inFamous Reader Review
In case you hadn’t noticed, things have gone rather plums-up for Sony recently. Not content with brusquely thrusting their middle-fingers in the faces of us primitive European Neanderthals with regards to release dates and pricing inconsistencies, they’ve now seen fit to lose our personal details. It’s almost as if the Western world is being punished for its failure to accept the Monster Hunter series as the quintessential keystone of our cultural domain.
To be fair, I’m not as hell-bent on watching Sony grovel at the feet of its beleaguered customers as most others, but I doubt that anyone would say that the recent PSN outage debacle will go down as the company’s finest hour, unless you consider hurling darts at photos of Kaz Hirai’s beaming visage an engrossing pastime. But, lest we forget, Sony’s got our back from now on. Forget identity theft, communicative openness and customer care; there’s only one thing that can truly appease a disgruntled consumer: free stuff.
And, so, we come to Infamous, one of five free titles on offer to European PSN users as part of Sony’s “Welcome Back”/”We’re Sorry”/”Have These Games Because We’re The Bastions of Generosity and Totally Don’t Want to Promote our Upcoming Sequels to Flagship Titles that Won’t Sell More Copies Anyway” campaign. In truth, it faces potentially stiff competition for selection from LittleBigPlanet, Ratchet and Clank: Quest for Booty, Wipeout: HD + Fury and Dead Nation, the other free games from which to choose, so it might very well be worth giving heavy consideration to whether or not Infamous will deserve your time, effort and lack of money.
Some have called Infamous a cross between Grand Theft Auto and the Marvel Comic series, and there’s really little more to it. Set in the bleak urban metropolis of Empire City, recent winner of the International Least Innovative Name Ever Award, the game puts players in the shoes of Cole McGrath, an everyday citizen both blessed and cursed with electricity-based superpowers as a result of an explosion during the story’s exposition.
You see, this is the first of many clichés Infamous falls foul of. Even if we pretend that the age-old plot hook involving the supernatural sprucing-up of a reluctant layman isn’t an overcooked premise, it’s still hard to identify with Cole as a credible, down-to-earth everydayman. And it’s hardly a newly-established problem. Video games have had more than their fair share of super-athletic, unerringly bold protagonists presented as regular, 9-5 Joes to various degrees of unconvincing delivery. Lara Croft and Nathan Drake are meant to represent the epitome of the average Western human being, yet both display athleticism, agility and marksmanship beyond anything Mr. Regular could even dream of matching. Gordon Freeman’s little more than faceless scientist, but the casual indifference with which he wields heavy firearms and takes down trained soldiers, aircrafts and giant alien behemoths can hardly strike a chord with the lives of the unwashed masses. Cole’s no different. Though a delivery boy by trade, he’s quick to embrace his new powers and adopt the pulsating, high-flying life of a superhero, leaping from rooftop to rooftop and soaring gracefully through the night sky before laying waste to the petty adversaries of Empire City, all in the name of sweet justice. And in case the tale wasn’t familiar enough, he’s joined by his well-meaning, albeit exasperatingly moronic pal, Zeke, and his guarded other half, Trish, the voice of reason to his forthright, balls-to-the-wall attitude to crime fighting and anal beatings.
So, here’s where we stand. Not only does Infamous’ story and approach to characterisation mark an all too well-trodden path, but it represents a cliché so clichéd that it’s become its won cliché: a clichéd cliché, if you will.
That might not be quite so bad were it not for the fact that the game’s heavily-promoted moral choice system follows suit so resoundingly. As with many games these days, the idea is that your decisions throughout the story affect certain pivotal moments of the plot and, more crucially, grant you access to a range of different powers and side missions. Just like most of its peers, Infamous’ supposedly mind-blowing, heart-wrenching moral choice system amounts to little more than a shallow, taped-on gimmick that stifles more of the intended sense of immersion than it supports. It seems more than reasonable to imagine that Mr. Nobody-turned-Mr. Guy Who Shoots Electricity From His Hands might shoulder a significant burden in having to decide between the prospects of using his powers for the greater good or his own personal gain. It’s pretty hard to argue with that. The flaw in the plan, however, lies with the way in which the system is implemented and executed. Unfortunately, Infamous borrows yet another bad habit from rival IPs by restricting access to the most useful powers solely to those who manage to reach one of the two ends of the traditional “good/evil” meter, with those choosing to mix things up and use their own personal judgement to make their moral decisions being forced to settle for the paltry leftover abilities presumably handed out to superheroes on their work experience programmes. The outcome is the very crux of the argument used by detractors of moral choice in modern games, and that’s the fact that roleplaying is thrown right out of the nearest window. It quickly becomes clear that, in order to access much of the game’s content, one has to be either completely good or completely evil, with no middle ground permitted. Then, after you’ve finished the campaign and seen one of the endings, go through it again and stick unwaveringly to the opposite end of the moral spectrum to see the other one. It’s all so disappointingly black-and-white that it quickly turns into a tedious grind towards the pursuit of the illustrious Platinum Trophy, typifying the dull arbitrariness littering console gaming these days.
It’s not as though the side quests totally redeem these shortcomings, either. At first glance, there’s a respectable amount of variety on show in this regard, with Infamous’ extra-curricular activities including escort missions, collecting hidden packages and time-limited pseudo-assault courses, along with a few other tasty morsels. As the game progresses, however, the layers of the façade start to peel away and the side missions start resorting to the dreaded “rinse and repeat” formula, something that would render them superfluous distractions if not for the experience points they offer to those wishing to unlock the greatest superpowers.
And, yet, almost in spite of itself, Infamous has a lot going for it. Ascending the summits of the city’s towering skyscrapers and taking in the charming urban vistas serves a thrill that endures far beyond the game’s more repetitive aspects, whilst mowing down waves of enemies with thunderbolt attacks is as satisfying as it is aesthetically pleasing. The occasional jaggy aside, the game looks rather pretty too, with the comic-style cut-scenes particularly impressing in their minimalistic, impactful execution.
Dare I say it, there are also a few narrative surprises thrown in here and there as well. The basic setting and plot still may as well be cut and pasted from 95% of other superhero stories in existence, but Infamous occasionally, and I do mean occasionally, churns out genuine curveballs and emotionally striking moments that allow it to rise momentarily from the depths of narrative mediocrity.
Infamous is nothing new. It’s certainly not a technical masterpiece. It doesn’t even threaten to reach its considerable potential as a rapturous playground of anarchic fun. What it will shortly be, however, is free to download for a period of 30 days, and I could think of many, many worse things to obtain at no monetary cost. Yes, I can think of a few better things as well, but let’s not get into the unparalleled delights of Communion wine and carpet samples. A free lunch it may not quite make, but Infamous could at least be a free aperitif to anyone taking an interest in its upcoming sequel.