Every month, magazines all over the country turn to the industry release list to decide on coverage for the issue ahead. Every month, those well-laid plans are shot to pieces by last-second delays and strategic reshuffles. A game critic must make peace with the shifting sands of the schedules, but must also learn how to read the ebb-and-flow.
In Famous was originally slated for a June release, but as April drew to a close the date was finally set for the end of May. The final few weeks of development can be vital for tightening the nuts and bolts, but with Sony publishing the game as a console exclusive, experience told us that Sucker Punch must have finished ahead of time. We awaited the code with enthusiasm, keen to see what PlayStation 3’s second major exclusive in a year full of them would offer. The code we received destroyed those assumptions quickly and without mercy.
The alarm bells began clattering when we became frozen mid-jump on the side of a dilapidated building. Moments later, an explosion seemed to rip the textures from the surrounding environment, deforming its straight lines into jagged pixels. As the game progressed, the lack of polish was revealed with crystal clarity: woeful facial animation gave every character the air of a marionette puppet; ambient details would pop into place as we were about to pass them by; the harsh bodily movements of the protagonist suggested a tree frog, rather than the lithe super-being Sucker Punch intended.
In Famous is many things, but it certainly isn’t finished, and yet Sony brought the game’s release forward. Our confusion lasted for roughly the time it took us to realize that, by releasing at the end of May, Sony had guaranteed its product would reach consumers weeks before Activision’s very similar and very multi format Prototype. A touch cynical, perhaps, but we’ve yet to find an explanation that makes nearly as much sense. The tragedy is that inFamous contains flashes of something approaching brilliance, yet when we finished all that remained were memories of the cracks in its surface.
inFamous offers the player a chance to create their very own superhero or super villain. The game begins with an explosion tearing through the fictional Empire City, caused by a device delivered by Cole MacGrath, an unwitting courier and the central figure in the narrative. Cole wakes up two weeks later to discover that the city has become a quarantine zone under the control of criminal gang The Reapers. The explosion left him with strange electrical powers and a growing reputation as the mastermind behind the disaster. This is where you step in, guiding Cole along a path of altruism and redemption or egotism and self-preservation.
Your actions in specific situations – some subtle, some directly presented to you – feed into a meter in the corner of the screen, which represents how you’re regarded by the city’s residents. Experience points are awarded for completing missions and suppressing the Reaper threat, and these can be exchanged for power upgrades dictated by how ‘good’ or ‘evil your version of Cole has chosen to be.
There’s no real complexity to the system – the nature of Cole’s powers remains the same, regardless of how you act, and the narrative’s moral palette can be absurdly polarized – but it’s a welcome addition to an experience that runs on little more than adrenaline. Whether a Boy Scout or hell spawn, reaching the upper echelons of inFamous’s limited skill-tree allows for some
highly empowering fun. A favorite among the more ballistic powers was Shockwave, which could overturn dumpsters at the start of the game, but by the end was sweeping entire streets clear of cars with its sheer might.
However, the most satisfying powers relate to agility. Empire City is a large but fairly bland playground, and making your way between two points can be impossible at ground level due to the Reapers’ presence. Completing side missions helps to rid whole areas of the map of enemy forces, but you’ll probably find yourself having far too much fun bounding around the rooftops to want the massed lunatics to disappear.
As in Crackdown and Assassin’s Creed, inFamous is at its best when you’re completing seamless chains of movement, and the Glide and Grind powers are essential to that. The ability to slide between buildings along a suspended wire, sparks spraying from your feet and lightning shooting from your hands, before leaping into the air and gliding to a rest on top of a telegraph pole can make inFamous seem like an original and valuable experience.
But then you try and walk off the edge of a roof and hit an invisible wall, or receive a side mission from a female NPC only to see three identical character models standing in a huddle behind you, or come to the realization that Cole might just be the least inspiring protagonist, in both design and personality, of the last five years. Sucker Punch claimed it wanted an everyman character, but what we’re given is a grey-skinned David Beckham clone who climbs telegraph poles like he’s double-jointed in every limb.
inFamous is an ambiguous pleasure, full of nice ideas – most of which have been done better elsewhere – hugely ambitious but criminally unfinished, and very similar to another game that remains an unknown quantity. The last point is key because in another three weeks Prototype will be on the shelves next to it. Sony might want to force your hand by creating a gap, but don’t be fooled. In this situation, patience is a virtue.