit into something good, but the arbitrary choice without good counter-balance just make the game a lot mindless.

The "sometimes I escape there" and "I'm not sure if I just open the doors or create the places" quotes from Elizabeth could be quite reinforced with the existence of a special place too, specially if the room had a window that let you see the beach, or the Eiffel Tower maybe...

Gear

Making it that you could only switch gear in the safe room would also make a lot more sense. Add custom gear to Elizabeth that affect both her visual and effect on combat, and you got a lot of awesome things.

Dimensions

For a while I thought the weapon variations (repeater/machinegun) were about different dimension, where in each one each weapon was slightly different in stats and functionality. So having a way to store different ones from different realities would bring another layer of coolness to the game. After a while I noticed that it wasn't the case and I was impressed with phantom features.

If hacking and detectives were still a thing, keeping different ones from different dimensions to use when needed would also be a nice thing.

Luis Guimaraes
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It all brings an interesting question: Between Infinite and Dishonored, what's the better Bioshock game?

Eric Schwarz
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@Luis Guimaraes:

I read your comment earlier but thanks for re-posting. :)

I would say that Dishonored is a much better game because it has some semblance of mechanics and rules to operate freely within, instead of Infinite's roller coaster ride of linearity, where your only real choice is which guns you use. In spirit it is far closer to the original Shock games.

The sad thing is I don't even think BioShock is all that great a game, or BioShock 2. Yet I'm still holding them up as examples of ideas executed much better. Hmm.

Dave Hoskins
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There was a stealth section, it was spooky bit in the mansion where you had to avoid the gaze of the lamp-heads which trigger the out of time zombies to attack you! Ok I can't remember what they're called! ;)
It didn't last long and I did miss having the cameras from the previous games.

Josh Bycer
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Good to hear that I'm not the only one disappointed by Bioshock Infinite. I came to the same conclusion on my analysis on my site : http://game-wisdom.com/analysis/bioshock-infinite-sky-dive

Mechanically, the game felt several steps back compared to other shooters. As you said, the guns lacked diversity or strategy. They even messed up on aiming in how running, jumping, crouching, aiming down the sights and hip firing all had the same accuracy. The worse thing is that after I played through the game, I found old gameplay footage from a few years ago and what was shown not only looked better graphically, but everything seemed more refined in the trailers than in the full game. Honestly I wasn't a huge fan of the first Bioshock, but it still did more things right in my opinion than BI did.

I don't think the developers were focusing on game balanced with BI as I can't understand the inclusion of the invulnerablilty gear for jumping off of hooks. As that effectively breaks the combat system in any area that has them. At one point I just stood there and focused down a handyman as I just kept jumping on and off the hook to regain the bonus.

I started playing through on 1999 mode, and the thought of doing it all again but with more restraints was too much. I haven't played Dishonored yet but it's on my list of games to pickup.

Luis Guimaraes
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"They even messed up on aiming in how running, jumping, crouching, aiming down the sights and hip firing all had the same accuracy."

That's one of the things I like most about Bioshock, that you aren't forced to use the ADS gimmick in onder to be effective in the game, so you can actually make use of the crosshair which feels so much better in FPS games and doesn't necessitate other rubber-banding tweaks to balance.

The sniper rifle from Infinite is the only weapon I ever aimed down sights in the entire series, and at close range it's still a viable un-scoped gun (except it might not be the best use of it's ammo in many cases).

The ADS is just a cosmetic feature for "realism" sake. Perfect.

Lewis Wakeford
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Honestly if ADS isn't an important part of the game then it shouldn't really be there. Especially on consoles when it's taking up one of the 4 most important buttons.

Luis Guimaraes
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Some players think a game not having ADS means it's bad and not "modern", as if it's kind of an evolution of something that couldn't be done years ago because technology limited it. In their minds, not having ADS is being "outdated".

It's easier to give them the cosmetics they want than to change their minds. So it is in fact important. Specially on consoles where most players fall in that category, and it also serves the purpose of providing zoom and masking the auto-targeting and sticky-aim effect with the animation, screen obscurity and change is sensitivity.

Josh Bycer
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The thing about ADS is that I've enjoyed shooters like Serious Sam, Undying and Painkiller where ADS isn't a part of it, much in the same way I like games like Stalker or BulletStorm for including it. The point is that if you're going to include it, then there should be an actual mechanic reason for having it such as improved aim, not because you had to include it out of the fact that most shooters have it.

With BI, the only weapon that there is an actual reason for using it would be the sniper rifle thanks to the scope, for everything else you get the same results with using the in game targeting.

Also another element that annoyed me about BI's gunplay was that they left Auto-Aim on for the PC version. As it did seem to mess with my aiming a few times.

Ron Dippold
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Now I'm curious how much of this came about because of playtesting. As Josh mentioned, the demonstrated gameplay used to be more complex, and I have to imagine they started out with the combat design being at least similar to Bioshock 1.

This sort of thing seems inevitable as you go for AAA - it's very evident in Crysis 3, too. The games fall over themselves to avoid frustrating you by forcing you to make any hard mechanics choices. The only one I see in BI is that you can't possibly buy all the upgrades for all the weapons and all the vigors - though it's easy to upgrade all your favorites, so again not really a hard choice.

Eric Schwarz
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I think it's fair to say that some of the changes were made because of the scaling back of the game itself from a more sandboxy type experience to a much more linear one. I also have to imagine they couldn't get the AI for Elizabeth working as intended - instead of being someone who augments you in combat with her "magic" powers, she's a walking health kit dispenser.

Nick Harris
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Looks as if Ken Levine took his eye off the ball to concentrate on an 'innovatory NPC relationship' only to use it in some garbled cobblers of a story:

http://bioshock.wikia.com/wiki/Elizabeth

I just wonder if the floating city of Columbia deserved a better game to take place in it.

An adventure rather than a shmup?

