The sandbox and open world approach has come into its own lately. With Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, Red Faction: Guerrilla, and Prototype adding to and refining the approach, the inherently unwieldy design is slowly being reigned in. Odd spelling aside, inFAMOUS (Infamous) happens to be one of the best. Combining their penchant for action and platforming with an open world design, Sucker Punch has introduced a sense of consistency to the sandbox style while also maintaining the sense of freedom that is so appealing. The superpowers don’t hurt, either.
One trap that Infamous failed to escape from is that of the generic protagonist. I’m not sure what it is about tan guys with shaved heads, gravelly voices, and a lot of angst, but they are all over the place nowadays. Cole MacGrath is Alex Mercer is Alec Mason is Jet Brody is Nathan Hale, while none are the everyman they are modeled after. Looking and sounding the same, okay, but acting the same, especially with their varied backgrounds, is too much. Adding another dash of bland is Cole’s best friend, Zeke, the archetype chubby sidekick that loves “chicks” and “cash.” Not that those are abnormal motivators, or even noteworthy, but being tasked with finding a guy’s murderers so Zeke can try to score with the deceased’s sister is ridiculous. Ignoring the plot holes Zeke runs in and out of, just having to talk to him is a chore – the few funny one-liners weren’t worth it. At least Cole finds himself in an interesting, albeit convoluted, story.
As a bicycle messenger at ground zero of a devastating explosion that racked one of the three islands making up Empire City, Cole finds himself facing an accusing populace and radiating electricity. How opinions crystallize about Cole is left up to you and your actions: do you save the people and restore law and order, or do you go down the path of anarchy by hunting the police and preying on the sick. Sprinkled throughout are a series of moral choices that will push your karma meter into the upper blue of righteousness or the lower red of hate. Heal a wounded civilian or drive bandits away from an emergency clinic and your meter goes into the blue, with the people applauding you and taking your picture; leave looters to the mob, allowing innocents to be hurt to make a fight easier, or act selfishly, and watch your karma go into the red. Aside from the citizens’ adulation or indignation, Cole will also gain karma-specific attributes to his powers.
Experience gained from completing side and story missions, citizen activity, and combat is used to purchase power upgrades. Karma fluctuations and experience go hand-in-hand, with detaining a wounded criminal resulting in positive karma for a live capture but killing after detainment resulting bad karma as an execution. Experience is karma-neutral, much like killing before detaining, in that points can be spent towards either good or bad power upgrades. The positive or negative effect of your actions go towards your overall karma, which affects how people treat you, helping you or throwing rocks at you, and what kind of power and power upgrades you have access to.
Good and bad missions open up during the course of the game that advance either route you want to take. You will protect or kill, steal or retrieve, save or slaughter. As you do one type of mission, an opposite becomes unavailable; i.e., do a good mission and a bad one is marked off the map. General side missions simply rate your behavior afterwards, with none locking or unlocking due to your behavior. Each victory, however, goes towards clearing a part of the island you’re on, as well as the accumulation and strengthening of your powers. Some powers require set amounts of good or bad missions accomplished before being unlocked, though most of the difference comes from the attributes of generic powers – a precise shot versus a scattering attack that harms all nearby.
Plot missions follow a similar pattern with Cole restoring power, thereby unlocking side missions, and then chipping away at the enemy until he reaches the boss. Enemies are limited in the beginning, with the first two islands each having a gang with troop variation being limited to some having shields, some willing to blow themselves up, and some (conduits) have powers similar to Cole. Granted, hearing a loud screech and having someone haul off in your direction on fire is nerve-wracking every time, but a greater variety would have been nice. Enemies are also very accurate, and it can get frustrating when they break out the rocket launchers. I often found, though, that there were more avenues of attack than I had initially thought; many engagements offered opportunities to fight from a better vantage point. There were also some really epic encounters, and framerate dips be damned, sending lightning grenades, archs, bolts, and tossing cars into the fray is a great time. While you often spam the general attack, to the point of finger fatigue, the spot-on aiming, ability to switch firing hand, fire while grabbling onto a ledge, and opportunities of engagement made it all worthwhile.
