The Problem With BioShock Infinite's Combat

There's a lot to like about BioShock Infinite. It's gorgeous looking, the music is spectacular, and the story is good enough that a couple days after finishing it, I'm still turning it over in my head. But the game has one glaring problem: combat just doesn't work all that well.

In some games, that wouldn't be such a huge deal. Unfortunately, combat is Infinite's primary activity — if you're not walking around, gazing at vistas, listening to Elizabeth and Booker talk or scrounging for pre-recorded backstory, you're probably frantically running around shooting at dudes.

The question of whether or not combat actually serves BioShock Infinite in a general sense — did this game need to be a shooter? — is a question for another day. (Short version: No, I don't really think it does, or that the game did.) For now, I wanted to talk a little bit about why the combat doesn't work very well. In other words, my issue at the moment isn't with the fact that the game has combat at all, but more with how it's implemented.

I've never been a huge fan of the combat in BioShock games. It's always felt "shouty," for lack of a better word — fighting splicers in Rapture felt more or less like getting into a screaming match with a half-dozen guests at a dinner party where there's poor acoustics and everyone's already talking above their normal speaking volume.

That said, I returned to the first two games upon finishing Infinite and found that compared to the new game, the first two almost feel like tactical strategy games. Infinite on a calm day is louder than BioShock at its most hysterical.

There are a lot of reasons for that, chief among them that BioShock's whole ecosystem putters along on its own in a way that Infinite's doesn't. But more crucially, almost every enemy in Infinite has a gun, whereas in BioShock, advanced weaponry was more of a rarity. In Infinite, guns can tag you from across an entire level, and enemies are very accurate. To offset this, Booker can run much faster than Jack or Delta in the first two games, and has rechargeable shields. Both of those things were likely moves aimed at mitigating the fact that every enemy is now packing heat. Late in the game, basic armoured enemies take a clip and a half to take down, all while firing rockets and grenades at you from across the map. It's chaotic.

Of course, any combat encounter is going to be a tad subjective — if you're amazing at BioShock Infinite's combat, or have the levels and encounters memorised, you may well have a better time of it than I did. But upon my first playthrough, a fight would usually play out like this:

• I see some guards walking up ahead. They don't see me yet.

• OK, they saw me! And now everyone is shooting at me.

• I trigger "Murder of Crows" and make them stop shooting me for one second. I kill as many as I can.

• Now there are more of them, so I trigger Murder of Crows again, and run forward to the left.

• Somewhere a turret has seen me; I hear its signature ringtone and know I'm about to lose some health. Maybe it's a flying mosquito or maybe it's a regular turret, but now I'm getting pegged and I can't tell from where.

• There are people everywhere, yelling, and I just sort of fire off "Murder of Crows" in a direction and shoot where I see the "vulnerable" signifier.

• I can't figure out why I'm being shot, then I realise there was a dude standing behind me and shooting me while my attention was focused forward. I die, and hop back into the level from a waypoint.

• I locate the turret, so I take cover and try to kill it while getting shot by a bunch of other people.

• Elizabeth tosses me some ammo/salt.

• I jump onto a skyline and keep getting pegged by bullets — I have no idea where the enemies are really, but I rely on the auto-aim from skylines to find someone to shoot at.

• I land and use Murder of Crows more to freeze/kill more guys.

• There's still one guy somewhere in the level, so the combat music keeps playing… I can hear him talking but can't find him.

• I do a skyline run to find the last guy, and as I'm doing so I think, "Oh wow, this is a neat level, I didn't even notice!"

• I find the guy and, just as I kill him, Elizabeth offers me some more ammo. But then he's dead, so her offer is rescinded. D'oh!

And that's pretty much that.

This morning, Braid designer Jonathan Blow shared some thoughts on Twitter that line up more or less with my own. Here's Blow — I've condensed his multiple tweets into a single statement, since they read that way:

Playing Infinite, I realise that Halo-style recharging shields are actually a huge mistake in shooter design. But all shooters use them now. Since people are going to ask: There are two problems; one is about emotional pacing, one is about gameplay crispness and fairness. With shields, you are always doing OK in the medium and long term. They low-pass filter the emotional high of surviving a tight situation. You can have a tight situation on the order of 10 seconds, but not on the order of 5 minutes, which matters more.