Eric Schwarz
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Absolutely. While I don't talk about it here, I plan in a future article to discuss the major narrative problems of BioShock Infinite - namely poor consistency of theme, plot holes, ill-defined rules of the universe, and a setting which actually relates to the events and themes in the game. Infinite largely failed at all of these and it's really obvious that over the years of the development, Irrational either had no real plan or couldn't decide what they wanted to do, so just kept making changes on whims until their time was up.

I'll bet if they weren't given a release deadline the game would still be in development now, and it'd look nothing like what's on shelves.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Luis Guimaraes
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Narrative is a lot more than mere plot.

What happens in Rapture while you're there doesn't really matter, what happened before to the place and the people is where the story of game is at, and the way it was presented to the player (narrative) is perfect for a video-game.

Kevin Patterson
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I really enjoyed Bioshock Infinite :) The story was wonderful and I loved the characters and design of the game. The only thing lacking in the game was mentioned in this article, the Vigors. Unlike the plasmids in Bioshock, I found myself rarely using them as much. I played the game mostly using just guns, and the game would have to remind me from time to time that I had the vigors to use. The balance with the weapons and vigors wasn't as solid as the first game, but the overall experience was amazing.

The game wasn't perfect but it's easily in my top list now. I had goosebumps at the end, I cannot remember that actually happening to me in a game before.

Ozzie Smith
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I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. However I feel you forgot to mention the death/respawning system in the game.

I played through the game on hard and felt that the game had a lot of very unsatisfying combat scenarios because of how the game was balanced and treated player death. I'm the sort of person that is usually totally fine with retrying a checkpoint over and over again until I get past the game (generally if I die it's fun to go in again with more knowledge and adjust my strategy), and so it was really a bummer when I died right before killing the last enemy in a level and then not being able to replay that section, but instead losing some money (which just meant that I couldn't get as many vigor upgrades throughout the game as maybe I wanted to get) and then killing that last guy and having near full health again.

Most of the time when I died it was because I was just being a little too sloppy and would have wanted to restart the level but couldn't, OR the game threw tons of high-HP enemies at me and seemingly was balanced around the idea that I was supposed to die several times and basically grind my way through the level. Neither scenario felt satisfying at all.

One of my biggest problems with Bioshock 1 was how the vita-chambers made death pretty pointless, but I felt like Infinite somehow made it worse (both with the punishment of taking money away, and with levels seemingly balanced with the assumption that the player will die a few times).

Luis Guimaraes
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I actually restarted save every time I died in Bioshock, because the loss of ammo and health kits I had used felt a lot hard to cope with, and going back to the last quick save (right pre-combat) was the best thing to do. Sometimes I also reloaded after the encounter if I felt I could have come out with a lot more goods saved.

In Infinite the checkpoint placement made me accept the revive just because I didn't want to loot all the bodies from the previous encounter, watch the same talk with Elizabeth, hack all the same machines, upgrade all the guns, watch the same Vigor presentation, the same cut scene, and place all pre-combat traps all over again.

Then it didn't sound really expensive for the convenience trade-off, you're always full of money all the time anyways.

Eric Schwarz
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I touched on the death mechanic slightly but I agree, it's very perplexing. On the one hand there is no death penalty for falling off ledges, you don't even lose money. Almost all standard fights in the game are a cakewalk. Yet you also get your encounters which are designed to be repetitive grinds where it seems like the designers expect you to whittle down over-inflated health bars across many lives. Did they even really know what they were going for to begin with?

Josh Bycer
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The death mechanic annoyed me in much the same way that Booker was so fragile (playing on hard). I touched on this in my analysis I linked further up, enemy accuracy was very off while playing. I had guys snipe me from about 50 feet away with machine guns and pistol, each hit taking a huge chunk of my shield and health out.

The worse part was dealing with multiple snipers as stunning one would leave you wide open for getting hit by the other.

I was doing the same thing Luis did in regards to reloading when I first started playing. But when the distance between checkpoints began to get long, I stopped out of frustration.

"Did they even really know what they were going for to begin with?"

In my opinion it is debatable. Considering the sameness of most of the vigors and weird gear bonuses. I know we're focusing on mechanics here, but the narrative really clashed with the game mechanics, I don't know if it was an issue of not being able to figure everything out, or just a general time deadline.

Vincent Hyne
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Great writeup.

This is really the review of the "game" as opposed to the "experience". Comes up lacking on nearly every front.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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A good analysis and comparison of mechanics Erik.

However I would have wished you put a bit more time into the writing, the article seems written "in a hurry" with many typos, bizarre sentence structure and paragraphs that lead to nowhere.

Maybe its meta-commentary like infinite is supposedly meta-commentary on the non-functioning AI of other games, hmmmmm.
Metaception.

Eric Schwarz
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Ouch. I just noticed a couple of paragraphs that were indeed rather strange. It might be a product of sloppy editing or maybe formatting mistakes/oversights I made.

Either way I went through the entire thing, corrected the errors, and added a few bits and pieces for good measure. Thanks for pointing it out.

Michael Albertsen
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Eric

No, I don't think you should stop bitching about mechanics regression if you think it's a big problem with the game, of course not.

Personally, I don't think it's a positive development - but I recognised with Bioshock that Ken Levine is not about evolving the Shock formula in the way I would do it, personally - because I'm even more of a mechanics person than you are.

So, I bitched and bitched about Bioshock and the way it's completely inferior to System Shock and System Shock 2 in terms of mechanics.

But then I sort of realised that their goal is different - and they're not going for the same kind of gameplay that I usually focus on. So, obviously, I could bitch about that - but I honestly don't think it's a worthwhile effort to point out something I fully expect the developers have deliberately omitted.

There's a reason the game is 95 on Metacritic and it's not just being overrated and overhyped.

No, it's because the team is talented and passionate about their work - and they're obviously focused on the story, exploration, characters, and the core shooting experience.

