Review by Suprak the Stud
"irreFutably Fun, but Hampered By an inFlux of Issues"
If comic books have taught me anything, it is that exposure to radioactive or explosive substances are the number one cause of superpowers and that doctors trying to warn me about dismemberment and skin melting are nothing but paranoid alarmists. I can't blame them from trying to prevent me from attaining superpowers; you can't just trust anyone with them. While everyone says they will use their powers for the good of mankind, this is all fine and good until the superpower recipient gets stuck in their first traffic jam and ignites the elderly woman doing 35 in the left lane. Superpowers are a pretty powerful tool to have at one's disposal in any conflict, and people like your boss and your mother-in-law are awfully susceptible to being lit on fire with your mind. Fortunately, before you decide to give yourself superpowers, you can ascertain your moral inclinations and propensity to murder minor annoyances in inFamous, an exclusive PS3 title. inFamous throws you in the role of a recent recipient of superpowers and lets you loose in the sandbox of Empire City. inFamous does suffer from its fair share of problems, but for the most part they are relatively minor or superficial, and doesn't detract from the fact that it is tremendously fun to run around town and zap whatever you feel like.
In inFamous you play as Cole McGrath, a delivery guy that happens to be delivering a package when the thing blows up on him (most likely because he didn't adhere to the fragile label on the front of the box). This is particularly strange, and not only for the fact that the post office in Empire City apparently has incredibly lax restrictions on the kind of packages they are willing to send and seem to be the preferred mail carriers of domestic terrorists. Most of the time when you are at the epicenter of an explosion, you tend to obtain the power of detachable limbs and ability to spontaneously jettison all blood from your body. However, Cole not only manages to survive the blast, he starts developing a slew of different electricity based powers. It does take him a couple of weeks to recover in the hospital, but this is significantly better than the amount of time it takes for everyone else that was in a ten block radius to recover from their pretty serious case of not being alive. And while electrical powers seem like a boon, things kind of go south fast when everyone in the city begins believing that Cole is responsible for the explosion and the deaths of about a forth of their city. The mandatory quarantine that the government put on the entire city after an outbreak of some plague wasn't particularly helpful to their temperament and neither is the fact that groups of gangs have begun taking over sections of the city, killing people and turning off the electricity. Cole's girlfriend, Trish, is particularly upset about the death of her sister, and she storms off in some sort of hissy fit, leaving only Cole's friend Zeke on his side in a city full of psychopaths and angry citizens.
The game seems to try and emulate a comic book as closely as possible at times, and as such the story is about what you'd expect from a typical comic book. It certainly never approaches the apex of videogame storytelling and the story itself is fairly average as a whole. Still, for a fun, simple comic book style story, you could certainly do a lot worse and the story is at the very least interesting and does have some more emotional moments in it. Things start off simply enough, and the first area involves Cole battling gang members who have a hold of some sort of mind control sludge. However, things escalate quickly after finding out that other individuals are also super powered, and the second area is populated by super powered hobos manipulating trash into giant robots and spiders using their telekinesis. You would think this sort of plot would raise a lot of questions (not the least of which is why super hobos haven't been able to at least take over a house to act as some sort of living quarters), and it certainly does. Unfortunately, the games solution to resolving a lot of these little plot points is to shrug and suggest that you blast some more guys with your awesome lightning powers. A lot of things are left vague or entirely unanswered, presumably to be addressed in the upcoming sequel. This leaves portions of the story completely unsupported, and plot points are dangled in front of our faces before being snatched away and stored for some later time that never comes. Too much is just left unresolved, and while it is not always necessary to spell out everything to your audience, it would have been nice if they gave us a couple letters we could at least play around with. Still, what is here in terms of a story is pretty good, and while it might not be completely cohesive, it is solid enough to motivate you through the game. There are some really nice scenes, and it does end well enough that I was looking forward to how they wrap up all the loose ends in the next game.