The crispness problem is: In order to provide difficulty, designers now have to overwhelm your shields all the time, which means designing situations that are spammy (get hit from all directions so you can't process what is going on). These are confusing and not fun. These feel messy to play but they happen all the time because they have to. Or, like Infinite does, have super attacks that take away all your shields at once *and* 1/3 of your health, which feels steeply unfair.

Also, shields train the player to ignore getting hit most of the time, which becomes grating at the end when guys start hitting hard. (You trained the players for one thing but then gave them another!) I think shooters are much stronger experiences when it matters if you got hit. In shield games you get hit all the time, like flies buzzing.

I like a lot of that, particularly the stuff about crispness. I'm not entirely convinced that this isn't a chicken-and-egg situation, since perhaps the new game's machine-gun injection (and removal of BioShock's triggerable health-kits) necessitated the addition of the shield, but regardless, the shields and the shoot-happy enemies form a symbiotic relationship that isn't all that fun to jump into the middle of.

Blow's critique has prompted a lot of interesting back-and-forth with a number of other designers, each of whom has weighed in with his or her own thoughts on why Infinite's combat system was designed the way it was. You can follow him on Twitter to get more of that.

Except for a few frustrating moments, I had a suitably OK time fighting through Infinite's many battles — that skyline really can be a rush! — but I do wish the combat had felt a bit more fluid, a bit more controlled, and a bit, well, smarter. That's doubly true, considering how smart the game is in other ways. If I'm going to have a deep conversation about religion, politics and metaphysics, I'd prefer not to have to shout over the din.


Comments

    The problem is that you only use Murder of Crows. There are many ways to combat after it get hectic for awhile. Using shield to block and absorb armor while setting murder of crows traps that spreads to others. For multiple human enemies one toss of upgraded flame kills them all with the massive aoe.

      Using Hypnotize on RPG people is one of my favorite pastimes. Not only do they blast everyone to high heaven, they kill themselves too!

        Absolutely, then use water on Patriots and it takes away around a third of their health AND stuns them!!! Its the best spell to use on them asides possess!!!!

    I disagree about the Halo comment. The shields work differently in games with health. What he should be talking about is the lack of health that even Halo turned into.

    In Halo: CE, ODST and Reach, your shields were weaker and you needed to keep an eye on your health. Constantly losing health eventually kills you so you become aware of all dangers, the shields is like a way to balance getting hit from an attack you didn't see. In Halo 2, 3 and 4, as well as CoD games, you basically just stick your head out, shoot as much as you can, then duck for your shields/health to regenerate. Usually grenades or "heavies" are either too weak to do any damage unless you're already almost dead, or too strong that full shields/health won't save you anyways. In Halo 4 I don't think I once flinched at a grenade and all heavy weapon deaths felt too cheap. Unlike in Reach where I would frantically escape to get away from it.

    and besides, in Bioshock, you have the option of leveling your shields, health or salts. I went with health mostly, followed by salts and leaving shields for last, to give me a survivers instinct.

    My biggest problem with the combat in Infintie was it was too large scale compared to Bioshock 1 and 2. While in 1 and 2 it was mostly small encounters that had meaning, in Infinite you have large scale wars as a solo man. Also the enemies in Bioshock 1 and 2 each had human characteristics whether it was them singing or crying out when they get hit. In Infinite you get none of that and you have no feeling for the people you kill.

      That's probably because you're constantly killing police & soldiers of a militia.. Makes sense to me, as opposed to citizens and mutants gone crazy in an under water city!

        Sooo, citizens and mutants are more human then police and soldiers?

        Hmmmmmmmmmmm...

          Yes, that's clearly exactly what he's saying. Police and soldiers aren't really people, so their deaths simply don't matter.

