DEVELOPER: Sucker Punch

Empire City, present day:

Lithe and powerful street courier Cole finds himself at odds with his girlfriend, his city, and himself when he’s duped into delivering a strange explosive device that levels 6 city blocks, leaving him dazed and wounded while killing everyone else in the blast radius. After recovering from the explosion, Cole discovers that he’s gained the powerful ability to absorb and manipulate electrical energy. The city has changed, too, and not for the better – violent, plague-infected gangs led by psychotic supervillains terrorize the streets, and civil collapse leads to widespread crime and chaos. A government enforced quarantine engenders a scared and desperate populace. As Cole, will you use your new powers to save the city… or to put it out of its misery?

Cole. Coal? Maybe his last name is Powers.
The Pitch

Combine the collecting and city hopping of Crackdown, the agility of Sly Cooper, and a dash of Fallout 3‘s karma system, and you’ve got a good idea where inFamous is headed.

The best power in the game: taking a friggin’ leak on some heads!

The Play

inFamous makes it official: Karma is the new bullet time.

Why do so many games tack on these ridiculously binary, overly simplistic karma systems? It’s even worse when the choices made have little to no effect on the outcome of the story. inFamous‘ karma system – which grinds the game to a halt and forces the player to choose either a good or evil way to finish a mission – lets Cole become either a virtuous hero or civilian-murdering thug, with little differentiation (or reward) for playing the middle. Even Fallout 3‘s superfluous karma system tailors a few key moments to your avatar’s moral disposition, and actually goes a step further by rewarding neutral characters. Playing as good or evil in inFamous nets the player a different set of abilities, but almost all of the game’s missions play exactly the same, making karma little more than an arsenal tailoring system. It’s a missed opportunity, because by tweaking the end missions and changing the story based on karma, inFamous would have given us a real motivation for a second playthrough. Sure, civilians treat Cole differently depending on his choices, but since this treatment has no bearing on the story, the system feels jarringly disconnected from the rest of the game.

inFamous is an otherwise terrific experience.

CHUDTIP: sneak up on civilians and blast the shit out of them.

If you liked Crackdown, you’ll probably love inFamous. It’s a skyscraper-scaling superhero romp through a detailed and often beautiful cityscape. Empire City begs for exploration, thanks to an intuitive climbing mechanic, an impressive draw distance, and a clever orb – er, shard – collecting system. Screaming down an electrified power line, leaping over a rooftop, and exploding down atop a flock of armed goons never gets old. Even if you don’t like the game’s comic book aesthetic or silly plot, there’s so much fun to be had simply existing in Empire City’s vast playground. This might be the best compliment one can pay a sandbox title.

The game’s core mechanic is very familiar: complete mission, earn points, spend points on powers, repeat. Most of Cole’s electricity-based powers require a recharge after use, which means you’ll be scouring the city for energy sources while zapping enemies from the rooftops. Compared to something like Crackdown‘s Pacific City, Empire is a far more oppressive and dangerous place, making power and defense upgrades a necessity for survival, rather than simply a recipe for sowing wanton destruction. Cole’s a powerful guy, but he’s surprisingly vulnerable; even with full health and enough energy to level a city block, a lone gun turret still poses a serious threat. This makes each of Cole’s various powers, including the force-push-esque Shockwave, sticky Shock Grenades, and a long range sniper blast, uniquely useful depending on the circumstances. Dumping points into a seemingly powerful ability like Shockwave while ignoring grenades might make Cole a beast during rooftop fights, but it’ll also make him more vulnerable while surrounded by enemies on the ground. Most importantly, the skills are all fun to use. Levitating a Reaper with Shockwave and finishing him off with a shower of bolts is consistently satisfying.

Cole helps out with the crazy downtown parking situation

Empire City comprises three islands, each with its own set of main story and side missions. Completing story missions rewards Cole with heaps of power points and the occasional new ability, while side missions offer fewer power points but allow Cole to “capture” sections of the city, preventing enemies from respawning there. Capturing city sections is essentially empire building, as it gradually opens up access to medical facilities and allows safe passage throughout the area. You won’t be seeing Empire City from the safety of a cab, either – in one of inFamous‘ best and most unique design decisions, the game won’t let you hijack a car, ride in a helicopter, or equip a weapon. Since Cole is a living hot circuit, weapons and vehicles all explode when he touches them. A catty indictment of GTA’s obsession with guns and cars? Maybe, but after a few hours of lobbing glowing torpedoes and gliding between distant buildings on a carpet of static electricity, you’ll realize that cars and guns are overrated. Cole’s ability to zip along electrified rails like a human train car is the cherry on top of a very slick travel system.

It doesn’t hurt that inFamous looks and sounds really good, even for a 720p native game. Good draw distances, detailed textures, and an evocative orchestral score make this one of the most polished experiences available on the PS3. Some of the character models are a little rough around the edges, and there are a few weird clipping glitches here and there, but overall, it’s a beautiful game.

There are a few bumps in the road. Since Empire City is still in ruins from the blast, Cole spends a lot of time time crawling through the sewers to jumpstart power grids. The sewer levels get repetitive, and feel more platform-y than the rest of the game. They’re definitely a departure from the game’s surface battles, but whether you’ll welcome that departure depends on how much you like jumping puzzles. Equally repetitive but far more frustrating are the cookie cutter side missions. Although inFamous’ main missions are varied and fun, the same five or six side missions crop up over and over on each island. They get progressively more difficult, but they stop being interesting or fun pretty fast. They’re optional, so it’s easy to avoid the more tedious missions, but for completists, leaving an island with an optional side mission unfinished might cause delirium tremens. Or worse.

Finally, there’s the story. Cole’s adventure isn’t very compelling or original, so most of us won’t be coming back to Empire City for the characters or plot. There are a few surprising deaths and betrayals, but it’s mostly pat, simple, and filled to the gills with worn-out superhero comic tropes. Poor Cole spends half the damn game rescuing allies left dangling from high places.  It’s not bad enough to tarnish the experience, but it’s not a selling point, either. “Harmless” is a fitting description.

In the end, inFamous is a fun, distinctive entry in an increasingly crowded genre. Whether it turns out to be the Volcano or the Dante’s Peak of its superhero sandbox battle with Radical Entertainment’s upcoming Prototype remains to be seen, but as it stands, it’s a great game, as well as a good showcase for what the PS3 can do.

The Replay

Unlike the similarly themed and equally devastated Circuit City, you’ll actually want to revisit Empire City’s crumbling facades. There’s no multiplayer, but that doesn’t mean you won’t dip back into inFamous just to ride the rails or detonate unsuspecting rubberneckers. No real differences between karmically good or bad players means no good reason to replay the game, although unique powers for good and evil (with good powers focused on precision, and evil powers delivering more widespread destruction) might be enough for some to warrant a second full playthrough.
The Verdict

It’s not perfect, but it’s the best game of the year so far.

A Point to Ponder: If Cole can’t set foot in a puddle or fall in the ocean without discharging all over the place, how does sex work? Does he need insulated condoms?

8.5 out of 10

Wait… there’s no such thing as insulated condoms?!?