Version tested: PlayStation 3
I come to you today as a man who has killed many, many street performers.
I can't even pretend to be ashamed of this. In fact, after I've concluded this "article", I'm probably going to wade back in and finish off a few more. Can you blame me? It's great to see trust fund percussionists winging through the air, launched from those stupid plastic drum kits, and it's a pleasure to knock human statues off their wonky-apple-box perches.
Most of all, it just feels right to blast the saxophone from a jazzman's wretched saxophone-caressing hands. The only problem, actually, is that inFamous 2's developer Sucker Punch awards evil, rather than good, karma points for doing all this. Hopefully that will be fixed with a patch.
So ignore the big changes for a second: forget the new setting, the new characters, and the inevitable range of new abilities. Pummelling community theatre folk may be one of the more basic missions available in inFamous 2 - but it feels like an emblem of the game's single greatest shift in direction.
Sucker Punch's first open-worlder provided a promising superhero template, but it locked players into a dour backstory where the fizziness suggested by your newfound electrical powers was lost beneath the grim rubble of a destroyed Empire City. Despite the fact that the sequel kicks off with Cole MacGrath's defeat by the Beast (the cherry-flavoured Dr Manhattan-alike he had been created to ward off) and a subsequent retreat south, the game that follows refuses to brood over failures and disappointments.
Instead, it's cheerful, energetic and colourful, and it casts Cole as a kind of loose-limbed, white-trash avenger: an ornery hero in a wife-beater who lamps the baddies with a pair of motorbike forks and then turns off his phone to grab a bit of downtime watching a Western on TV. What's inFamous 2's biggest surprise? It's that the protagonist seems to enjoy his super powers a little more on this outing - and so will you.
Sucker Punch certainly does. The team's latest begins by letting you hang onto some of the best electrical trinkets from the first game - the grenade, the blast, and the aerial boost for starters - and then it starts to pile on entirely new goodies.
You can expect a range of different bolt attacks, a series of strange tweaks to those grenades, and standout ionic powers that can send a super-charged twister sailing down the street or trigger lightning storms and crushing waves of ice. Beyond that, depending on whether you've chosen the good or evil karmic pathway, you can look forward to messing around with things like Freeze Rockets and Frost Shields or the demented pleasures of the Firebird Strike, which turns you into a nasty short-range homing missile.
Either choice promises plenty of kinetic fun, and there are easy ways to power up good or evil karma to unlock the options you're after. Most story missions and side quests carry an - often interesting - moral flourish, while the map itself is filled with randomly placed robberies to halt and bombs to defuse if you're feeling kind, or cops to supress, protests to quash, and all those innocent street performers if you aren't. Both of the game's karmic paths will push you towards weighty and genuinely satisfying conclusions, and the overarching storyline of the inFamous games, which perhaps didn't make as much of an impact as it could on the first outing, starts to get pretty interesting.
Meanwhile, if you measure an open world by its power to distract you from what you're actually meant to be doing, New Marais is every bit as good at its job as Empire City was. Its streets are littered with icons promising side missions, while collectable blast shards are stuck into almost every surface: good for extending your energy meter but also fun to hunt for in and of themselves. Dead drops have been replaced by carrier pigeons holding SIM cards and, if you want to, you can spend a pleasant afternoon just rattling around town, shooting birds out of the sky and piecing the game's backstory together.
A little southern charm doesn't go amiss, either. New Marais has everything a good Deep South stereotype could need: rotting plantation manors, misty swamps that hide evil things and awful secrets, plenty of rococo churches to climb, and a rampaging gang of supremacists on the loose. Later areas include rail yards, a huge, Crackdown-style gas works and Flood Town: a first, for me at least, in video games, as its take on the apocalypse channels Katrina rather than the World Trade Centre.
Alongside an improved range of environments, New Marais also has many more moving parts than Empire City: balconies that collapse under sustained attack, cars that you can turn into electrical trampolines, and weird power strips than boost you smartly up the side of a building. It's the perfect fit for a game that has so much of Sly Cooper's chimney-hopping DNA flowing through it.
While this New Orleans pastiche may not quite have the individual identity of other open-world cities, it's been built for traversal rather than tourism - and traversal, with its magnetic drainpipes and endless grindwire trails, remains the series' trump card. A touch more involved than Assassin's Creed and a lot less fiddly than Mirror's Edge, inFamous 2 is video games' true master of parkour, and your agility is enhanced by tech that has improved considerably since the first game. Forget the fact that the draw distance still isn't perfect: Cole MacGrath finally has a frame rate that can keep up with his headlong pelt.
At times, in fact, traversal almost overwhelms the rest of the adventure. Despite all those new powers you can mess about with, combat still struggles to match the thrills offered by simply getting around. Even here, though, there have been improvements.
They're particularly obvious in terms of melee, where Cole's close-up attacks have been channelled into the Amp, an electrical club built from motorbike parts that provides fights with some endearingly brutal moments. The bestiary you'll be Amping is bigger and a lot more inventive, too. Expect a handful of different foot soldiers and some pleasingly disturbing monsters to kick off against, while, alongside best friend Zeke, Cole's joined on his side of the struggle by two fellow Conduit superheroes. They behave, for the most part, like different aspects of his conscience, and that's about all that can be said of them without dipping into spoilers.
The final piece of the puzzle is user-generated content, which, in the weeks ahead, should see New Marais steadily filling up with the green waypoint icons that indicate the starting areas for home-made side quests.
Playing through the game in pre-release, most of these are currently built by the team at Sucker Punch. As offerings go, if you put aside the lack of voice tracks and bespoke sound effects, they're up there with the campaign missions in terms of complexity and storytelling. Whether you're living out one of Zeke's tall tales or visiting a deadly outdoor disco, the creator tools are clearly capable of providing multi-part set-pieces with plot twists and bosses, as well as the expected range of ring-races and simple brawls.
This level of control doesn't come without a price, of course, and actually building UGC is something that, as a creator, you're going to have to put aside some time to get used to. It's more LittleBigPlanet than ModNation Racers, in other words, and there's a serious learning curve as you get to grips with placing NPCs, modifying their states, and laying down game logic. (Every design element, from event triggers to dialogue boxes, appears in creation mode as a physical object, incidentally, and to make things work, you literally wire the parts of your mission together.)
There are templates to learn from, but I actually found it less daunting to build things from scratch and then slowly incorporate new elements after I'd messed around with them enough to get a vague understanding of what they do. Within 20 minutes, I went from utter confusion to having constructed a very basic seek-and-destroy mission, and within a half-hour, I was adding a second wave of monsters to my original design. It's not for the faint-hearted (the content creator that is, not my level, which was reassuringly feeble) but it's a brilliant set of tools, and the important stuff for most of us, like uploading, rating and recommending content, is kept straightforward throughout.
UGC aside, inFamous 2 is a great example of the iterative approach to sequels: it's driven by tweaks, fixes, and subtle refinements, and there's a sense throughout that the series is starting to come into focus. During its best moments, it feels like something we might have been given by the Assassin's Creed team if they'd grown up immersed in the works of Steve Ditko rather than Umberto Eco: a hard-edged pulp adventure where your tools are perfectly matched to your missions. If the original game gave Cole a purpose, this one provides a little personality to go with it.
In other words: onwards and upwards.
8 / 10