Though it may not seem it, superhero adventure inFamous isn’t such a huge leap from its Sly Cooper cutesy platformer predecessors as it first appears. Like fellow Stateside Sony developers Naughty Dog and Insomniac, Sucker Punch have eschewed the cartoony nature of their PS2 work to focus on a more mature premise with a dark comic book inspired superhero tale, replete with betrayals, vengeance and redemption.
The crux of inFamous is protagonist Cole, an everyday courier who is caught at the epicentre of a catastrophic explosion which destroys part of Empire City and kills thousands, but gives him superhuman powers as a result. He attains the ability to control and command electricity, making him a walking conduit with the power to become the city’s protector or its destroyer. In the days and weeks after the explosion, a plague breaks out in the city prompting the government to quarantine it, and as the limited authorities within its boundaries fall apart vicious and well-equipped gangs take control and plunge the city ever further into chaos.
“He attains the ability to control and command electricity, making him a walking conduit with the power to become the city’s protector or its destroyer”Getting around this deadly open world environment won’t be easy. Luckily, Cole is a gifted urban explorer, meaning he’s a bit dishy at jumping and climbing, in much the same way as Assassin’s Creed’s Altair or Faith from Mirror’s Edge. Almost any edge or outcrop can be grabbed or jumped on to, meaning that scaling pretty much any surface is simply a case of getting Cole’s hands dirty. Further, he can run along thin ledges and cables like they were terra firma and survive long drops unhindered, so getting around the city is a joy; if anything Cole is more at home leaping around on top of skyscrapers than on the streets. The ease and enjoyment of traversing the city is accentuated when he gains more abilities, such as gliding through the air or grinding along electric rails. Getting across Empire City is consistently engrossing and is arguably the game’s strongest aspect.
Of course, you won’t defeat the gangs and restore order to Empire with merely some marvelous climbing abilities, so Cole is going to need his new powers to take down his enemies. His standard ‘weapon’ is a simple, relatively underpowered electric blast which never runs out. It’s good for headshots and will eventually take down pretty much any foe, but is best used in conjunction with his other attacks. Elsewhere there are essentially the standard shooter requirements, albeit in electric form – grenades, a rocket launcher, a sniper rifle and so on. The best aspect of the combat is its accessibility – Cole can shoot from pretty much any surface (hanging from cables, climbing up a building, even when falling) and can flit between movement and fighting instantly, which gives the game an extremely fast-paced and playable feel. inFamous doesn’t do anything partcularly outstanding with its combat but it’s never less than solid, and some of the later moves really evoke a sense of power and awe.
In the wake of the catastrophe, much of Empire City is without power, and for Cole – being dependent on electricity – this is a big problem. Most of his combat moves use power, which leaves him needing to recharge at anything from a telegraph pole to an abandoned car for a pick-me-up. Similarly, if Cole is injured then hiding for a short while will recharge his energy, but finding a source of power and draining it for a health boost is always the preferable option. In areas of the city where there is no power combat becomes a punishing game of cat and mouse, where you must constantly run to cover or find abandoned cars or generators to recharge from.
Empire City itself is a mixed environment. It’s perfectly sized for traversing on foot, and comes with a mixture of huge skyscapers, two storey buildings and park lands. Rooftops are littered with cables Cole can grind across, meaning that although he can’t use vehicles (Cole’s electric powers render cars and weapons useless), getting around the city can be speedy and enjoyable. Hell, if nothing else, he can always hitch a ride on the train. However, the city’s three districts really feel like they need some visual landmarks to distinguish each from the other – the second island, the Warren, has a lot of rubble buildings, shipping cranes and crates, and the third has the blast area where it all began, but aside from that there’s nothing here to distinguish each area from the other, which is a bit of a shame. Empire City is always fun to travel around, but since it looks so repetitive it’s hard to become accustomed to it in the way you would with, say, Liberty City or even Stillwater.
Central to the game is the Karma system, whereby Cole becomes a hero or villain depending on his actions and choices. It’s an interesting idea and encourages multiple playthroughs – the alternate powers and handful of differing side missions make it worthwhile to at least try the other side of the coin. Driving this is a collection of linear sections where Cole outlines the situation and discusses whether to take the righteous or selfish path, before handing control back to the player to make the relevant decision. These points are handled a little hamfistedly; Sucker Punch could have disguised them a bit, or simply engineered it so each course is not so clearly signposted. Nevertheless, Cole’s actions around Empire will decide his affinity, and since different powers open up at different levels, it’s wise to pick a path and stick to it to get the best rewards possible.
At some point, criticisms of repetition can be leveled at most open world games, and inFamous is no different. However, this is mainly in the optional side missions, where Cole must help freeing prisoners, attacking strongholds, racing through checkpoints, and the like. Sucker Punch have delivered just enough variety to to ensure playing through everything isn’t a chore, and while the game starts well, it has a bit of a lull in its middle third before going on to a strong finish with some excellent missions and a lot of plot exposition in the final stages. As expected, there are a slew of collectibles, including hundreds of Blast Shards (which extend Cole’s power bar), various stunts to perform and audio drops which are possibly narrative’s most interesting point, and give back-story to the main villain and an undercover agent tracking him.
Surprisingly for a major first-party production, the visuals are a bit rough, and they definitely could have used a bit more finesse and polish. Cole has high levels of detail and smooth, authentic animations, and likewise the city is as intricate and detailed as one would expect, but it’s really the NPCs who let the side down, with very sub-par lip syncing and unnatural animations. Obviously we can’t expect Sucker Punch to put the same level of care into every incidental character in the game, but since Cole spends a lot of time talking to and getting missions from others, it would be nice if they didn’t look so puppet-like. Similarly, the frame rate can sometimes slow up a little (in its defence, usually only during hefty explosions), and there are quite a few technical issues, such as random invisible barriers and pop-in. None of it significantly mars the experience, but from the team who created the beautiful Sly Cooper series it’s fair to have expected a little more.
“it’s a solid entry into the open world genre and a worthwhile purchase for fans of Sucker Punch’s previous output”The music is understated but very strong, and with a tendency to kick in when a particularly intense action sequence is imminent. The character voices and ambient sounds are not quite as successful, with the city never really sounding particularly alive or endangered. The script is fairly weak, and despite the fact Cole is more of a superhero akin to the likes of Daredevil or Spider-Man, he still looks and sounds like a gruff, generic marine, which is a real shame. Support characters range from annoying (Zeke) to fascinating and underexposed (John), and given that the premise is pretty interesting, it’s disappointing that the characters and scripting lets the side down.
inFamous isn’t quite the triple-A system-seller it could have been, but nonetheless it’s a solid entry into the open world genre and a worthwhile purchase for fans of Sucker Punch’s previous output. Surprisingly for a game with such a strong comic book feel, it sometimes seems like the world and characters lack personality, but if in future instalments the developers can address these few flaws and perhaps develop the narrative in a more evocative environment, they could easily have one of the best games in the genre on their hands. As it stands, inFamous is a lot of fun but slightly lacking in just a couple of key areas.