- Review Price: £39.99
inFamous is the PS3’s answer to Crackdown in more ways than, I suspect, its developers ever intended. Hailing from Sucker Punch, the team behind the Sly Racoon series of platformers, it’s a sprawling, open-world game where super powers play the major role. The gameplay gives us a next-gen mish-mash of established genres – think of inFamous as an open world, platform action game with elements of an RPG and a duck-and-cover shooter – and the game’s long-term appeal hinges largely on an addictive cycle of rewards and power upgrades. Most of all, however, inFamous reminds me of Crackdown because it’s a game that’s destined to be misunderstood and under-rated. It’s a game that demands invention and imagination. Get into it, and you’ll find it one of the finest titles on Sony’s system, and arguably the best super-hero game yet. I almost dread to say it but, much as I loved Crackdown, inFamous is – for me – the better game.
For starters, I find the gritty, comic-book storyline more compelling. It opens with our cycle courier hero, Cole, coming round to discover that the package he was delivering has exploded, wiping out half of Empire City in the process. What remains of the city is being terrorised by vicious gangs of mysterious hooded vagrants and addicts, and has also been cut off from the rest of the country by a brutally maintained police barricade. On the plus side, Cole now has super powers. With a press of the L2 button he can drain electricity from just about any reasonable source. By holding down the L1 button then pressing R1, he can aim and fire bolts of juice at the aforementioned troublemakers. Press X while targeting, and Cole can release a powerful pulse of energy, knocking people and objects out of the way. And that’s just for starters.
Not only does Cole have inhuman resilience and incredible agility, but he can – by earning experience – add new powers to his list. The sort of bombing technique now banned in local swimming pools can be employed from high buildings onto the pavement, knocking baddies sideways with the impact. By the time you’re six or seven hours into the game, Cole is hurling shock grenades, firing off precision bolts in glorious slow-mo, grinding along cables at high speed and gliding from rooftop to rooftop. The more you play, the more powerful you become.
Movement is the essence of a great superhero game, and inFamous has it licked. In terms of running and climbing, the game sits somewhere in between Crackdown and Assassin’s Creed, demanding a certain amount of intervention, but bending over backwards to help you clamber up skyscrapers and string together a series of super-cool moves with ease. You can see Sucker Punch’s platform game experience at work here, and in contrast to many gaming super-heroes, Cole is a joy to control. At first my worry was that Cole couldn’t match Crackdown’s ludicrous leaping for kicks, but once the grind and glide powers come in, just getting around the city is a jumping, sliding, flying thrill ride.
Of course, there’s a lot more for you to do than merely get around. Check out the map or mini-map and you’ll see blue markers pointing to the central story missions, plus yellow markers leading to useful, XP-gathering side quests. Through the former you’ll steadily uncover the nature of the fatal package and the plots and personalities that have bought Empire City to this point. Through the latter you’ll steadily clean up the neighbourhood, establishing medical centres that act as respawn points when you’re knocked down and permanently reducing the numbers of hoodies taking pot shots at you every time you pass.
What helps make inFamous for me is the variety of the missions. Much as I loved monkeying around in Crackdown, an awful number of the hits you had to carry out came down to a three step process of locate HQ, bust in or infiltrate, then heroically kick ass. Crackdown’s locations and scenarios were constructed with enough skill to disguise this, as did the open way in which you could wield your powers, but the game still felt repetitive after a while. inFamous seems to try harder, with what are effectively run and gun scenarios mixed in with escort missions, point defences, fierce assaults and searches. Specific missions set underground give Sucker Punch the chance to flex their old platform gaming skills, reproducing the old moving walkways and timed traps of the classic platformer in the game’s gritty, believable style so that it might actually take a while before you realise that you’re effectively playing a chunk of Sly Racoon. Meanwhile side missions feature Crackdown style rooftop races, some well-engineered stealth sections and some nicely executed search and destroy quests. Sure, when it all boils down all the missions eventually become variations on a few themes, but each has just enough flavour to help the game maintain momentum, which it does for hour, after hour after hour of hideously addictive, totally immersive gameplay.
The combat is going to be a sticking point for some people. Basically, your enemies are fairly fiendish. They’re not particularly smart, but they are numerous and they are accurate, and certain types wielding rocket launchers or acting as suicide bombers are perfectly capable of causing nightmares. When the game gives you the streets, walls and rooftops to play with it can be tough. When you’re constrained to tunnels, train tracks or parks things can turn surprisingly nasty, as Cole finds energy supplies limited or sheer enemy numbers overwhelming. The trick is, you discover, to mix things up a little. Start playing inFamous like you would Gears of War with your electricity bolt as your assault rifle and your shock grenades and precision bolts as alternative weapons, and you’ll find it hard going. Make use of the environment, use the shockwave pulse attacks to throw the scenery around or bomb waves of enemies into submission, and you can make a dent in the hoodie forces before mopping up the stragglers. Realise that you have the advantage in terms of speed, agility and immediate brute force, and the game begins to open up to you.
