inFAMOUS Review: City of Saints and Madmen

Sucker Punch's inFAMOUS has an unexpectedly earth-shattering "start" button. Literally. Other start sequences pale by comparison. They load looping feature demos or narrative clips that play like movie trailers without the thunder-throated Don LaFontaine voiceover. Not inFAMOUS. Its initial visual could be a webcam nestled somewhere in a city park at dusk. Street lamps glow serenely between gently rocking trees. Distant city buildings stand in reposeful silhouette. Even the electric billboards seem muted, pulsing reassuringly as off camera, children play and shout over composer Jim Dooley's mild, harp-touched orchestral pastiche.

Then you tap "start," and everything explodes. No "New Game?" or "Options" menu items. No "Loading..." or other introductory rigamarole. Just the startling immediacy of blue-black electricity-baptized mayhem soundtracked by panicked cries and screams. It made me think of the Hatch button in ABC's Lost, except without the timer, and instead of saving the world from a catastrophic electromagnetic event, pushing the button condemns it to one. It's a hell of a way to lead, and if you're wondering whether the fact that you're the finger on the trigger matters: Yes, it does.

Like Lost, inFAMOUS steeps its subsequently grim and grimmer narrative in half-truth and misdirection. Your name is Cole. You've survived the cataclysmic blast that's devastated most of a metropolis spread across three islands, emerging with only a few singe marks and scrapes from the explosion's epicenter. You hear voices. Your girlfriend hates you. Your best friend sounds like Horatio Sanz with the comportment of fat Elvis. And for some reason, you've become a walking, growling, stubble-headed plasma globe — part shave-it-like-Beckham, part emphysemic Electro.

Into the wreckage of the city then, first on foot, later by scrambling between rooftops, and eventually by venting arcing tendrils of electricity that let you glide through descents instead of plummeting to the ground. Not that you need to be concerned about heights, given that Cole can leap off anything and land unscathed in a stylish crouch that's kind of like the fetal pose adopted by Arnold when he first arrives in Terminator 2.

Since the government won't step in and has the city cordoned off (echoes of DC's "No Man's Land") it's up to you to stand up. You certainly come equipped for the job. Bullets don't bounce off you, but you can take a pounding, and when the danger's past, you'll heal up automatically. Instead of firing guns, you issue blasts of electricity from your fingers, accreting new abilities like shock pulses and plasma shields as the story progresses. It's a superhero game, in other words, though of the sort echoed in comics like Robert Venditti's bleak-soaked The Surrogates and films like M. Night Shyamalan's brooding Unbreakable.

Where did the bomb come from? Why did Cole survive? Where did he get his powers? Why does his girlfriend hate him? Over the course of the game, you're contacted by several people who claim to know what's happened and why. But who to trust? It's a question with potent consequences in inFAMOUS. While the game's ending is fixed, your moral choices — tracked on a karmic half-dial with blue for "good" and red for "evil" (an obvious Star Wars homage) — alter the logistics of your journey. Play a good character and you'll have access to only good power upgrades, which transforms how you approach tactical situations. Or complete an area's "evil" missions and the "good" alternatives are permanently locked away, missions with distinct and often fascinating itineraries. Just walking down the street has cumulative ramifications. Do you heal wounded passerby? Bind them in electric shackles? Or replenish your energy stores by bleeding their life away? Every choice is a mounting commitment. Unlocking one path seals of another.

Incidentally, several "good" acts require that you stand aside and passively allow an event to occur. That's risky business. Conventional game design defines "choice" as something you do, not something you allow. In one of inFAMOUS's initial karmic tossups, you can either choose to shoot a bunch of starving civilians and ensure more food supplies for your friends (evil), or let those civilians take their share of the food (good). It's a subtle but powerful moment. How many players will balk at not acting, then act less than scrupulously, if only to revel in their godlike powers?

Mostly, you'll spend time darting around Empire City fending off gangs of mutant superhumans who like to terrorize the traumatized populace with guns, rockets, and — much later — the sort of epic super-villainy you've come to expect from the genre. To grapple with opponents who'll eventually come at you from all heights and angles, you're able to climb anything in sight, darting with uncanny agility from zigzag piping to jutting ledges to the lips of window frames.

While that sounds like Assassin's Creed, it's actually easier, because Cole responds more quickly to your thumb's nudges and with less inertial commitment, so he'll recover from errors quicker. That said, Sucker Punch crafts the gaps you'll have to clear from ground to handhold to rooftop with laudable realism. No "almost" catches at the height of a jump, where other games magnetically pull you into the last few inches with an invisible helping hand. The downside's that precision maneuvers take, well, precision. The upside's that what you see is what you get, a kind of spatial reliability that lends itself to the game's impressive locomotive fluidity.

