The promise of open world gameplay – freedom within a box – has long been a selling point for developers. Realtime World’s Crackdown offered arguably the truest sense of freedom of the recent surge of open world games. The Agent, lacking in charisma as he was, sailed painlessly between towering skyscrapers, drifting up the side of buildings like gravity applied backward; obligingly leaping wherever directed without the need for helicopter or car (though the latter were in abundance anyway.)
Sucker Punch, famous for the Sly Raccoon series, is the latest developer to try its luck in the sandbox genre and inFamous quickly offers it’s own trademark, transforming you into a walking (running, flying, but not swimming) tesla coil within thirty seconds.
That’s thirty seconds from the compulsory install time. Sucker Punch waste no time with menu screens or extensive introductions, offering instead a slick graphic novel styled cut scene opening, a style maintained throughout the game. Free from the shackles of ‘press start to begin’ it does a good job of acquainting the player with its robust control system and personality drained protagonist via the playable aftermath of an explosion which bestows Empire City its apocalyptic aesthetic. Handily this also doubles as the logic behind your super powers.
Cole’s athleticism is paramount in establishing inFamous in the same class as other similar free-roam titles. Whilst at first limited to rapid sprint speed and wall scaling abilities, before the midpoint of the game you’re able to grind along telephone wires (littered generously about the city) and railway tracks, flying for a limited time, and surfing on top of speeding trains. Rarely anything but fluent and calculated, the games best moments take full advantage of your physical prowess. Curious then that inFamous’ lack of freedom doesn’t stem from invisible walls or the developers choice not to allow you the liberty of four wheel drive or front crawl. Rarely does either feel missed, and when they do it’s down to uninspired missions there to extend the game’s lifespan, rather than keep things interesting.
Problems arise however, from Cole’s powers. For a character running on electricity, he is shockingly (…) feeble. Battles fought against even the basic enemies are battles of attrition; R1 R1 R1 R1. With the three maps littered sporadically with pockets of resistance, chaperoning Cole about the city grows tiresome until enemies are later removed. Powers are unlocked promptly and in collaboration with missions spent in the cities many sewers, though none feel truly super-powered until the final upgrade by which time the game is drawing to a close.
But lackluster super powers are a pale complaint in the wake of derivative and uninspiring missions. Beginning with infamous fetch missions or assassinations is acceptable, playing with your inhuman abilities and electric powers make those alien enough to waver criticism, but playing the same missions on the third island, with the added insult of repeated objectives (go here and save this group of people, now go here and save this group, now once more, oh what the hell do it again) is destitute. There are levels that shine; ascending a sky-piercing trash-tower (the view out over Empire City worth the climb alone), but these few are almost lost amid the flow of mediocrity and deja vu haunting the majority of the campaign.
The side missions (designed to rid small regions of the city from enemies) takes this to another level, shamelessly repeated even on the first island. This isn’t always problematic, races across the city rooftops are electrifying throughout and tailing couriers like a volatile Sam Fisher make for a refreshing change of pace compared to the combat-heavy campaign. But scaling buildings searching for cameras or herding groups of enemies across the map to a police station are monotonous tasks in their youth, let alone four reiterations later.
Crackdown proved mission structure doesn’t have to define a game; with one goal repeated throughout and a story so proverbial and clichéd who knew whether to laugh or cry during the finale? Its entire appeal rested in the grip of slick controls, audacious freedom, and its micro-elements: agility orbs, stunt jumps, co-operative mode. inFAMOUS has it’s own collectables and stunts incorporated into combat though they don’t tie into the character quite so well as to inspire lengthy exploration of a city that, despite looking the part with crumbling towers, TV news broadcasts, and humourous adverts a plenty, suffers from the drab, dark hues of post-apocalyptic rubble.
Structuring this review according to the box script, attention is also drawn to the hero/anti-hero battle fought throughout the story. Frequently punctuating moments, intrusively, with the option to play out scenarios according to players will, these actions come together to form a karmic rating. Most noticeably this affects the abilities you have access to, though none drastically enough to warrant playing twice to witness each set. It’s a questionable way to spend recourses; the minute differences certainly don’t justify a repeat – the game concludes identically, and many of the decisions don’t affect the story, which undermines the whole principle.
That’s a lot of criticism and it would be unfair to ignore that which Sucker Punch achieves. With slick controls and the novelty of an electric arm in place of an assault rifle, the first five or six hours are unique enough in tone and flair to make it worth your while. If you’re willing to play through twice to witness both sides of the spectrum, as well as scour the city for blast shards and dead drops, inFamous is comfortably perched somewhere passed the thirty-hour mark. It’s undoubtedly hindered by its mission structures but Cole makes up for that with his athleticism and glossy control. Despite tiring by the end, Empire City is a sinister, atmospheric, and stylishly designed playground to explore and wreck havoc in; it never feels too large, and missions rarely require you to travel across huge distances.
On top of that an XP system is incorporated slyly and efficiently with all manner of actions tying together with the larger sums of experience gained through completing missions. This can be spent on upgrading existing powers and abilities and adds a slightly tactical edge to the gameplay.
Sandbox worlds can be as much a hindrance as a boon and Sucker Punch have stumbled bravely into the middle ground. With a few more months in development, perhaps a more diverse set of missions could have been incorporated and your abilities enhanced. As it stands inFamous is a solid title, accomplished in its open world nature but held back by an itching sense of deja vu and a terminally underpowered protagonist.