Review / inFamous (PS3)

Superheroes have become superfluous. Every summer we’re treated to another couple of movie cash-ins on classic comic-book franchises and their appropriate videogame tie-ins. Regardless of the quality of these productions, the current wave of superhero nostalgia has left little room for any new and seriously intentioned IP among all the tried and tested classics. It is this condition, where we are annually spoon-fed another hero mythology that was spawned 20+ years ago, that inFamous from Sucker Punch is seeking to find an antidote for. What Sucker Punch display in inFamous above all else is an awareness of the genre, of its conventions and clichés as well as new directions it could (or should) be taken given what else is going on in the world of videogames. The result is a blend of genres that is capable of being both familiar and comforting as well as surprising and even shocking (pun intended).

The game takes its setting in the fictional Empire City in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic electromagnetic explosion that has brought the city to its knees. Empire City is to our hero, Cole, what Gotham is to Batman, what Metropolis is to Superman. Heroes exist because their city needs them, and as the streets have filled with gangs of freaks and mutants, Empire needs Cole, but it doesn’t necessarily know that yet. The source of Cole’s powers is coincidentally the very explosion which has brought so much turmoil to the city. As such, the townspeople have taken it upon themselves to brandish Cole a terrorist and blame him for everything that has befallen them. Cole must not just save the city, but also his reputation.

At its heart, what separates inFamous from the vast majority of superhero titles, and what separates Cole from most superheros, is the moral ambiguity. Too often gamers are put on moral rails, forced through the scripted decisions of protagonists that may not fit with their own worldview and style of play. inFamous gives players, for the most part, the choice to decide what kind of hero (or villain) Cole will become. Almost all superhero mythologies feature some kind of internal struggle, the hero’s greatest nemesis is very often themselves. This struggle however often takes place out of the gamer’s reach – just another plot device, an excuse for flashbacks. What inFamous tries to do, with a certain degree of success, is let the internal struggle within Cole play out in the hands of the player. In real terms what this means is a karmatic scale that records and rates all actions made by the player – either good or bad. Defibrillating a wounded pedestrian in the street = good, leaching their remaining life energy to charge yourself = bad.

In essence this is a nice, simple system. However, players must really have their intentions straight before they approach the game, whether to be good or bad, because literally every single interaction with NPCs will affect the karmatic rating – along with a few larger and set piece decisions. To begin with this is very easy, if you want to be good it means taking all the good forks in the path, not trashing the streets between missions, not needlessly killing enemies when you could just restrain them. However, as the game progresses, no matter what your intentions, being so nice becomes a lot harder. Battles are more intense, with more civilians caught in the cross fire. Benevolence becomes a major inconvenience. Similarly being evil is no walk in the park as the whole city will turn against you, leaving few sanctuaries when the rooftops are riddled with enemies and the streets with angry mobs. This isn’t to the detriment of the game, its part of the challenge and part of the fun. In many ways, the real thing this system does is not give the player the opportunity to decide Cole’s destiny but instead show just how moronic and oversimplified the idea of good and evil is.

Cole’s powers are particularly appropriate for this theme. Electricity is something we live off but it is also deadly. Cole feeds his powers by absorbing electricity from the city around him: streetlamps, air conditioning units, cars etc. With a nudge of the L2 button he will draw energy out of these fixtures. More or less everything you think would have a current running through it can be drawn from in this way -barring a couple of odd exceptions like the few big electronic advertisements dotting around the city. This absorbed electricity is transformed into a myriad of different abilities, with a different roster of moves becoming available depending on whether players are good or evil. These moves can be upgraded throughout the game by spending experience accumulated by completing missions.

With so much electricity around its very easy to take it for granted however, now and again, you’ll be forced into an area of the city without power. Its when this happens that its really possible to appreciate just how dependent Cole is on this electrifying life-stream – the screen dulls grey, he loses his vision over long distances and becomes progressively weaker. It is one of the game’s minor triumphs that it manages to create such a profound feeling of fatigue and weakness.

Cole himself is a bit of a letdown, and probably the weakest of all the game’s major characters. Shaven head, rough voice, lean build – this is the same character that has been pulled off the production line for countless other games. Arguably this nobody of a character is a blank canvas for the player to build their own morality around however that would be making excuses for what is essentially a missed opportunity. Cole isn’t a bad lead, and he isn’t childish or cheap in any way, but when people talk about this game in years to come it won’t be his personality that dominates the conversation.

