May 12, 2009 - Spider-Man 2 the videogame will always hold a special place in my heart. After decades of games taking superheroes, assigning their abilities halfhearted meters, and sticking them in beat'em ups, Spider-Man 2 put you behind the web-head's mask and let you loose on an open-world. The game had citizens packing side missions, enemies roaming the city, and more.
Of course, it also had a bunch of problems, but it at least gave the world a glimpse of what a superhero game could be. Surely, someone would pick up the idea, polish it, and run with it… right?
Five years later, Sucker Punch has dusted of that blueprint and improved the hell out of it. Infamous is one of the best offerings on the PlayStation 3 to date.
When you pick up the controller, you'll be dropped into the shoes of Cole. He used to be your everyday bike messenger, but that all ended when he was delivering a package and the thing went off in his hands. The ensuing blast leveled a gigantic portion of the city and left Cole in a coma. When he wakes up, everything is screwed -- there's a plague that's making people sick, the government's quarantined Empire City, gangs have seized control of the three islands that make up the metropolis, and -- most importantly to our tale -- Cole finds that he's been blessed/cursed with electricity-based superpowers. Now that you're in control of a guy who can shoot lightning bolts from his hands, fall from the highest buildings without taking any damage, and throw cars into the air with his trusty shockwave, what are you going to do?
See, Infamous is an open-world game. Once you've gone through the basic tutorial -- typical third-person controls with L1 bringing up your reticule for aiming your R1 lightning bolt and face button specials -- Empire City is yours to do what you want with. You can go out on story missions, take on the random bad guys camped out on rooftops, tackle some side missions, or just run and jump from rooftop to rooftop. Now, as you get going, you'll need to get Empire City up and running again. At the most basic level, this means Cole needs to head into the city's sewers and manually reestablish the connections between transformers (see: he grabs the working electrical box, grabs the one that isn't working, and lets the juice flow through him to get the city back online). When you do this, you'll gain a new superpower so that by the end of the game you'll have access to 16 abilities such as calling down a massive lightning storm that obliterates enemies as well as an electrical shield you can use to block incoming attacks.
Now, the powers are going to get a lot of press leading up to the launch of Infamous, but one of the most endearing things about this game is Empire City itself. You'll only get to see the pre-blast skyline for a second when you start the title, but the post-blast world is one of wonder and heartache. Now, before things went to hell, Cole was a bit of an urban explorer. This means he's got mad skills in terms of his climbing ability. Everything in this city is designed to be scalable. You'll run at a wall, jump and cling to a windowsill, pull yourself up and leap to a pipe, climb to the roof, and run across a power line connecting the rooftop to another structure. Now, this could've easily turned into a frustration-fest if Sucker Punch demanded precision jumps the likes of Lara Croft, but instead it gave Cole the gift of agility and made it so the man knows to grab on to whatever he can. Within seconds of playing, I was pulling off impressive leaps and truly enjoying myself.
Explosions look good but often hurt innocents.
As you turn on the power to various sections of the city, the power lines go live and allow you to skate on them while kicking up a wave of juice. Combine that with Cole's later-level ability to glide via Static Chargers, and you've got the ingredients for one of the most original city-traversal mechanics I've ever seen. Seriously, in the beginning of the game I was a bit worried about how long it would take to navigate the islands without the ability to fly or run at super-speed, but once Cole got to the point of sliding around on the train tracks and chaining together power line moves, I was in love.
Beyond the way you actually play in Empire City, the burg blew me away because of how alive it is. Sure, there are bystanders waving their arms to signify side missions, but how many times was I searching for a blast shard only to have someone run up to me and beg me to come heal a friend? Perhaps I'm just a softy, but the man crying in the street lamenting the loss of his wife and the girl repeating over and over again that she was only supposed to be here one day got to me. If you get caught up in how fun it is to zap bad guys and glide around town, it's these moments coupled with the out of control fires and destroyed vehicles that remind you that you're living in a city that has just gone through its darkest hour and doesn't know how to get back on its feet.
