There’s a lot to be said for games that give you the freedom to be a complete jerk. They often provide the starting point for some interesting conversations about morality and game design. In 2007, we kept asking each other “did you kill the Little Sisters?” and pondered what it meant about our play styles and our personalities. In 2008, the question was whether we knocked off swaggering gangster Playboy X or his recently paroled colleague Dwayne in GTA 4. And if Sucker Punch Productions had their way, we’d all be talking about which color lightning we picked in 2009’s inFamous.

inFamous is a third-person sandbox game in the same vein as Crackdown or GTA but with an extra dose of moral ambiguity. You play as Cole, the survivor of an electrical blast that rips through Empire City, killing thousands and leaving behind a crater the size of a stadium. As your wounds heal, you discover that you have the power to control electricity. Whether it’s red lightning or blue depends entirely on the way you treat your fellow citizens.

Not exactly a choice on par with “killing a defenseless little girl or saving her life,” is it? That’s partly due to the game’s mishmash of stock characters, whom you never really learn enough about to care much for. It’s also a product of the game’s hollow world design – sandbox games like GTA create a feeling of realism through an almost impossible level of detail that inFamous never approaches. But more than anything, it’s a classic case of gameplay undermining a game’s narrative. Instead of choosing between moral actions and immoral ones, you’ll likely be making a simpler choice: Do I want my character to improve or not?

You collect two types of experience in inFamous: neutral experience and what I’ll call “weighted” experience. You automatically earn the former when you complete neutral side missions, but the latter depends on how good or evil your methods are. Your weighted experience affects your “karma meter,” a handy cheat sheet that lets you know at a glance what kind of person you truly are. If you reach the top of the scale, you’re a Hero; if you fall to the bottom, you’re Infamous.

That’s all well and good, but the problems arise when you factor that “weighted” experience into your karmic rank. Not only will a good action not contribute to your character advancement when you’re trending evil, but it will actually move you a notch closer to “neutral,” the game’s weakest state. That means that you pretty much have to decide which path you’ll take at the very start of the game. And if you’re smart, you’ll choose evil.

It’s not that it’s significantly harder to be good in the world of inFamous. It’s just more annoying. As an example, you could spend an hour or two on the “good” side missions, which enhance your reputation and rid the streets of crime block by block, but if one of your electro grenades slips past an enemy and hits a pedestrian, a little red flash next to your “villain” will still let you know that you just became a bit more evil. Granted, you have to accidentally kill more than a handful of pedestrians to actually move down a rank on your karma meter, but these constant slaps on the wrist ultimately degrade the experience by needling all but the most cautious players. Pick the evil path, however, and you don’t have to worry about perfectly aiming every one of your electro bolts: Unless you run around “accidentally healing people,” you’re not going to lose experience by going out of character.

If inFamous‘ morality system was the game’s only misstep, it would still be a perfectly playable sandbox game. But like those constant moral decisions, there are plenty of other gameplay elements that only seem to get in the way of the fun. Chief among them is the A.I., which can spot you from blocks away and will take frequent potshots at you until you duck into an alley or take them out. The only way to avoid this nuisance altogether is to stay on top of buildings as you cross the city – an unfortunate option, given how rough inFamous‘ climbing system is. Figuring out what constitutes a handhold could be a mini-game in itself, and even if you have a clear route, you’re still pretty much mashing the X button all the way to the top.

It’s hard to fault Sucker Punch’s ambition in inFamous – an open-world game where you have total freedom to become a hero or a villain would be pretty unique. Unfortunately, many of the gameplay decisions the developers made actually compromise the experience rather than bolster it. On the way toward a game with true moral ambiguity, I suspect inFamous will end up mostly as a cautionary tale: If you’re going to let players choose their own path, you need to offer them more than simply “red or blue.”

Bottom Line: While inFamous offers plenty of competent open-world gameplay, it’s hamstrung by the same morality system that was supposed to set it apart.

Recommendation: Rent it. Even if you really dig the game’s electricity-based combat, you’ll probably tire of Empire City long before you’ve reached your full potential.

Jordan Deam nearly set his parents’ cat on fire with a magnifying glass when he was 8. It’s the closest he’s come to a “karmic moment.”

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