Saturday, June 27, 2009

REVIEW - inFamous

Quick and spry, clever and Sly.

There is a hunger, too rarely sated by the current generation of consoles. Born of the late 1980s, I have a deep, unquenchable thirst for video games that offer a character who jumps from one object to another, slightly higher object. I adore platformers, and the satisfaction I draw from them may be why I find myself so pleased with inFamous.

Sucker Punch's latest effort is a little hard to pin down, in terms of objective quality. The lightning powers could be an inspired choice for an urban superhero, or just a boring re-branding of familiar shooter weapons. The story is strong enough to make one well up at the end, and childish enough to roll your eyes at. It's polished but glitchy, beautiful and dingy, and ambitious without any real advances made. Good thing it's an absolute blast.

If you're familiar with the Sly Cooper series - Sly 2 in particular - you'll feel instantly at home as inFamous's Cole, dashing around his urban playground, leaping between skyscrapers and plummeting from the heavens to touch lightly down on a telephone wire. Personally, I found perhaps too much joy in running around Sly's cell-shaded world searching for clue bottles, and that simple, wholesome pleasure returns here in the form of collectible blast shards. The platforming element feels... well, classic. Familiar. It allows you to spend hours effortlessly exploring the world, but demands more precision and attention than Assassin's Creed or Prince of Persia. Although Cole perhaps reaches too readily for handholds, the traversal mechanics are fast, responsive, and reward the mastery experience provides.

The second aspect of gameplay is classic third-person-shooting, plus a few more whimsical abilities like an energy shield or a shockwave for blasting enemies off rooftops. The shooting mechanics excel when they combine with the karma system (Evil Cole will shockwave a half-dozen cars at his enemies, which electrocutes the cars and makes them explode on impact, while Good Cole can launch five electrical rockets into the sky and effortlessly command them to do a quick U-turn and slam into a surgically chosen enemy), but the comabt truly shines when it merges with the platforming.

No matter what Cole's position - zipping along a train track, leaping through the air or dangling by a single hand, pressing L1 will bring up your aiming reticle, and every single attack is always at your disposal with no menu or weapon-switching mechanic required. The two sides of the game never compete, and are married flawlessly. Again, it is fun as hell, and before long you're blasting off power lines, flying through the air and nailing headshots.

Really, beyond the rock-solid gameplay, there's a lot to say in favor of the title. The voice work is without a weak link, and any product that features Phil LaMarr is a winner in my book. The soundtrack headlined by Amon Tobin is remarkable, and at times seems to simply be the ambient noise of the city before you notice it's actually music, which dramatically shifts in tone to reflect your karma level. Cole's animations are as good as Sly's ever were - watching him kick along a wall or twist his body mid-flight to grab a ledge is gorgeous, and at the very least inFamous is a game with sewer levels that you desperately look forward to playing.

The city itself, and its connection to Cole is another standout. I won't ruin it for you, but inFamous actually manages to turn pressing the start button into gameplay, and immediately connects the unwitting player with Cole's predicament. The reactions, plights and stories of the pedestrians are on par with Grand Theft Auto's gold standard. They dig in trash cans for food, huddle on doorsteps for warmth and lynch each other, but what's surprising is how personal your interactions with them feel. Empire City sports superficial differences to reflect your karma level, but the city's outward transformation is less important than its symbiotic relationship with the hero. The city's weaknesses - areas devoid of electricity - are your weaknesses, and once you turn the power back on to open new areas for exploration, its strength becomes your own. Perhaps the lightning powers really are an inspired choice, after all.

Of course, there are problems. Let's be honest - a lot of tiny problems. I won't list them all, but they definitely grab inFamous by the arms and hold it back from being a triple-A game (which, perhaps, there are enough of anyway). The most glaring issues are the in-engine cutscenes, with animation that looks like placeholder work, waiting for the final coat of paint to be applied. As well, the same tenacious mechanic that allows Cole to zip up buildings at speeds that would make Altair blush also demands he reach for every handhold on the way back down. This is countered by experience, and an ability that lets you flash towards the ground to explode in a blast wave of energy, but it could have been easily solved by simply letting Cole fall past every ledge if you hold down the drop button.

It's fortunate this game didn't appear on the PS3 back when every exclusive title was held aloft or rent asunder as an indication of the console's value. In a lot of ways it's totally average, but I find myself coming up with excuses for inFamous simply because I have such a damn good time playing it. It doesn't have the polish of a triple-A title, but I'm willing to forgive a few issues for a team as small as Sucker Punch. All the nits that can be picked take a backseat to the simple answer that the game is fun - lots of fun.

Upon spending twenty-five hours in Empire City as a paragon of virtue, I happily started over again and tore the city apart as an acrobatic Palpatine. And once I'd completed that, I find myself itching to return to its streets, and continue the hunt for the remaining blast shards.

Heck, I think I'll start up another fresh game.

-familiar, wholesome platforming
-above-par narrative
-above-par open world city
-exceptional music
-Phil LaMarr
-shoot people in the face with lightning

-godawful animation during in-game cutscemes
-a few niggling bugs which didn't impact my enjoyment
-a little pop-in while riding the rails

A worthy purchase - Sucker Punch has never done better.

Also see: I Think I Love inFamous.

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