The cast of characters supporting this story falls somewhere in the range of acceptable, but not particularly excellent. The lead, Cole McGrath, is interesting enough but partly hampered by the fact that most of his personality only comes from what we ascribe to him. The game features a moral choice system, where you can either choose to play as a selfless angelic hero, rescuing everyone in the city and painting the buildings with a fresh coat of love and sunshine, or a demonic monster, terrorizing the citizens and painting the buildings with their blood. Now, I'm not against moral choice systems themselves, but I don't think the way it was implemented in inFamous was particularly effective. Moral choices in games work best when we are actually roleplaying as some sort of character, one that actually has no personality, appearance, or defining character traits other than the ones we give. This way the character actually serves as a mirror of the individual playing, and the choices themselves actually mean something. However, when you already establish a character and some facets of his character, giving us the choice over how he or she behaves at a couple arbitrary points in the story seems somewhat schizophrenic. Now, the character of Cole McGrath can either be a paragon of boy-scout morality or a mass murdering psychopath, and it seems if a game actually wants to develop a character, they might at least want to narrow down the window of how their character can be perceive a wee bit. When a character can be both, he or she is effectively neither.
This isn't a big deal in some games, but when they are actually trying to build a story around Cole McGrath and establish his character, it makes the whole thing seem rather arbitrary. And the moral choices themselves aren't even particularly taxing or thought provoking. There was literally one that I needed to think about, and the rest were so psychotically evil that the explosion would not only have needed to imbue Cole with lightning powers, but completely destroyed his moral compass as well. They do change how the people in the city treat you, which is nice, but no matter how many times I would suck the life out of some innocent bystander, four or five people would still chase me down and try to get me to help them get their wallet back like they were suffering from some sort of idiot short term memory and couldn't see all the charred bodies of their friends lining the city streets. Furthermore, the way the system was developed doesn't allow very much nuance for Cole. You need to either do nearly everything evil or everything good in order to unlock the best upgrades for the powers, so trying to pick some sort of middle of the road type character just leaves most of the moves unavailable. Cole himself isn't a terrible character, and the commonalities that pop up between the evil branch and the good branch actual depict him as somewhat interesting (and at times funny). It just would have been nice if the developers had picked what path Cole would have followed, and since they didn't he doesn't feel like a very cohesive character.
The supporting cast is a tad more interesting, if only for the fact that they only have one, permanently established character. The cast of villains is particularly memorable, and are strong enough to push the story forward even if the story itself falters from time to time. Of particular note is Sasha, a woman oozing a powerful mind controlling goo that can warp reality and cause Cole to trip out in the game. The screen goes dark, and phantom enemies begin attacking you, and it sort of feels like playing as Charlie Sheen during one of his lighter partying nights. These scenes are just really nicely executed, and her character is twisted and haunting enough that she does a nice job carrying early parts of the game. The less murderous of the supporting cast is somewhat less interesting. Your love interest and ex-girlfriend spends most of the game moping and yelling at you regardless of what you do, leaving me wondering why Cole would want to reconcile with her in the first place. She becomes less annoying as the story progresses and actually develops into something halfway likable, but it was hard to warm up to her when she spends half the game treating Cole like an errand boy that purposely ran over her dog. Zeke, Cole's best friend (and professional fat Elvis impersonator from the look of him) serves as the zany comic relief character for most of the game. Although I typically abhor the token funny fat guy, Zeke actually wasn't a complete waste of space and was fairly entertaining for most of the game. His schemes to market Cole in order to bring in some cash (and babes) were pretty funny to listen to over the communicator, and if nothing else he kept the game from becoming too serious. There are some other support characters, but their parts are too minor to mention and too boring to remember.
Most sandbox games have a pretty standard formula of throwing you in as a gang member or wannabe gang member fighting other gang members. inFamous throws that formula aside, dumps the guns and gives you a plethora of lighting based powers, which was fine with me because who would want to play in a sandbox with a shovel and pail when you can use a ray gun? And while other aspects of the game falter from time to time, what keeps the game fun is that inFamous has one of the best sandboxes outside of some Florida beaches. You have a big sprawling city that has a lot of things to do in it. You can glide, float, and wall jump all across the city in a way that is fun, quick, and keeps the city feeling big without it feeling insurmountable. There are lots of hidden little things to find that encourage exploration and you are given tools to find them that prevent it from becoming an experiment in needle-in-haystack-finding. The whole thing is just well crafted, and any time I'm having fun just jumping around and exploring a city just for kicks, the game has done something right.
