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inFamous (PS3)

CoverinFamous casts players in the role of protagonist Cole McGrath, a newly-minted superhero (or villain, your choice) who gains awesome electrical powers after unwittingly detonating a pulse bomb that wreaks havoc throughout his home, Empire City. In the wake of the blast, a mysterious epidemic sweeps the population, prompting the government to establish quarantine, while powerful gangs terrorize the city’s three districts. Intent on self-preservation and the safety of his friends, Cole is quickly recruited by rogue agents to restore order to the city while struggling to unravel the conspiracy behind the blast. The storyline is compelling enough to keep you guessing up until the conclusion slaps you with a Soul Reaver-esque time paradox that’ll keep your head spinning till the inevitable sequel breaks street. (To gain some perspective on Cole’s backstory, check out the inFamous prequel graphic novel on the developer's website.)

One of the primary hooks in inFamous is the player’s ability to develop Cole either as a reluctantly benevolent superhero or a brooding, anti-heroic supervillain. As you progress through the story, the moral choices you make will affect the game world in a variety of ways: Cole’s physical appearance will change to match his personality; citizens will respond to you with fear or adoration; and certain story events and bits of dialogue will be different depending on your alignment. The game measures your Good and Evil actions on a sliding scale, making it easy to recant your past deeds and reset Cole’s moral compass mid-game. While choosing a particular path barely affects the main story arc, inFamous encourages sticking to one side of the karmic coin by offering ability upgrades specific to each alignment. While it may be tempting to constantly try to balance your Good and Evil actions, players are ultimately rewarded for experiencing the game in its entirety under a single moral heading. This dual morality mechanic adds breadth to the story, but it also highlights the difficulties involved in attempting to incorporate tricky philosophical arguments in videogames. Where many titles try to present their choices in shades of gray, inFamous relies on stark black and white scenarios that spare little room for moral ambiguity. One story event lets you choose which poster of Cole will be plastered across the city: a heroic profile or a menacing death’s head. Another event gives you the option of disarming a bomb or carelessly letting it detonate, destroying a police station. With such transparent choices, it’s never a question in which direction your decisions are pushing the morality meter. This isn’t entirely problematic; but there’s something to be said for subtlety. A bit less contrast in the game’s moral dilemmas could have helped strengthen the overall experience by forcing gamers to make decisions more carefully.

It’s obvious developer Sucker Punch designed inFamous with a comic book aesthetic in mind. All of the major cinematics play out as moving comics, effects-enhanced still images that glide across the screen. The sprawling open world metropolis of Empire City and its inhabitants are modeled with a similar style of cartoony realism. Everything looks terrific. The game’s lighting effects are incredible: electricity leaps from Cole’s hands, tracing vibrant paths of destruction along groups of enemies, spiderwebbing across fences and pools of water, or igniting derelict automobiles into concussive blasts of flame. Animations are simply great—nothing beats watching an electrified bystander spring up stock still, then collapse on the ground rigor mortis straight. And Cole’s parkour-esque leaps and ascents, calling to mind Sucker Punch’s flagship mascot Sly Cooper, are captivating to watch. The game’s frame rate is typically smooth, but tends to chug during frantic, effects-heavy battles. A curious tendency to get stuck in invisible walls will annoy you, but should by no means ruin the experience.

While inFamous earns kudos for its intuitive visual design, the package’s real appeal lies in its tight controls and finely tuned gameplay mechanics. At its core, inFamous is an open world platformer married to a precision third person shooter. Players will spend much of the game scaling and traversing Empire City’s towering collection of high rises and landmarks ledge-by-ledge (a la Assassin’s Creed) and performing precise leaps from telephone poles, street lights, and satellite arrays. The game is awfully forgiving here, offering a “sticky” mechanic that automatically attaches Cole to nearby objects. This function can become annoying when frantically leaping away from enemy crossfires and makes it nearly impossible to execute a smooth descent from any of the city’s structures. But most of the time it’s a welcome safety net that (usually) prevents you from overshooting your target and plummeting into water traps—which, in Cole’s hyperelectric state, almost always results in an untimely death. Early in the story you’ll unlock the ability to speed grind electrified wires and subway lines, making travel between the city’s three major islands much quicker and more fun. inFamous’ brand of stylized platforming should be familiar to anyone who’s played a Sly Cooper, and is vaguely reminiscent of the better Spider-Man titles (check out Treyarch’s Ultimate Spider-Man). In fact, don’t be surprised if you find yourself pining for web-slinging action every time you send Cole hurtling off of a terrace.