The more powers you develop, the more fun you’ll have making use of them, and while the improvements tend to be incremental rather than instantly game-changing, there’s something about using Shockwave to send a crowd of dustcoat-clad vagrants into the air then using slow-mo to blast them on their way down that really warms the cockles of your heart. And why worry about using sniper fire to get the guy on the rooftop opposite when you can bash or blast him clean off it in a matter of seconds. After all, you might be able to survive any fall, but the same doesn’t go for your foes. As with Crackdown, this actual process of discovery is addictive. You’ll want bigger, better powers, then you’ll want to give them a spin and see what they can do.
Yet inFamous has a whole dimension on top of this. Taking its lead from Knights of the Old Republic and Fable, Sucker Punch’s game has a system of karma, allowing you to choose a good or evil path through the game. Do you fancy helping the beleaguered and healing the sick and injured, or would you rather take care of number one, strike a mean pose and make the city a sandpit for your twisted inclinations. Taking on good or evil side missions will open up additional powers, and as you go up through the good or evil ranks you’ll unlock specific upgrades denied to those of the opposite karmic path. As your nature changes, so does your outer appearance, and so will the reactions of your numerous fellow citizens. And this is the weird thing about inFamous. I played as a bit of a goodie-two-shoes, and the more I did so, the more I liked playing the hero. I started knocking down evil doers and healing people in the street, not because I was getting much in the way of tangible rewards, but because it felt like the right thing to do. And I’m sure the evil path works in much the same way, but probably with a few more hammy ‘wha-wha-wha-wha’ laughs.
This brings me neatly on to something else. Eight years after the release of GTAIII I can still think of only a handful of open world games where the setting feels like a living, breathing place. Empire City might not have the most varied locales or architecture, but it feels solid. There’s enough traffic and enough of a population to make it feel convincing, and there’s a tangible sense of desperation to the place that makes you feel all the better when the first green shoots of hope come bursting through (or when the iron boot of fear comes crushing down, if that’s your thing). For me, this all gives inFamous a depth and richness that other open-world superhero games have, so far, lacked. And while the overall tone follows the dark, grimy style of Frank Miller’s Batman and Sin City output, Sucker Punch has still found room to crowbar in a dash of sardonic humour, whether in the broadcasts you’ll see playing on displays and TV sets around the city, or in the frat-house antics of your hapless sidekick, Zeke, as he tries to cash in on your deeds in a quest for fortune and female company. inFamous, it must be said, has charm.
Graphically speaking, it’s not as arresting an achievement as, say, Uncharted, Killzone 2 or Ratchet and Clank, and you will notice spots of texture pop-in and slow-down as you make your way around. All the same, there’s a convincing level of detail and some superb atmospheric lighting, and the game has a physicality to it that some more stylised superhero efforts lack. Plus, as I’d expect from Sucker Punch, the character design and animation is top notch, with Cole expressing more personality in his moves and posture than most game heroes ever manage. In terms of super-hero movies, think X-Men 2, Batman Begins and Watchmen. Beneath all the lightning blasts and arcs of energy, there’s something solid and believable – even, it must be said, political – going on; an impression echoed in the stylish, graphic novel cut-scenes, the restrained use of music and the underplayed, hard-nosed dialogue.
In the end, though, I wouldn’t want to make too many claims about inFamous’ status as a work of gaming art. What I would like to make clear is that, provided you give it the time and the commitment it deserves, this is a fantastic piece of entertainment – the sort of game where you’ll have to drag yourself away because it’s getting too late at night, only to find yourself thinking about playing it for most of the next day. It’s also a pretty sizable game, particularly when you factor in the secondary missions, and when you consider that you might want to try both good and evil paths on top of that, there’s no messing with it when it comes to bang for buck. It’s a shame that it comes without Crackdown’s multiplayer antics, but then I think Crackdown’s ultra-violent slapstick might not have sat so well with inFamous’ more downbeat tone., and I’d always rather have a great single-player game than a good one with a mediocre online mode appended. Of course, with Radical’s very similar sounding Prototype coming soon, it might be tempting to wait before buying in case that turns out to be an even better game, but, personally, I wouldn’t want to. inFamous? Hopefully. unMissable? Definitely.
On most levels inFamous beats Crackdown to set a new standard for open-world superhero games. You need the right approach to get the most out of it, but if everything clicks for you, you simply won’t want to stop playing.