With that backdrop, you'll come to understand that Cole is the most important thing in this time of "What the hell do we do now?" See, all these people are on their own. The government isn't going to help them, the gangs will kill them as soon as look at them, and the police are all but gone. When you press Start, you have to decide if you're going to save these people or destroy them. As you play, your actions are tracked on a six-part morality gauge. You can go as high as the saint-like rank of Hero or as low as the scum of the earth rank of Infamous. Now, this choice has an affect on your looks -- good Cole has blue lightning and a clean look to him whereas bad Cole packs red lightning, a filthy coat, and ghostly white face -- but it has a bigger effect on Empire City. If you're good, people post posters of you, cheer you in the streets, and clean up the dump the best that they can. If you're evil, people deface posters of you, hurl rocks at you when they see you, and let the city fall deeper and deeper into filth and anarchy. Will you inspire or dominate the masses?
For me, this is one of the keys to Infamous' greatness. When I played as a hero, I went out of my way to help everyone. I healed the sick, saved guys from being lynched, and was thrilled to see people run over and cheer me. When I played the bad guy route, even I was disturbed by the things Cole did. If you didn't know, there's a set of spark-looking things on your HUD. These are power kegs and represent how much juice you have to do special moves. Your regular lightning bolt doesn't deplete this reservoir, but just about everything else does and you'll need to drain juice from light poles and cars to refill the meter (this will also heal you if you don't want to wait for the regeneration to kick in). Thing is, you can also drain humans of their bio-electrical energy. The boost completely refills your meter, but it kills the person you just drained. When you choose to do this on a downed person -- innocent or foe -- you have to tap Square because the victim is fighting to keep your hand off of his or her face. The camera even changes so that you can watch this battle unfold.
Have you ever seen a woman's face as she grimaces and desperately tries to save her own life? It's screwed up, man.
When the game gets going, you'll have a trio of "bosses" that are standing in Cole's way and threatening the city, but for the most part, you'll be battling the gangs that have each taken over one of the town's islands. The Reapers are a set of former druggies who now rock hoodies and pack machine guns; the Dustmen used to be homeless but now have armored suits made of junk and a knack for creating robotic drones; and the First Sons are the hardest to take out and obsessed with the Ray Sphere, the device that went boom and created the madness in Empire City. While most of these guys will be chumps with weapons, there will be a handful of dudes in each group that are Conduits -- dudes who have gained powers from the blast. The Reaper Conduit can tear apart the ground and send a blast Cole's way, the Dustman Conduit climbs into a mech made of trash that can basically kill you in a couple of hits, and the First Sons Conduit can morph into an energy being and bring the fight to you. There are also a bunch of rocket launcher-packing dudes, invisible foes, and more. This mix keeps it interesting -- especially when the gangs come and battle each other head-to-head -- but I could've gone for a bit more diversity seeing as how you'll only see one squad on any given island.
Choosing your path is linked to both big decisions, called Karma Moments, and small choices you make during missions. In a Karma Moment, a situation is presented, the game pauses, and Cole audibly weighs the pros and cons of each pick -- when aerby asks for help and offers a reward, Cole can do the right thing and lend a hand or just fry the guy and take the reward without doing the work; when a bunch of food gets dropped in Archer Square, Cole can let the masses get their fair share or zap the people so he and his friends are taken care of; etc. What I dig about the Karma Moments is that most of the time Cole justifies why he'd pick the bad option, which makes it not seem that bad; I mean, why wouldn't you want to zap the police from a crowd of protesters so that you have more people fighting alongside you rather than having it be one-on-12? Sure, that's the cowardly choice, but at least it makes sense in the story.
