Few characters enthrall us like superheroes. From Batman appearing out of the dark to Superman swooping down from the sky, we're always sucked in by the tales of people who can do the extraordinary. Sure, there's stuff like character development and storytelling, but we mainly like these people because they can do stuff we can't. They make us constantly re-raise the question that's always popped into our heads since childhood: What would I do if I had superpowers? Go ahead, deny it. You've wondered.
Sucker Punch attempts to address that wonder with inFAMOUS, a highly entertaining piece of hero folklore that also functions as a character study of the people who play it. It's part "Heroes" (everyman wakes up with powers), part Superman (hero remains the sole hope for all) and part Batman (dark, personal tragedy coupled with psychological introspection). It's a body of work that appeals to the person who enjoys great responsibility with his or her power as well as the domineering, all-powerful badass we sometimes wish we could become.
It starts with the uniquely crafted hero, Cole, an urban explorer and courier who wakes up in the middle of a crater at the heart of fictional Empire City. He's surrounded by fire and ruin, the scars of a massive explosion that took place in the city's historic district. The nuclear-style blast killed thousands and knocked out most of the city's power, and the remaining survivors have degenerated into either gangs or victims of gangs. The situation is compounded by a plague that mysteriously spreads, turning people into insane and violent bottom-feeders. As a result, all of Empire City is under quarantine.
The only silver lining in this morning from hell is Cole's new talent — the ability to control electricity. Shooting bolts from his fingertips and leaping off high rooftops, Cole eventually has to make a choice: use his ever-growing powers to help the people of the city, or use them to become the forceful, supreme and undisputed ruler of a tattered metropolis?
inFAMOUS is certainly not the first game to jiggle your moral compass. Jade Empire asked if you believed in the way of the Closed Fist versus the Open Palm. The foundation of the Mass Effect experience was built on making heart-splitting choices, some of which could have led to the eradication of an entire alien species. Open-world games simply gave you the freedom to do what you wish, which explains why so many citizens and cops in San Andreas or Vice City got painted with gunfire.
In inFAMOUS, your decisions come through action. Instead of choosing a path from a menu or waywardly veering off course, the game provides frozen moments in time to choose between evil or heroic acts. Within the first few minutes, Cole and his best friend join the rest of the citizens of Empire City in running to a crate of air-dropped food. Cole is later faced with a choice: Let some people get some of their own food before taking his share, or zap a few people to scare them off, leaving all of the grub to himself. I found this to be a great approach for an action game, especially one this size, because it kept the rhythm of the experience moving.
Choices like this shift you closer to either being fully heroic or completely "infamous," and both paths feature a different arsenal of electrical powers. I expected Sucker Punch to have a little outrageous fun here because Cole is that rare original superhero designed specifically for a game. There's no canon to follow, no story arcs or continuations to keep in mind, and no fan boys to worry about pissing off. But instead of extreme craziness, I found the system of powers to be in perfect harmony with the tone of the game, which has a slightly subdued, almost gritty, quality to it. That's not to say the powers aren't creative; aside from lightning bolts, Cole can launch electric missiles and grenades, grind on power lines and eventually, rain down a storm of electricity from the heavens, like his own personal Hammer of Dawn.
I also enjoyed the slight differences between the good and evil playing styles. Being evil gives you more potential to blow up things, including enemies you blast in the face. The color of Cole's perpetual electric current changes to a menacing red, and even his appearance is altered by his actions. The good Cole is a colorful, vibrant figure who stands out among the crowd. Evil Cole looks gray, dirty and tattered with blotchy marks mapping his skin.
Even without his powers, Cole is an interesting gameplay specimen. His urban explorer background gives him the kind of agility and climbing ability you'd find in accomplished free-runners. He can traverse any building or sign in front of him, he can walk along wires, climb up pipes ... there's basically no place he can't go, except water. Cole's electric nature makes jumping into bodies of water fatal, as it would essentially short him out, in a sense.
Cole's got another weakness, this time in gameplay. You'll be asked to do a lot of pinpoint platforming as your journey takes you across shattered bridges and up massive towers of junk. The game tries to help you out by being very "friendly" — if you get anywhere near a standing point or edge, Cole will stick to it faithfully. It's a nice little wrinkle that makes some of the more harrowing jumping tasks bearable, but it also makes Cole a little too sticky. When he's in the air, he'll always want to attach to something, which can sometimes kill your momentum or throw off your timing on speed missions. You could be racing along a wire or train track, launch yourself toward a rooftop, but then inadvertently grab onto some edge that you drifted too close to. The manual in-game camera doesn't always help, sometimes treating you to a shot of the inside of a wall or the back of Cole's head.
Like most open-world games, you have a series of side missions to complement the main story. I liked most of the side missions, which ranged from escorting prisoners to defending a clinic, but some of them felt like busywork. I absolutely hated the mind-numbing "destroy 10 surveillance items on a building" mission and a few others. Luckily you can avoid them, but doing so means that you'll encounter more groups of random enemies in your travels around the city.
Speaking of enemies, Cole's got plenty of oddballs waiting to fight him. These powerful beings are called Conduits, and they too have powers derived from the mysterious blast. There's Sasha, the sexpot mistress of mind control; Alden, a decrepit old man with extreme mental mojo that allows him to move things with a single glance; and Kessler, the chief villain who has a combination of freakish powers similar to Cole's. Balancing out these people are Zeke, Cole's best friend with a Southern drawl, and Trish, Cole's nurse girlfriend.
These people are all woven into a story told through comic book-style stills, and I was actually taken by the quality of the writing. The plot isn't revolutionary by any means, but the dialogue and narrative between the characters is very compelling. However, it's Cole's inner monologues that are the most enjoyable, giving us a character that seems equally believable as a reluctant hero or power-mad destroyer. Both mindsets are handled with grace. The way people talk to you and even the narrative of the intermissions changes depending on the kind of person you want Cole to become. I don't mean to be vague about the specifics, but the story is good enough for players to experience for themselves. You can blast through the game's main story in about 8-10 hours, but you'll also feel the need to play through it again as the polar opposite of your original game. Stories and games that flexible just don't come around that often.
The last aspect of inFAMOUS that I enjoyed was Empire City itself. We've seen examples of the destroyed wasteland before, but Empire City's wounds are still fresh, with people randomly wandering around lost and grief-stricken. The city hasn't completely lost its life, but it's caught in a perpetual state of shock, and the visual temperament of the game manages to capture that mix of desperation and hopelessness. Even the crater area where Cole wakes up has an eerie, "ground zero" vibe to it. It makes the different areas of the city fun to explore, even after you complete the final mission. Of the PS3 games that I've played this year, inFAMOUS is the first one I've played through more than twice. I found it a captivating hero tale that left itself open for a possible follow-up. I want to see what happens next.
More articles about inFamous