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inFAMOUS (PlayStation 3) artwork

inFAMOUS (PlayStation 3) review

"McGrath comes from humble beginnings, he's nothing special, he doesn't think much of politics or Empire City. Cole has no secret wish for saving the world, or any dramatically suppressed demons. Nor strange personality quirks that beg to be exploited for super-powers, etc. He simply cares about his friends, and live a reasonably normal life like everyone else. Until one of the packages Cole is delivering literally blows up in his hands, which is where the game starts. "

Many games have good stories. And many games tell unique stories that only would work in video-games. But few games manage to make the leap that successfully tie the game-world and the controller into how the story is told. That's because it's difficult, obviously. But it's difficult because achieving it isn't formulaic. You need a carefully hand-crafted link between the way the story is told, and the way the game plays. It's not dependent on simply letting the story accompany you as you move around the world - that can be as forced as any narrative, just like a misplaced cutscene will take you out of the story rather than into it. And the most beautifully created non-linear sequence will be wasted, if it doesn't have a connection to the events and the game-world. What's needed is a talent at making a large variety of game-elements equally necessary.

InFamous is the story of Cole McGrath. From the point where he wakes up with super-powers. To the end of the chapter where we discover why and how. It's a classic super-hero story, really. And with a character type that recur fairly often in modern comics. McGrath comes from humble beginnings, he's nothing special, he doesn't think much of politics or Empire City. Cole has no secret wish for saving the world, dramatically suppressed demons. Nor strange personality quirks that beg to be exploited for super-power treatment, etc. He simply cares about his friends, and live a reasonably normal life like everyone else. Until one of the packages Cole is delivering literally blows up in his hands, which is where the game starts.

Everything in the game at this point is done in the game-engine. From the serene city-view on the intro-screen, to the most extreme start-button trigger-event in gaming history. And to the fade-in where Cole wakes up in the middle of a crater.

You stumble around a bit, until you get your bearings. The game detects whether you use inverted or normal controls here. The speed you complete the segments with, and how much damage you take, will be used to adjust the difficulty-level as you move on later. There's nothing on the hud at this point - you are going through an intro that functions as a basic tutorial. And at the end when the segment fades to black, you've just “played” the intro to the pilot of a super-hero series. It's just enough to present the characters and establish the style, while burning the first power-trip into your head.

The presentation changes in pace now, as it does many times between the story-segments, and move on to Sucker Punch's unique brand of moving comic-strips. It's not actually comic-strips, even if that's what you're reminded of because of the visual techniques. It's more a full-screen slide-show where each slide has limited animation. But the spirit of a good comic-strip is there, which Sucker Punch uses to create the expressions as the narrative moves on.

The key here is vividly presenting an emotion that only exists for a short moment. But which explains the feelings and thoughts for the character, or sets the stage for what will be said afterwards. That there's movement in the scene makes any amount of Ooopses and speed-stripes unnecessary. And the "moving strip" is surprisingly pleasing to look at. The same goes for the fantastic colouring and frame-shifts. Always resting on the exaggerated cartoon-events, but using the movement to extend the static images.

As Cole goes from the mandatory fear of change to eventually pulling off the super-hero pose for the first time, the character is established. He's seen the city and his role, he understands his obligation to some extent, and he embraces it. So now the first issue of the story is complete. And you can tell that Cole's character is a winner already, even though the game hasn't even begun yet.

The game now puts you in Cole's shoes and asks you: what would you would do if you had super-powers. You can blast anyone who oppose you, or you can help people. This part of the game is probably a little bit more abstract than it should be, though - there are the immediate “karma-moments” where you have to decide between egotism and altruism. But it's not as much a snap-decision, as it is to decide on what you ultimately believe is the right thing to do. In other words, they missed an opportunity to test your morals when pressured here, and say: “yeah, I can be nice and wait in line - but on the other hand, I have super-powers! BWHAHAHA!”. There's never a situation here where you're led along to do something that seems incredibly tempting, but which you normally wouldn't do. So the choices become fairly black and white, and somewhat arbitrary at times.

This is probably the only place Sucker Punch stumbled on the presentation in this game. Either on not having that initial couple of missions that test you properly, or else not impressing on you hard enough that the entire City hates your guts over that entire "destruction of the entire city"-incident, and that no one will question you if you decide to only care for yourself.

But beyond this first stage, the game keeps you fully engaged in the game-world whether your lightning is blue and white or red and black. Always leading you towards a point where the antagonist - Kessler - is continuously testing you and pushing you further and further. Until he is content that you are capable of making choices that functionally really are these abstract choices, free of your human impulses to let more immediate things affect you.

