Plenty of video games take their players on a memorable thrill ride or amazing adventure, only to fall flat in the closing minutes. “That’s OK,” we’re used to saying, fully aware the medium suffers because so many players never finish the games they start. “It’s more about the journey than the destination, anyway.”
“Infamous 2” (rated T, $60 on PlayStation 3) is one of few games that does the opposite. Like a struggling marathoner, it lurches and stumbles through its campaign, only to mount a stirring final sprint for the finish.
The first “Infamous,” released in 2009 [review], ended with newly minted superhero Cole McGrath finding out that all his trials and tribulations, epic though they were, were meant to prepare him for a showdown with a super-powered, world-destroying villain known as the Beast. “Infamous 2” opens with Cole confronting the Beast, and getting his butt handed to him as the Beast destroys what’s left of New York City stand-in Empire City.
The Beast proceeds to lay waste to Empire City as Cole joins up with NSA agent Lucy Kuo and flees to New Orleans stand-in New Marais. Once in New Marais, Cole, his buddy Zeke and Kuo seek out Dr. Sebastian Wolfe, who developed the device that gave Cole his superpowers in the first “Infamous.” The hope is that Dr. Wolfe will be able to work with Cole to develop his powers further. As players search New Marais for “blast cores” that help upgrade Cole’s abilities, the game is filled with reminders that the Beast is moving down the East Coast, leaving millions of dead in its wake.
Developer Sucker Punch uses the shift to New Marais smartly. The swamps and Katrina-ravaged “Floodtown” district pose a distinct set of hazards to a superhero whose body crackles with electricity. One wrong jump and Cole is like a radio dropped into a bathtub, electrocuting civilians, bad guys and even himself if he lingers too long.
Mercifully, “Infamous 2” avoids the common sequel trap of stripping Cole of all the powers he gained in the first game and making players start over. While the ability to fire electrically charged missiles is puzzlingly acquired mid-game, most of Cole’s other abilities are available early.
New to “Infamous 2” is a sword-like amplifier. Built by Zeke, it lets Cole get up close and personal with adversaries. Though it delivers “God of War”-like close-quarter mayhem against small numbers of enemies, the amp is largely unviable. In most battles, Cole will be squaring off against large numbers of enemies whose gunfire, grenades and superpowers will cut him to ribbons if he tries to take them out one by one.
Just like its predecessor, “Infamous 2” lets you play as a hero or villain, but once again the moral complexity and nuance of these “choices” is laughably deficient. In one instance, goody-two-shoes Kuo suggests Cole win the support of a group of rebels by delivering aid supplies. Her rival, voodoo lady Nix, urges Cole to go the evil route by — get this — dressing up as bad guys and slaughtering some of the rebels, thus driving the remainder over to Cole’s side. Not only does Nix’s option weaken a potential ally, it has a much bigger margin for error and frankly sounds like a lot more work. Didn’t “Star Wars” teach us that bad guys always take the easy path?
Time and again, Cole is presented with “choices” that aren’t really choices at all so much as no-brainer opportunities to reiterate whether you’ve chosen to play the game as a hero or villain. Nix’s crazy, hare-brained schemes sound like she’d be better suited making decisions on a bad reality TV show than trying to decide how best to save humanity from the Beast’s crushing onslaught.
For as much as Kuo and Nix figure into the plot of “Infamous 2,” it’s a shame they don’t get more screen time. The game is at its best when Cole, Kuo and/or Nix are working together, with regular guy Zeke coordinating logistics. Too many vital missions, however, feature Cole alone, leading me to wonder what Kuo and Nix were up to while I was trying to save the world.
As they did in “Infamous,” Sucker Punch tries to create a sense of a larger game world by showing Cole newscasts as he runs, jumps and glides across New Marais. It’s a great idea in theory, yet the broadcasts end up lacking the punch of the first game’s DJ, the Voice of Survival. Instead, we’re treated to a singular newscaster who seems to know shockingly little about the Beast’s devastation along the Eastern seaboard. Considering the Beast is visible from dozens of miles away, and that we’re living in an era of ubiquitous cellphone cameras, Facebook and YouTube, it’s ridiculously implausible to suggest that a U.S. TV network would so poorly report a catastrophe on the scale of “Infamous 2’s.”
Dubious newscasts, squandered sidekicks and false moral choices aside, “Infamous 2” remains a lot of fun, thanks to Cole’s intuitive arsenal of superpowers and Sucker Punch’s smart level and mission design. While a few of “Infamous 2’s” side missions can feel like a grind, the gameplay surrounding the core plot is well-tuned and smart, and the enemies Cole does battle with are more varied than the antagonists in the first “Infamous.”
Amazingly, “Infamous 2’s” final missions transcend the preceding children’s-book morality and ham-fisted foreshadowing. The good-guy ending subverted all my expectations, and Cole’s final act just before the credits roll is so expertly handled, it stands atop my favorite moments in gaming, right alongside the first few seconds of the first “Infamous.” It’s a bumpy ride, but you’ll be glad you made it.
What’s more, the game offers players the chance to extend their experience through user-created content. An in-game level editor lets players carve out a swath of New Marais and create missions for others to download and play. It’s a cool idea, but so far, none of the missions I’ve played has equaled the on-disc missions. It’s a fun diversion, but it’s no “LittleBigPlanet.”