          They're not employed to kill like police and soldiers are, think about it. Those in the original BioShock games were people that had gone crazy or something to that effect, they weren't employed by a militia or whatever to actually kill, so yes they are more human. It made sense for them to have personalities, authority figures on the other hand do not seem right with one.

            Oh just ignore what I said. I was being a pretentious git :P

            as a soldier I'm offended AND I'm very human by the way

              Good for you, I was talking about a video game not real life, but if you can't realise that then whatever.

                C'mon, you can see what he means.

                And you're using real world examples so it shouldn't surprise you that he would take it that way.

                I think that the enemies were just... targets. Like in doom or something. They really had no personality at all. They were just things to get past to get to the next area.

    Yeh, I have to admit, I wasn't a great fan of the combat too much either. The skyline system was fun but I kept feeling like that your salt skills were tacked on. I didn't really find them strategically useful in most battles and would up running and gunning most of the way. I also really missed the Big Daddy fights where I had to plan every move before the encounter. There was just no battle of that sort in Infinite. I honestly felt that the combat was dumbed down compared to the original Bioshocks.

    Sounds like you were playing on Hard. Switch it down to Medium, and the whole thing feels a lot more balanced. I find that playing games at the difficulty they were designed for is the best solution. Playing Halo on Legendary instead of the intended Heroic means you resort to much cheaper/more efficient playstyles, and tend to redo areas a lot more often.

    All of this bitching about the most petty rubbish seems to be by the usual people who have a fetish for whining. Regardless of the game, how close to perfect it is, EVERY SINGLE TIME the same people just have to find SOMETHING to piss & moan about. This is not news, it is subjective crap.

    This is as close to perfect as a game this generation can possibly be, and guess what? No game during the next generation is going to be perfect either. Humans are imperfect, therefore anything they produce is imperfect. This isn't some sort of huge glaring flaw, I think it's time you lot accepted this and find something more productive to do.

    Let it go, stop trying to FIND things to whine about and just enjoy the game for what it is, or don't play it at all. Games like everything else in life are never going to be perfect; Get over it.

      Or, maybe some people actually have legit criticisms that should be taken notice of to avoid those mistakes being repeated or to help make future games achieve a higher level of greatness that some fanboys have trouble accepting as it might make them feel "wrong" about something.

        Oh yes of course, anyone who disagrees with all the pissing and moaning MUST be a fanboy! Grow up. Everyone MUST agree with the great prophet Neo K! Hypocrite.

      Why don't you just come right out and say that you weren't clever enough to finish Braid? Gosh

      I personally like to break down games I enjoy and look for things I think could be improved. It’s so much more interesting than just spouting off how perfect and amazing a game is and the designers might appreciate the positive feedback.

        It's also better then just shouting how much the game "fucking sucks" without any form of criticism or without simply realising that maybe you just don't like it.

      Consider the following:
      The closer to perfection something is, the more glaring its flaws appear - no matter how small they may be.

      It's not that perfect. I much preferred the combat in Deus Ex. And the story (until the end).

      How much stealth did you use in Bioshock Infinite? There's none. I loved the combat, don't get me wrong, but it is very, very spammy.

      And 2 guns sucks. A few times fighting handymen i was totally out of ammo and salt, not fun scrounging for more weapons with one of those guys jumping at you.

      In SP games, I prefer a more measured, tactical approach to combat. And stealth, I like stealth.

        Agreed! To me, Human Revolution is still the best recent game and you get a lot more gameplay for your money. Although I would consider it a rpg with fps elements while Infinite stays true to the fps genre so it lacks things like stealth.

          It did have some stealth. You could get the jump on enemies if you sneaked/came back from near-death (alternate universe?) and set traps, etc. Also, the Boys of Silence (all 3 of them)

            I dunno man, I play a bit of Battlefield 3 so tactics are pretty much ingrained in me. Stick to cover, always crouch, always headshot.

            I don't think I ever managed to get the drop on anyone. They spotted me a mile away. It's a very arcadey feeling combat.

            I still loved it though, I just don't think it was the best.

