Crackdown was about audacious, skyscraper-clearing leaps; Assassin’s Creed opted for nimble parkour, its protagonist dancing across rafters, swinging between jutting flagpoles. In both cases, scaling a city in any manner you chose made the game. With freerunning superman Cole, Infamous falls somewhere between Altaïr’s procedural elegance and the Agent’s unsubtle, ground-pounding zeal. The player can scamper up anything with a handhold, mastering nearly any structure in the sprawling acreage of Empire City, before plummeting back to street level without so much as a sprained ankle.
Cole has more tricks up his sleeve than Crackdown’s resilient hulk – the mysterious explosion that left Empire City a smouldering ruin has bestowed him with the ability to control electricity. And it’s not just him: gangs of costumed freaks now rule the streets with similarly fantastical powers. The three islands of Empire City are helpless to resist, cordoned off from mainland America due to an outbreak of plague; only Cole stands a chance of taking on the gangs.
When his full repertoire is unlocked, Cole is in every sense a dynamo – summoning lightning blasts to fry enemies, shrugging away their bullets with a shimmering shield of energy, and even soaring between rooftops on a wave of static. Cole grinds power cables like a turbo-powered Tony Hawk, scorching down telegraph wires before swooping off into the air and down on to others. The shattered ’burbs of Empire City are a cobweb of wires, favouring chains of frenetic, electric movement.
But such enthusiastic description is true only of the endgame. Despite the instant ability to fire lightning from his fingers, it takes a curiously long time for Cole to feel really super. Tasering enemies loses its thrill upon repetition (often a matter of insistently rattling R1 until everyone has fallen down) and the drip-feed of further powers is a little miserly, giving early access to the less inspiring examples, and hungrily draining power. Thankfully, Cole can recharge himself by drawing from nearby electrical sources – streetlamps, car batteries and even people. Staying charged up is trickier in the areas of the city suffering blackout, and Cole’s sojourns into these districts to restore power leave him vulnerable, changing the pace of play and – annoyingly – blurring his vision.
Such trips are a central part of Infamous’ structure – the game is divided into days, during which Cole turns the lights back on in different parts of Empire City, fighting off gangs all the while. Main story missions are meaty, well-checkpointed affairs, the highlights of the game demanding novel use of Cole’s powers and rewarding them with spectacle: scaling the junk tower built by a telekinetic vagrant offers a rare, beautiful vista of Empire City – a place which is usually covered in a dreary, grey clag; another plonks Cole in front of a besieged prison, feeds him a limitless supply of current, and throws everything it can against him. Boss battles inspire awe with colossally powerful, and sometimes simply colossal, opponents. And they aren’t without ingenuity either – a neat twist on the QTE sees the player direct Cole’s hand towards a grapple hold on his opponent, while hammering X.
Sidequests are an appealing enough mix, too, and not altogether formulaic: race across rooftops, locate hidden packages, scour buildings for surveillance equipment, pose for photographs, covertly pursue gang members, assault and defend. According to the triumphal pop-up blurbs, successful completion frees areas of the city from enemy control, but this is often contradicted by the continued presence of men who are quite clearly trying to kill you. It’s not the only time mission information is contradictory or incomplete – a pedantic niggle, perhaps, but one that is representative of the game’s many rough edges. Enemies brazenly spawn in front of you. Sidequests occasionally blink in and out of existence on the map. Narrative dressing is applied with clumsy artifice – a group of prisoners are said to be unarmed, for example, but no one thought to change the character models to reflect this.
And such a stumble is perhaps the least of Infamous’ visual problems, which begin with the city itself. Being a ruinous sprawl of crumbling concrete, slums and derelict industry, it was always going to have to work hard for our affection, but it does itself few favours, opting for the most part for a bleak, ashen palette that renders everything flat and dull. Outside of Cole’s clambering, Infamous is home to some truly wonky animation, all jerky arm gestures and Punch-and-Judy lip-synching. The walk cycles alone have a good long trek before they even see the Uncanny Valley, and the moribund acting and flatlining script do nothing to jolt life back into Empire City’s spasming mannequins.
Though individually overcome with a little suspension of disbelief, the amassed weight of the game’s mistakes has an atrophying power. It makes it hard to invest belief in Empire City beyond a toybox for you to upturn. It renders the already facile moral choices utterly meaningless, and the already humdrum plot a hokey annoyance. It may aspire to comic-book styling, but that shouldn’t give Infamous’ pedestrian schlock a free pass: the genre’s intellectual spectrum encompasses both Thundercats and Watchmen, after all. Infamous’ narrative repeatedly shoots wide of the mark: fellow courier Zeke is almost instantly annoying rather than a loveable sidekick, and intended romantic interest Trish is a Plasticine-faced harridan who gives you no reason to care for her. Sure, she blames you for the explosion that killed her sister, but the game gives neither Cole, nor the player, any opportunity to defend himself. We can fire electricity from our fingers – just why are we being nagged?
But for all Infamous’ clumsiness of implementation and misjudged storytelling it remains a playground for Cole’s tremendous abilities, full of diversions that aren’t easily dismissed as busywork. When Cole gains a new devastating power and mutters, “Oh hell yeah,” it’s a rare moment when the script dovetails with your own thoughts. The game follows up with the opportunity to use the power at its most awesome; the heavens open, the world explodes in flame and you can’t help but emit a deep pantomime guffaw. At its best, Infamous is an amped-up Crackdown – a game about bounding across a cityscape, discharging your energies however you please. Even if ropey execution impedes its appeal, Infamous still has this essential spark.
This article originally appeared in E203.