Under the Columbia Big Top
Originally published on GameInformer.com April 5, 2013, at 8:00 PM.
Selected for Blog Herding -- The Best Blogs of the Community, 4/11/13.
4,151 views as of June 4, 2018.
Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
The circus has come to town if Irrational Games has anything to say about it. With a high wire act, balloons, magic, pyrotechnics and a freak show, Columbia resembles less an exemplary bastion of Americana than a cavalcade of weird -- albeit entertaining -- eccentricities. And befitting such a creative presentation, it's hard to keep away from BioShock Infinite.
My relatively short stay in Columbia has been spent mostly consumed by the details, and they lay bare not only the ambitious nature of Irrational's undertaking but also how such a grand design can sometimes gloss over particulars that taken together could help undermine an otherwise solid foundation.
The design of Columbia inspires with its platforming possibilities. The Sky-Line itself certainly is a welcome means of navigating the city, however, the opportunity to jump from one building to another a la Crackdown would have added a compelling element given the various platforms that make up the metropolis.
Of course when I tried to only jump down to an adjacent building (above), I apparently transgressed gameplay parameters and was gently put back from whence I came. In a way, I would have preferred a barrier instead of this enticing possibility. As is, I tried again, with predictable results. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on you again.
On at least a couple occasions I was able to stand on someone's head without so much as a peep from them (above). Perhaps they just ignored the visitor's backward ways or it's established custom. But if I was this customer, I would have demanded my money back as the brush was about two inches away from his shoe at all times.
A pet peeve of mine with Infinite is shared by other titles but seems especially egregious in this game. The developers, at least early in the game, appeared to have settled on only a small handful of character models. Not to mention that wardrobes are likewise limited to a few styles.
I'm hopeful that like the engineering feat necessary to keep Columbia afloat, scientists were ahead of their time where cloning is involved. Otherwise, I suppose the apparently small genetic pool and limited clothing options could be a consequence of Columbia's remote setting. Right?
These couples not only could pass for twins but wore the same clothes and even posed the same despite being in two locations only yards apart. I had to do a double take! Haha get it? Unfortunately the joke is on gamers when the creativity on display with Columbia architecture and interior design doesn't extend to character creation.
In fact, there are so few character models at least in some areas that in crowds you'll inevitably see several of the same design. Of course it's not a deal breaker but it's so common as to be a constant distraction everywhere I go. It makes me want to punch somebody, but that's not an option. I tried.
It also would be nice to speak with anyone I meet though, as with other games, this is not an option. There are a few NPCs one can actually speak with, then there are a few others that will talk to you if not with you. At least most will have a few lines of dialog that they initially exchange with each other, which can be amusing.
Then there are those hawkers who actually have something meaningful to offer you. Vigors, like Rapture's Plasmids, instill abilities that open the gameplay in compelling fashion. I've only obtained Devil's Kiss, Possession and Murder of Crows so far, but they help thin swarms of foes.
Irrational deserves credit for creating an atmosphere that not only feels authentic to the setting's historical period, but at the same time is a convincing alternate reality that explores the road less travelled. Like Rapture before, Columbia is a testing ground for "what if" scenarios that play out like cautionary tales.
Such speculation would fall flat if not for the obvious research and care taken when recreating the period. Irrational games boast authentic architecture and interior design as well as wardrobes and accents such as furniture, paintings, etc. With that foundation, imaginative devices, materials and capabilities are made to seem more plausible and real.
Perhaps that's what makes certain technical issues all the more jarring (also, I don't recall such problems with the original BioShock). Besides mention in my previous blog of the door I could pass through and bland textures, I noticed many collision detection issues such as plants that poke through walls or bodies through furniture, and some mediocre particle effects.
Animation for the Possession vigor is admittedly impressive, even when one inadvertently unleashes it on a nearby wall (above). Too bad it can't simply float to the nearest enemy, however, I can't fault the developers for not taking into account my occasional ineptitude.
Taking possession of turrets has the same impact as the hacking minigame in the original game in this series -- and is likewise effective at clearing an area of enemies. I don't recall that the hacking effect wore off as possession does; nonetheless, it bought me time to approach this turret from behind (above).
Once so strategically situated, I proceeded to melee the turret into submission, or so I thought. How was I to know that its swivel base turned in a complete circle (especially when its patrolling radius is, at best, 180 degrees)? Cue running away, though if I stood my ground I might have taken less damage LOL.
As in Rapture, the illustrations of how vigors/plasmids work are entertaining vignettes made in a style befitting the historical period. A nice option is how vigors can be upgraded to vary their power in interesting and effective ways. Once again, the gameplay is proving to be an addictive and entertaining element.
The architecture and overall ambience of Columbia might set it squarely in a historical period, but its setting among the clouds is vintage science fiction as are its vessels such as the floating stage (above, top) or gunship (above, bottom). Note the two dimensional smoke that also animates awkwardly, a distraction in an otherwise compelling scene.
As suggested, the overall art design is a marvel even if some details are less than marvelous. The best science fiction has an aire of authenticity despite its subject, and with Rapture and now Columbia, Irrational has created iconic settings that not only faithfully recreate American history but twist it in ways that are awe inspiring.
Interiors, too, have character and likewise inspire with their overall design as well as the complementary items they contain. From the initial church you pass through to the various stores and homes, each benefits from a distinct identity that nonetheless ties in with the general Columbia aesthetic.