Does that mean the game couldn't please us "core" gamers more with better mechanics? No, of course not. Does it mean we can't bitch about it? Of course not.

But I guess I'm just a lot more impressed with what the game has accomplished - and I've personally accepted that they're not interested in mechanics and complex gameplay. I'd love if they were - but they're not.

Bioshock made that clear - so yeah, I would have thought people who've played System Shock 2 would understand what they're about. In fact, where were you guys back in 2007 when I was bitching and everyone else seemed to praise the game to high heaven. Bioshock had a fantastic premise and a fantastic atmosphere - but they failed to follow up on the premse and the story ended up weak and irrational (no pun intended). The ending was a joke and the core shooter gameplay was rather weak and clumsy.

Infinite is MUCH better overall in terms of what they're trying to do.

But what you spend your time bitching about is none of my business. I'm just giving my opinion on a public blog - and nothing more.

Amir Barak
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so now you're bitching about Eric's bitching and your own previous bitching?

Not that I think Eric is bitching about anything, he's writing up an honest review of the game from his own perspective. "Story-based" games (also, "Large" games and "Narrative" games) are becoming less about being games and more about being a spectacle, so yeah that's a bad thing and Bioshock [Infinite] is no different and continues the trend of being rubbish on gameplay but pretty on the eyes. I guess unlike others on metacritic Eric has better standards.

Eric Schwarz
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Perhaps you misunderstand. I see the gameplay in BioShock Infinite as a regression because it is mechanically simplistic and abandons much of what made the previous games in the franchise good (not to say I loved them, but they were "good for what they were"). But even if it had another name attached, I don't think I would be hailing BioShock Infinite as the second coming. Those mechanical problems still exist. The story is still poorly paced, thematically inconsistent, and the game levels are still stuffed full of filler, and exploration is still boring and not very fulfilling.

Michael Albertsen
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Amir

I'm responding to clarify my position. I call it bitching because that's what I think we're doing, and yeah - I bitch as well. If you don't like the word - think of it as pointing out flaws and disagreeing.

This is a blog with comments enabled. If people want exclusively supportive comments, then they should make that clear - and I'll respect that.

If you seriously think Infinite gameplay is "rubbish" because it's not trying to be an RPG - then maybe you're playing the wrong game.

Though exploration is the main ingredient in all Shocks - Bioshock was a shooter and Infinite is a shooter. System Shock 2 wasn't a shooter at heart, it was an RPG. I'm not a big fan of shooters myself, but at least I can accept when games are not necessarily everything I personally want them to be. Also, I've played enough shooters to recognise a good one and Infinite most definitely qualifies. I wouldn't call it a fantastic shooter, though.

I tend to look at things in context - and based on what I know about Levine and his goals, Infinite is much closer to what he's trying to accomplish than Bioshock was.

If you think Eric has "better standards" because you also prefer intricate mechanics, then you're an arrogant person.

People like different things and developers are doing different things. You can like or dislike what's been done - but talking about standards only weakens your argument and reveals something about you that you probably don't want to be revealed.

Tim Haywood
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I wrote about this game on my Gamasutra blog, within my post I give a lot of reasons for why BSI is a bad game, its a bit ranty but, I think it goes along nice with this article. :)

Michael Albertsen
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Eric

No, I don't think I misunderstand. I simply don't agree with you at all about the story and the pacing.

However, I'm not saying the game is the second coming - that's hyperbole used to ridicule my position which is unnecessary.

I'm saying it's a fantastic game worthy of high praise and I think it does something that's never been done before - certainly not at that level. I'm talking about Elizabeth in particular - and the complexity of the issues being dealt with in a mainstream computer game, the level of detail and content density in the levels, and the ending in itself.

Calling exploration boring is a very interesting opinion which I wouldn't have thought even the game's detractors would hold - but such is the way in which we all differ.

You obviously aren't impressed with what the game has accomplished and that's quite ok. I think my position has been made fairly clear - and so my job here is done.

Eric Schwarz
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Elizabeth is a less sophisticated AI character/game mechanic and a less interesting personality than Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2, which came out 10 years ago. While reviews are so quick to talk about how "wonderful" Elizabeth is as a character, very few seem aware that Valve did the exact same thing a decade ago. Why are we praising this as innovation?

Dave Hoskins
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I got the feeling that the older games were deemed old fashioned and hokey, or maybe just a bit weird to play with the system stuff, so they watered it all down to the basics. Search for money/buy some stuff to improve slightly. It probably reaches more people being a standard shoot'em up, which means more a spondoolies for the company. I did enjoy flying around the rails, jumping off and on again, it was a great mechanic that saved the game for me. It wasn't bioshock for me, but I enjoyed it.

Christian Philippe Guay
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Great article Eric, as usual and great points.

However, when it comes to combat I think there is a much bigger issue here and many other great games had that same problem.

The game offers a great variety of gameplay mechanics, but it completely fails to ensure that the most optimized way a player can play the game is ultimately the funniest, most challenging and most satisfying way. Smart players can simply stay really far from their enemies, hide behind covers and peak gently to take out every opponent one by one. Instead, the game should specifically be designed in a way that pushes/forces players to take full advantage of their Vigors, 2 weapons, creativity and skills. At the top of that, the level design should force players to fight at close to medium range.

Batman Arkham Asylum had the same problem, players could easily sneak behind every enemy to eliminate them, but to fully enjoy the game... players had to try things and mess up with the AI to create exciting events.

In Dishonored, you could simply stay really far and shoot one enemy with an arrow, then every enemy would go see the corpse and then easily kill them as well. Seriously, what is the fun in that?

There is a reason in Dark Souls why arrows were expensive. Otherwise, players would just stay far and kill everything abusively and effortlessly exactly as described in the examples above. It would have completely ruined the combat.

