Sucker Punch’s “inFAMOUS” begins with a bang. From the first scene, when you unwittingly shatter the tranquility of a peaceful urban setting by pressing the start button as if it were a dynamite plunger, you’re in for an unforgettable ride.
As “inFAMOUS” (rated T, $60 on PlayStation 3) begins, you take over for Empire City bike messenger Cole McGrath just after the massive electrical explosion you triggered when you pressed start. Almost immediately, you’ll discover that being at ground zero seems to have given Cole some extraordinary abilities.
Once you escape the blast zone and learn the basic control scheme, you’ll start play a couple weeks later, quickly finding out that a huge chunk of one of the city’s boroughs has been obliterated, the entire city is without power and a plague is ravaging the surviving population. What’s more, the plague has led the federal government to quarantine the entire place with a massive blockade. Oh, and your girlfriend hates you and blames you for her sister’s death because you were unknowingly carrying the bomb that caused this mess.
It’s up to you to master your new powers, bring order to a chaotic metropolis, win back your girl and crack the mystery behind the explosion and its connection to Cole. As is popular in big-budget, open world games these days, you can play as an up-and-coming superhero or an aspiring supervillain.
You’ll quickly get a handle on what a blast it is to wield Cole’s abilities. In addition to his ever-growing slate of electricity-based powers, Cole is quite the acrobat. He can survive nearly any fall, so long as it’s not into water, and use parkour-like skills to scale most buildings with ease. Timing Cole’s jumps up the sides of buildings, leaping from tiny platform to tiny platform (with just the right amount of computer assistance) and blasting baddies feels incredibly realistic and intuitive. (At one point, I actually felt a bit of vertigo while climbing and jumping my way to the top of an enormous scrap heap.) “inFAMOUS” is easily the best-controlling game I’ve played on Sony’s console since I picked it up at the beginning of the year.
Despite being an open-world game, “inFAMOUS” never throws too many new things at you. You discover new powers at a steady rate, gaining about enough time to fold each one into your repertoire before the next is added to the mix. The mission structure and experience-based system let you enhance your arsenal by leveling up your favorite powers first. A handful of upgrades in the game will also be dependant upon karma and the completion of good or evil side missions.
These side missions, along with several “neutral” ones are how Cole takes back the three boroughs from the three themed street gangs that have seized control of the city since the bomb detonated. For each side mission you complete, a tiny area of a borough is cleaned up, meaning you’ll generally be able to pass through that area unmolested. As is my custom, I played through “inFAMOUS” the first time as a good guy, and one of the coolest things was the palpable sense that I was liberating Empire City from the goons, one block at a time. The first time the good citizens intervened on my behalf in a fight by throwing rocks at my enemies felt richly rewarding.
“inFAMOUS” has, fairly and unfairly, taken some knocks for its cliched story and cornball dialogue. One late-game mission, in particular, asks you to make a choice between the needs of one person who’s close to Cole or serving the greater good. Is this scenario not present in nearly every superhero comic book, movie and video game since the dawn of time?
Nonetheless, it’s easy to give the game a pass on this. From its stylized in-game movies to its themed street gangs and familiar, archetypal characters, “inFAMOUS” is an obvious homage to superhero comic books, an artistic medium usually not described in highbrow terms.
That’s not to say there aren’t some interesting themes and complex ideas at play amidst “inFAMOUS'” familiar underpinnings. (There’s also at least one unforgettable ending.) The game, directly and indirectly, grapples with the power wielded by those who control the mass media. Frequently, you’ll walk past a TV just in time to see a news report covering your latest exploits, only with the facts distorted to favor the federal government and forces behind the quarantine. On the flip side, you’ll also catch glimpses of a pirate TV signal from a man calling himself The Voice of Survival. In addition to giving Empire City’s denizens survival tips, the Voice seeks to discredit both the government and Cole, whom he casts as a villain. And when you hear what everyone says about Cole as you walk around the city, it’s clear the citizens aren’t sure whom to believe.
Another issue the game handles well is the sheer tedium that would come with being a superhero. If you choose to play as a good guy, you’ll be struck by the obscene number of folks who ask you for help in assisting the sick, breaking up muggings or simply posing for a picture. (Late in the game, crowds of adoring, picture-snapping, cell-phone-gabbing hangers-on followed me everywhere I went, forcing me to be extra careful while fighting.)
If there’s one thing developer Sucker Punch flat-out nailed with the writing in “inFAMOUS,” it’s in making the player feel like an honest-to-god, newly minted superhero. The most interesting choices in the game aren’t the scripted events that force you into all-too-familiar moral conundrums. It’s unscripted stuff like trying to decide whether to break away from hunting the 350 blast shards hidden throughout the city to help out those innocent folks being shot by rampaging gunmen.