The actual game part of the game is divided into both story missions and side missions, and what is nice is that they are diverse enough that it doesn't become simple repeated excursions of going here to electrocute a certain amount of people. The story missions tend to be a bit meatier than the side missions, but none of them are so long that they become arduous and unruly. As the game is divided into three separate islands, you typically complete a set number of story missions on each island before facing off against the boss in the area. Boss fights are nice and have a reasonable amount of difficulty, and feel appropriately climatic for each area. If you just want to breeze through the game, the story missions offer a satisfying campaign of roughly 10 to 15 hours or so, so if you are in some particular rush to escape the country but want to finish off a game really quickly, this route is open to you.
However, the rest of the non convicts will probably want to take the time out to enjoy the various side missions and other fun stuff to do in Empire City. There are a couple of reasons to take time out to partake in all the side missions. The first is that they are actually pretty fun and offer a real nice change of pace from the story missions. A lot of the story missions are pretty heavy on the combat, which is fine, but in the side missions you have a much greater variety of goals. Some requires you to speed around on the rooftops to connect certain satellite links in time, while in others you might need to find a hidden package or perform certain stunts for a photographer. There are also evil and good side missions depending on how you want to play the game, and good side missions typically have you escorting or helping cops while bad side missions feature a femme fatale character moaning in your ear while you unleash carnage on an innocent populace (fair trade off, if you ask me). I'd typically complete side missions as soon as they popped up, and mostly because I actually wanted to just for their enjoyment value. The second reason is that as you complete these side missions, you actually clear out small pockets of crime. Not only does this help transform the city, but it actually makes it less likely for you to get shot in the head as you jump around on rooftops. Thus, there is an actual benefit for completing these missions, although I was always curious why some side missions caused the gang members to leave. Sure, when you wipe out one of their strong houses it makes sense, but why performing stunts for a photographer would cause the gangs in the area to flee in terror makes decidedly less sense (although I imagine the conversation went something along the lines of, Oh man, did you see him grind on that rail? And that one dude took pictures of it? Forget this, I'm taking my guns and trash robots and moving to a safer section of town!). They also have a little bit of a problem of reusing the same sort of side missions or just tweaking them slightly to try and pass them off as something new, and this becomes particularly apparent on the final island where almost all of the side missions are rehashes. This isn't a huge problem and they are spaced out far enough that it doesn't become redundant, but a little more creativity would have been nice.
The game also has something for the obsessive compulsive explorer in all of us. A lot of games put some sort of random collectable or extra story information hidden somewhere in parts of the game, and a lot of times this is just a terrible idea, forcing you to backtrack over every area to find every little memento and a lot of times the trinket isn't even worth the time it takes to explore. However, inFamous does a great job implementing these things into the game, and it helps to encourage exploration without driving someone to mania or requiring the player to have OCD to have any reasonable hope of actually finding everything. Throughout the city, both blast shards (highly charged shards from the epicenter of the explosion) and dead drops (messages sent out by an agent infiltrating the city) are hidden. This is exactly the kind of game where these kind of hidden trinkets are welcome. You have a big, open sandbox area that allows you to search for them at your leisure rather than requiring backtracking at the end of every level just to make sure you have everything. You have the means to explore the city quickly, so looking for the stuff never feels like more of a chore than it should be. The things actually do something, where dead drops add to the story and the blast shards increase your energy meter. This is a huge step up from some games that just add in random collectibles without them effecting gameplay in what is clearly an attempt to try to tack on some replay value without having to do something creative. And, perhaps best of all, they've included a radar system to help uncover where these things are. You do need to do some preliminary exploration, as the radar only works when you get close enough, but this is so much more enjoyable than randomly wandering around the city hoping to find some small little icon that is mixed in with the background before getting bored and just looking up a FAQ because you can't take the monotony. Everything was done just about as well as you can reasonably ask for, and there is a reasonable challenge without making it insurmountable or arduous.