          Absolutely agreed. I loved Human Rev. I think I've played it through at least 3 times. The 2nd time was straight after my 1st playthrough. It wasn't perfect but for me it was damn close.

          But I also give Skyrim and Bioshock infinite mad props. They're great games as well. But yeah, Deus Ex was were it was at for me. The sequel is a day one purchase for me. I'll take that gamble.

      It's an article about issues with the game. What did you expect to find in the comments???

      You're like a guy who goes to a gay bar and then says "MAN THIS PLACE IS FULL OF GAYS!"

      Last edited 04/04/13 11:18 pm

    I think all Bioshock Infinite really needed was to tone things down with the combat. The vigors, tears and skylines allowed for some really creative moments and I grew personally quite fond of using Downpour as my own personal Force Push to send enemies falling to their death. The trouble is, there are too many moments where you are being overwhelmed from all corners and have to run around looking for a way to take the heat off. In late game areas, it felt like every combat session I was fighting off the entire population of Columbia.

    That said, the Handymen fights were awesome. Overwhelming, difficult and frustrating, but so worth it when you finally brought the fat bastards down.

    This is more about gamers (or, the post's author) trying to use the same strategy in every game they play (unless specifically told otherwise). And to save myself a lengthy paragraph explaining what I mean, I'll paraphrase an old boxing adage...

    Too much STICK, not enough MOVE.

    Just because a game doesn't tell you to re-position or maneuver out of a firefight, doesn't mean you stay where you are and fight it out. And because I cbf'd writing another paragraph, here's another oldy...

    ADAPT OR DIE.

    I actually like infinites combat over #1 and 2. I felt that in rapture i had to be really cautious, but in infinite im more free to run and gun. One thing that i keep doing is concentrating to hard on guns and forgetting to switch through my plasmids.

    I kinda feel bad for all the soldiers and police etc, but remember that they're basically nazis and then I feel better.

      Totally agree. I hate horror games, so Bioshock was hard to finish for me since it evoked so much intensity in the battles (I had to use cheats to play System Shock 2. I was younger, if that counts as an excuse). It did make the rewards better, which I think counted against Infinite. Collecting audio logs after a massive battle with a Big Daddy was much cooler than taking out some more Vox Populi then scouring every single building to find everything.

    I hardly ever play shooters and I didn't find it hard. There's like 2 or 3 tricky fights, which are set-pieces where (at least for me) ammo shortage became an issue due to the sheer quantity of enemies even with supplies from Elizabeth. I thought it was much easier than say Uncharted 3 (which wasn't hard either).

    Honestly, I played it like a cover shooter, Mass Effect-style, except with DIY cover. Stand behind stuff. Pop out and shoot guys. Get back in cover. Trivial. There is only one weapon which messes with the program, the volley gun/hail fire. Even then if you are hard up against a barrier the projectiles will probably land well behind you. But just in case, use Possession on the volley gun guy first.

    Upgraded Devil's Kiss will one-shot turrets. Although you may want to possess the turret to shoot your enemies for youand then blast it anyway.

    The sniper rifle is awesome because it one or two shots basically everything except Heavy Hitters and it doesn't use much ammo to do it. Step out, kill, step back, reload.

    Now: I agree the combat in Bioshock Infinite isn't the greatest, but that's because most of the vigors feel interchangeable to me and most of the weapons are interchangeable, and after all the Skyline-focused gear and mechanics it is actually pretty rare to get the opportunity to use the Skylines in combat.

    Methinks you've been watching far too much of the Cynical Brit on Youtube buddy.

    I didn't really find combat all that inspiring either and agree it was rather messy. There were quite a few times when there were one or two enemies left and I spent more time searching for them than I had in the rest of the combat. That being said though, there was a lot of potential for fun combat. I used Shock Jockey (mostly in trap form liberally applied) exclusively once I got it and melee was my friend. My gear was set up for heavy melee damage/stuns/DOTs and closing the distance so most of the time I would be shocking enemies or hiding behind doors and then getting into melee range to finish them off save for a few firefight set ups.

