Mild Spoilers Ahead
With the release of the first batch of downloadable content and the promise of a fresh chapter that marries new and old instalments to come, it seems about time to give my thoughts on Bioshock Infinite, which have somewhat changed since my first play. As with many things upon which expectations are heaped, I came away a little disappointed about what the game wasn’t, but now on second playthrough, I have come to appreciate the game for what it is. But that’s not necessarily what I’ll talk about here (though I may touch briefly on these points later on). Rather I’m going to talk in broader terms and in relation to a completely different title. For what struck me most first time round playing Bioshock Infinite was that the titles it resembled most were not its forebears, but surprisingly, to my mind at least, the TimeSplitters series.
Of course there are parallels between Infinite and Bioshocks 1 and 2, with its mix of standard weaponry and plasmids/vigors, the health and ADAM/salt systems, the narrative drive, audio diaries and object collections, vending machines, a retro utopia setting, etc. But never through my playing the previous two games did I ever think about similarities with the adventures of Sergeant Cortez and co.
TimeSplitters’ heritage is a fine one. Developed by Free Radical Design, TimeSplitters was an exclusive PlayStation 2 launch title released in 2000. The company was founded by former Rare staff members who were part of the development team behind GoldenEye 007 (including “Dr.” David Doak). Two critically-acclaimed sequels that expanded the story and gameplay features followed on multiple formats, but since Free Radical became Crytek UK, a further follow-up has yet to materialise. But in playing Bioshock Infinite, I got an uncanny sensation of welcome familiarity.
Let’s get the obvious comparison out the way – yes, both Bioshock Infinite and TimeSplitters involve temporal rifts and manipulation, be it through ‘tears’ in the former and ‘portals’ in the latter. They come from completely different standpoints and it’s a fairly standard sci-fi adventure trope, so in practice, their use is markedly different. The Bioshock games appear to exist in an alternate past (or possibly just one unknown to the world at large) and there are certainly themes of cause-and-effect and how changes in the past affect the future and influences from the future can alter the past. But TimeSplitters brings these to the fore, hopping willy-nilly across time and space as a way to cram in as much variety in setting as it does jokes about doppelgangers and nudge-wink references galore.
But strangely, Bioshock Infinite reminded me of TimeSplitters before we even see our first tear. From a design perspective, there is a satisfying chunkiness to the world of Columbia, its characters and objects that is shared by the TimeSplitters games. The guns in both are simple but meaty, with a real kick upon impact (while there is no vigor equivalent in TimeSplitters, Future Perfect did give Cortez a gravity gun-esque wrist attachment which is fairly reminiscent of Bioshock’s Telekinesis), and the enemy enforcers, particularly those in military uniform, have a weight and stockiness about them, with slightly cartoonish proportions.
One slight change from previous Bioshock games that makes Infinite feel a little more like a regular first-person shoot is the way this time round the flow of the game is a bit more broken up. Bioshock 2 certainly had an element of this, but this was more to do with the repetition in each ‘level’ (defeating the Big Daddies, saving the Little Sisters, protecting them during their ADAM grabs, then encountering the Big Sister) than level design itself. In Infinite, it’s quite clear which sections are story/exploration based and which are the action sequences, with large arena-style ‘halls’, carefully positioned tears and, in some cases, sky-lines to ride around the space. I was a little disappointed with how this all made it feel more obviously ‘gamey’, making it clear you’re entering battle mode (much like seeing a blockbuster at IMAX and the screen to suddenly fill when something big was about to happen), followed by a brief orchestral sting signifying the coast was clear – whereas in Bioshock you felt like there could be a splicer round every corner (though Infinite is less concerned with the horror vein that coursed through Rapture). Columbia didn’t feel quite as joined-up a world as Rapture or believable in its often symmetrical structure, akin to a TimeSplitters map-maker creation, though obviously a highly detailed one (the first DLC, Clash in the Clouds, seems to play directly to this).
That is not to say these set-pieces weren’t thrilling – far from it, especially with the sky-lines to leap on and off and glide round, avoiding and dishing out gunfire like a mother-funster. The Bioshock games are great at thrusting the player into a conflict they have no knowledge of, sticking you in the heart of a situation and setting you barely understand. Likewise, TimeSplitters 2 saw you inhabit different characters Quantum Leap style, and the Vox Populi attack in Infinite reminded me of the first level of Future Perfect, where Cortez crash lands into a warzone, and fights his way back to his home base. Though as mentioned before, the horror is dialled back, a spectral encounter in Infinite also brought back memories of Future Perfect’s haunted house stage.
And then there’s the Elizabeth factor – a regular companion from the world you find yourself in who acts as guide, MacGuffin, and combat partner all rolled into one. Though Infinite itself does not have a co-op mode as the TimeSplitters games did, Future Perfect brought back characters from previous instalments to team up with the time-travelling Cortez, as well as to help further the plot and provide context. While not as integral to the story as Elizabeth is to Infinite’s, they were fun to have around, rather than being a burden or an exercise in poor A.I. programming.
Bioshock Infinite remains a hugely involving, exciting and unique game, so these comparisons are not a criticism or a suggestion they are anything beyond mere coincidence or established videogame tropes (nor would I imagine they would occur to any right-thinking individual). Rather, the reminders of TimeSplitters that playing Bioshock Infinite evoked were happy ones, rekindling my desire for a further instalment with the same charm, fun and playability as last time round way back in 2005. Both series have proved there is room for first-person shooters that are not obsessed with gritty realism, even going so far as skewering the gruff machismo that renders the mega-franchises somewhat unappealing. Fingers crossed that it isn’t yet quite time for the likes of them to split.