You can whine all you like about the fact 99 per cent of games are the same nowadays, about how they're all about shooting monsters into bloody messes in post-apocalyptic American cities. I spent 99 per cent of E3 week doing just that. But are developers simply being lazy? Or are they just giving gamers what they want?
Take InFamous. It's set in a post-apocalyptic American city, so that's one box ticked. However, it's not about shooting. You play an Cole McGrath, a man with the power to absorb, control and discharge electricity. He can use it as a weapon, firing lightning bolts down from the sky. He can also use it to heal people - restarting their hearts with a burst of power like a human defibrillator.
In this particular post-apocalyptic American city, there are no monsters. True, some of the inhabitants have mutated and gained new abilities like Cole. But most of them are just normal people who are exploiting a situation where normal laws have ceased to exist. For many of them this means stealing, raping and murdering, with no fear the police will intervene - they're "too dead or too chickens***", as the trailer puts it. As the game progresses, you must decide whether to join the free-for-all and look after yourself, or do what you can to help the helpless. Yes, whether to use your powers for good or evil.
As creative director Nate Fox has been explaining over the course of a 20-minute demo, InFamous is about what happens when an ordinary man becomes extraordinary. It's about what it feels like to possess unique and immense powers and about learning how to control them. It's about the what happens when a city descends into chaos, what takes priority when it's a question of morality versus survival, and what emerges when human nature is no longer bound by social constructs.
So you can imagine Nate Fox is a bit disappointed by the first question from a journalist at the end of his demo: "That looked really tame. Is the finished game going to be more violent?"
He's even a bit stunned. "Are you kidding me?" Fox replies. "He electrified a guy! He pulled lightning out of the sky!"
"Yeah," says the journalist, "But what about exploding heads and torn limbs and, you know, all that stuff that's cool for the kids these days?"
Fox manages not to sigh. "We are aiming at a teen rating. We're not going for as much gore as we can. Hopefully that will not get in the way of our objective, which is to make the player feel like a modern-day superhero." And besides, "You saw in our intro cut-scene we said 'sh**' twice. So that means we're edgy, right?", he adds with a smile.
The phrase "modern-day superhero" is used frequently by Fox, but what does it mean? Someone who can operate Sky+ telepathically, perhaps, or complete a trip to Ikea in under six hours without rowing? "'Modern-day superhero' is the phrase that I use to make all decisions. We want to make you feel like that's what you're becoming," explains Fox. "That means we have to deliver things like powerful abilities, a slate of villains who are iconic and also powerful, a storyline which is mysterious in nature, so you keep going."
Cole doesn't wear a cape, a big shiny belt or anything constructed from lycra - "Because that didn't seem like something that would feel very real." He's an ordinary man whose life is turned upside down when a mysterious blast destroys six blocks of his home town, Empire City. The voiceover to the extended trailer we're shown hints at other characters - "Trish lost her sister, almost lost me" - and the after-effects: "plague, rioting, theft, rapes, a civilisation committing suicide". The Federal Government looks at all this and decides to chuck said civilisation more razor blades and a spare rope; Empire City is quarantined from the rest of the world, leaving its citizens imprisioned amongst the chaos.
That includes Cole, who was previously an urban explorer - one of those types who goes round breaking into disused buildings and old sewers for a laugh. He has developed excellent climbing and acrobatic abilities, and is great at shimmying up telephone poles, jumping between ledges, leaping across rooftops and so on. And there are plenty of poles, ledges and rooftops to make use of.
"While this is is an open-world game, it's also open in three dimensions. You can move and explore however you want," says Fox. "We have a rule in-house: if you think you should be able to climb on it or interact with it, we let you do it. We've all played Assassin's Creed and it's really awesome that if you see it you can just keep climbing it, right? So if you see a ledge, if you see a pole, get your fingers in there and you can climb. It's very difficult to stick to that rule, but it's worth it."
