Monday, June 13, 2011

REVIEW - inFamous 2.

inFamous 2 may be flawed, but as of June 14, 2011, it is my single favorite game of the year. It's not as perfectly-crafted as Portal 2, it's not as gripping as Dead Space 2. It's fun. It is so much fun.

That is, I should note, pretty much what I said about the first inFamous. In that case, though, I admitted that its technology was merely serviceable, that its voice work was fine-just-fine and its in-engine facial animation was utterly atrocious. I can make no such complaints about inFamous 2.

The thing has received a complete overhaul. It's clear as day from the moment you fire the game up, but you're still occasionally struck by just how beautiful inFamous 2 is. It's occasionally shocking - when an RPG corkscrews its way towards you, its rocket lighting up the surrounding architecture. When you pan the camera around and freeze it, just for a moment, on a gorgeous sky. When Cole twists his body mid-jump to catch a ledge behind him.

Clearly, the developers have had some conversations with the folks at Naughty Dog about more than just technology, as my single biggest complaint about inFamous - the abhorrent animation during in-engine cutscenes - has been turned into a sparkling jewel in the game's crown.

Honestly, I'm almost positive that inFamous 2 employs the precise same technique used in Uncharted 2 - having actors together, on a sound stage, acting out scenes as if it were a play as cameras and microphones record every second. This gleans wonderful, comfortable, funny and realistic performances from the actors - and thank goodness, inFamous 2 is actually pretty darn well-written.

The script highlights that protagonist Cole McGrath isn't a super man - he's merely super powered. He's an everyday dude who just happens to be able to shoot lightning out of his fingertips and manipulate magnetic fields. The in-engine cutscenes are now an absolute treat. Beautiful to watch, always entertaining and involving, and often very funny. I didn't think for a second that Sucker Punch would rise to such a level, but they actually manage to capture the easygoing, human believability of Uncharted's gold standard.

Mechanics have been overhauled here and there. Cole's melee ability is far improved over its original incarnation. As you smack enemies around a meter builds to a point that allows you to pull off an impressive-looking finisher - an ability that improves as you grow in strength - which often makes the giant tuning fork you carry around the most efficient means of dispatching all but the biggest foes.

There are a few changes to the gameplay that I'm not thrilled with. Most egregious is the fact that if you play the game on hard mode, finish every side mission and find every collectible, it's impossible to earn enough experience points to max out your Cole. Sucker Punch obviously expects us to flesh out our experience gain with the User Generated Content missions - but after trying a dozen of these missions designed by Sucker Punch themselves, I feel no need to ever return to it.

It would (arguably) be worth it to play through the UGC if the experience reward was anywhere close to what you would have earned from a normal mission, but you receive zero experience from defeating enemies in these user-created missions.

The fact that they've balanced the single-player campaign based on their expectations of the UGC is... well, awful. And disappointing. And frustrating. It should be noted, however, that I was still able to beat the game on hard mode without playing a single UGC mission.

There are other mechanical changes I was not, initially, fond of. Cole's base lightning attack now takes time to travel, and he can't even fire it if you exhaust his energy supply spamming rockets. He no longer gains energy from grinding power lines and his spectacular Ionic powers are now tied to a separate resource which must be collected from random defeated foes.

These would all piss me off more if I didn't perceive a reasoning behind each and every change. For example, electricity is a more precious resource in inFamous 2. Sources to drain for ammunition are much harder to come across, particularly in the second half of the game - Sucker Punch hopes you'll employ their new mechanic instead (performing a power finisher on an enemy refills your energy).

This turns every fight into a much greater risk-reward balancing act, particularly given how vicious the enemies in inFamous 2 are. Hard mode here is a legitimate challenge, requiring real consideration and strategy to survive - but once you've mastered the abilities they've given you, the third-person shooting/crowd control/melee abilities prove supremely satisfying. What was once a lethal threat to be avoided becomes an opportunity to deliver a surgical strike - dividing enemies with a perfectly-placed energy blast before conquering.