    Last edited 04/04/13 2:36 pm

    I just realized that compared to Bioshock, the environments where not as interactive. No chance to melt ice or shock door panels, exposing goodies. No telekinesis to grab supplies, throw things around or back at enemies. I miss hacking and mini games.

      I agree, with the exception of the hacking. The hacking was a tedious distraction from the actual game.

    I loved the chaos, it was a stark contrast to the beauty of the town. I think however if you were expecting the more stealthy/sneaky/spooky feel of the original Bioshocks/System Shocks then it would feel wrong. For some reason I was extremely happy with the entire thing. I was playing on an eyefinity setup which helps locate enemies and adds more immersion to the chaos.

    It's the best gaming experience I've had in a long time, so the following is more over critical if anything else.

    The issue was that they spent time development time on anything but Murder of Crows, which if upgraded and coupled with shock jockey upgraded you can keep every one stunned for longer than it takes to get more salt. So everything else feels a waste to use unless for specific uses like the octopus one on occasion in the late game.

    I did play it in 2 sittings though, and didn't get time to process much between sittings. The one big issue for me was the lack of variation. Handy Man, Patriot, Crow Guy, Turrets, Mosquito, men with varying weapons. The approach for those is almost identical outside of Handy Man. Crows/Shock => lots of bullets, Crows/Shock => Melee melee to heal, repeat. The only real boss in the game was 'mother', outside of that they felt more like tougher variations of other units.

      Holy shit! 2 sittings! Are you for real?

      I did it in 4 or 5, hitting about 3 hrs a pop. I was feeling really unhealthy by the time I finished it.

      I'm waiting for the DLC to drop before I go back. And then I'm going to stay with human, 1hr hits and enjoy it MUCH more.

    im interested to know how many people are playing on hard.

    i am and i regret it.
    im pretty far in - not finished yet but getting there based on the number of audio logs Ive collected.

    the most recent battles have been pretty brutal. the shear quantity of enemies goes through the roof and you are literally in the middle of it all
    it doesnt seem balanced for hard. i felt the same way about bioshock 1/2
    you can be more creative when the threat of instant death is lessened.

    im still loving the game but combat definitely has nothing to do with my enjoyment of the game

      The idea of hard is to make the game difficult. I completed it on hard and thought it was good to have a challenge. I could be wrong but I think there is a option to change the difficulty in the options somewhere.

      I started on hard and decided it was a bad idea, switching back to medium. Once you get used to the combat system, hard gets to be more fun. No point playing a game where you die all the time

      Agreed.

      I played it on hard first time through and it was bloody frustrating. I very nearly turned the difficulty down to get past the final battle but a change of tactics got me across the line. Having said that, forgetting to upgrade my weapons certainly didn't help my cause.

      I spent the whole second half of the game wishing each combat section would end so I could get back to the story.

      Last edited 04/04/13 10:53 pm

        Absolutely. I played on normal and pretty early in the game, when you're in the wounded knee section it just felt like a kill box. In these games I always try to be non-lethal, so when they don't give you a choice and you have to kill dozens and dozens of soldiers I always feel really weird about it.

        There were quite a few sections even on normal where that's all it was. Just blind crazy shooting. Definitely not the best part of the game.

        TBH it reminded me of 90s shooters. Waves upon waves of disposable enemies.

        Still loved it though.

    Getting through Infinite the shootbang was a real chore to be rewarded with Infinite the world and story. I loved the down time between fights walking around soaking up the scenery and world.

    Fighting for me was using whatever vigor you prefered to stun lock followed by whatever gun you preferred to kill said stunned enemy. Yawn. I tried to be a little more adventurous towards the end to get the battles done with quicker and that's when I really saw the hand holding come alive with Elizabeth just feeding you ammo and salts with invincibility frames too. At least it got the boring job done quicker.

    My only real gripe Infinite's combat is the same gripe I have with any limited arsenal game: it's very constraining. It might be just me, but having only two weapon slots means I pick a versatile combination and stick with it for the whole game: typically a medium-to-long range weapon (the Carbine in Infinites case) and a medium-to-short one (shotgun, machine gun, hand cannon). Now of course Infinite off-sets this with the vigors, but even they all kinda feel samey this time around. I've been playing a lot of (Brutal) Doom lately and I can't help but miss the days where you could always have the right tool for the job on hand.

