I first saw InFamous for PS3 behind closed doors at E3 2008. A big fan of Sucker Punch’s Sly Cooper series, I was intrigued by the studio’s decision to go with much more of an adult theme with InFamous and an open-world structure. However, my knee-jerk reaction to the InFamous demo was “Crackdown with a Jedi,” a comparison that visually upset two members of the development team and actually caused them to end the conversation early.
Fast-forward 12 months, and InFamous is available at retail to share Sucker Punch’s vision for the open-world genre with the PS3 gaming public. Having played through the game’s massive story and spent considerably more time with it than that initial E3 2008 demo allowed, I still hold by my comparison: InFamous feels like the love child of Crackdown and The Force Unleashed, with a notable influence from Activision’s Spider-Man series. Those three titles are all excellent in their own right, so infusing InFamous with elements from all three can only benefit the PS3-exclusive game. The only stumbling block with the game, in fact, isn’t its gameplay formula per se, but its repetition of said formula far longer than was needed.
InFamous well-documented plot tells the story of Cole MacGrath, a bike messenger with crazy parkour skills who inadvertently delivered and set off a bomb that destroyed an entire metropolitan area. As the metro area struggles to come to terms with what happened, a series of gangs has run rampant and overpowered the local martial law. Meanwhile, Cole has discovered that the explosion imbued him with extensive electrical powers ranging from the ability to shoot bolts of lightning from his fingertips to generating an electrical field that lets him glide through the air. There’s also the oh-so-destructive ability to toss energetic sticky grenades upon all members of society.
Now, as we all learned in Spidery-Man, with great (electrical) power comes great responsibility, so Cole finds himself either able to play the hero — eventually redeeming himself in the eyes of the justifiably pissed-off populace — or the goat, exploiting his powers for his own gain and wasting everyone in his path. This theoretically presents players with a “choose your path” role-playing element, but unlike more robust RPGs like those from BioWare or Bethesda Softworks, the choices in InFamous are excruciatingly obvious. Rather than judge your public perception on the tone of Cole’s response or the number of casualties, for instance, Cole’s evil or good karma is determined based on whether you bomb the police station alongside one of the gangs or eliminate the gangs and save the cops. Not exactly a gray area there, that’s for sure.
This karma factor is important, because players earn XP for each kill and stunt (e.g. mid-air melee attacks or environmental kills), which can in turn be spent on new and upgraded skills. Depending on the player’s alignment, different skills and modifiers become available, so a Good player and Evil player can have different experiences and abilities even within the same game. However, Sucker Punch definitely forces players to choose the Good or Evil path pretty early on, leaving little to no room for “playing the field” or sampling what each alignment has to offer in the way of side missions and abilities.
The side missions open up as players learn new abilities and need new ways to practice them, be it a timed “switch activating” mission that involves grinding on electrical wires or an escort/protect-the-idiot The Energy RC-Micro home theater system delivered the sound for this review.mission that requires doing away with incoming gang members as quickly and with as little collateral damage as possible. In the early going, these side missions provide some great XP and seemingly decent variety. But as players open the second and eventually third areas of the city (a la unlocking boroughs in GTA IV), it becomes all too apparent that the non-story missions are copied and pasted from one area to the next with little regard for the three unique gangs and their battle tactics. Tracking a messenger or escorting fidgety gang members to prison is fun the first couple of times, but after doing what amounts to the exact same mission five or six times, it definitely leaves players feeling a bit short-changed in the “creative mission types” department.
The level architecture, too, is somewhat disappointing, in spite of the fact that the enemy types and geographical locations vary. Each gang — the Reapers, Dust Men and First Sons — have multiple classes, from the standard foot soldier and rocket-launching heavyweight to bomb-toting kamikaze warriors and semi-invisible enemies with teleporting abilities. Much like the explosion gave Cole new powers, these enemies were given their unique abilities because of the explosion, and each gang has its own reasons for trying to take over the city (the reasons become apparent during the course of the game’s plot). Yet even as the enemy types switch from the Neon District to The Warren to the Historic District, it feels an awful lot like gamers play through the same five alleys and kill enemies using the same three environmental tactics for the entire game. Crackdown almost never felt this way, even as its game world was considerably smaller. And while the side missions in Spider-Man definitely repeated themselves, there was sufficient architecture variety to at least make similar missions seem somewhat distinct based on their location. No such luck with InFamous, which inspired my wife on three separate nights to ask “didn’t you do this exact same thing the past two nights?” When a non-gamer asks this question, you’ve got a problem.
Things do change slightly depending on Cole’s Good or Evil alignment, because depending on his karma, citizens will either help him fight the gangs and cheer him on, or try to take him down and add to the cluster of foes going for his jugular. But for all intents and purposes, this citizen support (or lack thereof) really doesn’t make that much of a difference, because the citizens are never ones to do any notable damage. It’s still advisable to complete all the Good side missions, though, because in the later stages as you traverse from borough to borough, you’ll need as many enemies cleared out and territories controlled as possible to avoid certain death. Now if only the developers had actually let controlled areas remain free of enemies like they’re supposed to, rather than artificially insert enemies where there aren’t supposed to be any just for the sake of challenge. After all, if a player has gone through all the effort of eliminating enemy strongholds and making friends with all the citizens, shouldn’t that effort be rewarded with a legitimately clear path?
What Sucker Punch lacks in gameplay variety, it more than makes up for in lighting and cut scene quality. The company’s Sly Cooper series made great use of comic-book like panels to tell its between-mission stories, but what they’ve accomplished with InFamous takes comic-like cut scenes to an entirely new level. Truly, these cut scenes are works of art, and there’s a reason each unlocked scene is available to watch from the main menu. The story itself is decent, with enough “whodunnit” intrigue to keep things moving along, but it’s the cut scenes that really steal the show and stand out as unique, especially in light of the lack of architectural and gameplay diversity in the game proper.
The audio is also a strong point, with environmental sounds and special effects making great use of the surround channels. The boss in the Neon District, especially, provides some great audio moments, while the pedestrians in need of assistance in The Warren can get downright sassy out of the rear speakers if you ignore their pleas for help for too long.
Yet the biggest plea for help in InFamous is likely to come from the people playing it: “Sucker Punch, can you please give us a little more mission variety and actual ‘open-worldness’ next time around?” And believe me, InFamous certainly deserves a “next time around” if given the chance. The core mechanics, art direction and concept are great; it’s just that the PS3-exclusive game needs more mission diversity, architecture variation and a slightly faster pace. InFamous is a solid step outside of Sly Cooper, and it’s obvious that some of the platforming elements from those games have translated well into this more adult-oriented action RPG. But where the Sly Cooper games excelled at mission and gameplay variety, InFamous feels more like a baby step into a new realm and genre than it does a giant leap into the world of sandbox-game excellence.
Buy InFamous for PS3 at Amazon.com.
- Score: 8
- The core game and concept are solid, but InFamous is a bit too repetitive for its own good, both in gameplay and environmental surroundings.
— Jonas Allen