Changing your street-sweeping Ionic powers to a random, finite resource (you can hold one, two or three charges), makes them all the more precious when you let one off the chain - and demands thrilling dashes towards its telltale glow during tense firefights.

Let me reassure you, dear reader. inFamous 2 may not be perfect, but it is without question the most fun I've had with a video game since... well, I'm actually having trouble thinking of an example.

For my money, inFamous 2 is the single best platformer on the current generation of consoles - and that alone makes it one of the single best games. I take no greater, wholesome pleasure from a title than one which allows me to jump from one platform to another, slightly higher platform - and this is as good as it gets. Better than Mirror's Edge, better than Assassin's Creed, better than Mario. That's right. I went there.

It is simply, constantly fun to play. Unlike Ezio, Cole never runs on autopilot - efficient navigation requires a sharp eye and a practiced hand - but neither is he as fiddly and frustrating as Faith. He zips up buildings in five seconds flat and blasts across the cityscape on cables - and there's something immensely satisfying about throwing yourself a hundred yards and touching down precisely on a power line.

This, combined with the ability to fire energy from your hands, turns inFamous 2 into a rather unequaled action experience. There is no other title that's both a proficient platformer and a great third-person shooter.

I am, I must admit, in love with this game. Whenever I have a spare moment, I find myself stealing back into New Marais to dance down power lines, dash across rooftops and launch myself into the night sky.

I love that when a citizen needs help (or needs to have their ass kicked), the game will tell me precisely where to go. I love zipping up buildings in search of the collectible blast shards. I love the game's swooping orchestral score to the point that I carry it around on my iPod. I love that the variety of the architecture in New Marais' disparate boroughs actually requires you to navigate them in completely different ways. I love the enemy designs - I love the way Cole's design will change right down to his posture depending on your karmic alignment.

I love the two spectacular endings, I love the switch-up on inFamous's dead drops, I love the incredible, gigantic miniboss fights that demand smart use of your surroundings and quick reflexes.

God help me, I even love Zeke this time around - but what I love most is simply jumping into inFamous 2 and playing.

I can't say I love everything about it - but I've no difficulty admitting it's my single favorite game of the year thus far. It boasts exemplary presentation, a fantastic cast, great writing, excellent graphics, amazing music, wonderful art direction... but who cares?

inFamous 2 is the funnest game I've played in a long, long time. More than that, it manages to take the word "play" back from "gameplay." Like the wonderful titles of old where you could lose yourself in the act of navigating their worlds and thwarting their foes, inFamous 2 is simply wonderful to just play.

It's about running, jumping, flying and chucking rockets made of concentrated electrical energy.

God, I love it.

-a gorgeous open-world game
-the vast differences between powers for good and evil routs begs for repeat playthroughs
-fantastic story presentation that nearly matches the Uncharted 2 standard
-Cole seems to enjoy his powers as much as we do
-I even like Zeke now

-wonderful, wholesome, pleasurable platforming
-you can shoot lightning from your hands
-liiiiive! now dieeeee! now liiiiive!
-huge action
-a great balance to the combat: very satisfying
-excellent music
-the endings are spectacular
-the UGC essentially gives it infinite content
-Phil LaMarr
-an incredibly fun game

-the UGC missions are pretty shitty
-on the Hard difficulty, you can't earn enough XP to purchase all your upgrades. I was certainly still able to beat it - but it's frustrating Sucker Punch has balanced it with the expectations of us grinding sixty user-created missions.
-a few small changes to the mechanics that, to be honest, make sense
-tying the progression of some of your powers to the amount of side missions you've done sucks
-that red ring joke woulda' been hilarious in 2008

inFamous 2 is gorgeous, huge and a constant pleasure to simply play. Buy it.

Hahhhh.... get it? "Repairs in only 12 weeks"?
Funny, right?

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