Outside of these events, which are littered throughout the story and side missions, your actual actions feed into the morality meter as well. When you see a person writhing around on the sidewalk, you can be good and heal the person with a quick defibrillator burst or you can suck the bio-electricity from the person's body and kill them. That's an extreme example, but the smaller stuff matters, too. When you're out on a mission, the game keeps track of everything you do. When you complete a task, the game freezes and some stats pop up letting you know the task is done, how many experience points you've earned, as well as how your actions have influenced your Karma. See, if you're trying to be a good guy, you can't run and gun it through the game. You need to make sure you're only taking out the bad guys and not beating the hell out of the citizens of Empire City -- the citizens who love to get in your way.
That might sound like an easy enough task, but you have to understand how powerful Cole's powers can get. As you're completing missions and taking out bad guys on the streets, you're earning XP. This can then be exchanged for upgrades to most of your superpowers, some of which have three upgrades of awesomeness. When I maxed out my Shock Grenades as a good guy, the little balls of explosive energy automatically began restraining enemies after hurting them. This was great at banking me XP for the non-lethal takedowns, but when I faced off against a bunch of foes, I peppered the area with Shock Grenades, the first wave tied guys down, and then the second wave killed the bound baddies. This counted as an Execution; it banked me XP, but it also registered as an evil act. Even though I was fighting the good fight and protecting some medical supplies, I ended that mission with negative Karma.
Missions net lots of XP, but just about everything gives you a few points.
These Karma Moments are for more than just show. There will be 15 side missions that are only open to good guys and 15 that are only open to bad guys in addition to the game's 70 neutral tasks, there will be moves you can only unlock if you've achieved a certain Karma rank, and these choices are leading you towards one of the game's two endings and giving you a different experience on each playthough. See, Cole has two main people in his life; there's his best friend Zeke and his girlfriend Trish. When the blast happens, everything changes. Trish's sister is killed in the explosion and then she suddenly has to deal with her boyfriend being the cause of it all, and Zeke has to deal with his best friend now having a higher calling. These threads might not standout in most games, but with the way the story and characters are presented in Infamous, you'll find yourself connecting with the themes. Listening to Zeke lament a failed attempt at a relationship and Trish tell Cole that she loves him drives home the bond these people share -- and that only makes the events ahead and Karma choices you have to make that much more meaningful and emotional. Even though I was playing as a good guy my first time through and I knew what choices I had to make, there came a point of no return for one of the characters and even I faltered -- someone who knew he'd be coming back through -- and thought about making the "bad" choice because I couldn't let go.
These characters and events are beautifully driven home via cutscenes that play out as moving graphic novels. The images are still but effects happen in and around them. This artwork looks great (although I wish more visual changes were present when you're evil Cole), but they also set up one of the game's few stumbles -- in-game cutscenes. When the in-game model of Cole or Zeke is used for some dialogue, it pales in comparison to the graphic novel stuff. Seeing Zeke robotically wave his arms or Cole stand at attention with his mouth flapping away kind of hurt the experience. Also, even when you're going the goody two shoes route, Cole's voice is always in the gravely range of Solid Snake. It seems like that should've been a bit lighter for a guy who's willing to pose for the occasionalerby's photo.
In similar (albeit rare) ho-hum spots are some visual issues. The only time the game loads is when you start it, which is awesome, but this does lead to some pop-in here and there. It's never anything major, but don't be shocked to see cars sprout up and building textures drop in as you rocket into areas of the city. Also, be aware that the framerate is going to dip now and again (for me, it was while I was riding the rails) and that you might fall through the world every now and again (in 30 hours, it's happened to me once).
Another one of my few criticisms is that I was aware I was playing a game most of the time. Sounds silly, right? What I mean is that when I played Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid 4, I found myself completely immersed in those worlds. From start to finish, I was that character and I was fighting for my life. For the majority of the time in Infamous, I totally felt like I was Cole; When I made choices, when women cried out that they wanted to have my baby, and so on, I felt like that stuff was happening to me. However, at the end of every mission the game pauses and brings up a stat box to show you the XP you've earned and what moves you pulled off. I like the information, but it kind of slapped me out of the experience. I would've preferred if the "Mission Complete" screen was more integrated like Fallout 3. It was just something that didn't mesh with the rest of the title for me.