It's not even a question here, it's an obvious fact. Gameplay mechanics and level design slightly regressed and we obviously understood them better 10-20 years ago. Since video games are all about gameplay, it's not a small problem, it's a huge problem. If you are a game designer or level designer, then I strongly recommend you to play the old Quake and Doom games once again, if not for the first time.

Josh Bycer
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Good point Christian, I felt that The Darkness 2 was underrated in this regard. As even though the player had a variety of powers that could tear apart the enemies, you would eventually fight guys who had similar powers forcing you out of your comfort zone.

Suddenly you couldn't just grab an enemy or an enemy would rip the gun out of your hand just like you would do to them. Then there were enemies who knew the player's weakness to light and carry special lights designed to weaken you. All this was meant to keep you from relying on one tactic and requiring the player to adapt to the changing tactics.

Dark Souls is another good example, as the designers did everything they could to let the player know that cheap tactics would never let you breeze by any encounter and you had to work at the game to achieve any victory.

Michael Albertsen
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Eric

Interesting claim about Vance from HL2. I would be interested to hear how you arrived at that conclusion, because I most certainly don't remember her as being more sophisticated. As for interesting - that's very subjective - and I find Elizabeth a lot more appealing as a character.

The reason I'm praising the game has to do with more than Elizabeth, but she's certainly part of it. Then again, it's because I think she's a LOT more sophisticated than Vance and similar attempts from other games.

I concede that Vance was impressive for her time - mostly because Valve implemented some really excellent facial technology. Vampire Bloodlines used the same tech - and it was also praised for the realistic looking characters.

But in terms of AI behavior - and how Elizabeth changes states in-game naturally, like when coming upon something interesting she wants to pick up and explore, her relatively subtle mood changes, and how she evaluates how best to assist you - and so on, is something that might seem subtle but which must have taken a LOT of effort to implement in that way without glitching, breaking immersion or getting in your way. In fact, I have no idea how they managed to do a non-scripted AI so convincingly. I've played games for 30 years with a passion - so it's not like I haven't seen quite a few examples.

As I recall, Vance did little but follow you around and talk. She pushed some buttons according to rigid scripts as well. You really think that's more impressive?

There's a HUGE difference between scripted and non-scripted AI behavior. Personally, I'm not impressed with Vance and her scripted way of doing her thing at set times on each level. So, beyond her looks - she's really just like most other NPCs in modern games. Ahead of her time, sure, but not ahead of Elizabeth at all.

I remember Vance for her looks and not her in-game behavior. Then again, I was never impressed by HL2 except for the Source engine itself.

I still think System Shock represents the peak of the genre overall - but Infinite has taken the formula in a completely different direction.

It's not trying to be an RPG or a complex hardcore game (I'd love it if it was - but it's not) - and that's something you'd naturally have to deal with to appreciate what else it does. It's primarily an interactive story delivery device designed to provoke an emotional response - and to do it in a way that a movie or a book could never achieve. Beyond that, it focuses heavily on exploration and content density. Just like your opinion that Vance is more sophisticated than Elizabeth - I find your opinion that exploration in Infinite is boring questionable at best.

Saying it's streamlined and somewhat simplistic in terms of mechanics is fair and I understand how that can be an issue for lots of gamers. But saying exploration is weak and Elizabeth is nothing new smells like defending a position with denial.

Eric Schwarz
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You seriously think that Elizabeth is all that advanced, and has dynamic AI that adapts to the environment? Let's compare what the two characters do:

Alyx:

- Follows the player
- Speaks at scripted moments
- Takes part in cutscenes
- Goes through emotional changes (especially in the Episodes)
- Fights enemies at range and in melee
- Uses the player's provided light to target enemies (Episode One)
- Rides shotgun in vehicles and fires at enemies

Elizabeth:

- Follows the player
- Speaks at scripted moments
- Does idle animations on scenery
- Takes part in cutscenes
- Goes through character changes emotionally and visually
- Throws the player supplies on a cooldown during combat

Now, I'm not saying that Elizabeth is not a well-realized (on a technical level) character. But what about her is so "dynamic"? She doesn't even fight enemies or help you other than being a health kit dispenser. Enemies don't even react to her - just see if you can get her to walk into a room in front of you, and not a soul will notice she's there. She is literally invisible to everyone but the player, except in cutscenes. The most dynamic thing she does is teleport to points in the level to do animations that are pre-set by the level designers.

I really am not seeing it. Give me examples of how Elizabeth is some sort of revolutionary character with hitherto unheard-of scripting and AI. I'll be waiting.

Christian Philippe Guay
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Players can alter the battlefield by using Elizabeth. That's pretty cool, but because of what I wrote above, it's not as impactful as it could be.

Michael Albertsen
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As I already mentioned, it's about scripted versus non-scripted behavior.

In Half Life 2 - which is basically a totally linear shooter, they can easily script her behavior to perform set tasks in a relatively rigid structure.

Now, for the player not interested in AI behavior, that might not be less impressive than what Elizabeth does.

Most players probably don't concern themselves with the technical aspect of AI, and they're probably not interested in whether an AI does something different for other players playing in different ways. They might not even notice or realise that it happens.

I'm a player quite keen on noticing such things, however - as I'm sure you are too, as I gather you've been developing something of your own. I'm also a programmer on an amateur level - but I can't claim to have done any significant work on AIs. But I do have some idea of what Levine and his people went through to make Elizabeth happen, because I've followed development and several in-depth interviews on the subject.

Elizabeth does things depending on what the player does and where the player is. You see, Infinite is a game full of free-form exploration - even though you don't seem to think it is. You talked about it being very linear - when compared to HL2 it most definitely isn't. You could argue that it's more linear than Bioshock - but that wasn't really my experience when playing. Maybe it's because I explored all the nooks and crannies - and took care to backtrack when I'd received some code or a Vigor enabling me to open a past area.

