BioShock Infinite’s take on Gears of War’s “Horde mode” might not be what most fans were expecting for the game’s first DLC expansion, but anybody who thought that Infinite’s gameplay was just as good as its story will find hours of entertainment with Clash in the Clouds.
It’s easy to write off Clash in the Clouds as a cheap diversion designed to keep people from trading in their copies of BioShock Infinite before the real, story-driven “Burial at Sea” DLC expansion comes out: Clash in the Clouds doesn’t feature any new enemies, vigors, guns, or upgrades or gear. There’s no story at all, and the four “new” arenas are all loosely based on locations you’ve probably already seen in the single player game. Like Gears of War’s Horde mode or Resident Evil 4’s Mercenaries minigame, Clash in the Clouds feels like a bonus feature that should have been unlocked following completion of the main game.
But you know what? I love it anyway.
Just like Horde Mode or RE’s Mercenaries, Clash in the Clouds is simply a lot of fun to play. Initially, I expected to spend a single afternoon with CitC then move on to another game, but I’m finding myself constantly drawn back to it. I want to beat my friends’ scores on the leaderboards. I want to unlock all of the in-game museum’s exhibits. But most of all, I simply want to keep playing the game, just because the combat scenarios are so tightly designed and satisfying to play through.
When BioShock Infinite came out last March, most of the discussion about the game was understandably focused on the game’s story and its other thematic elements, and discussion about Infinite’s gameplay was comparatively subdued. As I said in my original review, I think Infinite’s combat mechanics were arguably one of the best parts of the Infinite experience (yes, perhaps even more so than the story;) the game’s mix of gunplay, Vigor abilities, and the use of environmental elements like skylines and tears made it one of the most satisfying and surprisingly cerebral FPS’s that I’ve had the pleasure of playing through in a long time.
By stripping away the story and focusing solely on the gameplay, Clash in the Clouds finally gives Infinite’s combat some much deserved time in the spotlight. I always enjoyed the actual gameplay in Infinite, but it wasn’t until Clash in the Clouds that I felt like I was able to fully appreciate the depth and nuance of the game’s mechanics.
CitC starts off easy enough: you’re given access to all of the original game’s weapons and a handful of Vigors from the start of the game, and the of enemies you face in CitC’s first stage, the O.P.S. Zeal, shouldn’t provide much of a challenge for anyone who’s beaten Infinite’s main campaign. Things start to get interesting once you’ve unlock CitC’s other three combat arenas: the game stops pulling its punches, and it starts sending some surprisingly devious and challenging mixes of enemies at you. For instance, I never had a problem dealing with the teleporting, crow wielding Zealots and their close-range attacks in the single player game, but they suddenly became incredibly hard to deal with once CitC paired them up with long-range snipers who could drop my shields with a single shot.
Irrational Games hasn’t said anything about improvements to the game’s AI, but the enemies in CitC feel smarter and more tenacious than they did in the main game: close range fighters would try to flank me while I tried to pick off snipers, enemies with explosive weapons would lob flaming shells at me whenever I tried to take cover behind something and recharge my shields, and enemies were constantly using each stage’s skylines to maneuver themselves behind or above me. Irrational Games seems to have taken criticisms about BioShock Infinite’s easiness to heart, as even CitC’s waves of basic enemies definitely feel far more challenging and dangerous than even some of the end game encounters in the main game. You really need to master every ability that the game gives you — especially the use of traps (to cover your back once enemies start coming at you from multiple angles) and skylines (to make hasty retreats) — in order to survive CitC’s later challenges.
As if simply surviving some of CitC’s waves weren’t hard enough, the game has a “Blue Ribbon” rewards system that challenges you to take down each wave with a special restriction — i.e. only use the shotgun, defeat all enemies while riding on a skyline, defeat all enemies within a certain amount of time, etc. It’s completely optional, and I don’t think you unlock anything particularly special for earning every stage’s Blue Ribbons, but I felt obligated to try and complete these challenges anyway, even though some of them were damn tough (take out a whole wave of enemies using only traps and tears, for instance.)
That’s the really great thing about Clash in the Clouds: despite how hard certain challenges could get sometimes, I always felt compelled to keep playing. I died plenty of times during the later waves on the third and fourth arenas, but it never felt like I lost because of some cheap gameplay trick or poorly designed mechanic — every time I died I knew it because I screwed up. Even after I had survived all four stages and beaten my friends’ scores on the leaderboards, I still wanted to keep playing, simply because I knew I could still improve my skills, up my score, and get better at the game. There’s just an undeniable sense of satisfaction and accomplishment derived from completing a Blue Ribbon challenge or surviving a particularly tough wave of enemies that’s simply missing from most other games. I haven’t been this addicted to an arena style shooter since I first played the original Mercenaries mode in Resident Evil 4.
Since its release yesterday, I’ve managed to sink 4 or 5 hours into Clash in the Clouds, more than enough to justify its paltry five dollar price. I don’t think I’m done yet, either — besides having a fair amount of bonus materials left to unlock in CitC’s bonus in-game museum, I simply feel like I can’t walk away from the game yet: I’m still having plenty of fun repeating each stage over and over again, trying to increase my score or earn some additional Blue Ribbons.
Clash in the Clouds may be a stopgap measure designed to keep fans busy until the real DLC expansions hit, but stopgap or not, its an entertaining experience that adds a lot of much needed replay value to BioShock Infinite. Even if you were one of those people who BioShock Infinite solely for its story, you should definitely give Clash in the Clouds a shot: you might be surprised at how much more enjoyable Infinite’s combat mechanics are when they’re allowed to shine on their own, divorced from the story.