Open world superhero games have so much potential that it's actually surprising we haven't had as many as we have so far. We've seen licensed games such as Spiderman, MMOs in City of Heroes and, of course, Crackdown. You can also add inFAMOUS to the list, with Sucker Punch's PS3 exclusive putting you in the shoes of Cole, a man with the power to control electrcity and the duty to protect Empire City from the scumbags and criminals who run the place.
Superhero games should make you feel like a badass, and give you a huge range of fun superpowers to use and abuse in a virtual playground. Just how close to capturing such thrills has Sucker Punch come? Is inFAMOUS a worthy successor to Crackdown, or does Cole have barely enough to power to work a lightbulb? Read on as Jim Sterling, Anthony Burch and Conrad Zimmerman team up to take on the latest PS3 exclusive.
Developer: Sucker Punch
Released: May 26, 2009
inFAMOUS is very clearly the deliberate start of a franchise and as such, its role is that of a true superhero origin story. Main character Cole starts life as a simple delivery boy, who has been tasked with taking a mysterious package to the center of Empire City, and then opening it up. When he does so, he unwittingly activates the "Ray Sphere," a devastating weapon that destroys the city, kills many civilians, and bestows Cole with a host of electricity-based super powers. Cole soon realizes that with great power comes a great many people trying to exploit him, and from there it's a story of trust and betrayal as Cole attempts to save or subjugate Empire City and find out what, exactly, is going on.
The story is interesting and certainly has its moments, although the characters themselves struggle to be all that likable. Cole sounds like he's smoked about fifty cigarettes a day for the past twenty years, and is surrounded by sidekicks and villains that are either too stereotypical, boring or just plain irritating to care much about. That said, the game's ending is simultaneously the most stupid and brilliant thing I've seen in a while, and it's worth getting there.
As far as the game goes, I have to say that I failed to be as impressed as I hoped I'd be. The game is certainly decent, but it's packed full of flaws and issues that keep dragging it down. For a superhero game, inFAMOUS doesn't make you feel very powerful at all. Despite having all sorts of superpowers, the only really effective combat method is to fall into an overdone cover mechanic and spam the main lightning attack at enemies that are hiding at the tops of buildings and only occassionally pop out from hiding places to shoot at you.
It also doesn't help that Cole himself is pretty weak, while the enemies are expert marksmen and are capable of firing their pistols from miles away. They also seem to be able to spot Cole from huge distances and nearly always see him coming, making it impossible to get the jump on anybody (unless the AI has a brainfart, which can happen). Enemy gangs litter the streets and take annoying potshots at Cole from both below and above, and if you dare wander into the wrong part of town, you're liable to get raped.
Most of Cole's powers, especially when playing with good Karma (we'll come to that), are rather worthless and weak. His ability to perform an electrifying stomp usually does more harm than good, requiring you to jump into a den of dangerous enemies in order for it to be effective. Cole's melee attacks are pretty powerful, but it requires so much time and energy to get close to an enemy, as well as requiring the absorption of plenty of bullets, that it's simply not worth it.
What we're left with is a very repetitive combat system, that nearly always degenerates into mashing the R1 button at enemies until everything is dead. Oh, and the gangs can shoot from further away than you can shoot at them, in a "holding a midget at arm's length and kicking him in the balls" scenario. Altogether, I think I'd have preferred it if Sucker Punch had not given me super powers at all, and just granted me the brilliant guns that the enemies have.
Outside of combat, I found myself growing incredibly bored of the game's missions, which revolved around five or six ideas and then repeated on an endless loop. If you've zapped surveillance equipment off one building, you'd done it a thousand times, and by the time you've played inFAMOUS' sub missions, you'll feel like you did do it a thousand times. The game gets incredibly boring if you do all the sidequests, due to the fact that they are recycled constantly and many of them weren't that great to begin with.
Another major flaw is with the parkour. Cole is able to scale buildings, poles, girders, almost anything he can cling to. This can be a lot of fun, but it can also be incredibly frustrating, since the game attempts to predict where you want to go and makes Cole grab at objects automatically. When it works, it works well, but when it doesn't, which is often, you'll find Cole acting like a human magnet, drawn to anything he passes. This is especially aggravating when you're trying to avoid taking damage, and Cole instead wants to hang from something and turn himself into an even more vulnerable target.
While the first district of Empire City is quite well designed for the parkour, it all falls apart during the second district, which is not designed with the same attention. It becomes significantly more annoying to get Cole up buildings after leaving Neon District and heading to The Warren. He also becomes incredibly confused during later portions of the game, where the acrobatics become required for certain missions and Cole simply doesn't go where you want him to go and the game becomes incredibly confused. It's almost pitiful watching Cole stutter around in mid-air as he tries to decide where what to grab hold of.
That's not helped by the number of glitches I encountered. Cole has fallen through walls, fences, bars and even, at one point, the very road itself. During one mission, I died multiple times because Cole kept falling through a structure instead of clinging to it. In that particular case, it was because the structure was supposed to blow up, but didn't, and I was repeatedly fooled into believing it was a solid bit of scenery and not some sort of placeholder graphic.
