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The superhero video game genre has seen better days. Thankfully, Sucker Punch Productions, best known for the Sly Cooper series, saw how low the bar had fallen and decided to do something about it. Looking like a combination of the of Assassin’s Creed, Spider-Man 2, Prince of Persia, and Grand Theft Auto IV, inFamous seemed like it could restore the sandbox superhero game to its rightful place near the top of the gaming pyramid. After twenty some hours, I can tell you that inFamous comes close, but just misses being the savior I’d hoped it was.
inFamous puts you in the shoes of Cole, a courier whose final delivery, a mysterious orb, ends up not only bestowing him with incredible electric powers, but also ravages his hometown of Empire City. The game picks up two weeks later, with Cole awakening in a hospital with his newfound powers. In the meantime, Empire City has fallen into disarray. The government places the metropolis under quarantine, and gangs have staked claim to every street corner. From that point on, whether Cole saves the city or thrusts it farther into darkness is all up to you. The game’s story, which unravels over the course of about 15 hours, evolves based on the choices you make about how to complete the missions at hand. During the time you spend with the game, relationships with both your girlfriend Trish and best friend Zeke, along with the denizens of Empire City, will face their fair share of ups and downs as they react to just what you do with your new found powers.
The morality meter, which has six degrees of influence running from Heroic (ultimate good guy) to Infamous (most vile villain), not only determines how the world reacts to you, it also determines which type of powers you’ll be able to develop. Each of the minor powers you’re able to earn has three tiers, which are unlocked with experience points you gain from completing either story or side missions. Certain powers can only be acquired by sticking to one particular moral path. For example, you’ll always be able to unlock electric grenades, but whether they explode or turn into restraints on impact is determined by which karmic choices you make. Sadly, that’s about as deep as the karma system gets. Since the good or evil path you choose will have a limited effect on the game world, the path system seems more like a reason to make gamers play through inFamous a second time. The weight of your actions is never really felt, particularly when playing the evil path.
Throughout the entire game, many of the story missions give you two possible ways to complete your task (one good, one evil). The overall arching story of the game is for Cole to save Empire City by any means necessary. Even though you may opt to accomplish your goals in an evil way, you’re still saving the city, which is ultimately a good act. Despite some decent writing, the events in the game lead to the same conclusions, and relationships with the people in the game change for the sake of mission accessibility, regardless of whether you’re a sinner or a saint. A few dialogue changes here and there reflect your morality, but no matter how much of a hero or villain you are, the end result is exactly the same. Despite their labeling as good, bad, or neutral, even side missions don’t offer much in the way of moral depth. It is possible to play the game as a neutral vigilante, but you won’t be able to unlock any upgraded powers, thus making it nearly impossible to complete the game. The whole mechanic feels very unnecessary, and honestly, the game would have been more enjoyable without it.
Once you look past some of the shortcomings of the game’s narrative devices, inFamous is actually fun, and the gameplay is surprisingly intuitive. Taking a page out of the Assassin’s Creed playbook, just about every structure in Empire City is scalable. Cole will be able to climb buildings, run along power lines, and leap down from incredible heights without taking damage. Except for the occasional glitching ledge, the parkour aspects of the game work very well. Disappointingly, there’s only one incredibly tall structure to scale, but there’s enough architecture in the rest of the city that you’ll never be without some place to climb. Eventually, you’ll earn transportation powers like the ability to grind power lines or train tracks simply by stepping on them, and you’ll also be able to glide on electric currents for brief moments of time. Even though Empire City is not nearly as large as Liberty City, you’ll still be getting plenty of use out of these skills as you try and restore order to the burg.
As you progress, Cole will be tasked with restoring electricity to the blacked out areas of Empire City, thus unlocking them for further exploration. Aside from being some of the worst designed levels I’ve seen in recent history, these underground sections of the game open up new power tiers for you to upgrade. Once you act as a conduit to juice a certain part of the city back up (think restoring the fertile grounds in Prince of Persia), a new upgradeable power unlocks. All the powers you earn in this method start out completely neutral, but you’ll gain experience during the game you can use to boost the powers according to your moral alignment. By completing story or side missions, defeating enemies, or pulling off any of the 23 stunts, which are complicated ways of taking out enemies (like killing an enemy while Cole’s in the air or defeating an enemy by hitting him with a car), you’ll earn experience. You’ll even gain experience by completing the optional tasks of collecting any of the 350 blast shards and 32 dead drops, which lengthen your electric power meter, and reveals more about the origins of the mysterious orb, respectively. Experience gets broken down into neutral, good, and evil, but no matter how you earn it, all of the experience goes into one giant pool for you to use when boosting your powers.
