inFamous Review: It's ElectricS

InFamous is supposed to be super-hero gaming done right. It's also the PlayStation 3 debut of one of the PlayStation 2's most ambitious development studios. Nothing could go wrong, right?

A PlayStation 3 exclusive from development studio Sucker Punch, InFamous charges that something besides the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or to unsheathe Adamantium claws from the back of one's hands is the ultimate video game super-power: electricity. Infused into a hero's body, that crackling force can be shot at enemies or used to enhance grinding and hover movements that turn a city's skyline into a skate park.

Everyman protagonist Cole begins the game dazed by an explosion that has turned the fictional Empire City into a riotous ruin, its electric lines frazzled, its parked cars smashed and burning, its citizens terrorized by gangs. The developers have walled off the three-island city, setting in motion a plot that allows the player to receive a new electricity-based super-power about once an hour as friends are made, hundreds of buildings are scaled, streets are cleansed of gangs, and the player's actions fork toward one of two moral paths. Those paths alter the plot, the reactions of Empire's citizens to Cole and the powers he can improve.

But some might wonder if it's safe to mix your KOTOR with your Crackdown.

Loved
Playing With Power: Rockstar taught us that open-world games should be full of mayhem. DC and Marvel taught us that every super-hero battle must leave at least one city-block shredded. InFamous arms and preps the player to over-satisfy those needs. Blasting this much electricity and sending so many citizens, cars and giant-sized enemies flying all at once should hobble Sony's machine. Or turn the gameplay to a mess. Neither happens. By the game's final third, the level of power under the player's command feels almost dangerous.

Raccoon in Cole's Clothing: Screenshots and interviews will tell you that this game is a departure from Sucker Punch's kid-friendly, PlayStation 2 platforming trilogy, Sly Cooper. But the deeper one plays, the clearer it becomes how much Sly is here. This isn't a Crackdown clone, despite the feel in the game's first third that that Xbox 360 game's over-charged guns have simply been ported to the PS3 and turned into electricity-charged hands. By that point, the player has learned that, like Sly's adventures, this game is designed for easy but deft character movement. It's a game for a hero who hops from rooftop to rooftop, runs across power lines, can commit big-scale actions via controls whose responsiveness and simplicity belies the acrobatic magnificence of what's on screen. Yeah, this feels like Sly.

The Sights, the Sounds: Empire City is that rare architecturally memorable video game city, with some great facades and dramatic skyscraper crowns. It's coated with grimy but attractive detail, and scored with Hollywood mood music. This is made possible because Sucker Punch breaks a major rule of open-world adventure: It retains much control. The color of the sky and time of day are fixed, changing only when programmed to shift, allowing the studio to set moods with visuals and audio. The developers know which moments deserve bright sun and which are best coated in darkness or fog.

Stuff Rockstar Didn't Do: Sucker Punch smartly tries some things the Grand Theft Auto makers haven't executed in their open worlds. Chiefly, inFamous' world reacts. Play as a classy hero and the people love you. Play as a rogue and they throw rocks. But the improved reactions of the citizenry illuminate the uncanny valley of non-player-character behavior. Surely, these people should react even more convincingly? Sucker Punch also distinguishes itself from Rockstar with — thank goodness — several new open-world mission types: wall-crawling challenges set on the sides of skyscrapers, some inspired activities set on train tracks, a macabre bunch of death-march missions and even a batch involving public hangings.

Hated
Moral Confusion: Developers, beware your morality plays. Cole can gain more destructive powers or more benevolent ones depending on how a player steers him through clearly-identified karmic crossroad moments. The game's cut-scenes adapt. Plus, 15 good missions are locked off from evil players (and vice versa). But while all these mechanics work, the story strains to allow such moral range. It's hard to buy that a guy established with Cole's clean origins and care for his friends would go rogue or still be friends with said people if he did. InFamous is advertised to present its players with the quandary of how to wield great power, but, early on there's no quandary at all of what a guy like Cole would do, given the nature of his relationships and the low intensity of his starter powers. InFamous feels less like an opportunity to explore a range of behaviors than it does a game that can either be played a true way or in a way that disconnects player motivation from that of the on-screen character.

Bad Drop: Cole is a better-controlling wall-crawler than Spider-Man or Assassin's Creed's Altair — when he's on his way up. Clambering up the side of any building is an enjoyable cinch. Jumping off of them to the ground without fear of death is fun too. But collection and combat challenges often have the player wanting to lower Cole down the side of a building handhold by handhold, and that action — along with some infrequent platforming glitches — often feels clumsy and imprecise, costing the game some of its gymnastic grace.

Sucker Punch's previous game, Sly 3, was a laboratory of experiments. More than just a platformer, it was a playground for 3D-glasses gameplay and even fit a set of pirate ship battles staged across a grand map of the sea. As a follow-up, inFamous couldn't be anything other than more streamlined. It benefits from being a game of grand action without being a game trying to pack in too many things.

Whether it's the best super-hero game ever made, though, depends on your desire to play as a super-hero who has never starred in movies or decades of comics. For those who don't require a famous cape or claws, this is strong stuff. Cole's adventure is bombastic and constantly exciting, ready at its end for a sequel. It is a game of satisfyingly powerful action, one of the best showcases for climbing and shooting yet set in an open world, even if it stumbles in provoking the player to feel the moral weight of the actions they perpetrate.

InFamous was developed by Sucker Punch and published by Sony Computer Entertainment America exclusively for the PlayStation 3, released on May 26th. Retails for $59.99. Played through the game's 40 core missions, and more than 30 side missions. Was as evil as possible, though dabbled with a little bit of the goody-two-shoes style as well.

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