All superheros have their way of getting around town. Understandably for an open world game where you’re gradually introduced to new areas, Cole can’t fly. What Cole does have is a surprising natural knack for Parkour (ala Assassin’s Creed) loosely tied into his back story as a courier (ala Mirror’s Edge). When I first picked up the game this is what I found most surprising because, apart from this loose career connection, there is no reason why he should have this superhuman ability. Because of this, the way Cole can clamber anywhere through the city is both delightful and utterly confusing.

Despite my gripe with how it all fits in, technically how the city is built and how Cole moves around it is truly masterful. There is a lot of jumping involved — and most of his moves simply involve aiming and jumping at and around objects — but his movement up walls, lampposts, along wires, between buildings is pretty convincing. Little flourishes like sliding down poles when jumping down at them or the weight adjustments made whilst balancing add real depth. There isn’t that ethereal quality that Altair always possessed, nor is the optimum route already planned out for you in the way Mirror’s Edge seemed to be. The city gives no clues as to what Cole can and can’t do but there is infinite scope for creativity.

As mentioned before, Cole’s enemies are for the most part the gangs of uniformly dressed freaks, creeps, mutants and horrors that have taken control of the city. Outside of the plot Cole’s major pastime is completing menial and repetitive sidequests that will liberate portions of the city from these gangs. Those areas which are controlled by these gangs are littered with enemies, practically every rooftop will have an enemy shooter, which, while its something to do when moving about town, is repetitive and can easily break the flow of your movement and create petty, frustrating distractions. For the most part, this standard grunt is the most common enemy in the game – this is mixed up a bit by suicide troops, rocket troops and the more powerful “conduit” enemies who you’ll also run into now and again (not to mention the occasional boss). The oddest thing about the enemies is how uniformly dressed they are. The first gang the player is introduced to, The Reapers, all run around in Scarlet hoodies – seen as there are potentially hundreds of them I couldn’t help wonder where the hell they got them all from.

This is potentially the game’s biggest problem. Not that the enemies buy their uniforms in bulk but that because the game is driven by such a gritty, desaturated realism it really is so easy to forget that this is a superhero story, inspired by comic books and everything stylised that goes with that. It’s too easy to get drawn into the dark realism of the game only to be thrown when something distinctly comic-bookesque pops along. This is why Cole’s free-running is so confusing – nobody complains when Peter Parker goes from nerdy photographer to hyper athletic crime fighting machine overnight because within the boundaries of a highly stylised comic book world that’s totally fine. Within the confined of the hyper realistic Empire City, its harder to give Cole that same benefit of the doubt.

Ultimately it is to the benefit of the game that such a superficial issue turns out to be my major gripe with it, however it does break the pace of the gameplay. What doesn’t help is that the citizens seem to manage living pretty ordinary lives despite all the carnage. This is a major gap in plausability that, to be fair, borders on the mildly ridiculous at times. For example, civilian drivers happily observe red lights in the middle of firefights (or even the fact that despite civilisation collapsing in on itself within a quarantined city petrol still seems to be readily available and affordable).

Sony has given inFamous a lot of airtime over the past few years and has pushed it to the front of its exclusive portfolio. Until playing this game it never really occurred to me why they would do this, inFamous really only seemed to be built upon a single gimmick and mechanic, namely the choice between good and evil. However, and despite being an interesting experiment in character development, that really isn’t the game’s strongest point. inFamous is much more than a simple tale of good tussling with evil, nor is it another superhero franchise trying to cash in on a larger trend working its way out through Hollywood. inFamous is a fully formed and superbly executed action game. It manages to ask some serious questions and create many unique experiences without ever becoming esoteric. The worst thing that could happen to inFamous would be if it simply become just another PS3 exclusive and blends into the homogeneous hum of the console’s back catalogue. This summer, inFamous deserves praise, deserves attention and, if you’re looking for a confident action game, deserves your money.

+ The game’s take on how to use morality is entertaining and thought provoking
+ Cole moves convincingly through the gritty and realistic Empire City
+ The game borrows and takes its influences from all the right places, reflecting a lot of other good games

– Cole himself is a shallow, poorly developed shell of a man
– Enemies are repetitive and homogeneous, and so are many of the game’s sidequests
– Despite being a superhero title, there are issues of plausibility and continuity