I'd say a significant portion of the content in the game is something the player might never see or get close to. Unlike HL2 - you don't follow a straight path through action set pieces - but you get to explore at will, and there are many areas that you need to do something extra to gain access to.

Elizabeth has a relatively large set of behavior patterns that will activate when she gets close to something new or interesting. Be it an object, a painting, a character or whatever. She will comment on it if the player is not engaged in combat - and she will not if he is. She will pick up objects if the player comes across them - if the player isn't otherwise engaged. She will analyse what the player needs in combat and try to help the player. Stuff like that.

That's the dynamic part.

If Bioshock Infinite was entirely linear and all the players would come across the same areas and the same combat set pieces throughout the game - then all of these things would be a matter of scripting Elizabeth - which technically is MUCH easier to implement.

But it's not linear - and having Elizabeth perform these tasks without it seeming inappropriate or somehow break your immersion at inconvenient moments must have been an incredibly challenging thing to accomplish technically.

If you listen to some of the interviews dealing with Elizabeth, you'll hear Levine talk about how much of the team kept pushing to cut Elizabeth out as an interactive character, because it was almost impossible to get her right.

Again, the end result will probably appear very subtle to a lot of players - and I'm sure mainstream gamers will hardly detect that it's happening.

But someone like yourself should be able to appreciate the challenge.

That said, to be fair, I haven't played any of the HL2 episodes - because I'm not a fan of pure shooters. I find them boring as hell, and if I'm going to play a shooter it has to have some element of exploration or meaningful choices. Maybe they did something extra in the episodes that was more dynamic and less scripted.

Eric Schwarz
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"Elizabeth has a relatively large set of behavior patterns that will activate when she gets close to something new or interesting. Be it an object, a painting, a character or whatever. She will comment on it if the player is not engaged in combat - and she will not if he is. She will pick up objects if the player comes across them - if the player isn't otherwise engaged. She will analyse what the player needs in combat and try to help the player. Stuff like that.

That's the dynamic part."

No offense, but this sentence shows me you know very little about game development.

Do you know how you do this?

A designer places a trigger at a location, and a scripted sequence (animation + voice line) plays, provided a condition is met that no enemies are nearby. This is simple, simple, simple stuff that is the bread and butter of game design grunt work. There is nothing innovative or difficult about it.

Rob B
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Agree on weapons, nobody can look at the weapon set and upgrades and consider this in any way interesting.
Dont agree on vigors, I think they were more flawed thematically. I didnt use them any more or less with the environment and in general than I did in Bioshock.
'Enemies only appear to use Skylines in scripted sequences.' Just isnt true... I was on normal and the enemies regularly hop up and down from the skylines. (On more than one occasion leaping down behind me after Id scarpered to a hiding place.)
I also dont agree that Bioshock felt more sophisticated, all the splicers did to me was attack rabidly and in full force, (Whatever that force may have been.) fitting but not clever. The big daddies were also very primitive things, lumbering bullet sponges with no great effective strategy either in there attack or your own. (and yes I did try 'clever' things to weaken them but ultimately it was clumsy and made little difference.)
Both games suffered from the same basic flaw with the 'AI ecosystem'. Experimentation was hopelessly underpowered compared to mindless tactics.
I actually prefer gear to gene tonics, in fact if I were to change things Id have made vigors an extension of the gear system and made the gears more sophisticated. It was by far the most interesting aspect of combat.
(Also, you are wrong about gear leading to a single archetype. Use the Electric Punch and you have a similar situation to the Wrench Jockey, only more balanced.)
It was simple enough to use skylines and vigors to avoid direct combat with handymen while despatching other enemies. Fights did go on too long but that was typically a case of wave after wave of enemies.
'what it did have was non-linearity and player freedom' This is just confusing to me. Bioshock was nearly exactly as linear as Infinite is, so much so it frustrated me on numerous occasions especially when it tried to trick you in to thinking it wasnt linear with an awful fetch like quest.
I agree that Infinite doesnt give you time to consider, nor did it present interesting scenarios until the last levels, but this was an issue for both games.
I dont have the love of hacking, and I consider tears and possession to be at least as good. That said tears werent used in nearly enough creative game-play ways, the possibilities of opening up holes to _anywhere_ are literally endless but they were largely used for the same tactical decisions each time.
I used skylines frequently but then if youd never realised melee was a powerful and effective means of combat theyd probably be more dull.

Combat in Infinite was undoubtedly and undeniably flawed. It was at best average and at worst tedious. Whats more of a crime is that the ideas had real potential to be really great. (I think they needed to take a much more stealthy slower pace with it to bring this out.)
That said, there are some truly epic sized rose tinted lenses on this. Infinite was at least as good as Bioshock mechanically speaking and because of fewer bullet sponges and more flexible movement its arguably superior, not good, but an improvement. Many of the comparisons are about personal game-play choices and more objective complaints are often just not accurate.

To be honest, reading this article and further comments (Rubbishing Elizabeth, rubbishing the story, rubbishing... well everything.) this seems less like a critique and more like a vendetta. The backlash to the admittedly obvious over rating of the game seems to have begun.

Michael Albertsen
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While I don't agree with you that combat is average or tedious - I'm happy I'm not the only one thinking several people around the net are doing the typical backlash dance because a game got too much attention.

Combat - as in the actual shooting - is quite good in Infinite, and it controls with MUCH more precision than Bioshock ever did, at least on the PC.

Mechanically, as I've stated before - I'd say it's inferior to Bioshock overall, but I'd also say the streamlining of combat features has resulted in a more straight-up and visceral feel to fighting, and you're not bogged down in ultimately meaningless tactical choices because, as you say, you never actually needed to be smart in Bioshock. The simple approach was generally more effective.

Backlash is inevitable when a game gets this level of praise - but I find it so endlessly tiresome when the people behind it think they've discovered something that's been overlooked.

