Progress and Experience
One of my favorite games this year has been the Tomb Raider reboot. Part of the reason that I loved it so much is that it completely nailed experience points. You get experience points by way of actual experience points and salvage points for not only killing enemies but exploring. The game invites you to explore, to find every last crate and GPS tracker, and does so by rewarding you with better weapons and abilities. It is one of the reasons why I couldn’t stop playing it: I had to keep getting more salvage points to upgrade my weapons and more experience to upgrade my skills so that I could see how it played out in actual gameplay. Far Cry 3 does a similar thing where they encourage you to find all the artifacts and letters and free outposts as stealthily as possible in order to get experience points. These can be used to upgrade skills that can significantly affect how you play the game.
Compare this to Bioshock Infinite. Infinite doesn’t have an experience system. Instead, you find vigors and weapons, and upgrade them by finding enough money to buy upgrades, and finding enough lock picks to open up rooms and safes that have money and equipment. Although you are basically swapping silver eagles for experience points, the process is much less satisfying. It’s not as much fun to search every crate to get five more dollars to go towards buying a $1,200 vigor upgrade. Buying a weapon upgrade feels less satisfying than building a better shotgun ala Tomb Raider or building better gear ala Far Cry 3. Instead of feeling like you’ve gained skills or actually earned anything, you feel like you just happened to have enough money. If there were a millionaire character, s/he could totally max out everything all at once without searching a single crate. It also makes killing enemies pointless beyond getting them out of the way.
I love Bioshock Infinite, but I do wish the upgrading system had been done in a different way. As it is, it feels as mercenary and meritless as the false utopia of Columbia.