Before I get into my evaluation of Bioshock Infinite, I want address some of the responses that I expect to receive. I don't think your opinion or points are invalid, I just want to dig deeper than some of the default reactions some people have when talking about the game.
But it's got a great story! Does it? There is an interesting character dynamic between Booker and Elizabeth. There is a consistent plot behind the big paradox reveal at the end. But does it tell us a story we haven't heard before? Does it have something to say that tells us something about the human condition?
You can have a great story/game in the first person! Of course you can. There are lots of examples. I personally find the first person disfavourable for story-telling, but it isn't wrong or incorrect.
But there is shooting and magic! Okay, that's nice. We had that in the first Bioshock as well. What has changed? I think there is actually less interesting interactions to be had with the Vigors in this game than with Plasmids in Bioshock, but that may just be nostalgia. How many of the Vigors do something other than "deal damage with a special effect"? Could any of the Vigors not be just a fancy Ratchet-and-Clank-esque gun?
Don't judge a game by its trophies/achievements! I totally agree. I am not saying this is the only measure of a game. But a game, particularly one that claims to take itself so seriously and have been so well crafted must be held accountable for the achievements it decides to include.
Alright, those are just some things to get out of the way. If you want to talk about those points above, or respond to the rhetorical questions, by all means, go ahead. From this point on, I am going to be talking about the disappointments and missed opportunities I had while playing Bioshock Infinite. It isn't a bad game, it just isn't the messiah of gaming that some might lead you to believe.
It has nothing to say
This is the big one. Some of you may not read past this point, so let's get this party started. Ken Levine has been quite vocal about how great a game this is and that we are all going to have a good long think about what we experienced. Levine has this vision he wants to share with us and I was already to let him tell his tale. But he never does. (Aside: I know that a massive studio produced this game, but by all accounts he micro-managed every detail and this is his baby. I will continue to refer to it as Levine's story). There is indeed an interesting paradox in the time and reality hopping at the end. But as a brain teaser, he sets up the puzzle and then reveals the answer all in one go pretty much.
So, if there was something important to say, it would probably fall into the "things to think deeply about because it relates to the human condition" category. We can toss definitions of art around here ("a mirror to reflect reality" - Shakespeare), but clearly there was some artistic intention here. Why else would Levine be so eager to solicit frat boys with his cover art than if he was concerned that his message would not be heard? He wanted enough people to buy the game so that he could keep creating games like this. But what does Bioshock Infinite say? If someone has some deep message that they gleaned from this game, please let me know. We have a time paradox, where the only solution to break the cycle is to destroy the protagonist. There is no discussion of choice versus fate. There is no "love conquers all" motif. There is no evaluation of the role of rulers and up-risers, even though the protagonist is both. All we get is "life is simpler if you're dead." Great; so a vote for suicide then? I'm not getting anything here.
What it is saying has been said before
So there are themes of racism, oppression, religion and more in the world of Columbia. And all of these themes are shown believably and well integrated into the world. It is nice to see a very honest representation of how people actual interact with each other. We aren't really brow beaten with stuff too much. But what is the game saying about racism or religion. Racism is bad? Religious zealots are dangerous? Power corrupts? Yes, thank you, but I already knew that. I think accepting those concepts is kind of boilerplate to anyone looking to analyze a game like Bioshock Infinite. If "power corrupts" and "racism is bad" need to be explained to you, maybe a bit more social studies are in order first. I don't want to condescend, but there does not seem to be any commentary from the authors on these subjects. They just go, "see, rebels with power just turn around and oppress people too!" Yes, we saw that in the Iraq elections. We saw that in the new regime of Egypt. SAY SOMETHING ABOUT IT GODDAMIT! I really want there to be some voice in Bioshock Infinite but story seems to just want to create an example of these themes, point and say "there it is". Please, Ken Levine, take the bulls by the horns and voice an opinion.
It's gameplay and narrative speak different languages
So Bioshock Infinite is a game where you shoot a lot of people in the first person perspective. Sometimes you shoot them with fire, or lightning, or crows, but you shoot them; a lot. The thing that you are doing with most of your time (we will disregard the hours of dumpster diving) is shooting.
So these must be really evil people, right? No, they are police men, or people defending their homes, or people who are rising up to defend their rights.