Some details might have been overlooked by developers, but then there are fascinating ones like this photo left among items on a large table, which could easily be missed by passersby. Seemingly an image of someone shot while sitting in a chair (a harbinger of things to come), it tells its own story of Columbia.
The honor system referenced in signs around Columbia (see the store above) apparently is not enforced even by shop owners a few feet away. While not entirely unusual in games, there are plenty with context sensitive AI that will react to such thievery. Too bad Infinite is not one of them.
Combat, at least early on, is not too challenging even on the default Normal setting given the glut of ammo and salts (for replenishing vigors). That said, there are moments, especially after Firemen or Crows are introduced, that you might wish you could maintain an inventory of found items for just such occasions.
Recordings continue to be an effective means of providing a context for the action in Columbia (as it was in Rapture). In Infinite, Kinetoscope kiosks also provide some background information on the floating city. All such materials help inform the gamer's knowledge of Columbia for a fluid in-game narrative.
Irrational confronts racist attitudes in Columbia head-on with an unforgiving portrayal that should disgust. Such unflinching explorations respect grown audiences with mature subject matter and can contribute to more compelling narratives. Indeed, the story of Rapture is one of this medium's best, and Columbia starts out strong.
In lieu of true platforming in a setting that practically demands it, the Sky-Hook tool enables quick and easy movement throughout the city via the Sky-Line. It also happens to be a pretty effective melee weapon in a pinch (above). Wielding in combat is simple, though getting the hang of the Sky-Line is more involved.
Freight hooks (above) are affixed to the facades of many Columbia buildings and offer an alternate means of traversing the city with one's Sky-Hook. The combination of these and the Sky-Line are, in fact, an effective and practical means of moving around this urban landscape (airscape?) but I still miss the simple pleasures of jumping and climbing.
The speed and winding nature of the Sky-Line can be disorienting for the uninitiated, nevermind the controls to consider when riding for the first few times. Though it functions as a kind of on-rails segment whenever you ride, its relatively unique design ensures a breathtaking journey every time.
Among your options when on the Sky-Line are the abilities to shoot at enemies, strike those approaching in the opposite direction or launch yourself onto foes on the ground. Also, ubiquitous oil slicks are this game's explosive barrels when combined with the Devil's Kiss vigor. Good thing Columbians aren't that fastidious about their oil spills.
When on the ground one of the Sky-Hook's brutal melee options is a finishing move once a foe is momentarily incapacitated. Yes, this tool is the Swiss Army Knife of Columbia. I haven't tried to open bottles with it, but it's pretty effective at opening veins.
Like its predecessors in the BioShock universe, Infinite sports a pretty solid FPS mechanic. Whether taking on foes in a close quarters firefight (above, top) or at range (above, bottom), targeting is fluid but precise and hits are context sensitive so headshots are immediate kills but others will injure and foes will react accordingly.
Of course, foes don't always behave accordingly. Often if you're on the edge of their awareness, they'll suddenly lean into an aggressive posture but only momentarily and you can walk away. Likewise, when they do attack they'll only chase you a relatively short distance before abandoning the pursuit. And yeah, I will run away to save my hide LOL.
For the record, I will high tail it away from Firemen if they get the best of me. These foes create fires with their fireballs instead of putting them out, and a panicked spray and pray response is not recommended, trust me. Likewise for the nasty Crow gentleman later. How they even allowed Booker into the Pinkertons is beyond me!
My problem, among admittedly many others, is I need to spring more traps which I did aplenty in Rapture. An advantage in Rapture is that Big Daddies didn't pester you unless you crossed them, so there was time to scout the terrain and plan a defense. In Columbia, foes will react on sight; besides, traps are secondary options for vigors so play out differently.
Speaking of fire and other elemental effects like smoke or water, animations are not entirely convincing. That is to say that they can be adequate, but often appear two dimensional. In fact, I have seen better in several other titles. But again it serves its purpose and in the context of the game as a whole is not a big issue.
In general, firefights are an entertaining affair given the variety of options at your disposal such as standard firearms and the offensive and defensive capabilities of vigors as well as environmental hazards you can use to your advantage (above, darn those oil spills!). And I'm only at the beginning of the adventure.
Between effective ragdoll physics, context sensitive injury, fiendish vigors and finishing moves, battles can be brutal affairs. Despite some shortcomings, enemy AI so far is competent and at times wages stubbornly decent resistance. Throw in various enemy types all at once and it's enough to keep this Pinkerton agent on his toes.
In fact, I did die on a few occasions. Taking the criticisms of Rapture's Vita chambers to heart, a respawn likewise replenished some of the enemy's health, and costs the victim some of their hard earned (i.e stolen) cash. Interestingly, falling in an accident such as trying to leap across platforms doesn't count as a death, only as a very stupid move.
I encountered Elizabeth at the end of this portion of my journey and the gradual means by which you're introduced to her is a nice reveal. Likewise, her innocence and naivete is a welcome alternative to other games' know-it-alls or wannabe know-it-alls, and sets up an interesting dynamic with Booker.
All in all and despite being a relatively short distance through Booker's journey, I'm not surprised that the art design in general is compelling, the story so far interesting and the gameplay overall is entertaining. Some of the choices or lack of attention to detail are disappointing but thus far do not undermine Irrational's achievement.
Time will tell if Columbia can match Rapture's heights (a tall order for me as the latter is among my top games), but the ingredients are certainly in place for an immersive trek through an interesting, iconic world, one that I'm anxious to return to especially in light of my limited play time, and that is a very good sign.
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