No, the flaws are evident - but they're simply not enough to bring the entire game down.

Christian Philippe Guay
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''No, the flaws are evident - but they're simply not enough to bring the entire game down.''
I definitely agree with you. The game has much greater control and I thought it has an awesome pacing compared to most other action games. It clearly shows the work of an experienced team in my opinion.

And if they make a sequel and fix what didn't work well with Bioshock Infinite, it could truly be a masterpiece.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Michael Albertsen

"and it controls with MUCH more precision than Bioshock ever did, at least on the PC."

Seriously? You can go through Bioshock doing only twitch headshots left and right with the revolver. The mouse acceleration in Infinite is awful.

Michael Albertsen
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Eric

"A designer places a trigger at a location, and a scripted sequence (animation + voice line) plays, provided a condition is met that no enemies are nearby. This is simple, simple, simple stuff that is the bread and butter of game design grunt work. There is nothing innovative or difficult about it."

Yes, obviously you're the master of game development here.

Elizabeth is simple, simple, simple stuff to implement. Having her behave naturally without getting in the way at every single possible point of interaction is simple, simple, simple.

Yeah, Eric.

Maybe you should have contacted Levine during development. Considering how close they were to cutting Elizabeth from the game - I'm sure they could have used your divine knowledge.

I'm not saying that every single little trigger implementation is a huge coding challenge - but all the work going into animation, pathfinding, correct timing and all the other aspects is a very big deal for something that the player might not even care about.

They wanted her to be dynamic - so it's not just a series of linear scripted triggers.

Eric Schwarz
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I agree that stuff is important - but I'm not sure how that is so much different from any other AI character who has to follow the player and not get in his/her way.

I'm not saying dynamic pathfinding and all that is simple to do. But it's the kind of thing virtually every modern game already does. Obviously I don't want to downplay the challenges involved there. My point is that Elizabeth is really not all that special.

Things like having her teleport from place to place when the player isn't looking can be accomplished by simple scripts.

Animations are animations. Nothing special about them. Yes, Elizabeth's animations are well done. But I don't see why hers are somehow more important or any better than anyone else's.

"Correct timing", I'm not sure what that means, but engines like Unreal have built-in look triggers which will check if the player is looking at a specific location. These can be used to delay an animation until the player sees it. Again, simple scripting.

It's also worth pointing out that pathfinding etc. are things which are already built into the Unreal Engine, which is an off-the-shelf game SDK that allows you to build fully-featured triple-A-quality products with little "real" programming required. The hardest stuff is already done for you.

Your facetious and sarcastic attitude here is insulting, by the way. Your constant backtracking, your insistence to "be happy with what Infinite is, an amazing and incredible experience that you simply don't like", etc. are also growing a bit wearisome.

Michael Albertsen
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Eric

I know you're the master of game development, but in case you want to educate yourself a little bit (assuming it's possible) - I've provided a link with some details about what the development team went through to make Elizabeth a reality.

http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/gaming/news/a469250/bioshock-infinite
-how-irrational-games-brought-elizabeth-to-life.html

That way, people reading here can decide for themselves how much you actually know about this.

Maybe that will shed some light on the weight of your arguments overall.

Here's the text of the piece for your convenience:

Ken Levine explains how Elizabeth was conceived:

The idea of featuring a character like Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite started with the fact that Irrational's last two narrative-driven games - System Shock 2 and BioShock - were both very solitary experiences.

"Everybody was dead around you [in BioShock], and every time you encountered somebody they were behind a glass window," creative director Ken Levine told Digital Spy.
Elizabeth is exploring Columbia for the first time.
"Those were very convenient tropes for us, because they made our development work a lot easier, and you got a sense of narrative but without a lot of the pain of living people around you."

Levine said that after BioShock's 'Would You Kindly' twist - which was a commentary on the lack of agency in games - having another lead character being a cypher would have been "treading water" for the company.

Having another character with you - one that could bounce off and help Booker - would help solve that problem. However, in a typical Irrational fashion, her implementation wouldn't be half-hearted.

"The more I thought about it, the more we realised, well, if we're going to do it, we're really have to have to do it right," Levine explained.

"We have to make her integral, not just some sort of sidekick. We have to make her central to the story. The longer it went, the more we just kept expanding what she meant to the game."

To help "make her feel alive", Elizabeth would have to "exist in the negative spaces of the player doing nothing".

In other words, while you are exploring, Elizabeth will independently investigate the world around her and playfully interact with objects.

"We had a whole design team that we called the 'Liz Squad', led by [level designer] Amanda Jeffrey, and their job was to populate the world so that we had objects that she could interact with, we had animations she could play," Levine explained.

"We had all this content, then the goal was to populate spaces with things for her to be interested in."

There's narrative sense for Elizabeth to be doing this. Having been locked away in isolation for most of her life, her journey with Booker is the first time seeing, hearing and experiencing so many things, giving her an unusual sense of curiosity that makes such interactions natural. The level design team implemented this by 'painting' objects and attractions with 'eyeballs', so she knows what things to interact with, or even just casually gaze at.
Of course, the system wasn't quite a simple as that. Not only does she need to acknowledge the world, but she has to be aware of the player's current state, whether it was rushing through to the next area or to take a breather.

She also needed to simply behave like an actual person, and not get stuck in the environment or glitch out. For a game that places so much priority on narrative and characterisation, anything that broke character would seriously hinder player immersion.

"It was really technically demanding to get her lining up to animate things properly, to get her to not disappear, to not walk into walls, to not step in the player's path, because we knew that would be a f**king disaster if she was constantly getting in your way," Levine said.

"To have her keep up to you, to have her sense when the right time is to go into and engage in a sequence - when the player's chilled out for a minute - because you don't want the magnetism of that sequence to be too much.