In the same way, the purpose of each of the other characters in the story are always extremely specific, and never wasted. Cole's best friend Zeke is there for contrast, and to explain the envy and fear developing towards your power. While Trish, your girlfriend, is there to represent the hopes and wishes you have for the future, but which you could end up having to sacrifice. Something that would be harder to deal with later, even if the narrow path is easy at first. The pieces then fall into place for the final chapters, with few words wasted and all the events leading up to it all being equally essential. This is how writing should be structured for any media, as well as in games with different view-points. But it is nice to see writing in a game that is methodical, careful, and meaningful from start to finish.

Otherwise, inFamous is essentially a sand-box. With various side-missions and missions you trigger by going to particular waypoints around the many districts and unique locations in Empire City. You can also hunt for Dead-drops (recordings left by an agent sent to investigate the area ahead of the attack), or find blast-shards (intensely electrified pieces of debris left after the explosion). Or you can just run around at random, and explore the city, and stumbling upon interesting things to do. There's no trophy for getting to the highest point of the city, though - but it's reward enough in itself when you reach it. In the same way, the three different areas of Empire City are all distinct and with their own architecture - all the way from look and down to placement of buildings and the strategically placed power-cables - and therefore the way you have to navigate the streets. Once you gain the more impressive powers, you can traverse the scenery faster as well. And this scales in tune with the missions you currently have available, etc. Early on, you will be jumping from spire to spire, and run across the electric wires. Hide behind cover, and lobbing a grenade once in a while. Later, you will fly over buildings, and grind across the wires. Unleash a lighting storm, or electrify every object for three blocks.

As the missions move on, you tend to need to do at least some of these optional side-missions as well. Since they stop enemies from showing up nearby all the time. So solving them means creating a strategic point to find missions in specific sectors before making a break for the next story-mission. This suddenly stops you from picking an objective on the map, and then tracking it down, and doing these mechanical things. Instead you end up moving down the street towards the mission - and find things to do along the way.

Here's also where the limited feedback from your choices comes in - if you're supporting the police, or helping people, they will approve of you and help you. Worship you, even. Or, in the opposite case, run around swearing at you and throw rocks (but at least they stop pestering you to save their friends all the time). Some of the quips are fantastic (“Hey, Superstar!”). And are presented in the familiar cartoon exaggeration. Someone might randomly fall off their feet, and start dramatically declaring virtual cartoon-bubbles like: “Everything is being taken from me!”. If you've been zapping too many civilians, they skulk away when you arrive, whispering “I just saw him kill someone in cold blood!”, while pointing at you and looking at another random nearby pedestrian.

The effect of this is the same one as with the other exaggerated cartoon-moments spread around the game: you can easily focus on it, and get that instant feedback from the city. Coupled with the fact that as you clear missions, the city starts to come back to life again, the traffic starts running, the trains start moving, more people run around the streets, this makes the city alive and organic. Or.. terrible, dirty and ruled by thugs, if you're headed the other way.

Along the same track, I should mention the music. The music is made by Amon Tobin. And is essentially ambient effects and sounds accompanying you across the city. It very rarely becomes melodic in the traditional sense, but instead is put together by samples picked up, I'm pretty sure, from smashing panels on cars, or hammering solid steel. Grinding asphalt, etc. This tense rhythmic city-themed mesh is something that flows in behind you throughout the game, setting the pace during a fight, or punctuating the steady clip you traverse an area with enemies. Or sometimes, it's simply effects and ambient sounds that accompany the triggered sound-effects. Such as screams from unlucky pedestrians (I didn't mean to blow all of you up, I swear), or the incoming force-detonation from a Reaper conduit. Again, it's that curious way Sucker Punch manage to make different types of content interfere in order to create something unique.

Technically, the game has a fairly high production-level overall. Even if it doesn't always have the polish you would expect. The grain filter being somewhat strange at times, and the framerate having slight dips in the densely populated areas - these are issues that should have been dealt with somehow. There are some collision detection problems as well, and a few places (four that I've seen) where it's possible to end up falling through the ground. Some few areas in the city have paths that continuously knock out pedestrians. Towards the very edges of the map, or high up on the top of some of the cranes, you can also happen to come across points that don't have traversal nodes. That's something you notice, if you've been climbing for 15 minutes to get there.

