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Published June 24, 2009

(originally published at Smile Politely, 6/24)

It took over two years to make it happen, but Sucker Punch Productions has finally delivered the Playstation 3’s answer to Crackdown. In inFamous, the electrified delivery boy Cole can scale tall buildings, skate along power lines, and call down lightning on a whim. The game is considerably more fleshed out than the Xbox 360 game it is trying so desperately to emulate. Why then does all of this feel so unsatisfying and incomplete?

I certainly wouldn’t blame inFamous’ failings on the mission variety. Throughout the lengthy adventure, the main objectives always keep you invested. In one late mission, Cole will be asked to climb aboard and dismantle weather balloons that are raining poison down onto the populace. In another, he must fight toxin-induced hallucinations in a subterranean tunnel. And in between, there are frequent obstacle courses in the city’s sewer system that grant Cole new abilities. Sure, some of the optional escort and scavenger hunt distractions become repetitive, but you can hover over those and not be penalized.

However, there are moments when innocent bystanders are taken hostage or tied to streetlights along your path, and should you choose to ignore their plights, you will be given “evil points.” In fact, almost every story mission forces you to make these supposedly tough decisions, and I think this is where inFamous fails most miserably.

There have been other games, from Fallout 3 to Bio Shock, with clumsily implemented morality systems, but inFamous is particularly amateurish in this regard. Every time you encounter one of these key moments, the game freezes and Cole talks to himself about the difference between right and wrong. The developer just beats you over the head with these choices, highlighting how artificial this world feels. I do appreciate how your powers are directly tied to this system, but overall, the implementation is detrimental to the experience.

It doesn’t help matters that no matter what path you choose, Cole always sounds as if he’s channeling Rorschach from the Watchmen movie. He’s just an incredibly unlikeable protagonist, and his accomplices don’t fare any better. I realize that many other games before this one have fumbled in the morality and story departments. But if I sound overly harsh towards inFamous, it’s only because Sucker Punch set the bar so high for themselves with the charming Sly Cooper games. We should all expect better from them.

Having said that, inFamous is at least worth a rental, because for all it gets wrong, there are still some moments of brilliance. As was also the case with Crackdown, there is something inherently liberating about crawling up buildings and gliding over the streets below. Sure, the Grand Theft Auto games have their GPS now, but in these free-roaming super hero games, there is no limit to the number of routes you can take. It also helps that Cole is easy to control. The game is very generous in terms of footholds and ledges, making this game a top contender for “best parkour” antics.

Luckily, those perilous ascents will hold your interest much longer than the main objectives, with plenty of doodads to collect and experience points to earn along the way. There is fun to be had here. I just wish that the game had lived up to the developer’s ambitious concept. It will be interesting to see how the conceptually similar Prototype (which I haven’t had a chance to play yet) stacks up.

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