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Because inFamous and Crackdown are both super hero games and console exclusives (inFamous for PS3, Crackdown for Xbox 360), comparisons are inevitable. However, the developers for the games had very different objectives. While Crackdown was intended to be a pure sandbox game where you could mold a super hero and make your own fun, inFamous is a more narrative-driven experience that tells the story of one particular super hero and his adventure. The more carefully scripted campaign of inFamous has a few lulls but it also ascends to heights that a less linear game can't reach.
inFamous stars Cole, a courier who is suddenly endowed with electricity-based powers after one of his packages causes a massive explosion in the heart of Empire City. After the explosion, a plague breaks out and the government quarantines the city. The city's then taken over by three gangs with leaders who apparently also wield super powers. It's up to Cole to use his newfound abilities to defeat these gangs and protect his best friend Zeke and ex-girlfriend Trish.
The story, often conveyed through cut scenes with gorgeous comic book-style still pictures, is strong enough that I wouldn't be surprised to see a graphic novel adaptation. The voice acting doesn't always do its part though. Because Cole can choose to become evil, the actor playing him must've been told to deliver his dialogue in a manner that could be interpreted as nice or mean. Thus, Cole often talks in a raspy, semi-pissed off tone. Trish, the girl who left him because her sister died in the explosion, has a similar issue. The relationship between Trish and Cole is important to the storyline but I can't imagine any player actually hoping Cole gets back together with her. Through some magical combination of writing and voice acting, the game manages to make a woman caring for the sick and wounded in a ruined city seem like a complete shrew. You'll basically get scolded by her non-stop throughout the game even if you're playing a good character. It doesn't really make any sense that she blames Cole for killing her sister, anyway - it's not like the guy knew he was delivering a bomb.
We're told in passing that Cole's electric powers make him unable to ride in cars (it blows them up) but fortunately he's gifted with another super power: the ability to climb like a freakin' spider monkey. You'll get around the city mainly by hopping from rooftop to rooftop. Cole doesn't take any damage from falls, either, so no worries there. As in Assassin's Creed, the walls of each building are covered in many different objects you can latch onto (pipes, window ledges, etc) so climbing is often just a matter of hitting X over and over. Later in the game, you'll also gain the ability to skate along on train rails and power lines to speed up your commute.
While the game's platforming is very smooth, it can feel like you're being coddled at times. There's a sort of magnetism at work with the platforming - when jumping through the air, the game will sometimes nudge you a little toward nearby ledges. Thus, there's really only one platforming segment in the game that offered up any sort of challenge. Ultimately I prefer this much more to the alternative - dying repeatedly in Tomb Raider because I didn't jump at just the right angle - but this stickiness can get a little annoying when, for example, trying to jump down between two buildings.
The platforming was made easy because the real focus of the game is the combat. inFamous's battles feel surprisingly similar to a third-person shooter. You hold down L1 to aim and then R1 to fire your standard lightning bolt. You'll gain other powers over the course of the game that are analogous to a rocket launcher, grenade, and a sniper rifle. Even the powers that don't feel like conventional weapons are still things we've seen several times before (for example, dropping from a great height and causing a shockwave). It's unfortunate that many powers feel just like weapons you've used in numerous other games because it causes their entertainment value to wear thin pretty quickly. I just can't get excited about the ability to zoom in and shoot a guy on a roof in the face even if I'm using lightning instead of bullets this time.
The upgrade system of inFamous does make the powers a little more interesting, truthfully. While the rocket launcher-esque ability is pretty ho-hum by itself, you can learn how to redirect it mid-flight with one upgrade. You gain experience points by defeating enemies, healing injured pedestrians, completing missions and so forth and then spend them on enhancing your powers. Several of the powers have a Good or Evil branch for upgrades which reinforces that particular morality. For example, upgrading shock grenades as a good player gives them the ability to automatically restrain any weakened enemies they hit. An evil player's shock grenades, however, create secondary explosions after the initial blast to create a cluster bomb effect which could kill nearby civilians.
While I appreciate the morality system of the game in that it brings two sets of side missions and upgrades to the game and thus will make it more conducive to a second play-through, not enough is done to make the powers distinct for evil/good players. Evil characters shoot red lightning and their powers cause more collateral damage - that's about the only difference. A lot of the upgrades on either the Good or Evil track are simply boosts to the set damage of the power rather than a tweaking of the power's mechanics. Also, there's only one power that's unique to Good or Evil characters.