As mentioned, the game has a Karma system, which would be a great idea if it wasn't shoved down your throat. At times, the game jolts to a stop and Cole thinks to himself, like a serial killer, that he could either help or mercilessly slaughter the people of Empire City. It's incredibly black-and-white and so incredibly extreme in its divide of "good" and "evil" that it becomes obnoxious. The game really should just ask at the beginning of the game whether or not you want to be a hero or a dick, and leave it at that. By the way, it's not worth being a hero, as the Good Karma powers are bullshit.
As harsh as I'm being on the game, I can't deny that the game had its fun moments. Not all of Cole's powers are useless, especially when he gets the ability to shoot balls of lightning, and the incredibly fun power to glide along power cables. The game should also be praised for its artistic direction, with the district's various gangs each having their own unique and striking look to them. The powers have been very well mapped to the PS3 control, using a variety of shoulder and face buttons to pull off Cole's moves in a simple and user-friendly manner. It's also just very cool to be able to gain health by absorbing the power from nearby machinery.
Still, I can't help feeling that inFAMOUS is a game with potential that hasn't been fully realized. While Crackdown was all about kicking ass, lifting cars and scaling buildings in a single bound, inFAMOUS is about taking ages to climb up the sides of things, performing the same tasks as nauseum, and engaging in slow and rather dull battles against enemies that look different, but nearly all act the same way. A superhero game should be much more fun than this.
Here is the odd thing about inFAMOUS: it's much more enjoyable if you don't think of it as a superhero game.
Really, all of Cole's powers are just recontextualized 3rd-person shooter tropes. His repel power is a shotgun mixed with a Force push; his lightning bomb is just a rocket launcher. Apart from Cole's ability to parkour, slide on electric cables and, you know, suck electricity into his body to regain his health, he's just your typically gruff, action game badass carrying a mobile armory. To an extent, I agree with Jim that the game doesn't make the player feel remarkably powerful. I did get a great deal of enjoyment out of combining my different attacks together (for instance, Force-pushing a dude off a building, then shooting him in the head with a lightning bolt as he fell), but most of the game prioritizes constant movement and self-preservation over balls-to-the-wall heroics.
So long as you're alright with that, inFAMOUS becomes a much more entertaining experience. Cole's parkour powers become less about the mad spectacle of scaling buildings with relative ease, and more about finding a way to circumnavigate your enemies and find better attack positions. Unfortunately, even this becomes something of a bother around the game's halfway point thanks not only to the infuriatingly repetitive side missions, but also the fact that the entire game world is full of angry, superpowered hobos who irritate more often than they threaten. Oddly, the game tells you that after completing a mission in a certain part of Empire City, no more enemies will spawn in that area again.
Except, they do. Frequently. I'm not sure why the game felt the need to lie about something like this, but knowing that you will never truly clean up the city means that every trek from one end of the world to the other will be punctuated by frequent stops for cover, or health regeneration, or combat. Again, this is actually quite exciting for a few hours, but I felt repetition fatigue before the game's halfway point. I still felt compelled to finish it thanks to the very slow drip of new powers the player accumulates over time, however; precisely when I got tired of my most recente arned attack, the game would throw me a new one to play around with. InFAMOUS's power progression is very well-paced, and is unquestionably the main reason I played this otherwise monotonous game to completion.
Well, that, and there are some awfully goddamn cool missions punctuating the otherwise boring "go here, kill this" jobs that occur with alarming regularity. At one point, for instance, Cole is tasked to protect a prison from a literal army of EvilHobos™ alongside a few prison guards. What could have been a pretty humdrum mission was made surprisingly epic and tense thanks to the sheer number and size of the enemies thrown at Cole, and the unlimited electricity supplied by destructible generators behind him. The mission, and some others like it, felt like surprisingly epic back-and-forth struggles as I tried desperately to recharge myself and hurl grenades at the baddies as they slowly encroached on their objective. There aren't many missions like this in inFAMOUS, unfortunately, but the few that are there really surprised me.
I'm not really sure what to think of the karma system. I, like Jim, went through the game as a good guy. I never felt even remotely tempted to join the dark side, as the game subscribes to the BS "good and evil are equally reasonable choices" philosophy that results in ridiculous moral extremes. The binary plot choices afforded by the game are really nothing to praise. The overarching karma/power system, however, interests me a bit.
Like Jim, I found that the Good path resulted in relatively boring, nondestructive powers. On one hand, it's pretty unsatisfying to be a savior. On the other hand ... isn't that how it should be? Conrad will talk more about the evil powers at length, but I quite often found myself frustrated while playing a paragon of good. I'd spot a half-dozen bad guys next to some exploding cars, eager to blow them up in a fantastic orgy of fire and lightning, but I'd have to stop myself because some douchebag civilian would be caught up in the explosion. While most of the player's moral choices either boil down to either healing randomly injured pedestrians or Not Being an Asshole during plot developments, the fun/karma dichotomy gave me something to think about after the end credits finished rolling.
