Thursday, June 18, 2009

Black, White, and Grey - inFamous Review

I think I'm qualified to say a few words on inFamous now...


What say you? Let's get on it.

Reading one of my earlier posts, I can see how it'd be difficult to even get mildly excited about inFamous. Given the general "meh" reaction to an open world game that isn't Grand Theft Auto, without any of the buzz of such a title, it's very easy to write inFamous off as another clone, or worse off, as just "another open world hero game". It's even easier considering every other game releasing in June boasting nearly the same thing. It couldn't be further from the truth however, as inFamous is not only one of the best superhero games I've played, but one of the better open world games I've played as well.

The story of inFamous is centered around one Cole McGrath, a very average delivery man in the fictional Empire City delivering just another package on another average day...or so he thought. Turns out Cole delivered a bomb that explodes moments after he reaches his destination and not only levels nearly the entire city, killing thousands in it's wake, but also imbues him with electricity based powers. Unfortunately, the rest of the city wasn't as lucky as Cole. The fallout of the explosion started a plague that forced the government to quarantine (abandon) the city and the gangs who were previously low key have risen up and taken full advantage of the newly anarchic society. Cole himself has many questions, including the nature of the blast and why he seems to be the only one with powers, but with the entire city in disarray and steadily getting worse as time passes, will Cole use his newly acquired abilities to be Empire City's savior, or its ruler?


It's a setup that works very well, due particularly to inFamous' presentation. From the very second you press start, the game seamlessly throws you headfirst into the explosion that rocks Empire City, and into Cole's battered confusion at the event. It's sewn up in such a way that you begin the story on the same note he does, and does a great job of putting you in the character's shoes that few games bother to do. Many of the game's cinematics are either handled real time in this fashion, or through stylized comic book cutscenes like the picture above. Visually, the game does a above average job of rendering the city with an almost meticulous attention to detail (nearly every building is unique and every district has a personality of its own), though it does suffer from an uneven framerate at times and noticeable pop in of objects.

Controlling Cole is a blast as well, using what I'm going to pretentiously call "magnetic parkour", he has the uncanny ability to scale anything that looks like a handhold, or stand on any surface he can plant his feet on, provided it isn't TOO narrow for his feet. Occasionally, the system hiccups and he'll grab the wrong ledge, and descending can be annoying due to his tendency to grab EVERYTHING automatically. However the undeniable rush that you'll feel leaping from ledge to ledge, rooftop to rooftop with ease outweighs this, especially during the game's missions that test your platforming skills. It also plays fantastically into battles, having the ability to leap from a building, throwing out a ball of lightning before grabbing a streetlight mid descent, hanging and firing out a few shocks to disperse the crowd and leaping into the lot of them with a carefully timed thunder drop is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to your prowess.

Controlling his various powers is also a fairly intuitive experience. While you start out with a very basic electric attack (activated by pressing R1), you eventually gain access to abilities that involve you throwing shockwaves, firing balls of energy from your fists, and even calling thunder down from the sky (steered by the sixaxis!). While the majority of your powers are admittedly 3rd person shooter archtypes (pistol, sniper, rocket launcher), seeing them cleverly disguised as lightning powers with their own unique properties adds to their appeal. It's also very well laid out across the pad, and you'll rarely find yourself executing a move you didn't want to.


Speaking of his powers, depending on the path you decide to go down, his powers change, and it actually affects the experience. While the basics of each ability don't change, their effects do, lending a more noble player with defensive abilities, and the more malevolent of us with destructively offensive ones. It's a system that actually plays into the role you're fufilling; as a hero, you'll balance the fallout of your attacks between effectively subduing the criminials and not harming the populace in the crossfire, as a villain, you won't care and will relish watching everything explode in a shower of electric sparks and debris.

To put it simply, being good turns the game into Crackdown, being evil is akin to playing Grand Theft Auto as a teenager, invoking mass destruction and terror for the thrill and fun of it.


There's a karma system in place governing all this, that through your actions towards the citizens and enemies (Kill or restrain? Heal or harm?) decides which direction you take. While most of the choices are very black and white, some a little too obvious, there are later ones that really test your mettle and truly place you at the reins of Cole's character. He may be somewhat of an antihero, but he's only as good a person as you are willing to be, and the entire feel of the game changes in kind. As you progress through the wealth of story and side missions the game offers, your reputation changes, and people will either fear you, revere you, throw rocks when they see you or try their best to do their part in saving the city alongside you. It's almost worth seeing the game through twice, just to see the dynamics of the city shift due to your actions.


But of course, with all the praise, there has to be a major complaint here and there, so I'll fire off a few before we close. The presentation is solid, as I mentioned before, with Empire City having more high resolution textures than any open world deserves to have, but the engine is clearly choking on this fact, and while it does a bangup job of keeping things solid even in the most explosive of battles, simply traversing the city drives the engine insane with processing and the framerate drops. Take into account almost insulting pop in at times (I've literally seen an entire quadrant of a building disappear and reappear with a single step back and forth)and it's a problem that's frequently distracting.

Also, I understand the balance a superhero game needs to strike between power and vulnerability, but the enemies presented, down to the lowliest grunt, are very effective with their weapons, almost to a fault. They're highly perceptive, able to spot you from blocks away, and deadly accurate. While I didn't expect them all to be unorganized bumbling idiots, I certainly didn't expect them to be Navy SEALs and expert marksmen either. It really feels like a knock to my heroism when I fear being picked off from a mile away by stray gunfire while scaling a building. Finally, the game has an excellent soundtrack, but you'd never know it because you rarely get a chance to hear it. Most of your time exploring the city will be done to the sounds of street ambiance, and it's a bit of a waste for such great tracks to gain minimal exposure during boss battles and the occasional story event.

None of this though, keeps inFamous from being a game I highly recommend to anyone owning a PS3. The story is interesting and well paced, the main character is a blast to use, and the city you're given to explore is an extremely well designed playground with a ton of things to discover and collect.

P.S.: Kudos to Sucker Punch for nailing the open world character swimming problem right on the head. Why can't he swim? He's a walking generator. Done. Bravo.

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