At several points in the game, you're asked to make An Important Moral Decision. The game will essentially stop in its tracks and Cole will weigh his options in voiceover. "Hmm, I could shoot that fuel tank that the robot's carrying and blow off its arm...but if I do, it'll probably kill some nearby civilians." These moments feel mechanical in a Fable sort of way; they could easily be replaced by a dialog box with two buttons that say "Good" or "Bad". You know that these decisions affect your morality slightly (there's a curved bar on the side of the screen measuring it) and count toward your upgrades and game ending but these are long-term concerns. The game never really makes you care about the decisions themselves because the immediate rewards are small and it barely effects the game's storyline. In the above example about the robot, the Good decision results in the robot hitting you with the fuel tank and you losing a little bit of health. The Bad decision kills some nameless civilians and makes your fight slightly easier. Most RPG's that offer moral decisions (Mass Effect, Fallout 3, etc.) are simply better at engaging the player and making them feel like their decision was important.
Most of Cole's offensive abilities require him to burn electric power (noted in a bar at the top of the screen), which he recharges by feeding on power generators, street lights, and other objects with electricity running through them. His health regenerates over time, Call of Duty-style, but the regeneration is much quicker if you're feeding than if you're simply cowering behind cover. The need to recharge yourself periodically throughout combat adds a new tactical problem for the player and makes fighting in unpowered sections of the city quite hectic.
Another good thing about the combat is that it's integrated well with the platforming. The game isn't split into shooting and platforming segments. You can aim and fire even if you're hanging from a ledge, leaping through the air, or sliding along a train track/power line. Even if the combat can feel unexpectedly conventional at times, it's very polished and fits in well with the rest of the game.
Empire City is made up of three islands, only one of which is unlocked at the outset of the game. While it doesn't have the visual variety of GTA IV's Liberty City (you may have trouble telling the islands apart at times), the flipside is that there's a distinct feel and character to the city on the whole. It may come off as too dingy or bland for some but I dug the Gotham City vibe. The bigger problem than variety is the perpetual "pop-in" of objects. People, buildings and cars (or their textures) just abruptly "poof" into view when you get close enough. It's a shame because part of the fun of an open world game, especially one that lets you ascend to the top of tall buildings effortless, is the ability to admire the view.
Each island is controlled by a different gang, each incrementally stronger than the gang on the previous island. Most of the gang members you'll fight are armed with rifles (and freakishly accurate with them) but there's a few dudes with rocket launchers and mild super powers (like throwing shockwaves) sprinkled throughout as well. There are only three "super villains" in the game (the gang leaders) and while you could argue that including more would've cheapened the concept of super powers, fighting random thugs with machine guns gets tedious (especially the more durable ones on the second and third island).
You'd think that the game would start to drag once they've stopped giving you new powers but actually the opposite is true - it's at its best when you've got the full array at your disposal. Why? Because the process of getting new powers is repetitive. To power up a section of the city, you'll go underground into the sewers and hook yourself up to some circuit - a process which gifts you with a new ability. Then, the rest of the sewer segment is essentially an extended tutorial of that power. For example, once you get the ability to fire shockwaves, you'll encounter barriers that require you to knock them down with shockwaves. While the platforming in the sewers is slightly trickier than it is topside (if you fall in the water, you'll die within a couple seconds), the sewers just aren't very nice to look at and the segments are linear and underwhelming.
Once you've got all your powers though, the game starts to pick up. Not because you're so much more powerful than you were at the beginning but because the missions get more imaginative than simple "shoot these thugs" situations. Perhaps the only memorable mission in the first half of the game was jumping on the front car of a train and then powering it to a safe section of town (as seen in the demo). Later on, though, you'll be fighting giant robots, saving civilians from death traps and shooting down spy planes. Completing side missions causes sectors of town to be cleared of gang members and this makes later missions, which take you all over the city, a fair bit easier. You're finally experieincing the benefit of mopping up the streets over the course of the game. Toward the end of the game, you actually feel like a super hero and that was the point all along, wasn't it?
The interesting thing is that even though the combat got tiring, the morality system felt underdeveloped and so on, I still feel my experience with inFamous was overwhelmingly positive. While yes, it can be a bit repetitive and you are performing the same basic actions over and over, those basic actions are a lot of fun. Grinding on power lines, scrambling across rooftops, and zapping criminals has a simple charm to it and it's likely I'll go back and finish all the side missions and collect some more Trophies now that the 10-15 hour campaign is over. If the entire campaign had been as good as the latter half was, that probably would've been enough to drown out most (if not all) of the game's shortcomings. As it stands, though, inFamous is a great start to a promising franchise.
Developer:Sucker Punch Productions
Publisher:Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB:T for Teen