The actually gameplay mechanics were also implemented fairly well, making the combat and exploration both enjoyable. Cole has at his command various lightning based powers that can be used to electrify and cook individuals giving him the stink eye. Not all of them are available from the start, and you need to complete certain story missions to complete your arsenal of seizure inducing attacks. Each power can also be leveled up by building up experience points through completing missions or tazing enemies you come across. There are good and bad paths to each upgrade, which is fine but it pretty much forces you to either be super good or super evil just so you can unlock all of the best powers. It is nice that there is a genuine sense of progression as you go through the game, and you build up Cole from a single bolt slinging sissy, to a lightning storm controlling, lightning arcing, bomb throwing weapon of mass destruction. The powers are varied enough that it prevents combat from becoming too repetitive, although you could probably get through the entire game just using the basic attack if you are boring and tend to sit off by yourself at parties. The enemy AI is also competent, and their intensity and difficulty ramps up as you progress through the game, preventing the common problem of the game actually becoming easier as you get further along.
Exploration also works fairly well. Early on in the game, you unlock the power to glide on wires and train tracks, giving you the ability to travel throughout the city very quickly. The parkour style building jumping is also implemented very well, and going up and down the buildings, before sliding across a telephone wire and then gliding to your destination makes traveling throughout the city genuinely enjoyable. Cole eliminates the need for the shoehorned in driving sections that permeate a lot of similar games because he is the ultimate vehicle. He controls remarkably well most of the time, and the balance between acrobatically climbing up a building to gain the high ground before raining down explosive energy grenades on your foes is a combination I never got tired of.
However, that isn't to say that all is well in terms of gameplay, and the huge sandbox city combined with the multitude of different powers pretty much ensured some things got mucked up along the way. The most egregious of which is the fact that Cole seems to be dealing with the end of his previous romantic relationship through the immense fondness he has developed towards walls. Try to dismount yourself from a wall, and Cole shows all of the dependency of a recovering drug addict, immediately clinging to the next nearest wall he can find. I could almost imagine Cole screaming out that he could quit walls whenever he felt like it, while all of his friends sat around him in a circle crying because he stole forty dollars from them to buy a cart full of bricks. This was partly due to the fact that the parkour style jumping required him to be sticky when he came close to wall to prevent frustrating falls from occurring, but they seem to have overdone the stickiness here because the buildings in this game seem to have some sort of outrageous gravitational pull that prevents Cole from leaving. While this is only mildly frustrating at times, it does become somewhat more infuriating when you're getting shot at and Cole refuses to leave his beloved wall.
There are a lot of other fairly minor problems that, while frustrating, tend to be more hiccups of frustration than belches of exasperation. While the enemy AI is competent, I can only describe the friendly or neutral AI as completely idiotic. Whenever a firefight breaks out between you and some gang members, you can almost guarantee that at least three or four civilians will run directly in front of you when you're spamming your lightning attacks. This is fine if you're playing as an evil character, but heroes tend not to fry civilians, no matter how dumb they might be. It seems almost as if the AI is programmed to break into random runs as soon as gunfire starts, and you would think that perhaps fleeing in terror would have been a more reasonable programming response. Even worse is if you become heroic enough, people decide that you need some of their help, and will run into the middle of fight to start pelting the enemies with rocks. This has all the strategic advantage of sending in troops with slingshots to assist the guy holding a rocket launcher, and the only actual result of this is that you are no longer able to use half of your arsenal because splash damage doesn't seem to know not to hurt civilians.