And where Assassin's Creed modeled wall-crawling with a kind of grasping, painstaking meticulousness, Cole is more like a coiled muscle, springing and scrambling as fast as you care to tap out moves. He can clamber up the side of a building from sidewalk to summit in seconds, and eventually gains the ability to "grind" on power lines and railcar tracks like Tony Hawk channeling Zeus. Since Cole can't sit in a vehicle — his powers detonate the gas tanks in vehicles and the gunpowder in bullets, plus water's a major no-no — you can't flip around the city by hopping into a taxi cab. You're essentially on an electricity-underwritten tether, which trades the convenience of instantaneously zipping from one point to another for the exhilaration of using your super powers to go places no taxi could. Getting around is thus a bit slower, to be sure, but invariably cooler, and it never gets old. It's all part of Sucker Punch's plan to let you experience the kinetic gratification of "superhero parkour" without compromising your ability to get from one side of the map to another in a reasonable amount of time.

Eventually that flexibility causes some minor problems, particularly in areas like the second island (The Warren) where the buildings are riddled with odd handholds and intentionally misaligned protrusions that can cause Cole to get snarled in the architecture. In one instance, I needed to procure a package wedged in the corner of a fire escape landing, but whether I tapped the "leap" or "let go" buttons, Cole wouldn't stop grabbing onto the handrails and overhangs. It took me half a minute to get him "unstuck" and positioned correctly. The character thus seems well acclimated to open spaces and simple geometry, but stick him in cramped quarters and his grab-hold-of-anything tack is like Microsoft Office's "Clippy" — accommodating to the point of absurdity.

The bad guys — initially called Reapers, a bunch of tar-belching goons sporting ghostly masks cribbed from Wes Craven's Scream who eventually morph into even deadlier things — can hit a bug on a wire from a thousand paces. They'll detect and rapid-fire snipe you from preposterous distances, something that's fortunately offset by the citywide surplus of electrical recharge nodes. Higher power abilities drain your "batteries," and when you're low on health, sticking your finger in an outlet can work wonders. Cars, power boxes, light poles, you name it — they offer a chance to juice-up, if you can spare the precious seconds it takes to click the thumb-stick and locate their crackling signatures. It's all part of a balancing act to keep you on your toes. And moving. And most of all, not bored.

Enemies beam in randomly at the edge of your visual range, per convention. No persistent flocks of strategically intelligent AI roam these urban battlegrounds. Thus you'll venture out from alleys or sprint across open recreational areas only to have your bell rung by half a dozen perfectly placed sharpshooters. Again, part of the balancing act. You may have superhuman powers, but you'll have to mind your surroundings, whether that means crouching below the edges of things and peeking out cautiously, or using your powers to detonate objects in the environment and rack up indirect takedowns.

It's possible to scrub each of the islands clean of enemies and establish safe zones that nullify enemy re-spawns by signing on to side missions. These take the form of dozens of low-repeat incentives to fool around with your abilities and chalk up experience points (which unlock new abilities) between the main story beats. They're also fairly creative: Stalk a courier without being spotted. Disable surveillance equipment tacked to the sides of a building. Escort criminals who'll try to escape en route. Trail the electric green afterimages of criminals to their source. Find a hidden package using only a photograph taken from a wonky angle. Even the "protect a pedestrian" cliche has a twist designed to minimize frustration — instead of dying in an ambush, they'll go to ground until you've mopped up. The spotlight's on you, in other words. You're in danger. You could die. Not some aggravating albatross that careens stupidly into the line of fire and botches the mission time after time.

The broader tale unfurls as various people contact Cole and send him pinballing from task to task, starting with platforming odysseys through each island's sewer system to turn back on the juice, and culminating in an epic battle or three before migrating to the next island. The story's also revealed through recordings stashed near satellite dishes scattered about all three islands. Finding these "dead drops" is an end in itself, part of a collectible angle that'll also see you scrabbling around the tops, sides, and under-hangs of anything hunting for hundreds of glowing blue shards — irradiated bits of something-or-other that gradually charge your maximum electrical capacity.

Occasionally your radar map points you at goals indirectly. Instead of tracking down static colored blips on a mini map, you're fed the visual equivalent of clicks from a Geiger counter. You'll have to do slightly more than follow your map to X, which in this case marks the general area instead of the determinate spot, but nothing unseemly. You don't need to be clairvoyant, just mildly intrepid. "Explore," says the game, beckoning, and after realizing how boring laser-precise radar is, you'll listen.

Even then, the design practically trips over itself to accommodate: The way train tracks loop around each island allowing you to quickly grind from one side to another. The way power lines snake between buildings and eventually across the bridges between the islands, a map of twisting highways in the sky. Fail or die during a mission and you'll restart almost from the point you left off. Go-go-go, says the game, and from start to finish, it's hard not to.

In the end, do we care that inFAMOUS's payoff isn't Hugo Award winning? Not really. It's on par with most Twilight Zone episodes, and world's better than the phoned in pablum other games dish out. I don't know how electricity helps you fly, or why no one picks up a fire hose (or squirt gun — hey, it worked for David Tennant) or why it never rains in Empire City, but it's probably just as silly puzzling over the illogic. You're a hopping, leaping, line-grinding, rail-surfing, lightning storm. Go with it.

PCW Score: 90%

For more gaming news and opinion, point your tweet-readers at twitter.com/game_on.

Subscribe to the Game On Newsletter

Comments