"Because then she gets pulled by from too far, and all of a sudden she's rushing off to do some weird thing, but you don't want it to be too little, otherwise she'd never do it."
The most requested feature to be cut from the game

Bringing Elizabeth to life in this way was one of the game's biggest challenges. Levine described that at times during development there was "a lot of legitimate concern" that she wouldn't work by the end.

Just as with the Big Daddy in the first BioShock, Elizabeth was the most heavily-requested feature to be cut from BioShock Infinite from the development team.

She was such a hassle that, as testers played the game early in development, they would leave her in a cupboard or room so she wouldn't run amok and cause additional problems.

"There's a bunch of problems in terms of the technical side, that first of all she was very demanding on system resources and very demanding on development resources," said Levine.

"There were a lot of people making an argument like, 'Well, couldn't we better spend these sources on X, Y or Z?' We had the same discussion with the Big Daddy. 'Couldn't we have more weapons, or more this, or more that?'

"Generally my perception is I'd rather have... I'd generally try and choose quality over quantity and have something that's really unique, like a Big Daddy or an Elizabeth that feels different than five more weapons or something like that, because it's a philosophy I have."

'What do you think of Elizabeth?' 'I f**king hate her'

Story and cutscenes were also vital in establishing her as a character that the player would enjoy being with.

Levine explained an example early in the game where trust in her was lost.

Shortly after Elizabeth's rescue, you wake on a beach where she is resuscitating Booker. She will then run off and, not having experienced the joys of the seaside before, would play around in the sand and dance to nearby music.

Despite this being an intimate scene that establishes the relationship between her and Booker, focus tests showed "very negative reactions" for Elizabeth, and it wasn't initially clear why.

"This is the problem with making games, you never actually know what people [think]," said Levine.

As well as focus testers, Levine asked the opinion of a close friend - the husband of Leonie Manshanden, Irrational's director of marketing - about his thoughts on the game.

"[Jacob] played the game and he's very honest, and that's one thing I really appreciate about him," he said.

"I said, 'What do you think about Elizabeth?' He said, 'I f**king hate her'. We sat back and we were getting that reaction."

One of the tweaks that the team made - which ultimately made "a big difference" - was that she would spend time with you on the beach and not just run off to have fun.

"It made her seem like, you've just spent this catastrophic experience, for all she knows you're dead, and she's off dancing," Levine said.

"Nobody actually verbalised that, but that's our job, to figure out when people say they hate her, why?

"We added that sequence where she resuscitates you, and you specifically give her permission, instruct her to leave you alone.

"All of a sudden she came from this flighty nutjob to somebody [where] it's okay that she's enjoying that experience now, because she's taking care of business."
Avoiding the pitfalls of the escort mission

Not only does Elizabeth fill those "negative spaces" to give the world personality, but she also actively aids Booker during play.

Her years locked away with just library books as company means she's a dab hand at lock-picking. While she won't participate in combat, she stays out the way and will give you ammo when you need it.

With the stigma in escort missions that characters are known to be a bit of a burden, it was vital that Elizabeth would not just hold the player back, but would be as helpful as possible.

"When people first saw the game, they were like, it's one big escort mission," said Levine.
"There's no component of escort mission, at all. You never have to protect her, you never have to watch her health. She functions autonomously, and she's there to help you.

"When she tosses you ammo and stuff, it's just, sometimes she gives it at the exact right time, you know?"

He jokingly adds: "And you just love her when she does that. Or I do, at least. You may hate her.

"I know I like to tell people how they're going to feel about something. Maybe you'll say, 'F**k you! Why did you give me that ammo!?'"

However, going by the critical response for the game, people seem to love her. Digital Spy awarded the game full marks, and it currently ranks as the highest-rated PC games of all time, surpassing the original BioShock and sitting alongside the likes of Half-Life 2 and Skyrim.

It sounds like all that painstaking work by Levine, the 'Liz squad' and the rest of Irrational Games' team over the past four years has really paid off.

Eric Schwarz
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Here are a few things you can do to make an AI character with idle animations not bug out or do stupid things:

1) Have a check that idle animations don't play in combat
2) Check to see if the player has moved quickly or a significant distance in the last X seconds
3) Manually define known spaces where ambient AI actions can occur, vs. areas where it can't
4) If the player is not looking at Elizabeth, have her say something when initiating an animation so the player knows she's doing it
5) Immediately exit idle animations and retreat to cover points if enemies enter X vicinity around player (Since Elizabeth is invincible and invisible to enemies, no combat-related prioritizing is needed aside from "find closest cover point to player")
6) Do not initiate new idle animations for X seconds after a previous one has occurred
7) When the player is sprinting, have Elizabeth sprint too
8) If the player is following the path of the guide arrow (which is already a feature in the game), have Elizabeth speed up and follow the arrow instead of the player; if the player deviates from the path then resume following the player
9) Only allow certain "key" idle conversations to occur after enemies in an area have been defeated

I'm not saying this is "easy" or "simple" to do, and there is tons of tweaking involved. But again, I'll repeat, this is not anything especially unique to Elizabeth compared to any other random AI character Yes, if your job is to make an "AI" who a) ducks behind cover and b) shoots at the player in intervals of X seconds, then yes, that is simplistic stuff and Elizabeth will be a challenge and something new.

99.9% of the stuff Elizabeth does is relatively pedestrian scripting that can be solved using logical solutions, and frankly, the image of designers play-testing the game and saying "just remove her" when a little thought and ingenuity and tweaking could go a long way... that strikes me as a defeatist attitude, not an incredible challenge in development.

Last, it's worth pointing out that Elizabeth does nothing in combat except take cover, become invincible and throw the player items when his/her supplies gets low. It seems that Irrational removed the most difficult and actually complex part of her behavior - assisting the player with her superpowers - during the game's development. Funny how that works.

Michael Albertsen
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So it's simple, simple, simple and 99,9% of what she does is pedestrian scripting. Yeah, that's definitely what most people will get from reading that article.