So, you must be some badass here to kick ass and take names, right? No, you're supposed to be sneaking in to rescue/kidnap a girl. You are kind of an FBI agent gone rogue with a dark past. Blowing the place up is certainly not on the agenda.
So, there must be some attempt at sneaking around then. Or some alternate paths to go undetected for a while at least right (because you can't kill an entire city)? No, there is an omniscient ruler who always knows where you are and sends enemy troops whenever he likes. Also, those troops can literally drop out of the sky so you can never possibly see them coming.
My point here is, the way you play the game does not connect with how the characters are supposed to be interacting with the world. There are some videos from before launch that showed calling in cover, an adaptive AI partner, and creative use of Vigors in combat. Most of that has been dropped back to, "what fancy way do you want to do damage?". It is very disappointing. How many Vigors can you use to do something other than deal damage? One: the electric shock can turn on machines and open doors. In one area (alright levitating doesn't do damage, but we only use that to hold people still so we can shoot them). All of these fancy powers that ostensibly were created to do amazing things in the city (where people don't kill each other) and all you use them for is killing. That is some disappointing use of magic there. Why can't I use the levitation to clear obstacles? Why are there no doors I can blow open with a fireball? Why can't I upgrade the crow attack to teleport like the assassin's with the same power do?
Its gameplay doesn't inform the story
The gameplay doesn't support or inform the story either. This is related to the last point. We are supposed to be terrified of the city coming down on our heads, but I never really felt threatened (you can't die after all.) There is no fight that you have to approach any way other than barrel in guns blazing. You may have to respawn, but ultimately they cannot stop you. But the story is that you just want to get out. Why? You could just kill every last police man in the city. It might cost you some of the money you take from their corpses, but you still come out ahead. I feel the story would have had more impact if you were actually outmatched. If you had to go around troop placements and find alternate routes, rather than just go this way because a door was arbitrarily closed.
Bioshock Infinite could have been a thrilling game if it didn't fall back on "shoot everyone in the room" all the time. It seemed like Elizabeth was going to be this great new way to do AI companions. But most of the time, she just hides. She doesn't get in the way, but she doesn't do much to help either. She tosses you ammo, and money, and health, but rebounding health or ammo counters would have the same effect. She can make cover or call in turrets, but only when you tell her exactly what to do. That doesn't actually fit her character very well (why can you see the tears anyway??). I think she would have been more compelling if she shouted out "use that hook" (that she just brought in) when you really needed to get out of a crossfire. Maybe "get your head down" and then a turret that she brought it opens fire on the guys around you. That seems more in character for Elizabeth, and would probably make us like her even more.
I think the game would have been improved if we had to clear barriers with our Vigors to get around tough fights. I think I would have felt more like I was treading on enemy territory if I had to blow holes in walls to get around the troops I couldn't tackle head-on. I think they enemies would have been more terrifying if I had to use guile and stealth to get around the wonderful world they created.
Most achievements are for killing people
Really, go look over the achievement list. The vast majority of them are "kill x people with this gun" or "kill y people with this power". Kill, kill, kill. This is a violent story. Fine. Our protagonist has a dark past. Also fine. But we criticize Nathan Drake for his obnoxious body count. I think Booker DeWitt should have the same criticism leveled at him. He kills an awful lot of people. Hundreds. More than any mass murderers I can think of (single day, no nukes or air planes). The achievements can lead us to explore things we might not have done otherwise. We can get clued into new things to strive for. But in this case, all an achievement hunter would be doing is loading up a level, kill everyone with a shotgun; load up a level, kill everyone with a sniper rifle. That also seems to be at odds with what the game wants to be. I think there is some responsibility of developers to be thoughtful with their achievements. This is not the case in Bioshock Infinite. What about an achievement for watching Elizabeth do 10 discreet idle animations? What about an achievement for not firing a shot in 5 encounters? What about one for traversing an area without touching the ground?
Basically, Bioshock Infinite is a fine game, but it could have been so much more. There seems to be some discussion of it as Game of the Year already. If you loved it, I'm happy for you. But we can do better. I hope there is a better game this year, I really do. I think the game Ken Levine was talking about, the game he could have made, might have been game of the year. What he made is not. Levine explained how he made the cover for people who aren't game savvy think more than just the cover suffered that fate. There is so much potentially for experimentation in games that has been neglected here to make the safe choices of: first person shooter, with magic shooting, where you kill everyone and we tell you exactly where to go.
I've played that game; I wanted something new.