I spent most of last month swearing at my television. This wasn’t because I was watching The Apprentice or Prime Minister’s Question Time. I was playing InFamous – ahead of tackling InFamous 2 – and its central protagonist, Cole MacGrath was getting right up my nose. (contains InFamous and InFamous 2 spoilers)
First up, here’s a public service announcement: the only reason I was playing InFamous was because the intro screens in InFamous 2 hinted that there might be fantastic advantages to doing so – ya know, extra powers, bonuses, longer life and all that. Well, there’s not much benefit to doing that at all, as it turns out. While you don’t start right at zero in InFamous 2 if you haven’t played InFamous, it’s as near as dammit. And given the work you have to put in just to finish InFamous, that’s like an extra slap in the face. Imagine someone promised you a tall, cool beer if you put in eight or so hours at a coalface, and after you had toiled away for the allotted time they presented you with a thimble full of domestic American beer which they’d not only turned into a micro-shandy with a drop of lemonade, they’d left it out on a windowsill all day for the flies to have a party in. Remember, when the reviews say you don’t need to have played the first InFamous to enjoy InFamous 2, they really aren’t kidding!
But back to InFamous and the reasons for my colourful language…
There are many problems with the first InFamous; it’s set in an uninteresting city populated by one-note characters and the story running through it manages the incredible feat of being bonkers and bland at the same time. Its protagonist, Cole MacGrath, is a dour, broody walking no-fun zone who isn’t believable as a superhero, because let’s face it, even if you lived in an urban hellhole, you probably wouldn’t be as depressed as he is by the fact you have superpowers. Yes, the apocalypse has hit your neighbourhood, and yes, everyone’s miserable. But if you have be a survivor in a crime infested slum, it’s better to be one who has the ability to scale any building in seconds and hurl electro-bolts at baddies. I was consistently amazed that Cole’s side-kick, Zeke, wasn’t constantly telling the moody sod to shut up.
Aside from the game’s protagonist being very little fun to listen to, he also doesn’t handle very well. While he can impressively scale buildings at a rapid pace, there’s no free-flowing element at all to his rooftop running; leap between the gaps of skyscrapers and Cole will instinctively latch onto any pole jutting out nearby. This is irritating enough when you’re tooling about the city. When you’re doing time challenges, it can launch you into control-pad smashing territory. Also, you have to question the effectiveness of a hero whose main weakness seems to be chain-link fences.
Before I completely go to town on the game, let me point out that, gripes aside, InFamous is very hard to walk away from once you start playing it. The reason for this is that InFamous is one of the best open-world games ever produced. Its environment might be a little colourless and dank, but the developers give players every reason to explore it. Every time I headed off to start a story mission, there would usually be at least four or five mini-quests or shiny baubles I’d encounter on the way which would distract me away from my main objective. This draws out the gameplay in a manner which feels organic and fun at the same time; at no point did I feel I was wading through oodles of padding – even if the side-missions got a little repetitive at times. Due to the fact that Sucker Punch remembered to fill their wrecked city with a ton of activities, InFamous kept me playing until the wee hours of the morning, making my eyes scratchy with lack of sleep and my other half rather irate. The wealth of activities and ease of exploration are probably the strongest assets the game has, in my mind anyway, and Sucker Punch didn’t get enough credit for them in many of the reviews for InFamous that I read.
They weren’t even all that heavily promoted in the lead-up to the game’s release, either. Funnily enough, the feature that was plonked front and centre in all of InFamous’s publicity was the moral choice mechanic, which is weird, because it’s arguably the weakest part of the game. Just to clarify; I’m not talking about the powers Cole develops due to the moral choices the player makes – those are quite fun. I’m talking about the choices themselves.
All the way through the game, players are presented with making decisions that’ll either paint Cole as a fawning goodie-two-shoes or moustache-twirling pantomime villain. There’s no middle ground whatsoever – there’s also no bonus for attempting the middle ground, because staying neutral doesn’t open up any new powers. The decisions the players face are ridiculous; do you difuse a bomb and save some people… or do you allow them to be blown sky high? Do you allow a poster-painter to portray you as heroic… or Satan incarnate? These aren’t exactly the sort of choices which inspire inner-monologues about deliberation, yet they do if you’re Cole McGrath!
“If I help the old lady cross the street with her puppy, people will like me… but if I kick her puppy under that oncoming steamroller, people will think I’m a bit of a dick. What a conundrum! What should I do?”
The thing is, the moral choice mechanic didn’t have to be this flawed – in fact, there’s a point in the game where it’s used supurbly.
InFamous’s moneyshot comes in the final third of its narrative. Cole is being put through his paces by the game’s villain, Kessler, who has strapped some hostages to a series of bombs throughout the city and given Cole a time limit in which to find them all. As Cole saves the last hostages, Kessler plonks a horrible choice right in front of him: he can save the love of his life, Trish, or he can save a group of doctors – all of whom are suspended from wires at the top a couple of skyscrapers.
It’s in this one instant that the game’s moral mechanic shines; while the choice between the two options is presented as a choice between good (save the doctors) and bad (save Trish, you selfish so and so), to anyone with any human empathy, it’s not as clear cut as all that. The moral waters are muddied by emotions and in the end, really, there’s no ‘right’ choice. Not only that, the player has seconds to make it which ups the ante significantly; the pace of the game goes from sedate to frantic in the blink of an eye.
The decision of whether or not to save Trish is the defining moment in InFamous. Not only that, it’s a taste of how brilliant the game could have been if the quality of that instance was present throughout. If that had been the case, we’d be standing in the presence of greatness.