inFamous Review

By Matt Keil - Posted May 26, 2009

Outside of the occasional licensed game, few sandboxers dare to tackle the idea of superpowers, and those that have tend to be disappointments, with the notable exception of Crackdown. It's time to expand that exceptions list by one, thanks to Sucker Punch's exceptional inFamous.

The Pros
  • Well-crafted world with character and personality
  • Exceptionally satisfying power progression
  • Challenging without being frustrating, good mission variety
The Cons
  • Mediocre story
  • Occasional pop-in at high speeds

inFamous Review--

Open-world sandbox games have a depressing tendency to stick to the mundane. For all the over-the-top violence and mayhem of games like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, you’re still just a guy or girl with a gun. Outside of the occasional licensed game, few sandboxers dare to tackle the idea of superpowers, and those that have tend to be disappointments, with the notable exception of Crackdown. It’s time to expand that exceptions list by one, thanks to Sucker Punch’s exceptional inFamous.

InfamousAfter a package he has been tasked to deliver explodes and takes thousands of lives and a large chunk of Empire City with it, Cole MacGrath finds himself in possession of electrical superpowers. In addition, a plague has swept the city and the entire area has been sealed off by the government in an effort to contain the chaos. Trapped in a semi-apocalyptic no-man’s-land, Cole ends up as part of numerous parties’ efforts to control Empire City and track down the Ray Sphere that gave him his powers.

As with most sandbox games, the story is incidental. Cole is a perfectly adequate hero, and his allies and enemies fit the comic book archetype roles they fill so well that you can predict their fates from the first scenes in which they appear. It’s all just an excuse to get you out there and zapping nasties, so the bland tale is inoffensive at worst, and at least the cutscenes have an appealing visual style.

Thunder Road

InfamousCole’s powers all stem from electricity, and it’s clear that Sucker Punch spent a long time considering the implications of an electric man. He begins with simple lightning bolts and electromagnetic force blasts, but as the game progresses he develops more and more abilities. He learns how to fire long-range sniper bolts, toss explosive grenades of electrical energy, ride electrical currents along power lines, and can eventually call down lightning from the sky to do his bidding.

The powers can be upgraded using experience points gained from doing missions and defeating enemies, and how they upgrade depends on choices made by the player regarding Cole’s moral compass. As with so many such features in videogames, the moral decisions generally come down to being a selfless martyr versus stomping on kittens stolen from orphans, but inFamous isn’t trying to be a BioWare game. Choosing good or evil is essentially choosing a character class. A good Cole’s powers will evolve to be precise and focused, directing huge amounts of power into a single place in an effort to take out enemies without damaging the surroundings too much. An evil Cole’s powers are explosive and half-random, taking out enemies by blanketing the immediate vicinity with electrical death. The differences are not subtle, and lead to very different styles of play. inFamous definitely warrants both a good and an evil playthrough.

Cole can’t fully turn his powers off (one imagines shaking hands with him would be somewhat like warmly greeting a Tesla coil), so using guns or even sitting in cars are out of the question, as he causes them to explode. Thus, you’re limited to your own abilities for combat and own feet for transportation. Luckily, Cole’s an agile guy, able to scale almost any building with ease. He also can fall from any height without injury, which doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense but adds a lot of freedom to the gameplay.

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I Love This Town

InfamousThe climbing is reminiscent of Crackdown, as it’s mostly just a matter of tapping jump until you find the right handhold. It’s simplistic much of the time, but it’s meant to be, as it’s basic transportation. A surprisingly intelligent autopilot system attempts to “read” your intentions while leaping and climbing, and is mostly successful. In the game’s numerous platforming sections, this makes death-defying jumps to tiny outcroppings and narrow pipes easy and intuitive. It can be a bit tough to fine-tune Cole’s maneuvers at times, as he tends to be a bit “sticky,” constantly grabbing for handholds. A tap of the circle button makes him drop down to the next lowest grip point, but it would have been nice if holding circle made him completely ignore grabs and just drop to the ground.

Climbing around Empire City is extremely enjoyable, and each of the three islands has a distinctly different feel to its urban geography. The city feels handcrafted down to the alleyways, and nothing feels put anywhere by accident. Sucker Punch has managed to make Empire City feel like a real place and yet serve the needs of gameplay without sacrificing one to the other. Some of the story missions play out in areas that feel as expertly designed as any self-contained non-sandbox game level.

Should You Choose To Accept It

InfamousTake the numerous missions in which you must chase a fleeing enemy or race the clock to re-activate satellite uplinks. Moving as fast as these missions require seems impossible at first glance, but it’s a matter of recognizing how the area is built and finding the shortcuts and power lines that will allow Cole to keep pace. Just wandering into the area while exploring, you’d never notice the level of design there, but as soon as you’re put to the task, it’s clear that everything is where it is for a reason. inFamous is full of places that feel like an organic part of the environment and yet serve very specific functions during missions. The only real flaw in the world around you is occasional geometry and detail pop-in at high speeds, usually while riding the train rails around town. It’s very minor, but still noticeable.

The missions are, surprisingly, another high point of the game. Far from the typical routine that many sandboxers settle into, inFamous makes a point of changing things up and forcing you to use Cole’s powers to their full extent. This is not an easy game, and the enemies are relentless about plinking you with gunfire from distant rooftops or unleashing shoulder-mounted rocket fire from nearby alleys. Thanks to very generous checkpoints and autosaves, death isn’t a disaster, so the game remains challenging without becoming frustrating. Over the course of the game you’ll perform search and destroy tasks, escort prisoners and vehicles to safety, break up supergang street fights, disable insidious surveillance devices on building walls, use subterfuge to follow enemy couriers, and battle large enemy forces in huge setpiece sequences.

Batteries Not Included

infamousIn fact, huge battles can break out just about anywhere. As you complete side missions, Cole liberates chunks of the city from the crime and superpowered gangs that are oppressing the citizenry, but until you’ve liberated an area, it’s infested with enemies. It’s not rare to get caught up in an exhilarating fight against over a dozen enemies simply in an attempt to survive stumbling into an unliberated or, even worse, unpowered area. Cole’s powers are finite, meaning he must draw electricity from various sources in the environment to recharge. This is also the best way to restore his life, as his altered physiology allows electricity to heal him. Some of the toughest parts of inFamous involve sending Cole into unpowered areas of the city (generally to turn the power back on), where he has no easy way to recharge or heal, and smart play and navigation of the terrain become key to success.

Then there are all the little touches that make inFamous a treat on a micro level. You have the choice to heal, ignore, or even drain of life the injured bystanders of your battles. If your fame level is maxed out evil, pedestrians will throw objects at Cole in protest. If you’re a hero to the public, they’ll throw things at your enemies, distracting them long enough for you to get a good shot in. Government propaganda and pirate television broadcasts duel for ownership of the public trust on TVs throughout the city. Cole’s “always on” powers will electrocute someone should you step in the same puddle of water they’re standing in. Where most sandbox settings feel sterile, Empire City feels lived in and believable, at least to the degree you’re allowed to interact with it.

inFamous will draw a lot of comparisons to other games of the sandbox type, and Crackdown in particular. Thanks to a more structured presentation and vastly more variety in gameplay, Crackdown may have to hand over the superbeing sandbox crown to Sucker Punch. Combining the freedom of Crackdown with the tight design and platforming of Sly Cooper, inFamous isn’t just a great game, it’s the best reason yet to own a PlayStation 3.

Article Written By: Matt Keil