The city also doesn't feel as alive as other similar sandbox games. Sure, it is a lot of fun to jump around and climb on stuff, but the people in the city are all essentially the same hive mind that are either just additional things to shoot or obstructions that you don't want to shoot but will anyway because they have a death wish. You can't enter any of the buildings and there aren't any minor characters or anything of the sort to interact with. Sure, the city changes a little bit depending on your actions, but these are really just superficial changes that really amount to little more than what poster the people decide to hang up of you. I blew up the same gas station like six times, which raises the question as to where they keep getting material to build these things back up especially when the island is on a quarantine. A little more actual interactivity with the city would have been nice, as would anything that imparted just a bit more immersion to Empire City. This is more of a minor qualm than anything else, but despite the fact that there are thousands of people walking through the streets, you quickly get this nagging feeling that you're the only one in it.
The game also seems to be inhabited by the nefarious glitch monster, because inFamous is one of the glitchier games I've played on the latest console generation. The occasional infinite loop tripping death occurs, where if you're moving at a certain direction when you take the final shot, you don't fall over completely and instead go through the same falling animation for a couple of minutes until the game corrects itself or you take a hammer to the disc. I also suffered the occasional pit of nowhere instant death that had me falling through the innards of the city after walking over what looked like a perfectly usable patch of concrete. There is nothing game breaking, but there are plenty of little annoyance that pop up far too frequently for my liking.
And while I don't think I've ever had this complaint about a PS3 game yet, the graphics look well, bad. The backdrops are all nice and colorful, and the comic book style cutscenes are really well drawn and integrated into the game perfectly. However, the character models are just awful, and it looks like there are entire layers of texturing missing from everyone. The in-game cutscenes point this out especially well, and illustrate the fact that the people animating this game didn't really know how actual people moved. While it is alright most of the time, every once in a while they look like poorly operated marionettes with peculiar head movements that make me think their neck muscles have just failed them. Other aspects just look entirely over looked, to the point that it just looks silly. For example, after you kill civilians, if you walk up to them and look at them, they are still blinking which leaves me to believe they are either terrible at playing dead or the animators might have used the same general profile for the characters at all times, regardless of how dead they might be. Graphics typically aren't my number one concern when it comes to games, so these things weren't a huge problem for me. However, inFamous is one of the ugliest games for the system, so if this sort of thing matters to you, you might want to squint a lot when you're playing through.
inFamous is one of the games I'm actually surprised I liked as much as I did. There are a lot of little things the game does wrong that usually annoy me to no end when I play a game. Things like bad AI (especially friendly) and bugs and glitches occurring too frequently tend to sour my experience and leave me thinking about what could have been rather than what actually is. However, while inFamous does a lot of things wrong, there is also a lot to like here. Enjoyable and fun missions, an interesting (if somewhat convoluted) storyline, and lots of worthwhile extras help the game succeed when it could have easily started floundering around in failure about halfway through. Still, a bit more time crafting the game could have made inFamous great, and as it stands it is pretty good, mostly fun, and enjoyable, but unlikely to go down as a classic. I look forward to playing around in the same sandbox in the upcoming sequel, and this time I hope they just manage to remove to couple clumps of cat pee from the otherwise pristine play place.
Live Wire (THE GOOD):
+Lots of fun lightning based powers to use to fry your enemies
+Well designed missions make playing through enjoyable
+A multitude of various side mission that help keep things from becoming repetitive
+Mechanics are well designed for a sandbox game and it is enjoyable to explore or get around town
+Lots of hidden extras that will keep you playing for a while
+Pretty good story and characters, and the villains were all well designed
Broken Circuit (THE BAD):
-Too much left unexplained in the story
-Far too many glitches for a final product
-A lot of the visuals are just plain bad
-Some poor programming choices, including too sticky wall climbing and terrible friendly AI
-Moral choice system featured in the game is really badly implemented
Power Sink (THE UGLY): Cole can't touch water, which is kind of a big problem because he lives on what is essentially an island. Accidentally fall into any of the water in and around the city, and Cole is treated to an instant death of the frustrating variety. And while this is bad enough, it also raises the question of how he showers. By the end of the game, you are almost a month into the quarantine, most likely a month into Cole's forced showering ban. I can only assume that by the time the sequel comes out, he will have a think layer of dirt surrounding his entire body, which can help him repel bullets and women.
THE VERDICT: 7.50/10.00
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 08/23/10
Game Release: inFamous (US, 05/26/09)
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