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SummarySophisticated and entertaining
The GoodFirst of all, I want to say that I have almost no interest in comic books at all, I usually steer clear of any movies or games based on them because I don't like all too unrealistic, over the top tales of supernatural powers and stereotyped villains that never actually die. Because of that, I would probably never have played inFAMOUS, had it not been bundled with my recently bought PS3 system. I am very glad I did get to play it, because it is one of the most fresh and enjoyable action games I have played in the last couple of years.
While the story of Cole is indeed one of many implausibilities and supernatural powers, I was able to dive right in because it breaks with one genre convention: the clear separation of the characters into the selfless good, and the diabolically evil. It is the story of a regular man that discovers he has powers, and is unsure what to do with them. This very human perspective on sudden and immense power being given to an individual, a topic that has been discussed a lot in literature and movies, gives the game philosophical meaning and roots it in reality. Also, although the decisive moments are clearly described situations with either a good or an evil outcome, they are no simple questions of "be a hero" or "be the villain and see how that works out" as found in some other games that boasted this kind of good/evil character development.
One of your first decisions in the game will be: will you distribute a food supply drop among the population who mostly hate you for a crime you didn't commit, but some clown in the television claims you did - or will you keep the food for yourself so you can take care of your best friend and your girlfriend? You know what would be the right thing to do, but if you're honest, you might choose quite differently if you were in the same situation for real. This is what I want to make clear to people who show as little interest in comics as me: even though the game looks, sounds, and feels like a comic book, it does not contain most of the things that you might hate about them. The game relies heavily on them for creative inspiration, but it is just a theme and in no way implies that the game itself resembles a typical cookie-cutter franchise cash-in.
This also saves the game in the graphics department. A lot of games today are praised for their visuals, while all they do is show off every visual effect possible without even considering whether it makes any sense, or whether it destroys the atmosphere of the game. Exaggerated motion blur, bloom effects to the point where the whole picture is just a big, mushy blob - it might look good in a technical demo, but it's not pretty to look at in a game. Luckily for inFAMOUS, comic books can have over the top colors and effects. Make no mistake, there's always something flashing or glowing or rippling or blurring here, but it does not look ridiculous because the game doesn't try to be realistic in the first place. If the creators don't try to convince you that everything shown could happen for real, it is a lot less disruptive to see a man float in a sea of sparks while bridging a power line. But the visuals are also very nice artistically, beautifully conveying the picture of a dark, post-apocalyptic city. Empire City isn't that big, but you won't find hundreds of alleyways that all look the same. Every corner of the city has its own characteristic look. The stylized hand-drawn cutscenes are perfectly composed and a pleasure to look at as well.
Being able to freely move around in the city is one of the main features of the game. Just as in titles of the Grand Theft Auto series, the city will gradually open up when solving missions, which can be triggered by approaching certain areas or characters. And like any self-respecting superhero or super villain, you will mostly travel up and down buildings and across rooftops. To this end, the buildings are outfitted with ridiculous amounts of ledges, railings, signs, tubes, and other stuff you can climb or grab on to. Cole is very agile and can often jump and climb to the roof of a building using only window ledges. The developers stated that a great deal of work went into making sure that Cole will grab exactly the object the player was aiming for. I am glad to say that it shows, and scrambling around the city is a blast because it feels so natural. As a computer scientist, I can really appreciate the effort that the programmers must have put into this code.
The city is populated with a large number of people minding their business. Of course, they will react according to Cole's reputation in their neighborhood. If he has done some good work, citizens will cheer him on; if not, they might even throw stones at him! Apart from that, these people clearly exist in the world you see around them: trapped in a city with violent street gangs, a spreading disease, and not enough food. People kneel on the street, praying because they are so hungry. They sit on benches, being cold and shivering. They mourn friends they have lost, they cry and ask when all of this is going to end. Whenever you're taking a break from all your colorful ass-kicking duties as a superhero, you see a disturbing picture of a city in suffering and desperation, making for a really immersive experience.
Another strong point is how well thought out the aspects of electricity and Cole's powers are. Metal objects conduct electricity, and an always charged Cole gets shocked to death if he falls into water. Even when walking through a little puddle in the streets, you can see little electric arcs on its surface. I think it was a great decision to focus on just one phenomenon as the source of Cole's powers. Not only did it allow the creators to come up with all sorts of funny details, it also makes discovering new abilities more like seeing Cole gaining control over a power he already has, rather than just unlocking some new and unrelated feature.
Also, the aspect of reclaiming territory from the Reapers is fun. Having to go back and defend secured territory again every couple of minutes, as for example in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, is just cumbersome and not very enjoyable. You will not lose any reclaimed territory in inFAMOUS, which makes fighting for them a lot more satisfying. Territorial battles also integrate well into the game's storyline and don't feel like something that has been added just to prolong the game. You will complete different missions for each of the areas, instead of just repeating the same chore again and again.
The BadSome of the character animations are a bit weird. Especially running main characters move very mechanically. They move at a speed that is completely unrelated to the movement of their feet. It looks so out of place that it is impossible to ignore. I also didn't like that you cannot skip cutscenes. They are indispensable for the story of the game, but if you are retrying a mission and have seen it twice already in the last 5 minutes, you're not always keen on watching it again, especially if it's a minute long. Apart from these minor nuisances, I cannot think of anything negative to say about the game.
The Bottom LineWhat inFAMOUS excels at is the most important aspect of any game: it is fun to play, and keeps your interest. Motivation is at a constant high because there is always something to do, it rarely gets repetitive, and there's always some new part of the mysterious story or the game world to uncover. In most games I reach a point where the story starts to drag along, the developers noticeably tried to just make the game last longer, and the only real motivation to keep me going is that I want to see how it all ends. inFAMOUS is one of the very few games that never stalled like that. Although of course after finishing the game you will want to play it again taking the other path, much more important is the fact that you will not simply do that to see the other ending, but because the first time was such a blast.
Fans of the genre will probably already own the game anyway, because of the exceptional professional reviews it got. If you are anything like me, however, and action-oriented games usually start boring you after a while, take my advice and give inFAMOUS a try anyway, it might surprise you. With no big flaws at all, the game can deliver its true potential as something more than just another superhero action game.