I’ve been super busy lately, but managed to sneak in some time for another free PS Plus offering; InFamous 2. I want to first note that game developers have been trying to develop high-quality, sandbox-style superhero games for, well, since Grand Theft Auto 3 proved to everyone that a sandbox city could be done well in 3D. Unfortunately a lot of the effort has been put into developing games that are tie-ins to already successful franchises like Spiderman or Batman. It makes sense from a developers’ standpoint; they get to use ideas that have already been fleshed out and proven successful (really incredibly successful) in other media. On the other hand, it’s a risky bet because gamers have had 30 years of experience being victimized by bad movie and comic tie-ins. The only real standout has been Arkham City, which I’ve already written about. InFamous 2 breaks from this convention and tries to take its own path. It’s refreshing that this game isn’t about some a 60’s comic book character.
Welcome to New Marais (AKA: New Orleans)! The developers of InFamous 2 have decided to relocate the action from a New York type metropolis (Empire City), to a post-Katrina New Orleans. Considering the social and political baggage from the 2005 hurricane that might still be out there, it’s certainly a bold move. I appreciate the originality. Considering the world of InFamous 2 and it’s main character, Cole MacGrath, “the electric man,” it also proves to be apt in providing a backdrop to the story and action. Music has a creole feel to it at times, but doesn’t feel out of place in an action game.
New Marais, like it’s real life counterpart, was devastated some years earlier by a massive flood. Although there does not appear to be any specific references to a botched federal disaster response, the flood has apparently had a big impact on the lives of the citizens. At least that’s what you’re told. New Marais is now an island in the figurative, as well as literal sense; it’s run by a privately operated militia, which dwarfs the police in size and power. The power vacuum is only tangentially connected with the flood however, the real story has to do with the destablizing effects of “conduits,” people with superpowers such as the main character. Some sort of political point or message could have been made here, but it was left out. The only impact it seems to have made, other than making a mess of some of the territory the player navigates, was that it fostered an isolated sense of community. There is a missed opportunity here for some sort of message perhaps. To come so close to saying something, anything, and then use then use the flood as anything more than a canvas for more challenging battles seems a bit callous to me. Could you imagine if there was some sort of 9/11 reference in GTA’s Liberty City? 9/11 and “Hot Coffee” mode seem to be the ONLY two things out of bounds for GTA, and there’s a case to be made Hurricane Katrina is maybe off-limits too, at least to your average New Orleans resident.
The protagonist (or perhaps not depending on some of the choices you make), Cole, is likewise carefully constructed. The opening video, in partially-animated graphic novel style, explains that prior to acquiring his superpowers, Cole is a bike courier who dropped out of college to piss off his parents. That one sentence is really a perfect explanation of Cole; he makes his own decisions, he doesn’t always do what’s told or what other people think is right, and he’s comfortable with himself and the choices he’s made. Cole easily fits into the description of either a total dick, or a badass with a heart of gold. It’s ambiguous intentionally. Part of the noncommittal nature of Cole is necessary from a narrative perspective. InFamous 2 requires you to make choices between good and evil alternatives in a few key missions, and again at the end of the game. By making Cole seem morally ambiguous, or callously indifferent, the developer’s avoided having to create alternative cutscenes, or creating a branching story path. Sadly, as I’ll discuss later , the “karma” system in place here, and presumably is where the title of the game is derived, is underutilized and not really that good. The lack of branching story missions essentially means that the only choice that matters is the last one, and that it’s the same set of options whether you’ve spent the entire duration of the game mowing down cops or healing wounded pedestrians. Cole lusts for power, but his motivations remain unclear until the player makes that final choice. Physically Cole’s former life as a courier also fits into the gameplay design. He’s athletic, good at climbing, and wears a two-way radio in a pocket that’s part of a backpack strap. Of course every superhero needs a handy two-way communicator. His running looks natural, and meshes well with rolling dives or big jumps. Cole’s outfit is just a shirt and pants and some tattoos, which change color depending on which way you’ve been leaning with your karmic activities.
Cole’s powers are derived from electricity, making InFamous one of the best vampire games out there. Electricity is loosely your life, but mostly your ammo for attacks that include throwing thunderbolts, grenades, launching cars, and creating huge vortexes of energy. Most importantly, the environmental design seems tuned to the actual gameplay. There are ample sources of electricity that Cole can feed off of in a pinch, but attention has also been put into the effect that dropping all this voltage has on objects; transformers and light poles conduct blasts that don’t make contact, and fuses blow out. Plenty of rooftops around to push militia off of. Water, naturally is lethal, which probably explains why you never see Cole take a shower, and also why later sections of the game feature flooded sections to “amp” up the difficulty. Locked areas of the map have to be powered up by activating transformers, a neat way of keeping some areas off-limits to earlier exploration. There is a big 3D world just begging you to mix it up.
Other characters are not so well developed, and a few are only introduced by doing some annoying “dead drop” sidequests or having familiarity with the original InFamous. The only real character other than Cole that isn’t just some sort of ethical foil or plot stepping stone is Zeke, Cole’s best friend and Elvis look-alike. Zeke, a former courier like Cole, thinks for himself, and has a way of grounding Cole to his human side.