I initially thought I'd restart the game and go down the evil path, but the game's extremely slow release of superpowers meant that I would have had to play through at least the first five hours of the game in order to see anything truly different. Again, though, I'm not sure if this is a bad thing -- while I'm kind of bummed I didn't have as much fun as Conrad did, it would have lessened the importance of the choices I'd made in my first go-around if I could just turn around and make opposite decisions with effortless ease.
All in all, I'd recommend renting inFAMOUS. The missions are way too repetitive to justify a full purchase, but the unusual hybridization of sandbox and 3rd-person shooter games and a surprisingly interesting karma system may justify an eight or nine dollar rental.
Making the decision to take the evil route in inFAMOUS was not a very difficult one. The NPCs are so repugnant on every level that it was utterly impossible to feel any sympathy for any of them and I quickly found myself feeling as though I wanted every one of them to die a slow, painful death. Freed from the shackles of my morality by the guiding light of reason, I began to lay waste to everything in my path. Coincidentally, this is about the same time that I really started to enjoy myself.
Having played through the evil campaign and about halfway through a second playthrough on the more noble side, I can clearly say that the path of darkness is more satisfying. All of the powers you earn are tooled specifically to dealing as much damage as possible in the shortest amount of time. Shock Grenades split apart into smaller charges on impact and the Megawatt Hammer -- a ball of lightning not unlike a rocket launcher -- will actually juggle enemies in the air with multiple explosions.
That said, you're still never going to be a badass in inFAMOUS. At least, not on the Hard difficulty setting where every rooftop and every alley is crawling with enemies eager to rain bullets down upon you. Being ambushed by ten foes at once wouldn't result in good odds for anybody and this is par for the course throughout the game. Clearing out an area by completing its sidequest helps considerably in toning down the number of enemies you may encounter but it's still possible for four or five guys to get the jump on you.
I don't think this is really a problem in and of itself. Being a superhero origin story, it is not unrealistic to expect that Cole does not have the same sort of handle on the use of his powers that a more experienced practitioner might. That doesn't change the fact that it can be frustrating to die repeatedly on missions because gunfire is a more effective deterrent than the surging electricity that flows forth from you, but it is at least understandable from a story perspective.
My real gripe about the difficulty and sheer number of foes you fight is that it makes what should be epic boss battles seem incredibly tame by comparison. Going up against one person, no matter how powerful they may be, simply doesn't have the same level of desperation and frantic energy that combat against a mob of their minions does.
As noted above, there are a bevy of technical issues. Pop-in occurs far more frequently than it has any right to, with cars that are only fifty feet away appearing on the street out of thin air. Cole often stutters while attempting to perform any of the three powers used on prone characters, resulting in an awkward sort of dance over the figure before accomplishing his task, giving up or being shot to death because he's been standing in the open for far too long.
Then there's the climbing. I love climbing in games and this one certainly delivers on that. You'll spend more time climbing buildings than you ever thought possible and it all works really well -- unless you want to drop down from something. The parkour mechanics in inFAMOUS basically boil down to Cole being almost magentically attracted to anything he can cling to or stand on. God forbid, however, that you veer too close to an object while gliding, falling or any other activity where the last thing you want to do is stop moving.
One thing I love about inFAMOUS is the way it manages collectible items in Empire City. All of them have a real benefit to the player which manifests as they are collected, rather than giving a lump reward for those who have the fortitude to find every last one. Blast shards, fragments of metal from ground zero of the explosion which gives Cole his powers, can be gathered to increase the total length of Cole's power bar. Dead Drops are recorded messages by a federal agent which help fill in story details and give a different perspective to some events.
Not only are the collectibles useful/interesting, they are also very easy to find. Clicking a thumbstick makes the locations of these items appear on the mini-map provided that they are within the range of said map. Thank God. I know that I would be a completionist in more of these sandbox games if I could be arsed to spend hours hunting down bonus items. Making it easy to divine their locations with the push of a button encourages the player to make that little bit of extra effort in gathering them.
The problem comes in when players are less interested in following up on side-quests and focus entirely on the game's plot progression. Cole's powers can be expensive to use and collecting Blast Shards winds up being fairly important if you intend to use anything but his basic attack (a perfectly viable option but one which somewhat defeats the purpose of even playing a superhero game). Similarly, the experience points earned in optional missions are valuable for purchasing upgrades to powers and it's difficult to rack up the points necessary to really buff yourself out through combat alone. While not an issue for fans of the sandbox genre, it may alienate more casual players.
If it sounds as though I am complaining, well, I am. But that's not because I did not enjoy the experience of playing inFAMOUS. Quite to the contrary, I had enough fun that I gladly went back to the good campaign after finishing simply to see how some of the cutscenes would play out differently. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and mechanics in spite of the myriad flaws. You should know what you're getting into with this title, however. You will not be godlike, you will probably get annoyed at some point with the difficulty and there are going to be some glitches.
That said, it's still a fun game if you're willing to accept these shortcomings. It is not an amazing experience which will change your life but a very competent open-world shooter with some good ideas and a few shortcomings in the execution. It's very easy to recommend as a rental since the game can be completed on a spare weekend and absolutely worth playing once.
Overall Score: 6.5 -- Alright (6s may be slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.)