inFamous Review

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inFamous Publisher: Sony
Developer: Sucker Punch

Platform: PlayStation 3
Reviewed on PlayStation 3

Cole was a bike messenger, surviving from day to day in the urban canyons of Empire City. Then he was specifically requested to deliver a unique package downtown – a package so unique that it detonated, destroyed six square blocks and killed thousands of people. Now, Cole is widely seen as a terrorist, has alienated his girlfriend, and finds himself developing electricity-based superpowers. As he masters his ability to hurl lightning bolts and fly, Cole has to decide if he will vent his rage on the ravaged city, or save the populace from an emerging supernatural threat.

Kyle Ackerman

inFamous is cathartic. More so than most video games. Whether you choose to play Cole as a complete bad-ass (stealing from disaster victims and bombing hostages to take out the hostage-takers) or as a champion of the meek, you get to leap up buildings, glide around skyscrapers and fire devastating lightning bolts from your hands. That's fun. And although the excessive use of collectibles and side-missions in inFamous dramatically lengthened the game well beyond what worked for the fairly short story, It took me finding nearly every collectible, completing every side mission and running through the main story before I got tired of flying between skyscrapers and leaping off tall buildings to rain lightning down on evildoers.

Save the brief introductory sequences that take place immediately after a bomb goes off in Empire City, the majority of inFamous takes place over the course of a week, spanning 14 to 21 days after the disaster. During that time, I took control of every block on three islands, restored power to the entire city and gained so many super-powers that I was virtually unstoppable. I arrested thousands of supernatural freaks, and put an end to a globe- (and time-) spanning conspiracy. As I wrote, inFamous is cathartic.

Everything You Needed to Know to Play inFamous,
You Learned in Kindergarten

In any game, there are plenty of small things to kvetch about, but if I have one beef with inFamous, it's with its system of moral choice. I got past the fact that its rich karmic systems are really a series of oversimplified moral dilemmas that would be transparent to your average kindergartener. What bothered me is that it's harder to be good in inFamous than evil. I suppose that made playing as a noble hero rather than a right bastard more satisfying, but playing as an evil character was easier (I could ignore collateral damage) and got me cooler powers.

Whether you play as good or evil, you get access to different powers, and I virtually never used the power that was unlocked by completed good side missions. Access to deep reserves of power just wasn't important enough. Seriously, if you want to pretend you provide real moral quandaries, make both choices interesting in their own ways. And don't pick a name that suggests from the get-go that you want me to be a nasty and exploitative anti-hero. No – the internal capitalization in inFamous isn't enough to sell me on being a good guy. I chose to play that way because I'm contrary, and Sucker Punch made it a little harder to be good than evil.

On Sandboxes and Stories

In a way, there wasn't that much story – just a string of events and missions around which I could weave my own narrative trail. But the few times inFamous forced me through its story, it was more of an intrusion into my own narrative rather than giving me more source material. The game's dynamics supported my tale better than its storytelling. For example, it's hard to be the good guy. The game gave me lots of noble choices to make, but penalized me for collateral damage. When attacked by a dozen goons with rocket launchers, it's not hard to survive by hurling energy grenades into their midst or leaping from a great height and demolishing everything with the shock waves of my accelerated impact.

Incapacitating and imprisoning every enemy without hurting the crowds of pedestrians running in terror? That's hard. In my own mind, I was lamenting the grievous loss of a single mom and homeless vet in a scuffle that imprisoned a dozen Dust Men, while the game wanted me (as Cole) to dwell on his troubled relationship with the poorly-developed character of his girlfriend and the betrayal by the petty criminal instincts of Cole's selfish friend.

inFamous offers the framework of a story, told through phone calls and occasional cut scenes that are meant to appear ripped from the pages of a graphic novel, but seem more like unfinished storyboards. In a sandbox game, I want to be able create my own persona, to relate in some way to the character I control. I tried starting off as an evil bastard, withholding food from starving refugees, but quickly restarted the game and played through as a paragon of virtue, freeing every city district from the tyranny of the paranormal and making it safe for normal citizens to walk the streets. The game's missions clearly support that as a strategy, but inFamous' story does not. I created for myself a guilt-prone defender of the people, keenly feeling the loss of each bystander and victim, when the game's limited fiction seemed to want me to be a brooding anti-hero. The game's missions and powers support that choice as well – I simply wish the story could have been minimalist or better supported the freedom of player choice.

Leap Tall Buildings in 20 or So Bounds

What inFamous does well is provide a rich sandbox world. I certainly wish it had been even richer, but I don't mean that I want to purchase hot dogs at carts and take my buddies out drinking (when you have superpowers to leap buildings, who wants to cope with keeping nourished?). I simply found that by the time I'd reached the game's third island (the Historic District), buildings and big sections of geography were nearly repeated, making me feel like I was back in familiar places. A game is stronger and more immersive when I can recognize where I am without having to resort to a map or game menu.

In inFamous, you can ride trains, fly around, leap between skyscrapers, blast miscreants with electricity or viciously drain the populace of energy for your own nefarious purposes. That's simply fun. I even loved that this was the first game where I felt there was a really good reason for the water that surrounded the cities islands to be fatal. In case it's not obvious, Cole's powers and life-force are now electrical, so water drains that away, making water bad.

The game's developers have also done a marvelous job of making it easy to look and feel cool while leaping from building ledge to skyscraper peaks. The game automatically guides Cole to convenient handholds or power lines on which to slide, making superhero-style rapid travel seamless and fun. That automatic help was brilliant 95% of the time, and really irritating on rare occasions. Sometimes, when I wanted to snag a hidden collectible – or just drop off the edge of something to punch a bad guy – I was repeatedly guided back to the nearest convenient ledge. Around 5% of the time, I really wished I could turn the help off so I could do something important.

While the myriad side missions and ungodly supply of collectibles were technically optional, they were still important to do and provided inFamous with much of its play value. Side missions stopped random enemies from respawning, and collecting blast shards (350 of them are hidden around the city) gives Cole bigger reserves with which to use his powers. That makes it necessary to clear some areas (if only to unlock the medical clinics from which you restart when you are hurt) and grab some shards to ensure enough power to win boss battles. So even if you are hell-bent on rushing through the game, it helps to explore more than just inFamous' basic story missions.

Side missions in inFamous really are one of the game's strengths. There is a surprising variety of missions, and most are well implemented. There are the usual slaughter missions and races, but tons of variety including guarding parades and recovering stolen drugs. In many ways, I found that the optional side missions did a better job of building the story of Cole's time in Empire City, thanks to the fact that they were either neutral, or truly good or evil (rather than ambiguously supporting Cole's role as a generic anti-hero).

Story problems aside, inFamous is a lot of fun, and worth picking up and messing around with, if only to feel the wind rushing over your shaved head as you plummet 30 stories down to demolish the thugs mugging some old lady in an alley. If only conventional superhero games could pull off being a superhero (or villain) as well as inFamous does.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on July 8, 2009 8:59 PM.

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