InFamous 2’s story itself is a bit uneven, and clearly draws on some old X-Men story arcs. Not that this is terrible, but it definitely struck me as a bit derivative. The central conflict is between the existence of the super-powered “Conduits,” and everyone else. Predictably, Cole has the power to determine which side survives.
The core of the game is good, what doesn’t work every well are the RPG and sandbox elements that have been added in. Health regenerates slowly over time, but also can be stolen from the electrical grid or incapacitated enemies. The two brightest elements of this game are the climbing dynamics and the physics. Although climbing is not Assassin’s Creed good, it’s head and shoulders over many other games. It looks a lot like Assassin’s Creed, in that advancement up a wall depends on the proximity to certain grapple points. So, obviously this works because the environment has been designed to accommodate it. Because Cole can glide, but not fly, getting up high is a big part of strategy in InFamous 2. Fortunately some care has been put into how exactly you’re supposed to do that.
The physics are just great. Although good 3D physics are available in a lot of games now, they stand out in InFamous 2 because they’re used so much. Grenades, the ability to throw a wall of force, and levitating and launching passenger cars make the action BIG. Ragdoll effects hit enemies right away, as opposed to only popping up on a deathblow like in Skyrim. This mass destruction is also helped by the presence of a huge number of objects present that respond to brute force. Wooden walkways shatter with explosions, transformers and light poles get blown out, and warehouse walls and ceilings get blown out. Actually using your powers is fast-based, as most of the enemies have deadly weapons and quick reflexes. I should note that the melee controls stand out in the “needs improvement” category though.
Where InFamous 2 suffers is the filler content; RPG side-quest style leveling. There are no mini-games or other styles of play in InFamous 2, so every side quest deals with more combat. These diversions are either very easy or very hard, depending on what enemies popup. Usually there is some NPC that tells you to do something, and then there is some combat. These quests have no relationship to the actual main story or plot. There’s just not enough differentiation in the styles of play here to make these side-quests meaningful. Most importantly, there is a bizarre experience system baked into unlocking stronger versions of powers in InFamous 2. The only way to get significant experience is by knocking out the side-quests, forcing a grinding sort of drudgery into the process. The whole XP system is arbitrary though. A cutscene will give you 500XP just for watching two story characters talk, whereas the hardest side-quest will only give you 100XP. Finding a hidden package gives you 3 XP. Finally, doing the side-quests removes the appearance of enemies from the map; making the source of additional XP harder to come by later. There are some side-quests that force alternate play styles, such as chasing an enemy down, or grinding on a series of powerline tightropes to get to another transformer, but these aspects of the game usually aren’t very difficult and always end with fighting a small army of enemies. At first these seem like good departures from the normal story missions, but they begin to repeat quickly once new territories are unlocked.
Other sandbox style elements include multiple exploration elements, such as picking up “hidden packages,” called blast shards, and “dead drops.” The dead drops explain aspects of the story through short excerpts of audio recordings. I’m reminded of the monument puzzle games in Assassin’s Creed 2. Unfortunately there are no monuments to mark where these story points might be, and I never got much out of completing them. Picking up blast shards is a nice diversion, but getting all of them seems like a huge waste of time as they don’t offer much benefit or XP. The obvious influence is GTA; InFamous 2 even copies GTA’s menuless automatic loading. Where GTA4 is very mature, however, in that it really captures the existentialism of the sandbox genre (and perhaps life itself???), InFamous 2 uses the size and breadth as a ploy to make the game longer. All this serves to do is make the total fun per minute ratio lower; a much better approach would be side missions that lead to some sort of tangible story realization, character development, or accomplishment other than a pitiful amount of experience points. There is just no way to feel any emotional investment in anything other than the main missions.
Lastly, and most surprisingly, the “karma” system in InFamous 2 is simply not that great. This is because the method of earning karma (good or bad) is broken in the context of the main game, and also because the game encourages an all-in approach. Because differing degrees of good or bad karma unlock more powerful versions of Cole’s superpowers, there is no advantage to be gained neutral karma. You either need to be as good as possible, or completely evil. You can’t get both mid-tier powers. You can patrol the city searching for random muggings, or alternatively for patrols of police to silence. But then there are opportunities to acquire blast shards, either by defusing bombs (good karma + blast shard), or by mugging (bad karma + blast shard). If you just want a lot of blast shards though, you’re inclined to do both. The karmic balance your character has doesn’t really have any other impact on the story other than changing some of the powers around, and changing your appearance. Cole will look increasingly more pale and tattooed if you’re evil, but the developer’s did not change the story at all to reflect these choices. You don’t lose anything of substantive value by picking one particular side. There is no dark side of the force style temptation here, good karma just gives you a different set of awesomely destructive powers. Finally, the gaining karma is pretty arbitrary as far as the side missions go. A pedestrian will ask you to hunt down a monster, or stop a militia rampage, but these are karma neutral events (unless you kill some civilians in the crossfire). It just doesn’t seem that well thought out. Obviously ethics and morality aren’t cut and dry, but in InFamous 2 the implementation of the rules seems really arbitrary.
InFamous 2 is a familiar 3D person action format in a sandbox environment. The sandbox aspects are decent, but the action aspects significantly outshine the former. The RPG aspects of the game should have been refined. A solid 8 with fun dynamics. Hey, it’s free right now too.