Oh, there's a lot of work and "tweaking" involved, but it's all VERY VERY simple according to you.

But I forget, you know what you're talking about - and Irrational developers have a defeatist attitude.

I really like your little list of how to implement something like Elizabeth. It's quite brilliant - and it definitely shows just how trivial a task it must have been. To think they wasted years trying to get her right when they only needed those 9 simple things to make her "not do stupid things".

I mean, you could almost take that point for point and write 9 lines of code - and you'd hardly have to change the syntax to make a character like Elizabeth in a game. Oh, there's some minor animation work and some trivial playtesting/finetuning - those pedestrian things - but the meat of the work is obviously in writing those 9 lines of code. Ok, maybe you have to add some variables and stuff - and maybe a class called AI and an instance of AI called Elizabeth, but that's about it.

Who knew!

Anyway, I'm satisfied people reading here have enough material to make a reasonable judgement about the level of insight you must have into AAA development - and I hope it serves to put things into perspective for some people who might otherwise join you on that happy backlash wagon, and bash that undeserving pedestrian shooter known as Bioshock Infinite.

Just the fact that you claimed Alyx Vance is just as sophisticated should be enough - but that article should seal the deal - as well as your way of utterly belittling the work of Irrational Games.

I'll take my leave now.

Eric Schwarz
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Thanks, Mr. "I've Been Playing Videogames For 30 Years and Watched Marketing Materials on BioShock Infinite, I Know What I'm Talking About". You can take your ad hominem and redunctionist crap with you.

Bart Stewart
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Another thorough analysis, Eric -- thank you for taking the time to work through these elements.

There is a piece of my own about BioShock Infinite bubbling inside me. But I choose not to write it right now because I am still too frustrated and angry.

What I'll say here is that "regression" is exactly one of the right words to use about BI. From System Shock to Irrational's System Shock 2 to BioShock 1 and 2 and now to BI, what stands out the most to me is the gradual but undeniable loss of respect for the player's intelligence.

I haven't been so disgusted with a game since Dead Space... and that may not be a coincidence. Dead Space, I think it's fair to say, was EA's watered-down take on System Shock 2, with the visible trappings such as monsters, vending machines, a broken starship, and ghosts, but none of the respect for players in letting them choose how to solve gameplay challenges. The PC versions of Dead Space and BI are also similar in the "we don't think you should have that level of control" attitude in removing the ability to save the game state at will -- you'll take their console checkpoints, including (for BI anyway) the loss of money, and like it.

Well, I didn't like it. BioShock Infinite has finally lost the spark of greatness kindled in System Shock. It has traded away a design that consciously tried to respect different ways that players like to entertain themselves in favor of an author-centric monologue that homogenizes gameplay, shoves the player through a linear amusement park, and handwaves the loss away with glowy graphics, an incoherent story and a well-voiced NPC companion.

If I hadn't played games like Ultima Underworld and System Shock, I might not have noticed how childish BioShock Infinite became compared to those much earlier games. But I did play those games, and it's now impossible not to see the regression from them to this one.

I'm annoyed and disappointed because I expected better. I hoped for maturation -- what I got was regression to the point of being a game whose creators imposed an almost Comstockian level of control over the player. Maybe a slave obeys; me, I no longer have any interest in being frogmarched through whatever Irrational's next joyless insult to gamers turns out to be.

Again: this is angry me talking for now. The more rational version might be more coherent. Maybe.

Luis Guimaraes
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"Maybe a slave obeys".

I'm kinda agreeing now that Infinite is in a completely new level of ludo-narrative. The mechanics reflect the story perfectly indeed.

And people talking about dissonance...

Alexander Maricic
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This is a very well written and argued article. My own experience with Bioshock Infinite is limited because I grew bored of the game within a few hours. The worst offenders were the theme park feel, the linear level design, poor enemy AI and uninteresting combat.

That all is not as it should be became apparent when, upon first in-game fight, I was charged by several policemen armed with batons even though I was carrying a gun. Immersion breaking to say the least, to see "humans" exhibiting melee enemy behavior reserved for monsters in other shooters. Every subsequent encounter was similar, they see you - they charge you down or stay behind cover and shoot a little. The original Bioshock had the same problem and it was equally immersion breaking, but the rabid behavior of the splicers was excused by "insanity". A poor excuse, but it made some sense in the narrative.

I can't help but recall how deadly Unreal Tournament bots were and how sad and limited Bioshock Infinite (and many other contemporary shooters) enemies are by comparison. Challenge in these new games is enforced through simply overpowering the player through a pure game of numbers (huge enemy health and/or damage potential). While UT bots couldn't outwit you they possessed the same skills you did, so if you died fighting them you knew that you had only yourself to blame.
Some games go the opposite way, program an okay AI but are afraid of punishing the player for their mistakes. Far Cry 3 for example. I experimented with alarming the enemies and letting them kill me, while remaining stationary. It took a good minute or two for them to do it, even though I was in LOS of several enemies at once, doing nothing. The damage they did to me was abysmal and this was on hard difficulty setting. That broke the game for me. Why was I sneaking and planning my attacks if my enemies were programmed not to kill me unless I played horribly?

I don't know why some posters here insist on exploration in BSI. While I quit after 5 hours, those hours were spent in what was basically a tunnel with checkpoints.

Bringing up Dishonored is an interesting topic by itself. I think Dishonored gave the player some nifty powers that were "cool" to use but broke much of what makes stealth games challenging and tense. While you could approach levels differently none of the ways were particularly challenging. Blinking in particular acted as a skip button to stealth gameplay. Zooming past the guards became trivial, requiring none of the patience of the Thief games. Additionally enemy AI was very poor, and couldn't see or hear things that it "should have", had the same "swarm the player" AI in direct confrontation but without flanking or any semblance of tactics.


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