Assassin's Creed isn't the only game InFamous has taken inspiration from. There's also a feature called "vertical duck and cover" which allows Cole to use his climbing skills in combat. "If you've played Gears of War or Uncharted, you know how fun it is to take cover behind something so you don't get shot," observes Fox. "Here we're doing the same thing, but we're doing it in three dimensions. That gives a very organic freedom to avoiding damage."
Nor are games Sucker Punch's only source of ideas. InFamous has a distinct visual style; the cut-scenes include images that look like frames from a comic book, and the gameworld is full of sharp contrasts between light and shade. Another journalist asks whether the studio collaborated with any comic book artists on the game. "No," says Fox, then has a think. "If you mean by collaboration I read a bunch of them and thought, 'That's so cool, we should do that,' then yes, there's a high level of collaboration." Key influences were DMZ, which is set in a lawless urban landscape, and Batman No Man's Land, where Gotham City is broken up into sectors controlled by different gangs.
As is Empire City, funnily enough. Fox introduces us to a gang called the Reapers. They were plain old drug dealers before the blast hit, and now control their own corner of town. To get there Cole rides atop an elevator train as it snakes through the city, and Fox hints this will be the main mode of transport in the game ("We're going to make the funnest game we can, and that does not include making you lean forward on the joystick for 20 minutes to get across town.")
When Cole reaches the Neon District, so called because of all the flashing billboards and bright streetlamps, it's time for action. He climbs to the top of a tall tower to get an overview, and spots a Reaper up to no good on a rooftop. Cole leaps to the building and hangs from the edge, shimmying round so he gets behind the enemy without being spotted. Then he leaps up and unleashes a stream of blue electricity, slamming the Reaper against a wall.
Back at street level, more Reapers are starting to appear. One of them appears to have a few special abilities of his own as he's firing bolts of energy at Cole. "We do have super-powered enemies in the game," confirms Fox. "This is fantastic, because it allows us to have more complex combat than we would have using strictly conventional weapons and fighting... Plus, it looks really cool."
But before turning his attentions to the gang, Cole uses his defibrillator ability to revive an injured civilian. This will have an effect on how other citizens react to him, says Fox, and how his powers develop; "I like to think of the inhabitants of Empire City as the live, in-studio audience for the show. These are people you are hurting or helping, and they react to what you're doing." So, if Cole keeps doing the old jumpstart trick, the population will react more positively to him over time - helping him out in combat situations, for example. If he's a bad boy, they might attack him. It's all about karma; "We're big fans of My Name is Earl," says Cole.
Cole also has choices when it comes to dealing with enemies. He can create electrical bonds that keep them tied to one spot without killing them, for example. He can launch precision attacks on specific enemies, or use one big blast to take out a whole gang of them - along with any civilians who get in the way. It's up to you, Cole says. "A good way to think of it is the difference between The Punisher and Batman. So the Punisher just kills everybody, while Batman is very conscientious and kills nobody. We try to model your behaviour in a combat situation with forks in the story where you get to be good or bad."
In this demo Cole's about to take the indiscriminate option, but first he needs to charge up by connecting to the city's power grid. "Given that Cole is an electrical hero, we try to tie him into the urban landscape. He uses the grid to build his powers back up," Cole explains. "They don't occur naturally in his body - he has to interact with the environment to amp up." This can cause problems - if there's a blackout, for example, Cole will have to find more conventional methods of defeating his enemies, or take cover until he can find an alternative source of energy.
Fully charged, Cole takes cover behind a telephone pole. Then there's a blinding flash and a wall of thunderbolts rain down from the sky, jolt through the Reapers' bodies and send them high into the air, juddering helplessly as they crash back to earth. And with that, it's all over.
A journalist pipes up. "Is he going to have any weapons in the finished game?"
There is a pause. Fox looks at the journalist incredulously and says, "The dude can shoot lightning out of his hands!"
So no, there aren't any guns, or monsters, in this particular post-apocalyptic American city game. Will electrical superpowers and humans running riot be enough to make up for that? Could be - especially when you consider Sucker Punch is also promising huge freedom to explore and make your own choices about what kind of hero you become. So far, InFamous is looking intriguing.
InFamous is due out exclusively for PS3 in spring 2009.