inFamous, the oddly capitalised PlayStation 3 exclusive, is finally here. Born from the bastard parents of Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown and just beating womb-mate Prototype to the wide open world of the bustling sandbox genre, inFamous has a lot to live up to, especially given that gamers will need to buy a PS3 to see what all the fuss is about. They won’t, though: inFamous isn’t a system seller and, all things considered, isn’t even a guaranteed sale to anyone but the most hardened Sony fanbase.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: inFamous might throw you right into the deep end when you first press ‘Start’, but we won’t. If you still haven’t played the demo, either because of bandwidth issues or a simple desire to not have your experience spoiled by the slightly misleading missions dotted throughout the recent playable tester, we’ll fill you in: inFamous is an open world third person shooter where guns and vehicles have been replaced by cool superhero-esque electrical powers and some Sonic style rail grinding.
That’s not it, of course, but the beauty of a story-led game like this is that you’re left to find out just what’s going on all by yourself, and whilst the demo was quite happy to begin your brief campaign with some maxed out powers and a train to start, the full game kicks off, after the cracking and powerful introduction, in a much more sedate manner. You’ll also be introduced, face to face, with Zeke, your hopelessly ignorant, overweight and terribly animated partner. We tried, but no amount of lightning can harm him or his pizza.
inFamous doesn’t try hard to buck any preconceptions of the sandbox genre. Yes, your character has, ultimately, a delicious set of power ups and abilities the likes of Nico and CJ could only dream of, but we’ve seen building scaling before in Crackdown and it takes until the second of the three islands for Cole, the main character in inFamous, to start to get his better characteristics. Until then you’re meant to hone your free running and roof jumping skills, all the while slowly building up your offensive weaponry bit by bit.
As we’ve said in our demo test and full game hands on, inFamous’ trump card is the karma system, which sees Cole faced with staged set-pieces in which he must make a moral decision which is meant to affect the outcome of the game but ultimately simply nudges a little meter clockwise or anticlockwise. These karma sections do little more than break any forth wall that might have been tenuously built and although moving towards being a hero or being infamous is a nice idea, the only thing it really does is unlock different abilities.
Throughout your time in Empire City the storyline (and the reason for the explosion that wiped everything out) is drip-fed in staccato voice overs and pirate TV interludes, and whilst the comic book animated cut-scenes are wonderful the story isn’t exactly watertight and the various plot twists can be more akin to plot holes. Characters come and go but they all tend to gel into a single information thread and without the onscreen GPS some players might no doubt be lost as to what to do next and why they were doing it.
For the most part, you’ll be tasked with ridding the city of the various gangs that have taken over each third of the game world; restoring light and energy via the various (and yet oddly similar) underground sewer systems and partaking in a series of disparate and disconnected side quests that, although rooted in the same mechanics of inFamous, don’t ever seem to fit in with the current events of the main narrative. They aren’t even hidden, in fact given a brighter colour on the GPS than the blue story progression points.
What are hidden, though, are masses of energy shards (to expand your energy block), dead drop radars which carry secret audio messages and literally thousands of energy producing machines (from vehicles to phone boxes) which Cole can use to recharge his electrical supply. The clever mechanics, such as dark (sans power) areas holding back any such power boosts are a neat idea, but the notion is underused and somewhat miscommunicated, with the signposting never really obvious unless you pause the game and stare at the overall map.
For an open world sandbox, it’s a crying shame that inFamous carries no sense of ownership. There are no garages to store your vehicles because Cole cannot drive. You don’t need to stockpile weaponry and ammunition because Cole cannot hold a gun, and because doors don’t open your base is typically devoid of anything usefully yours. In addition, and because of this, there is no desire to explore unless you’re seeking out the aforementioned collect-em-ups and even so, a distinct lack of variety to the environments, even when power is restored, is disappointing.
What does shine, though, is the gameplay, which is stunning. Cole’s attraction to horizontal and vertical elements in the world is most pleasing, and Sucker Punch’s decision to make everything as sticky as possible is a smart one. The player, once suitably powered up, can leap, grind and flip between buildings, scale them with ease and, of course, create devastation with an ultimately expansive electricity based arsenal. Jedi-style powers, sticky grenades and concrete tearing earthquakes are all available to Cole, depending on his karma choices, and the game’s aiming and movement are utterly sublime.
The music, too, is wonderful. Amon Tobin’s superb compositions give the game a much needed production quality boost, especially amidst the often poor voice acting, and help create tension and excitement when needed. The visuals we’ve covered in our hands on, but it’s worth mentioning that this isn’t a great looking game: the frame rate is all over the place, the aliasing can be hideous and the clipping quite laughable (I got stuck, completely, inside a few buildings a couple of times) but it’s the animation that hurts the most: Uncharted this isn’t and the in-game cut-scenes can be simply abysmal. This might be a Sony exclusive but at times it looks like a PS2 game.
Whether that affects your enjoyment of the game is entirely subjective. In inFamous’ defense, the game can offer staggeringly beautiful views at times, and open-world environments are generally less impressive than most linear adventures, but in 2009 we are right to expect more from our PS3 titles, especially given that with a little more time a lot of the issues that stand out the most (the animation especially) might have been ironed out. We suspect the mechanical mission structure would always be the same, though, and that’s the game’s main killer.
Recall your fondest sandbox memories: discovering The Truth, learning to fly, or climbing the central tower in Crackdown. There’s nothing like this in inFamous. Sure, there’s some nice boss battles, some great shoot-outs and, when it’s all said and done, a decent overarching story, but the moments, the single sections that must piece together to form a whole, are rarely that enjoyable and you certainly won’t be discussing most of them with friends around the watercooler. What you will do is play it through twice, once being good and just, and the second (as I am doing now) being a complete bastard. After that? Probably not.
inFamous is here, and it’s got a head start on Prototype. Whilst that in itself shouldn’t be a reason to buy the game we suspect the game will sell regardless because of its close ties to Sony and the PlayStation brand, and if enough of us splash out on the game there’s a chance Sucker Punch will bring back Sly. If you want something different for your PS3 then inFamous will fill the gap nicely and despite a seemingly negative review, overall we did enjoy the first play through because it’s a good game and the free-running and shooting are second to none.
And hey, you get that Uncharted 2 beta too, right?