E3 2008: Infamous Impressions

This free-roaming superhero game takes a dark look at modern morality.

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Every so often, a game comes out of nowhere and zaps you. Infamous is such a game, and we are surprised at how well it seems to be shaping up. At E3 2008, we caught up with Brian Fleming at Sucker Punch, and he walked us through a number of the features we should expect to see in this upcoming superhero action game.

The hero in Infamous is Cole, a regular guy who is the only survivor of an explosion that levels six blocks of the sprawling fictional metropolis of Empire City. Cole doesn't emerge unscathed, however--he soon discovers that he has been blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with electric-based superpowers. As Cole, where you go from here is up to you: Infamous is an open-world game in which you can use your powers to either enrich the lives of Empire City's people or wreak havoc on them. Essentially, the public is your audience, and the city is your theater. You choose how to entertain or humiliate the citizenry.

How you use your powers in the gameworld has major effects on how the citizens react to you. For example, you can save an injured citizen by using your electrical skills as a sort of defibrillator, and that citizen will react appropriately. Or, you could instigate fear and loathing by murdering unsuspecting innocents with bolts of lightning. Sucker Punch is fairly tight-lipped about how deep these layers of morality will run, but it did drop one juicy tidbit: How you act will determine the direction your powers take. While we didn't learn specifics, the possibilities are exciting--imagine Knights of the Old Republic's force powers translated to an action-oriented, open-ended environment.

Cole looks down at an unforgiving Empire City.
Cole looks down at an unforgiving Empire City.

There are also numerous psychological and emotional layers, courtesy of the story. Because the game isn't based on an existing comic book property, Infamous is envisioned as a fun game, first and foremost, and the powers are tailored to make for good gameplay. However, Sucker Punch wants to lead you through the emotional consequences of Cole's fate. Because of the mysterious origins of Empire City's explosion, the federal government has placed the city under quarantine, and it is a wasteland, filled with rioting, roaming mobs and more than its share of nefarious characters. Members of the development team used riots they experienced in the city of Seattle as a dark inspiration for the setting, and to excellent effect: The environments we saw were dingy and bleak, though hardly uninspired.

The gameplay looks over the top, in just the right way. The level we saw showed Cole crossing a series of moving railway cars into the Neon district, which had been overrun with a gang of drug dealers known as reapers. Fortunately, Cole is an agile climber, and he scaled to the top of a tall building, where some of these gang members awaited. Taking a cue from Gears of War and Uncharted, Infamous features a robust cover system, going so far as to let you hang from ledges and use the rafters as cover. You can even fight while jumping around, flinging streams of lightning about while leaping from one ledge to another.

All of your fighting boils down to using your electrical powers or performing a melee attack; there are no plans to let you use ranged weapons. Of course, who needs them? You can fling thunderbolts around, after all. However, you aren't invulnerable. Like most superheroes, Cole has weaknesses, though it isn't yet clear what all of them will be. However, because Cole relies on the city's electrical grid to power his abilities, a blackout can have major consequences, because his skills will be considerably diminished. Conversely, he can give his powers extra oomph by sucking the energy from electrical devices. Sucker Punch was quick to point out, however, that you won't need to worry too often about keeping your powers charged: There is no "electrical currency," so you needn't worry that the game takes a charge-attack, charge-attack approach. You will be consistently engaged with the action.

Cole isn't the only character infused with superpowers. A hero needs an archnemesis, after all! We watched as our hero was attacked by a supervillain whose power ripped up the concrete as it raged ahead. How these enemies have acquired their powers is one of the game's many mysteries, and the development team remained mum on the nature of the events that led to this breakout of supernatural abilities.

Much of the story is told through stylized graphic-novel-influenced scenes, showcasing cutscenes that use a series of flat panels. The scenes we saw were drawn extremely well and seemed like a natural way of telling a superhero tale. On the other hand, gameplay proper took a much more realistic approach, and the city is rendered with the authentic grit of a city under siege. However, the graphic novel inspiration is still palpable, and while the characters aren't cel-shaded, they looked stylish without detracting from the mature look of their surroundings.

Our first impressions of Infamous are positive, and we look forward to seeing more on this original superhero morality drama--particularly how your own moral compass affects the gameplay. The game is scheduled for release in the spring of 2009. We'll bring you more information on this promising PlayStation 3 game as it develops.

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