In the beginning, Infamous isn’t all that impressive. I found myself continually surprised by how much it improved as time went on, which is largely due to Sucker Punch doing a fantastic job with the pacing: experience is doled out in such a way that as you become acclimated with a power, then its increased potency, a new one is introduced. The game just keeps delivering, and soon you go from parkouring all over the city – ah yes, Cole is That Guy, the one who happens to love ‘urban exploration’ and parkour – to gliding around and using power lines and railways to streak across the city. The side missions also offer numerous ways to use the powers, from being timed instances to offering several targets to unleash on. Missions are focused as well, without the option to earn medals or replay (see: Prototype), and feel natural to the game world.
Infamous has a more structured style as well, but one that works well with the sandbox approach, driving the experience without diluting it. Generous auto grab and auto save features keep the momentum up and the random difficulty spikes from being too frustrating. Side missions are varied, rarely arcadey, and often have tangible results: clinics to respawn at, shards to extend your power, and reengaged trains that can be ridden on. Of course, there are moments when the positives can bite you, such as Cole being drawn towards the wrong object – it isn’t uncommon to find yourself balancing on a rail with one foot instead of grabbing onto a ladder – and some missions overstaying their welcome as the difficulty spikes – missions that should have stopped on the third task go to five, with the last two introducing poisonous gas, rockets, or a few dozen enemies into the mix. Such instances are outliers, however, to an overall solid design.
The story goes from a standard average joe-turned-super to a mesh of conspiracies and factions. A guy coming to terms with newfound powers from an unknown source is pretty straightforward, but the cutscenes, utilizing animated comic book-style panels, manage to sneak in characters and motives that are quickly lost. Satellites throughout the city can be tapped into to listen in on bit players, whose conversations fill in gaps in the story, but multiple villains quickly emerge alongside the NSA, CDC, army, and an underground cult to form a web of stories that interconnect, though their roles not always resolved or made clear. Characters interactions often limp with events not having the impact that they should, because you’re still not quite clear on what’s going on. One part of the story that I found weak was the ex girlfriend who blames Cole for the explosion and death of her sister, absolutely insisting he is a terrorist, regardless of his karma, which is nothing more than device for her to screech and lecture for a few hours. I cannot think of a character I disliked and cared less for in recent memory. There is also some random ‘underground’ TV personality that lathers hate on Cole at every chance, but that storyline is never realized and is instead an irking presence throughout. The ending, though satisfying, doesn’t quite jive with the positive route, either. A few decent plot twists manage to keep things interesting, the final piece of the puzzle serves as a nice setup for an apocalyptic encounter… in Infamous 2.
Of particular note is the makeup of Empire City. While most sandbox titles feature relatively bland surroundings, each island of Empire City has a great amount of detail, from newspapers that fly about whenever a stand is shot during combat to wooden patios giving way to an explosion. The framerate dips now and then, and there is some pop up, but they aren’t serious hindrances to enjoying the sights. AI for the citizen is better here than in most similar titles, bustling about, running from shots being fired, and calling for help, but you will still find them doing silly things like walking into firefights, corners, and seeking help for no reason. The islands just provide for great environments to jump around and fight in, with all sorts of ledges, bridges, alleys, and wires to traverse. The music and sound effects are also good, with well-delivered and crisp dialogue - aside from the extremely fey and repetitive photographers.
I did run into a few glitches, though. Random clipping wasn’t a problem, and surprisingly rare for such a large game, but there were moments when mission items would suddenly appear. The counter-surveillance missions in particular had such a problem, as cameras would suddenly appear in plain sight. There were also two moments when mission objectives couldn’t be completed because the game didn’t acknowledge my actions: an enemy never showed up for me to kill in one, while in another an anti-aircraft gun wasn’t destroyed because the game only registered Cole’s animation but not the move itself. In both cases a restart was the answer, both of which being completely on the first try the next go around.
The game might sound far from polished, but it definitely is. There is a lot going on at all times, with all of the people, traffic, roaming gangs of enemies, firefights, hundreds of objects to interact with, there are a lot of opportunities for problems. Fortunately, Sucker Punch largely avoided most issues, which make the handful that crop up really stand out. While not free from problems, it still impresses.
Infamous still manages to deliver throughout, despite the occasional glitch and convoluted story. A great pace keeps combat engaging, solid side missions constantly reward, and the combination of experience and karma work in tandem to drive home the super hero/villain experience. As Cole powers up, you feel stronger, calling down giant bolts of lightning and sending cars flying over intersections, conveying a sense of power that other titles have failed to achieve. Not only does Infamous encourage two playthroughs by design, its addictive and varied approach demands it.