Still, those super-small issues shouldn't make you doubt buying this game. Beyond the engaging story chockfull of interesting characters, there are a bunch of side projects for you to tackle. An undercover agent has hidden 32 audio recordings throughout the city, 84 districts need to be liberated from gang rule, and there are 350 Blast Shards scattered around Empire City. What I find nifty about all of these collectables is the fact that none of them are hidden from you -- they all show up in some way on your radar. The audio recordings have been left by a man named John. He's on the inside of the First Sons and has left these story-expanding tidbits on satellite dishes all over the place. When you click L3, a circular sonar-like overlay forms around your radar screen and hones in on the location of one of these Dead Drops if you are near it. As you head in that direction, the sonar-pointer gets more and more specific -- it's sort of like a game of "Warmer… warmer… HOT!" Similarly, when you click in L3, you'll see your radar spring to life with little lightning bolts and blue dots. A blue bolt signifies an object that Cole can use to recharge -- again, this restores life and the energy kegs that are consumed by using his special abilities -- and the dots are Blast Shards. These shards are pieces of metal from the original blast site that are super-charged with Ray Sphere juice. As you collect them, you'll begin earning more power kegs so that you can store more juice.
The final carrot on the end of the Infamous stick? Stunts. When you pause the game, you'll see one of 21 stunts at the bottom of the screen. If you feel like it -- or at least feel like the Trophy -- it'll be your job to pull off each one of these moves that range from crushing an enemy with an object to simultaneously blowing three guys off a roof with the Shockwave to taking out an airborne enemy with a melee attack. Even though the game is telling you how to do the feats, some are pretty challenging; my advice is to try and get them out of the way while you play rather than be foolish and tackle them after you've finished the story.
Yup, like you'd expect, you can keep on playing when Cole's tale is over. You'll keep all the powers and XP you've unlocked and be able to take on the remaining side missions and enemies. If you feel like starting over and playing as the other side of your Karma chameleon, you're welcome to, but you start with a blank slate in terms of unlocked abilities and XP. If you want to have multiple games going, you're welcome to as Infamous supports 10 save slots counting Autosave.
In December, I played Infamous for the first time and told you that it was awesome. Five months later, I'm standing by that statement and backing it up with about 30 hours of playtime. Cole's powers are cool, the graphic novel cutscenes are stunning, the story is intriguing, and the city is alive. I could go on and on about this game -- about my hunt for the final few Blast Shards, about the sick joy in blasting a pedestrian and then sucking his bio-energy, about the subtle Sly Cooper references -- but to truly appreciate what Sucker Punch has created, you'll have to sit down and play this game.
Infamous is amazing.
I completely agree with Greg. Sucker Punch has delivered an outstanding superhero game, one that works really well on pretty much every level. The powers are incredibly fun to use, the upgrade and Karma systems allow you to customize your play experience, the city feels alive and like you're a part of it, and, perhaps most impressively, the story really pays off in the end. The powers that you get access to are obviously the most important part, and Sucker Punch did a fantastic job of making you feel powerful, not only in terms of combat, but with your ability to navigate the city quickly and really feel like you own it. Being able to grind rails to quickly cover ground or hover to cross between skyscrapers reminds me of the good parts of recent Spider-Man games, but it's only one piece in a much bigger puzzle.
While some of the in-engine presentation aspects could be better, the comic book-inspired cutscenes are fantastic and do an amazing job of really bringing you into the story. The characters evolve and make interesting decisions, and they serve not only to give you reasons for taking on the various missions, but they play a key role in the story, what happens to Cole and, most importantly, why Cole goes through what he does. There are no throwaway and unimportant characters here, which is extremely refreshing.
For me, Infamous serves as a stellar reason for owning a PlayStation 3. It also proves that Sucker Punch is capable of creating dark, deep and interesting tales, and I'm really hoping that a sequel isn't too far off.