As engaging as its exploration elements are, inFamous’ spot-on third person combat really shines. You begin the game proper with a basic lightning bolt attack that neatly replaces any genre-traditional firearm. As you progress through the central storyline, you’ll unlock new attacks and abilities—energy grenades, electromagnetic shockwaves, force fields and precision sniper controls—all of which can be upgraded through neutral or alignment-specific expansion trees. In order to purchase these upgrades, you’ll need to amass experience points (XP) by defeating enemies and completing missions scattered throughout the city. On higher difficulties, standard combat yields less XP; but by chaining together various attacks with bonus Stunts (headshotting an airborne enemy, knocking a baddy off a roof), you can quickly build up a reserve of currency. Upgrading along a Good or Evil ability branch requires advancement through a three-tiered Karma Meter that tracks the morality of your every action. Both branches include exclusive secondary effects that further augment your combat abilities. These residuals are comparable and ultimately offer an excuse to replay the game under the opposing morality. An energy meter at the top of your HUD keeps track of Cole’s internal power supply. While the standard lightning bolt won’t sap your reserve, more powerful attacks will. You can replenish your supply by siphoning energy from the city’s power grid or sucking the life out of downed enemies and civilians. Collecting Blast Shards – small glowing chunks of rock scattered throughout the city—expands your energy bar, but only to a certain point. Tracking down all 350 shards is addicting, recalling Crackdown’s endless search for hidden Orbs. Even though you’ve got a radar to help locate the elusive Shards, it’s little consolation when you’re left scouring the city for the last one or two fragments.

The central story arc of inFamous plays out over 40 missions, identified on the map as blue exclamation points. These missions focus mostly on combat and exploration, and range from repowering subways to scouring a park for invisible enemies. Periodically, you’ll be sent into the sewers to bring a downed substation back online, restoring power to portions of the city and unlocking new abilities. Side missions become available as you make your way through the story; these include escorting captured enemies, methodically ridding buildings of mounted surveillance equipment, and tracking down stolen medical supplies to access clinics which double as respawn points. Fifteen Good-Evil side missions dot the islands, providing substantial fuel for your Karma Meter and occasionally adding perspective to the story. But once you commit to one of these aligned missions, its sister mission disappears from the map; so choose carefully.

Enemy encounters are frequent and consistently engaging. Often, they’ll attack in groups, swarming Cole from all angles (above and below), cleverly using the environment to find cover and secure vantage points. Although each island features its own unique gang, enemy types come standard: gun-toting grunts, grenadiers, rocket launching heavies, and Conduits, special units with powers ranging from teleportation to junk monster “mech” armor. Boss battles are few but wildly chaotic. The climactic final encounter will put your reflexes (and the game’s excellent control scheme) to the test, forcing you to blast, dodge, and reorient in an exhausting, seemingly endless cycle. Featuring the type of intense, technical combat series like God of War and Ninja Gaiden have become famous for, this is easily the high point of the game.

The main storyline of inFamous won’t take long to blast through if you ignore side missions, collectibles, and grinding for experience. And if you’ve already mastered its combat mechanics in previous playthroughs, even the game’s hardest difficulty setting shouldn’t offer much of a challenge. Enemies will take more hits before going down for good; but unless you’re being swarmed by baddies, most deaths will likely be attributed to misjudged leaps and errant grenades setting off self-immolating chain reactions. The real appeal to replaying inFamous is experiencing all of the minor story and gameplay tweaks that result from following a different moral alignment. Although the city becomes re-accessible after you defeat the final boss, there isn’t much to do after endgame. Completionists can scour the map for Blast Shards, venture back into unconquered neighborhoods to complete side missions, collect XP to unlock and enable all of Cole’s abilities or complete a variety of Trophy challenges (take down 25 enemies from aboard a moving train, get 50 sticky grenade kills, etc.). Aside from cinematics and Dead Drops (audio logs) becoming available for playback, there are no unlockables. There’s no online support or local multiplayer, so be prepared to go it alone. The game’s DLC is limited to a single, free add-on ability (the Gigawatt Blades) available for download on PSN; and no further expansions appear to be in the pipeline. Basically, you’re set with what you’ve got out of the box. But for an experience this entertaining (and one so clearly in line for a sequel), that’s not much of a complaint.

Bottom line: inFamous has earned a lot of critical acclaim and industry accolades for being one of the few successful original IP’s this generation, as well as a standout PS3 exclusive and consistent “Best of” nominee for 2009. Its slick controls, spot-on gameplay mechanics and intuitive visual design make it an obvious choice for savvy gamers. Dedicated players can easily complete the modest central storyline twice (once for each alignment) over the course of a week, experiencing most of what the game has to offer in a few sittings. While inFamous presents a spectacular single-player experience, its lack of multiplayer or substantial DLC and virtual dearth of endgame content rob it of any sense of longevity. It’s a must-play; but unless you’re the type of gamer that obsesses over finding every last collectible, you’re better off renting and completing than committing to the retail price tag.

Developer: Sucker Punch
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA)
Genre: Action
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen (T)
System: Playstation 3
Other Systems: NA
Release Date: May 26, 2009

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