    Last edited 04/04/13 3:09 pm

    Yeah, it's frantic, but I kinda enjoyed the combat once I got the feel of it which is rare for me. It became quite challenging to try and find out where fire was coming from, as well as managing resources as you couldn't actually have stuff equipped but had to find it from corpses, the environment, or Elziabeth. Having the skylines helped change things up a bit as well as get extra access to areas with useful items from tears and so on.

    My only issue with the combat is the lack of ammo. I did play it on hard but I usually play for headshots which should conserve ammo. I don't usually like single player fps so the fact that I enjoyed the combat in this was a real shock

    - Spot enemy. Use iron sights on pistol and turn it into fully functional sniper rifle. Kill enemy Bette Midler style.

    - Hidden enemies alerted. Switch to upgraded machine gun and kill new enemies.

    -Shoot turret a few times; it explodes.

    - Discover all enemies are dead. Wonder how you will ever get the 'Tear 'em a new one' achievement.

    - Be reminded by game "Don't forget to use your vigors".

    I am also really despising the ongoing legacy of console hardware in my PC games. 'Back in the day' basic geometry was something we strived to move away from, now it's all about basic as shit geometry and fancy shaders to hide it. I have never seen a more blatant example that Infinite. Fallout 3 and Doom 3 were the worst offenders in big game names, until now.

    Also, how come all the buildings in the clouds sway and bob, except the one you are looking from? Pretty sure a PC can handle a moving skybox these days.

    The issue with Infinite's combat is a legitimate concern. Considering we're playing a game and not just watching it (of which combat takes up a large part of) any debate about how it can be improved should be encouraged. To discourage it regardless of how great the rest of the game is, is unfair to other games which are subjected to the same microscope.
    Personally I find Infinite's combat strips away the tension a lot of other great shooters have in spades eg Dead Space 1+2.

    I played on hard, and I found it a good challenge. At certain points, such as the Handymans, it was very tough but required me to try new strategies. Usually I get bored of games if I keep dying, but once I died a few times in Infinite I found things would become fluid and exciting.

    And to the person who said every enemy was lifeless, did you hear the Handymans? Every time they spoke I felt bad about what I was doing.

      So one instance among many makes up for it? In Bioshock 1 and 2 you were facing psychopaths. You could hear them singing and talking to each other, fixing turrets and attacking Big Daddies. They had a personality and felt more real than the faceless villians of Infinite.

    Why is everyone saying this game is so good? A patronising racist and religious story line, VERY repetitive enemies and unnecessary vigors kind've annoyed me. Sorry.

    I won't be finishing this game after about 80% through. We have to crawl through the streets to get to my mansion oh wait i need my dead mums hand oh wait shes a ghost we need to go backtrack and find some tears oh wait now were back in some corridors filled with set piece battles... Must be a password around here OH FUCK there it is on the table. This story drags on and there's so much filler its a crime.

    Good graphics isn't the only thing that makes a game 'near perfect'. This is far from it.

      The ghost mum thing was a massive chore to get through. Did not enjoy that part at all.

    I can agree with the basic argument, but BioShock's health packs weren't great either. Health pack hunting had a side effect of making you look at every part of the level but I still don't like the system (I look at everything anyway). Maybe if they just had medic stations (sort of like Half-Life) pretty much everywhere that turn off during combat. If getting stuck in combat in MMOs has taught me anything it's that it'd make you want to tear your hair out at least once, but it has it's positive sides.
    That way you collect medkits but their purpose is as an in-combat item and not the way you replenish health long term. Short term combat doesn't need to be overwhelming to be dangerous, but you'll never hit a point where you're saved right before a Big Daddy with no health and have to take him out without being hit.

      Bioshock 1 and 2 had health stations and Infinite had kinda health stations in the form of medkits that could be spawned in through tears.

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