On the other hand, the climbing and traversal system is unbelievably complex, while the prediction when aiming at objects work surprisingly well, and with almost no issues. You don't simply latch on to an object by a trigger, or get forced into an animation cycle - if you hover towards a ledge, you reach out for it as you approach. If you land on a railing, Cole scoots down before he hits the object. You traverse between sections, and across fences in animations with small adjustments for speed and direction. This isn't the way sticky movement is done in any other game, and it might feel unusual at first. But after a short while it feels much more natural to guide the character towards a point than to magically latch on to something once you push a button.

Also, very little of the ground level is actually flat - which improves the visual flow, but is something that increases the potential collision problems a very great deal. But Sucker Punch solved this extremely well. Basically, there are bumps everywhere that both you and the pedestrians walk over and around, with believable walking-animations gradually moving at a slope, and so on. While vehicles travel around town at every point without blowing up, or getting stuck. They stop gradually if the road is blocked, and neatly follow the other cars down the road. While pedestrians react instantly to different groups of enemies, and run down the length of the street to escape (rather than head first into the nearest wall), and so on.

The node-updates that keep the AI and physics going, and the feet level with the object you're standing on are so neatly done that if you land on a car thrown down the street, your feet actually align with the shape of the car as it twists. In the same way, crushing enemies by pushing objects into them is effective, and explosions leave instant shock-waves in near perfect radians no matter how many objects or enemies were affected by it.

What this means is that you can climb any object that looks climbable, or take cover behind a car or box that just landed nearby (rather than having to find the static object before the “cover-button” sticks). And this really is something that makes the world more present and dynamic very quickly, as well as the fights more entertaining. Or, from a more practical point of view - the physics actually work in this game, without just causing you a lot of glitches and grief.

In a sense it also ties back to the “everydayman turned super-hero” theme in the game. By keeping your boots on the ground, figuratively speaking. It's not like you can ignore the laws of physics, or do exactly whatever you want - just because you have super-powers. Let's not be unreasonable here (or at least wait with that kind of thing until the plot-twists start to arrive).

InFamous (with the terribly pop capitalization) is an open-world game set in Empire City, quarantined as it is after Cole's mysterious package detonates and level several districts to the ground. In one sense, the game is about the fate of Cole, and how he deals with his super-hero status. In another sense, it's a story about the fate of the City, the people in it, and how they react to the catastrophe. But it's also a story about Power. And what power means. A playthrough will take you anything from 20 to 40 hours, depending on how much you're falling in love with the game along the way. Imo, Sucker Punch should - at the very least - have received an award for the 3rd person camera management in this game.


fleinn's avatar
Community review by fleinn (May 14, 2011)

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honestgamer posted May 15, 2011:

This was a very detailed review, fleinn, but I would encourage you to trim things down in this and in future reviews. The text was remarkably long, to the point where I finally copied the content into Word for a word count: 2599 words. That's just a few hundred words shy of the typical length of a chapter in a novel, and about twice as much as most readers will endure when they decide to start reading a game review.

You made a lot of good points here, but word economy would have made them more quickly and with more impact. That would have resulted in less retread, as well, since at times it felt like you had just made a point and then decided to start making it all over again.

I think that your ideas here are interesting, but it's important to present interesting ideas in a way that leaves people inclined to explore all of them. In high school, a lot of students complain when they have to write a 500-word essay or whatever, because how in the world can someone possibly come up with so many words? By the time we grow out of that juvenile phase, a lot of writers are struggling just as much to trim away unnecessary words and cut right to the heart of the matter. If you're looking to improve as a writer, that's your next step. See how much good content you can pack into a 1500-word review. See how you can better phrase things. It's a wonderful exercise.
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fleinn posted May 15, 2011:

:) yeah. Agree with that. I think the problem was that I wanted to have a lot of different other things in there as well, about the entire link between the game-world and the player theme. But I ended up just skipping it. So I didn't think it was that long.

..honestly, I'm more and more liking the idea of two-part reviews. I wrote one for New Vegas that way. Deliberately doing the story and emotion separately from the technical bits. I know I've always wanted to read the technical bits in the same review myself. And I still do prefer the breaks to be about technical explanations. But.. I have to admit that it freaking difficult to get right with anything that needs more than a couple of sentences. Because suddenly it's like this review - it's too brief to really explain anything correctly. But it's way too long to just give you that first impression.

So maybe the two-part reviews would work out almost as good as I imagine in my head :p

(..but will spend some time cutting this review down, and fixing some of the sentences...)

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