I'm going come right out and admit I never finished Bioshock Infinite. In fact I never finished the first Bioshock either. Wanted to clear the board with that, so feel free to ignore the rest of my rambling essay on why I liked Wolfenstein: The New Order INFINITELY more (Pun!).
First and final warning: the Spoilers ahead are unforgivably spoiled!
The only reason I'm bothering to compare the two is because of the surface similarities. Neither has a multilayer, both are narrative focused, have an 'alternate history' setting, and you have to pick up health packs to get your health back rather than magically regenerating. Also the primary activity, in both games, is shooting racists! Now, in the Real World, I think that answering Hate with Violence (capitals on both of those to signify their Intensity) is pretty wrongheaded, since no wounds are healed by killing, and revenge is a poor way to heal yourself and a very slippery slope towards becoming that which you abhor... blah blah blah.
But let's not descend into that debate! Because I'm here to talk about two games that are about shooting racists, stabbing racists, lighting them on fire and making them explode into little chunks. I mean, these are video games, what can you expect?
I bring up the point though, because in Bioshock, I had some serious misgivings about what I was doing and why. Maybe I should have finished the game to find out, but in all honesty, I think the Bioshock formula is mechanically broken.
Knowing that I had been unable to finish the first Bioshock several years ago, I did not purchase Infinite when it came out. Being moderately intrigued by the premise, however, I downloaded it when it became free on PlayStation Plus. Pretty quickly I realized that this game was, if nothing else, a celebration in color. It dazzled me as I wandered through the city in the clouds, and was both thrilled and horrified during that scene where 'all the violence' starts, adding blood, fire and mayhem to the color pallet.
Then it happened. I died, and with that I realized that this was a true Bioshock experience. I soldiered on for a while, intent on at least rescuing Elizabeth but I eventually succumbed to the same malaise I experienced with the first installment in the series.
The respawning mechanic in the Bioshock games really takes the wind out of my sails. It leaves me with little reason to play carefully because it doesn't seem to matter, really, if I die over and over again, because eventually my enemies will all be dead. Sure they take a toll on your wallet, but most of the guys that you killed before you died stay dead when you respawn.
It gives my play style a dreaminess, and I don't mean that in the sense of "Oh man, she's dreamy," I mean it gives it sort of lazy sloppiness where I wander through engagements shooting wildly, dying and reviving until finally the room is cleared so that Elizabeth can, once again, start talking obliquely about something like: quantum entanglement, lock picking or Paris.
In short the fighting felt extraneous after a while, shoehorned in, and finally burdensome.
I gave up when we started jumping into alternate realities because I no longer had a grasp on what my character's motivation was. My mission: obtain weapons for somebody, so that they would give me an airship... Seemed like this place had no shortage of airships, so why did I want this one in particular? The gods will tell you. Or someone who finished the game. Why did I even care about trading weapons to someone who was in an alternate reality? Why didn't I just murder them like I murdered everyone that came across my path? Who was I delivering Elizabeth to now that I was in another dimension?
These questions and more surfaced, begged for answers, until, after one lengthy firefight I put down the controller and gave up. Shoot me all you want, I will never die! And with that sentiment stuck in my brain I moved on.
Wolfenstein though. Whoo boy. The controller did not want to leave my hands.
There was an article I read about the makers of Wolfenstein: the New Order where they proudly proclaimed that the two things they were really good at was gun play and narrative. These two things they focused in on. And that focus reaped them well earned rewards.
I read a similar article on the creative process of the guy who's behind the Bioshock games. He said that he had no 'one' influence, but that his ideas were gathered from many experiences, taking bits from the myriad of sources he encountered throughout his life. These ideas would then find themselves in a big melting pot, and from this cauldron he pulled his steam punk slice of Americana.
I guess where the New Order grabbed me and Infinite failed was in this careful distinction. Wolfenstein knew exactly what it wanted to do and what it wanted to say, while Infinite's message, story and mechanics were muddled by an over abundance of ingredients.
In Infinite I often wondered why people were shooting at me, and in turn, why I was pecking their eyes out with a flock of crows. In preparation for writing this essay I logged back in to Infinite and to try and finish it. I once again failed, but I noticed that I had now progressed to a section of the game where I was no longer fighting the police, but the rebels. Why? Well, because, um... in this alternate universe I'm leading the rebellion, but the rebels know I'm not the real leader of their rebellion so they're all trying to kill me... I think. Seriously I have nothing against these guys though, I'm just defending myself. But like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I just keep coming back to life. And like Bill Murray I quickly became disillusioned and bored.
New Order offered me no such ambiguity. We could argue all day about whether or not violence is the right way to solve a problem (actually we can't. Real violence is bad), but I'm pretty sure captain Blazkowicz would tell you there's only one way to deal with a Nazi. His one man war against the towering 1984esque Nazi empire that rules the world possesses no second guesses, no murky motives, and lots of great gameplay. Each situation was a puzzle to solve, not a slog. The Nazis were not merely 'in his way' they were the very thing he wished to defeat. Conversely Booker from Infinite slaughters the nationalistic racists of his world-in-the-sky but I don't think its because he hates them. He's just 'doing a job'.
Touching on another gameplay mechanic: though Infinite offers you choices throughout the game, I have no idea what these choices add up to. I know that there's multiple endings but being unable to see the ripple effects of my choices I don't really care what they are.
Again New Order offers you no ambiguity. I'm about to spoil something rotten for you, so tread carefully and advance at your own peril. Choosing which one of your friends is to be dissected by Deathshead is a powerful meaningful choice that not only informs the narrative, but also the gameplay throughout the rest of the campaign.
In Infinite there is a similar scene where I choose whether or not to kill somebody. I don't remember what I chose. I think I spared him. But why did I? Did it matter? I just spent hours murdering all his men in pretty gruesome fashion for no reason, and without malice. They were merely in the way of me getting to the rest of the story.
Here we find the distinction. Shooting is at the core of Wolfenstein, as it should be. Bioshock on the other hand had no core that I could find, and the shooting just got in the way.