Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Infamous 2 (PS3) Review

Colour filters: Serious Business

Sony is severely lacking in terms of character recognition nowadays. Microsoft has Master Chief and Marcus Fenix, Nintendo has Mario and Link, and Sony has…Nathan Drake? Maybe? In the nineties this wasn’t the case, when exclusivity rights to the likes of Crash Bandicoot and Lara Croft were theirs alone for myriad reasons. To rekindle some of that brand recognition Sony has been very keen to shill any pseudo recognizable character at the public and see what sticks. Thankfully 2008’s Infamous has had better luck than the likes of Killzone when it comes to providing a distinct visual motif and at least one decent game. It’s sequel is here and will be the test of whether or not Sucker Punch’s little bald baby can make it as a big league player in the world of major video game franchises.

Infamous 2 is a sandbox style game where players assume the role of Cole Macgrath, a bike courier turned electrical super power recipient, and choose between being a mawkish vigilante and a homicidal prick. This is just as dichotomous as it appears, for this is no Bioware game; the game rewards the player for remaining entirely committed to one moral path throughout the proceedings, and no problem will present a complex quandary to you until the game’s final act.

Infamous 2 kicks off directly from the previous game’s ending, with start up bonuses if you happened to have completed its predecessor. It’s a pity that it essentially forces new players to spoil the final events of the first game, but those who liked Cole may get a kick out of the new plot. The prologue does however cheat a fair bit by rebooting Cole’s existing powers down to zero ala Metroid, when most of the thrill in the original game was found in Cole’s gradual yet meteoric rise in power. Instead this sequel is largely a retread of the same abilities from the first game albeit with very slight permutations. Although a scant few new abilities are introduced such as the Kinetic Pulse, which allows Cole to pick up objects around him and hurl them at enemies, they don’t necessarily fulfil the urge to attain unprecedented levels of superpower that one might hope to reach. Some of their mechanics aren’t even particularly strong, sometimes failing to work or obstructing the camera at inconvenient moments.

No one said superpowers had to be useful.

The environment that encompasses most of the game is the city of New Marais. Whereas the location of the first game, Empire City, was something of a broad pastiche for every major American city, New Marais is very deliberate in evoking post-Katrina New Orleans. It goes a little too far in portraying the entire city as an anarchic den of inequity inhabited by inbred yokels and religious right-wing extremists, and pushes the boundaries of good taste a bit hard. The main problem with New Marais is that as a city that is forty percent flooded and surrounded by bayou, many missions emphasize on fighting around deep water, which is Cole’s kryptonite. One prat fall due to the floaty platforming engine or wayward grenade can land the player with a frustrating instant death. This problem is alleviated by generous checkpoints which rarely set the player back more than five minutes, but to constantly fall victim to this problem through no real fault of your own breaks the power fantasy which the game strives to create.

One of the game’s main problems is the power selection system. When the permutations on every one of Cole’s abilities start to be unlocked, a quick menu become available to allow you to change the ability set you are using on the fly. However, when activated the menu freezes the game and mutes the soundtrack, making it highly intrusive and counterintuitive, especially as it relies on a linear sequence of repeated button presses to switch out powers rather than a radial menu. For example the original game’s main rival, Prototype, utilised just such a radial menu for changing powers on the fly, which slowed time down in game to force players to make quick decisions while under fire. In its currently executed form, the power selection menu in this game is awkward and inelegant; a big disappointment for such a high profile title.

The problems with moment-to-moment game play don’t end there however. One of the original game’s best features lay in its parkour/urban exploration based game play, second only to Assassins Creed. Bizarrely, this element seems to have taken a step back in the sequel; Cole’s movements feel comparatively loose. Dropping from high ledges to lower ones more often than not see you plummeting past your intended target, and Cole’s ability to slide his hands against smooth surfaces as he falls past them to slow his descent has been nerfed for some reason. Even the ability to heal and recharge while sliding on power cables has been removed. On the plus side fall damage has been removed entirely, which once could lead Cole to sudden deaths if knocked off a rooftop by an explosion. Also New Marais has power cables at the foot of buildings which can be used to propel you up to the building’s apex a bit faster, making travel slightly more convenient. All these points imply that the game engine has been tweaked rather than overhauled in these last three years, so if as a fan you are hoping for more of the same without too many improvements and a full price tag, you might walk away happy.

Cling to lamp posts for bonus XPs!

The enemies which the game sets Cole up against are also a mixed bag. The original only had gun-toting street punks and a few minor permutations for team leaders and kamikaze enemies. These enemies could barely keep up with Cole and were easily outmanoeuvred rather than outclassed in a straight fight. Infamous 2 adds a little variance with two new enemy factions which are capable of not only trouncing Cole in terms of raw power but also pursuing him across rooftops. However, these enemies are uncannily reminiscent of the special foes encountered in Prototype, from their visual aesthetic to their abilities. The similarities are blatant enough to go right beyond homage, and point directly to a worrying dearth of creativity. That’s not to say you won’t have fun with them though, they generally provide a decent challenge, and their AI might sometimes surprise you, but in the end you'll spend most of your time slapping around inept white trash clowns, hardly foes worthy of the electrubermensch.

As with the first game, there is little in the way of replay value. Even with two distinct moral paths to take through the game, they drive Cole down incredibly similar plot rail roads, and the powers unique to each stance don’t alter gameplay significantly. If one were to enjoy the plot and characters enough a second play through can be justified, but if you are like me you might find Cole’s inconsistent characterisation and the pseudo-dark flatness of the world to be disinteresting.

The big promise Sucker Punch has loaded into the game is that of User Generated Content. Infamous 2 has launched with an impressive amount of levels created by the development team and early adopters, and mostly they display a degree of challenge and creativity absent in the game proper. Unfortunately the UGC system is not quite user friendly, providing only text based tutorials to explain its fairly deep and complicated system. However with a little perseverance a player can produce all kinds of missions. 

Infamous 2 is a disappointingly average game from a veteran studio with and interesting IP. Permissive players and committed fans will find it an experience to be enjoyed briefly and forgotten, while older hands will see the broad potential it has squandered. The ending is fairly strong and offers more moral complexity than the rest of the series put together, but it's arrived at all too soon. A solid rental, little more.

With luck Sucker Punch will now spend more time making Sly Racoon games. It's a bright future.

Oh, and the box design looks kind of like Mortal Kombat 2011 at a glance. Just saying.


Cheaper and Better Options: Infamous, Prototype, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, Red Faction: Guerilla.

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