When members of the Sucker Punch development team took the unfinished Infamous on the road over the last 12 months, they always mentioned that their action title was a postmodern superhero story. So, Cole McGrath -- the everyman who suddenly finds himself with electromagnetic powers -- never adopts a codename, nor does he don a slick costume. But the decision to leave out the spandex and not call the lead character ZapBoy aren't the only postmodern things about Infamous.
Once Cole gets his powers, you're singlehandedly bringing a city back to life in a way that feels organic and visceral. Many of the story missions have Cole getting the current running again in parts of Empire City -- the blasted husk of a municipality where Infamous happens. Every time he does, he gains a new power and that section becomes easier in which to operate. From the micro of healing a random stranger with your electric touch to the macro of getting the subways back online, Infamous makes you feel connected to a virtual environment in new and interesting ways.
Infamous is arguably the first post-Katrina videogame. Dead people line the streets, survivors pick through trash, and electricity has become a fond memory. Though its name references New York City, images of New Orleans overwhelmed by Category 5 winds undeniably echo through the feel and design of Empire City. Its three boroughs are under control of newly empowered former junkies, transients and militiamen; the threat of military action in a civilian space hangs overhead; and corporate and pirate media spin the events to their own slant. It may seem like the only things missing are FEMA trailers, but none of these elements ever feels egregious or exploitative.
Even when your acts make life better for people across Empire City, the random chatter from passers-by contains despair and dread: "I just want to find my son!"; "It wasn't supposed to end like this!" On the other end of the spectrum, people will whip out cameras and take pictures of you, too. You're a celebrity and a savior, if you choose to be.
The problem with superhero games often comes in the form of the superheroes themselves. Games shoehorn a character's backstory and powers into a medium for which they weren't designed, and a certain amount of dissonance always follows. (When I reviewed X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the incessant puzzle-solving got so bad that I screamed, "Why does he even need that power source for the locked door?! Wolverine cuts through walls! All the damn time!" So it's been with games featuring Superman and other licensed characters, too.)
Where Infamous makes an important distinction is by originating in the gaming space, and building a world that meshes symbiotically with the lead character. Infamous makes clever use of Cole's electric powers as it goes on, with grenades that restrain enemies, lightning bolts that regenerate health with each hit, telepathy and healing. Finding items hidden in the world -- blast shards from the initial explosion and dead drops with audio recordings from an NSA field agent who's gone missing -- will expand Cole's XP, health and understanding of the events unfolding around.
There's a tenuous relationship with social commentary in superhero work; done wrong, it cheapens the events it references. The way that Cole?s constructed as a superhero -- born out of urban chaos and institutional neglect -- approaches real-world themes from the minute you start playing.
Old-school superheroes tried to tell Cole that this pose looks better with a cape but he didn't listen.
The game's plot revolves around the explosion that granted Cole his powers and left Empire City a fractured shell of itself. In addition to a complete infrastructure breakdown, a plague's been tearing through the city and the federal government plans to bomb the city if it thinks people are trying to escape the imposed quarantine. Other beings with powers surface in the aftermath of the explosion, and a power struggle within a secret metahuman cabal called the First Sons plays out in the city's streets.
Some of it does come across as heavy-handed. It's odd, given how solidly and cleverly crafted the rest of the game is, that the mythology tying together Infamous' story feels like its weakest link. But when you suck the life energy out of a wounded innocent bystander, just to prolong Cole's crusade, the consequences of that act resonate more than the plot points about sci-fi experimentation or Cole's dilemmas about who to trust.
Characters and situations come along and mess with Cole's moral compass. Story missions, side missions and random events all give players the option to be selfish or altruistic. Do you free the looter strung up by angry citizens, or walk away and leave him to their lethal vigilantism? These kinds of Karma Moments impact your alignment towards Good or Evil, and your Karmic State affects your side, power upgrades and appearance. The game never forces you to be either good or evil, though I was puzzled to be tagged as more evil after completing missions. Did I not kill enough enemies? Harm too many innocent bystanders?
Side missions also allow you reclaim sections of the city, creating safe zones for yourself and citizens. It's another example of the symbiotic relationship between Cole and the city.
After hours of hoofing it around the city, grinding power lines makes getting around faster and more fun.
Speaking of the city, no part of the landscape escaped the damage, and Cole gets to climb all over it. Cole's on foot for most of the game, but the traversal options and animations knock everything else on the market out of the water. Making Cole climb the city's buildings may seem like drudgery after a while, but once you get the power to zip along power lines and train tracks, getting around becomes a lot more fun.
Technically speaking, the physics feel a little floaty, while the aiming and the cover mechanic take a little while to get used to. None of that really hampers the experience, though. Sucker Punch's talent for art direction, animation and character design shines throughout the whole game. Some sequences will bring you high above the streets, vaulting over crumbled brownstones, and you'll marvel at how convincingly scarred the landscape looks. The title's well-tuned in terms of pacing and difficulty, too. It doesn't spoon-feed you hints about how to complete missions, and while certain missions will repeat, this never happens too much.
The way Infamous integrates its ideas -- individuals' responsibility to each other, the fragility of the social contract and the allure of situational morality -- into actual gameplay turns it into a surprisingly self-aware piece of entertainment. That integration of theme and gameplay also works to make it one of the better-executed open-world games in recent memory. With quotes from JFK, Confucius, Abraham Lincoln and other great men from history popping up during the chapter breaks, Sucker Punch's first PlayStation 3 game wears its ambition on its sleeve. Fans of both superheroes and open-world games will be happy to learn that Infamous lives up to those ambitions.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.