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Game Review: inFamous 2

By / Posted on 24 June 2011

inFamous 2One of the great argument points in the games vs. movies debate of media-as-art is the implementation of free choice. Humphrey Bogart will always ask Sam to play the same song and Clark Gabel will always frankly not give a damn, but Mario can choose to stay above ground or hop in a warp pipe, Snake can hunt the world’s greatest sniper or just wait for him to die of old age, and Pikachu can choose between thunderbolt, quick attack, or just running away. Gaming, as an interactive medium, is all about decisions, and the most popular example of free will in games as of late has been the morality compass – the idea that decisions made in the game will make your character “good” or “evil.” BioWare’s Mass Effect series has done this notoriously well, as has Lionhead’s Fable, but no game has embraced the morality compass and its place in gaming quite as vehemently as Sucker Punch’s inFamous. It’s right there in the ever-so-subtle title.

inFamous, released almost exactly two years ago, put players in control of Cole McGrath, a parkour-enthusiast courier who – after being targeted by a biological weapon – finds himself cursed with electricity-based superpowers. The game saw Cole fight off gangs and mutants in order to find out what happened to him, and along the way threw a series of moral decisions at the player – often to serve the greater good or be selfish and help only Cole and his friends. The beauty of the game came in the upgradable powers, most of which were only accessible based on Cole’s positive or negative karma. Playing as a hero allowed Cole’s attacks to be more precise and accurate while an evil Cole would cause more widespread destruction. It was worth playing the first inFamous twice, if only to see all the different powers and how the environment and civilians changed with your actions, but the story was pretty much the same either way, with the same ending teasing a greater threat on the horizon: The Beast.

inFamous 2

In inFamous 2, naturally, Cole prepares to face off against the ominous threat of The Beast’s arrival. The game expects players to have some understanding of its predecessor’s story (the first game is currently free as part of Playstation’s “Welcome Back” program after their network’s forced downtime this Spring) as plot points are repeatedly referenced. In a fun bit of modern gaming technology, save files from the first game can be imported to affect your starting experience points, karmic level, and even affect later interactions with other characters. Exposition elements will refer to how you either compulsively saved strangers in Empire City or mercilessly tortured strangers for no perceivable reason. One whole mission of the game consists of a girl either kissing Cole for saving her grandmother in Empire City or cursing his existence before trapping him in an alley surrounded by flames and snipers. Players of the first game will appreciate these touches, while noobs will still enjoy just blowing stuff up left and right.

Most players will instinctively play the hero. It’s what society has taught us to do, and honestly, it’s somewhat fulfilling being praised by virtual strangers for saving their lives. Sucker Punch clearly want you to play was the bad guy. There are two tells for this preference by the game designers. First, you rack up negative karma by taking out street performers: there are saxophonists, harmonica-players, guys who bang on plastic trash bins, and mimes pretending to be living statues everywhere in the game map of New Marais. They are obvious, they are easy targets, and it feels just so good to knock them down. Second, while the overall story arc and mission structure doesn’t vary too much from good to evil, the final mission on either playthrough is wildly different, and the evil ending carries significantly greater emotional weight. While the first inFamous ended pretty much the same no matter how you played it, the polar opposite endings herein suggest that we’ll never see an inFamous 3. Sure, playing the bad guy means your actions will occasionally be interrupted by civilians attacking you out of nowhere, but at least you get more experience points for beating right back down.

The backdrop of New Marais seems noticeably smaller than the first game’s Empire City, with a great deal less verticality, but at least the variety in landscapes is remarkably more apparent. Office buildings, trailer parks, industrial warehouses, train yards and swamps, no two areas of New Marais feel quite the same, which helps to make the town feel more alive. For a game all about making the player feel powerful, though, the environment is somewhat unaccommodating. There are frequent sections of the map that lack either tall buildings to leap between or electrical lines to surf across, requiring Cole to run on foot like a common pick-pocket. It’s a minor qualm, but it prevents the player from ever feeling like the omnipowerful demon/god the in-game characters make him out to be.

inFamous 2

Of course, ever since the unadulterated success of LittleBigPlanet, Sony’s been all about user-generated content, and inFamous 2 is all-too happy to oblige. Players can design their own custom missions, complete with enemy AI and subtitled dialogue, which appear on the open-world map just like any other mission, barring a difference in color. They don’t all have to be enemy shoot-outs, either. Players can design races, obstacle courses, carnival games… all sorts of third-person action excitement. Whether it’s any good is the question, and players of LittleBigPlanet or ModNation Racers can tell you that it’s almost certain to be a mixed bag, with equal parts thoughtful and full-on suck, but at least the guys at Sucker Punch seem to be administrating the content to keep a certain standard of excellence.

While the first inFamous had a more compelling story, trying to figure out what had happened to Cole and why, inFamous 2 still hits on a number of emotions effectively in motivating Cole’s salvation. There’s a lot to do in this game, particularly thanks to the duality of gameplay and constant stream of user-generated content. Infrequent camera issues and an ongoing Spider-Man-complex aside, inFamous 2 succeeds in truly making the player feel powerful. An impressive endgame with a surprising final moral dilemma almost makes up for the wishy-washy middle sections, but at least the constant momentum prevents players from ever feeling bored. With the inFamous series seemingly over, and the new Sly Cooper apparently out of their hands, we look forward to seeing what Sucker Punch delivers next. Each successive game from the studio is bigger and more bombastic than the last, with a keen grasp on the things games can deliver that other media cannot. Maybe they’ll finally get to make that Spider-Man game they seem so desperate to simulate here.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.