Version tested: PlayStation 3
With the two games arriving within weeks of each other, comparisons between the superhero open-worlds of Sucker Punch's PS3-exclusive inFamous and Radical's multiformat Prototype are inevitable, but with the former now a thoroughly known quantity, there are more precise points of reference, and one of them is another game released this month - Bionic Commando. Equipped with unfussy free-climbing controls and the ability to rail-grind overhead power-cables, inFamous hero Cole McGrath has more in common with Capcom's Nathan Spencer than just his surly disposition and sandpaper larynx: he travels in style, if not with the same difficulty.
Elaborating on Sly Raccoon's lock-on equilibrium, inFamous allows Cole to clamber almost freely across the surfaces of buildings, perch on fences and spikes, run on all fours up the side of girders and pipes, and sprint over tightropes, beams and cables. If you make a jump for something, the game makes sure you connect over the last few feet, anchoring your purchase to appropriate contact and never threatening to drop you to the ground. If anything, it's rather difficult to descend, and Cole's other attributes cushion any actual fall from distance, providing it's not into deadly water.
Deadly, because the crumbling city beneath Cole's rooftop highways has been freshly downtrodden by a massive explosion, which has thrown the masonry into a slouch, the neighbourhoods of Neon, the Warren and the Historic District to murderous gangs, and, most pertinently, the laws of nature off Cole's axis. Infused with electrical powers, he's Force Lightning sieved into a non-linear progression system, firing electricity from his palms and tossing cars into the air on a shockwave to begin with, developing electricity grenades and slow-motion precision shots over time, and ultimately calling bolts from the heavens. Stay away from the water, and make sure to keep an eye out for anything connected to the mains, which rebuilds the all-purpose electricity ammo meter with a tug of the left trigger.
For all this though, Cole is hardly invincible, and the initial Reaper and Dustmen enemies can tear him apart with their machineguns, which is bad news in a city overrun by them, and where traditional methods of open-world travel are not available. Cars are off-limits (Cole says he fries them when he gets inside), and while you can sprint tirelessly over open ground to escape, it's a better idea to look to the rooftops for protection and navigation.
After an introduction that establishes Cole's basic skills and a few of the key players, including his girlfriend Trish, his best friend Zeke and a Fed called Moya, inFamous settles into a comfortable rhythm, highlighting story missions on your mini-map with blue icons and side missions with yellow. Unable to rely on high-speed car chases and exotic machinery, instead you're invited to rescue civilians from a train that the local baddies are using as a prison, but you evacuate it not by blasting your way from end to end but by perching on the top of the first carriage and driving it down the line, which you can do because, as Moya points out, you're a human third rail. There are frantic rooftop pursuits that take in the whole broad platform vocabulary, and pitched street battles that call on all your various zaps and waves.
Side missions follow similar lines, and completion of these liberates a particular sector, clearing it of enemies and so making it easier to get around unmolested. It's also worth taking the time to complete them for the extra experience points, which allow you to upgrade your abilities. Some of the more enjoyable side missions recall Crackdown's point-to-point races across the skyline, and there are fringe benefits to unlock, like extra respawn points for defending medical centres.
After an interesting start, however, inFamous loses its way considerably in the middle third, and certain things begin to dawn on you. If you rub away the labels, for instance, most of the abilities Cole can deploy in attack are just analogues for traditional third-person weaponry. The default zap attack is a rifle round, the heavier one is a rocket launcher, the grenade is a grenade, and the precision shot is a sniper scope with slow-motion.
Against this, it's left up to your enemies and the level design to keep things interesting, but neither does a good job. You often simply trawl through typical locations (warehouses, tunnels, and mazes of shipping containers) blasting bad-guys from behind the cover system until there are no more. Basic enemies have guns, others have tremor attacks, and there are scuttling, crab-like enemies, Serious Sam-style suicide bombers, and turret guns. Loads of them.
Despite the fact your adversaries are identified as former addicts and tramps, they also have dead-eyed projectile skill from vast distance, and often require more than one headshot. The adequate checkpointing is little comfort as you bounce off the kind of run-and-gun scenarios that Gears of War and others have done a lot better, along with torturous protect-the-bus or protect-the-engineer sieges, which are not only weighted heavily against you, but repetitive and overlong. The need to find new sources of electricity to rearm means you're too often left with the zap attack and nothing else, and there's none of the invention you might expect from the electrical context: you seldom get to use the conductivity of your surroundings to your advantage, and nobody on the other side ever thinks to pick up a Super Soaker.
One place you do get to do this is in the one-off sewer levels, where enemies sometimes fall into the water where you can fry them by zapping the surface. You head down a manhole occasionally over the course of the game to bring power back to new sections of the city, and these levels play out more like the linear platform-and-combat challenges of Sly Raccoon, introducing and focusing the design on a new ability each time (hovering, or an energy shield, for instance), and it's within these gloomy depths that Sucker Punch showcases its most confident work.
But just as the trouble on the surface threatens to wear you down, inFamous finds a second wind, and begins to throw up a variety of interesting and engaging missions that reign in the turret guns and enemies spammed into corridors, and focus on more dramatic encounters that make use of the superior platforming alongside a few more impressive new powers. There's a massive tower ascent, a dramatic prison break that puts you up against colossal robotic energy monsters, and some interesting pursuits - helicopters and hot-air balloons best among them.
It's by this stage that the previously stumbling narrative also regains your attention, as key players reveal themselves, and double-cross one another, and the mystery of the initial explosion is made plainer. All along you have been making good-or-bad decisions that feed into the karma system, conferring particular ranks (with a few different powers available at either extreme), and although it's rather forced, it also comes good in the end, finally evolving beyond save-myself-or-save-everyone junctions informed more by your preferred upgrade path than morals, and asking you to choose between a couple of clear and personal rights and wrongs. The beautiful, hand-painted story sequences thrown across the screen to bookend the more dramatic narrative pivots and confrontations take on greater resonance as Sucker Punch plays its final hand beyond an admittedly rubbish final boss battle.
With plenty of hours behind you at that point, you may even be encouraged to start again and explore the other face of the moral divide, or to return to the city in search of more of its secrets. Along with the many side missions, there are 32 'dead drops' to locate - audio recordings that fill in more of the back-story, which you can fish for with your mini-map and GPS - and hundreds of blast shards that boost your power bar. As a material benefit it falls some way short of Crackdown's agility orbs, but as with Assassin's Creed, there is always something tempting about a shiny object lurking at the other end of an interesting climb.
But then you may also have had enough. There is more charm to inFamous than Cole's face and voice suggest, but basking in the glow of the end credits, there are also a lot of painful memories to recall; of too many missions that funnel you into shooting galleries, of difficulty spikes and enemy-spamming, and of staring at the upgrades page rather glumly, aware that for the most part you're only being invited to make things strike harder or across a broader range. But most of all, there is the realisation that by the end of the game you feel like more than a man, and the power is arresting, and yet for much of Cole's quest, you have been running out of ammo, hiding, and firing back with a popgun. The flaw is that inFamous overcomes Cole's lack of invention, but, damningly for a story about an electrical superhero, it never quite overcomes his lack of power.
7 / 10