Cole has several different types of powers he can earn. Early on, your abilities are limited to lightning blasts and shockwaves, but as you progress, you’ll earn lightning grenades, missiles, the power to drain or restore life from NPCs, and the ability to call down an actual lightning storm at will. Throwing projectiles is as simple as hitting L1 to bring up your targeting reticule, and then firing the different variations with one of the face buttons. Depending on whether or not you’re good or bad, the powers will take on different secondary traits. As a villain, the explosive projectiles will splinter off upon impact, acting as a cluster grenade. The heroic ones will instantly restrain any enemy they come in contact with, tying them to the ground with electricity. Even though the game varies the types of powers you’ll earn, I found myself relying on the lightning missile the most. The handful of defensive powers, like gaining electric power back by grinding on train tracks, are incredibly helpful during the later parts of the game, as you’ll find yourself constantly draining your power reserves. That’s not to say that the only way to juice Cole back up is by riding the rails. Since your powers are electricity based, anything with a current can be used to recharge. Cole can tap into streetlights, parked cars, junction boxes, air conditioning units, TVs, and anything else that lights up to gain not just electric power, but health back as well.
The actual combat in the game is fast and furious, and is responsible for a great deal of the fun you’ll have playing inFamous. There are three gangs you’ll encounter, the Reapers, the Dustmen, and the First Sons, each relegated to a specific island of Empire City. None of the standard bad guys are particularly difficult to take down, but when they work in large numbers, you’ll be in for a pretty decent fight. A character endowed with his own powers also leads each of the gangs you encounter. The first boss, Sasha, provides most interesting fight of the three. Sucker Punch adds a new twist to the button-mashing mini-game by asking you to also use the analog stick to direct Cole’s hand in an effort to remove pieces of Sasha’s armor. Sadly, the other two boss fights end up being nothing more than “dodge and shoot” battles that don’t quite live up to the rest of the game. I thought after the first boss fight that I was going to be in for something different and new, instead I got “been there and done that.” Perhaps if they had taken more chances with variation rather than playing it safe, the bosses of inFamous would have been a bit more memorable. The only other major downside to the combat is the AI’s ability to spot and shoot you from fairly long distances. I can’t tell you how many times I’d be running through the city taking damage from seemingly out of nowhere, only to look behind me and see enemies nearly four blocks away firing at me. It wouldn’t be a big deal if I could attack the enemies from the same distance, but the range on Cole’s powers is much more limited.
inFamous’ major fault comes in the presentation. While the game doesn’t look terrible by any means, the longer you spend with the game, the more you realize that it doesn’t look all that great either. Much of Empire City looks the same, no matter which island you’re on. While the skyline is packed with buildings for Cole to climb, none of them truly stand out, and the drab tones that make up the color palette certainly don’t help matters much. The underground power station parts of the game are tiresome, terrible looking, and showcase even less varied inspiration than the actual city. My distaste with these levels might have to do with the fact that the only light source underground is the lightning crackling off of Cole, thus making for an overly dark map that is tough to navigate. Character models in the game don’t do much in the way of standing out either. Cole, Zeke, and the bosses all look rather interesting, but the standard goons and everyday citizens look very bland. It doesn’t help that there’s next to no variation between the individual gang members, and the populous of Empire City consists of about ten character models. That said, the streets are damn near jam-packed with people all the time. Perhaps the price of the large population is a lack of polish, but I’m not so sure the trade-off is worth it. The one stand out of the game’s presentation is the way Sucker Punch presents the story. While there are dozens of cutscenes, the bulk of the major plot points are conveyed via illustrated stills, invoking the comic book inspiration the developers had for the game. The combination of clean lines and gritty coloring provides the game with a sense of style that I wish would have crept into the main game.
inFamous is a solid first effort for a new franchise. The game’s overall package is a bit uneven, but it’s easy to strike that up to growing pains, particularly since this is Sucker Punch’s first next-generation effort. There’s a lot of promise in this new series, and I hope that the inevitable sequel picks up on some of the high points of the experience and develops them further. inFamous was fun to play, and while it falls short of being great, the time I had playing the game was well worth every minute. I look forward to what Cole and Sucker Punch have in store for gamers in the future.