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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Late to the Party Reviews: Infamous

Well, it's that time of the week again already. How time flies.

This week I'll be taking a look at Infamous, or if you read the box and insist on being faithful to marketing foolishness inFAMOUS. I do not insist on being faithful to people who misuse capslock, so hereafter I shall type the title of the game as if it were a normal proper noun.

Infamous is video game available only on the PS3. Like all PS3 exclusives, a typical reviewer must be cautious about what he or she says because the legion of PS3 fanboys who are grateful to be able to play something that cannot be had on a rival system will send emails using only capslock and various ways to imply the reviewer has had an inappropriate relationship with a barnyard animal, his own mother, or both.

You see, PS3 fanboys tend to have chips on their shoulders, because they picked the loser in this generation's console wars but they don't want to admit it. As someone who owns only Sony products this gaming generation (PS3 and a PSP, thank you very much) I am enamored of my platforms of choice, but I have no illusions about NPD numbers. Face it, guys: Sony places third in a field of three. That's a fancy word for losing.

Anyway, the fact that the PS3 is this generation's loser doesn't change the fact that there are still a lot of good games to be played on it. Infamous is among them, though it is not without flaws.

For those of you who are also late to the party, let me recap: Infamous is the story of Cole McGrath, a delivery boy who gets electrically charged super powers when a package he delivers blows up and annihilates a large portion of the city. It soon becomes clear that some big things are brewing, and Cole is up to his ionized backside in trouble.

The game borrows liberally from Grand Theft Auto III. It's open world on a city that consists of three islands that unlock as you complete story-related missions. There are side missions littered throughout the landscape, as well as pockets of thugs for you to fight if you just want to get into some quick action. As with every other open world game in the known universe, there are a few hundred Totally Arbitrary Collectible Objects (or TACOs, a term used in the JRPG Anachronox which I have adopted) called "blast shards" which grant Cole additional energy to use his more impressive powers.

The developers tried to set this game apart from other open-world games in a few ways. First, Cole is a very agile delivery boy. He can climb just about anything that has a handhold (except chain link fences). The explanation for this is that he "got into urban exploration a few years ago." He says it once the first time he ventures into the sewers, and it totally explains how his climbing abilities are rivaled only by Spiderman.

Ahem.

The other way the developers tried to set Infamous apart is with the morality system. As Cole, you're allowed to play as a hero, or as a villain-ish character. I say villain-ish because the game doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you play the evil path, particularly if you do a lot of side missions, which you kind of have to do.

For example, if you're playing the Evil Path, you will be asked to blow up cops and steal things from other residents of the city. Then you'll be asked to help a doctor establish a new clinic, and protect a bus carrying medical supplies. Blowing up cops and setting up clinics are both optional missions, but you need experience points to buy new powers and upgrades, and if you don't do all of the side missions you won't be able to fully upgrade for the final boss.

The main differences between the "good" and "evil" path are in the powers that you get to wield. As the hero, Cole gets powers that enable him to do precise damage to villains without hurting bystanders and to live-capture enemies for the police to collect. As the villain, Cole gets cool red lightning, and his powers tend to be more explodey.

The powers are completely tied up in your moral fiber, so don't think you'll be able to play through as a grey jedi. Upgrades to your abilities only appear when you've reached a certain level of fame or notoriety (Guardian, Champion and Hero on the good side, Thug, Outlaw and Infamous on the evil side) and you can't use Infamous powers if you're only ranked as an Outlaw, or Hero powers if you're only ranked Champion. When you max out your karma in one direction or the other, you get an ability that temporarily grants you unlimited energy-- so there's no incentive to be a little bit good if you're playing evil, or vice versa.

A lot of reviewers have complained at the implementation of the karmic system, and I can't say I wholly blame them. I've never had a problem with binary moral systems in games-- Fallout 3 had a binary system, and I thought it worked well for the most part. But Infamous is on the sloppy side and a lot of the choices don't make sense. The choice isn't "Cole does what he thinks is right" versus "Cole looks out for number one" which is how the world really works. The choice is always "Cole does what the game tells you is right" versus "Cole acts like a total a-hole."

A good example comes up early, so I have no qualms about spoiling it: Cole is in the sewers and he finds a man guarding a gate. The man believes the bad-guys are holding his wife hostage and will kill her if he opens the gate for anyone but them. His wife, you earlier discovered, has already been killed. At this time the player is presented with a moral choice:

The good choice is to tell him that his wife is already dead and that he doesn't have to guard the gate anymore.

The evil choice is to kill the guy.


I know. Tough call, right?

The other problem with the karma system is that it doesn't really change the story in any meaningful way. If you play the good path, your girlfriend is nicer to you (for about five minutes) and people don't throw rocks at you as you walk down the street but the main story arc is identical to the "evil" path. Most of the side missions don't even change, as I mentioned earlier, so you're still establishing medical clinics and getting the trains running on time no matter which moral path you take.

But when you strip away that moral system, you're still left with a darn good game. The controls are tight, the combat is fun; once you get the hang of figuring out where the snipers are (hint: don't stand in one place and try to figure out where the bullets that are hitting you in the head are coming from. You'll die a lot.) and the story is pretty good if you play the hero.

The controls take a little getting used to, but once you get the hang of holding the R1 button whenever you want to shoot something the combat flows pretty smoothly. If you're quick enough on the draw, you can reflect missiles back at the guys who shot them at you, which is always fun. The sheer variety in the powers Cole wields makes for some good fun-- whether playing as the hero or the villain he has a standard shot, sniper shot, grenade and missile launcher equivalents, as well as the totally awesome "summon a continuous lightning arc and steer it around" power which is sadly useless against any game bosses but will clear out enemy vehicles like nobody's business.

Just climbing around the city is a ton of fun. The controls in this respect are very forgiving, and the only way I missed a jump was when I was trying too hard to make it. Cole is almost magnetic for handholds, which is great for some of the jumping puzzles but admittedly annoying if you're trying to get across a crowded roof in a hurry. The "drop down" button could have used some tweaking, because while it's occasionally useful to push the button and drop down the the next lower handhold, usually what I want to do is drop the the ground, and the drop-down button doesn't allow for that. But on the whole, I'd say the maneuvering mechanics work very well.

One of the things I really like about the game is the TACO system. Usually, players are told there are X number of collectible objects on the map and left to fend for themselves. In Infamous, the player can use radar which will alert the player to the presence of blast shards if they are within range on the mini-map. Using this system I've collected 320 out of 350 shards without resorting to online FAQs, which I did when I played Mercenaries 2.

Overall, I'd say Infamous is definitely worth playing. My recommendation is to play through as the hero first, because the story makes more sense, and then decide if you want to play the evil path. On the whole, I'm glad I did both, but I don't think I would have if I'd played the evil path first. It's clear where the developers want you to go, and there's no reason not to. You'll have a better experience if you don't fight it.


In conclusion, the only honest way to give a game a score is to decide whether it's worth the price you'll pay for it. As with any opinion, this is subject to personal taste, but unlike arbitrary grades it has the benefit of using a practical unit of measure. So, if you see Infamous, what price tag is worth paying?

Well, I paid full price ($60) and I feel like I got my money's worth. It's a solid $60, an excellent $50 game, and a must-buy at $40 or below.