HIGH Knocking waves of enemies for a loop with giant shock blasts.
LOW The story and characters are the weakest the studio's ever turned out.
WTF Some of the goofy, unnatural climbing animations.
The exclusive springtime blockbuster for Sony's PlayStation 3, inFamous from Sucker Punch Studios combines open-world game design with a main character packing a range of electricity-based super powers. It's got the visuals, it's got a great premise, and on paper this seems like a can't-miss sure thing. However, there's just one problem... it's lacking a soul.
Spiritual deficiency may seem like an odd criticism for someone to level against a video game, but after putting inFamous through its paces and adventuring with protagonist Cole McGrath in Empire City, it was really the only conclusion I could come to. The nuts and bolts are all there and the necessary elements seem to be in place, yet at no point did I ever feel immersed or convinced. I never felt as though the world ever drew me in, and couldn't envision myself in the main character's shoes. Kept at a distance by the hollowness of the game's core, I could mentally understand what was supposed to be happening, yet never felt it for a moment.
The game's problems begin almost immediately. After starting, it's clear that the developers want to get the player into the action without any downtime or dead space. It's an admirable goal, but without first properly establishing a frame of reference for the player, it's hard to mentally assign weight or relevance to the events that follow. Essentially, it's revealed that Cole was responsible for delivering a package which turned out to be a bomb. Caught in the blast, Cole develops special abilities while the city around him devolves into treacherous, cordoned-off chaos. This is certainly a decent-enough set up, but the way Sucker Punch tells it falls flat.
While light storytelling and quick-cut animation sequences between levels worked just fine for their fantastic Sly Cooper series, Sly himself was a ‘toonish raccoon jewel thief. There was never any expectation of deep characterization or gravitas, so what players actually got went above and beyond. This is not the case with inFamous—the entire game is presented in fairly realistic style, and Cole is a person players are presumably supposed to identify with, or at least relate to on some level. However, there is essentially no effort put towards character development, and events happen quickly, and with virtually no impact. By telling through abbreviated clips and not showing through more substantial means, Sucker Punch's choices left me untouched and unmoved.
For example, early in the game one scene attempts to illustrate how Cole becomes estranged from his previously-loving girlfriend, yet so little time and effort is spent on this element that I very nearly missed it. Other areas of the game feel just as lightweight. With minor significance attached to events, progressing through the game feels more like guiding an avatar to arbitrary mission start points than taking a hero (or villain) through dramatic adventure.
If further proof of narrative weakness was needed, the "karmic" system of Good or Evil alignment is yet another instance. At certain points in the game, everything stops as text appears on screen and blatantly informs the player that they have the opportunity to make a good or bad choice. Although Cole's disposition affects which powers he has access to, very little else is changed besides whether he glows blue or red. In fact, the player has the ability to browse the powers before ever making a single decision, reducing the entire system from one of exploring morality to one of choosing which upgrades and color the player would prefer.
If the throwaway story and unsatisfying intellectual side were inFamous's only sins, it would likely be at least partially forgiven. However, other aspects of the game feel just as underdeveloped.
Since Cole becomes infused with electricity that manifests itself in several different ways, it's disappointing to find that underneath the sci-fi trappings, these abilities are really no different than you would expect to find in any other game of this sort. Although it may look like lightning, what Cole really has at his disposal are the equivalent to a gun, a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher, and grenades. With a few exceptions, there's a distinct lack of imagination on display, further reinforced by the artificial way each ability is introduced in cookie-cutter segments, and how insignificant the upgrades and unlocks to his powers are. I felt precious little motivation to max out my character, since the things I was supposed to be working towards seemed little better than what I began the game with. The hero starts off able to survive a fall from any height. Is earning the ability to glide really that significant? Is going incrementally from taking 10% less damage to 20% less supposed to make me feel power?
The missions themselves are structured decently enough and have good variety as long as too many sidequests aren't accepted. After being prompted by anyone who calls in on Cole's phone, he chooses from several missions that appear on the map. The player does them because that's what's expected, but personally, I felt no inner motivation or drive of any sort outside of the most basic "work my way to the credits" obligation. Most of inFamous' tasks feel disconnected from the rest, and the majority of the core story missions could practically have been done in any order. Not until the final third of the game was there ever a feeling of purpose, or of building towards a larger goal, and my patience for this mechanical product had already worn thin by that point thanks to a heavy over-reliance on drawn-out combat and vexing enemies constantly sniping at Cole from a distance.
Having ended inFamous, the highest praise I feel I can honestly give it is that it's competent and essentially succeeds at what it sets out to do—Sucker Punch presents players with an open city, a character able to wield lightning, and a choice to be made between being good or being evil. (Or both, with a second play through.) This much is absolutely true, yet the parts that make up its identity never come together in any holistic, cohesive way. It never feels as though it's doing much more than going through the motions, and as a result, neither did I. Lacking the joy and spirit intrinsic to truly inspired projects, inFamous may have painted by the numbers correctly, but technical success is not the same thing as creating a brilliant masterpiece.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed one time. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, drug reference, language, mild suggestive themes, and violence. Parents don't have a lot to be concerned about, given that the game is aimed at a teen (and older) audience. Although the language feels a bit forced at times, there's really nothing here that isn't seen on primetime TV. It's milder than a lot of popular shows, in fact. Not appropriate for kids, but everyone else should be okay.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing:You can turn on subtitles for cut-scenes and mission briefings, yet there are no subtitles whatsoever whenever main character Cole is directed to watch broadcasts appearing on nearby television sets. It's an odd omission. Otherwise, sufficient information is presented on-screen (though the mini-map could've been a bit bigger) so that no audio cues are necessary for gameplay.