Infamous Updated Hands-On: New Island, New Powers, New Enemies
We try out an updated version of Sucker Punch's upcoming action game that lets you live the highs and lows of a superhero.
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Seattle-based Sucker Punch's upcoming Infamous aims to offer up an interactive approximation of what it's like to be a superhero. This open-world game is an original title for the PlayStation 3 and has been making waves for the past two years at Sony's press conferences and assorted events. We recently had the chance to try out an updated version and run through some old and new missions as well as check out an all-new island that makes up another section of the once-shiny metropolis of Empire City.
If you've read our last few previews of Infamous you know that main character Cole is having a pretty bad few weeks. The ex-messenger is the only survivor of an epic explosion that left him with superpowers (once he got out of his coma) and that caused all manner of trouble for pretty much everyone else in the city. The upside for Cole is his amazing array of electrical powers, which, aside from being fun at parties, let him do some neat stuff. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Spider-Man's perforated Uncle Ben, with great power comes great baggage. In Cole's case, it means his heroic life is more "Batman" than "Superman" in terms of being accepted by the general population. Unfortunately, Cole is tied to the explosion that's causing all the trouble for everyone, because, as mostly bad luck would have it, his last pre-explosion delivery was to the building that went boom. This doesn't endear him to the locals--unflattering security camera footage will do that to you--and makes his budding hero career more of an uphill battle. But so it goes.
Our demo started with a quick run through the early level that finds you guiding Cole through the start of the game and meeting his boy Zeke and lady friend Trish. The basics of the mission haven't changed; you still follow Zeke to collect his gun and head over to an airdrop of food. You help the food find its way to the ground for the people trying to get it, and you deal with the Reapers, a local gang. There's a bit more polish now, though, and the locals have some pretty distinct reactions to you. There's also some chatter from a local guerrilla broadcaster that pops up on video screens. It doesn't help Cole's social standing when that security cam footage is called up and people recognize him.
The next portion of the demo hopped forward into the game and found Cole helping Trish, who works as a makeshift field medic aiding the injured. In this particular instance, she's tending to people who are being injured by mysterious black water that's oozing out of nearby fountains. Unfortunately--and we'll say that a lot when describing Cole's situations--there's some friction with Trish, who is no longer one of Cole's fans (her sister was in the building that exploded). Still, like any good medic, Trish wants to make sure people get help, so she's chilly but communicative with Cole and explains the water problem.
Cole is able to help out by shutting off a valve that's letting the goop into the water supply, but he gets a splash of the gunk on his face. The mystery water blinds him and causes some odd side effects, which foreshadow what's coming later in the level. In addition to the vision problems, the gunk causes hallucinations and makes Cole receptive to telepathic chat with the Reapers' boss, who, in true evil leader form, is very much into monologuing.
Your first encounter with the gunk requires you to follow Trish to get some solvent to spray it out of your eyes. After you clean up, you guide Cole to three other valves, each of which spray the goop on him. This time out the effect from the gunk is temporary, although the Reaper boss just doesn't miss a chance to talk smack. Your valve-turning duties are complicated by roaming mobs of Reapers who are out to stop you. Dealing with them let us play around with Cole's powers and get a feel for using cover. While the mission was still fairly early in the game, we got access to Cole's grenade ability, which essentially let him toss sticky grenades that exploded with enough force to take out mobs. The catch, of course, is that the grenades drained his energy stores quickly, so he could toss out only a few before being tapped out and forced to recharge from available power supplies.
While there were ample light poles nearby, it was also handy to hop onto trees to avoid gunfire. Once the valves were shut down, we guided Cole to take out the source of the gunk, which lay at the end of an underground tunnel. The race up to the truck offered some intense, claustrophobic combat that was a nice counterpoint to the open-world aspects. We had to face off against mobs of Reapers, which was complicated because some of them were real while others appeared like hallucinations out of thin air (although they certainly hit like the real thing). We were impressed by the sheer amount of action and clutter on the screen due to explosions, gunfire, Cole's powers, hallucinatory weirdness from the gunk, and the onscreen representation of Cole's health. The frame rate dipped some, but for the most part, the action hummed along well.
Once we saved the town from the perils of black gunk, we finally got a chance to move on to a new district on the second island, dubbed the Warren. While you might assume that the Warrren may not be in the dire straits that the first island in Empire City is in because it wasn't near the blast, you'd be guessing wrong. Our first impression of Warren is that it's an even bigger mess, mainly due to the presence of a gang called the Dust Men. The aggressive group is made up of the various transients that were around the district and who, in the wake of the explosion, were mobilized into a group by a man named Alden. Since then, they've been terrorizing most of the area.
The local prison, staffed by the last remaining police officers, has become a fortress of sorts. Unfortunately the officers appeared to have bitten off more than they could chew at the start of our demo mission. Cole shows up just in time to help fend off an attack from the Dust Men, who are fighting mad that the officers have caught Alden and locked him up. Rather than question why their fearless leader was nabbed so easily, the surly gang assaults the prison in the hopes of springing him. Matters are further complicated by the fact that the many members of the Dust Men have gained their own unique superpowers. Unlike Cole's electric powers, the Dust Men's powers are telekinetic in nature, which makes things pretty interesting.
The level started out with you protecting Zeke from incoming debris flung over the prison walls by the gang. The most effective way to deal with the incoming balls of junk was to use Cole's EMP pulse at the right time and shove them back. While the pulse used up a fair amount of Cole's energy store, the grating he stood on was charged with electricity, which replenished him at a decent rate. Once the bombardment was over, things got nasty as the Dust Men blew some holes in the prison walls and began pouring in. Thankfully we had access to another new ability, called "precision," which essentially worked like a sniper rifle. We triggered it by hitting up on the directional pad to toggle the vision on and zooming in our view and slowing things down. We were able to target from a greater distance than Cole's standard lightning, although we were eating up energy while in the view.
Besides dealing with armed Dust Men, who wore eerie camouflage outfits, we had to contend with golem-like Dust Men soldiers who used surrounding debris to create makeshift suits of armor. As in the first part of the demo, Cole benefitted from standing on an electrified grill, which helped keep his energy high. Eventually, the Dust Men systematically took out his power supplies, which forced us to improvise. While we were still able to drain power from some objects, the faster solution was to perform the bio-drain move on normal Dust Men. To access the move, we had to engage in melee combat with an enemy and knock him to the ground. When enemies were on the ground, pressing R2 let us target them and gave us the option to bio-drain them, which leeches their personal bioelectricity to charge Cole. As you'd expect, it's not a great experience for the person you're leeching from, and it offers some very clear ideas on the game's morality system, which looks to fall somewhere in the neighborhood of Fable 2 or Mass Effect.
In fact, energy consumption and conservation became central issues in the latter part of the level as the Dust Men totally shut down the prison power grid, effectively leaving Cole with the morally ambiguous bio-drain as his only option to recharge. Our demo wrapped up with the grid being restored, which required us to do some platforming and shimmying around and up the battered prison. The trip highlighted the game's unique urban platforming, which mixes standard running and jumping with rock-climbing-style movements along nooks and crannies.
All told, the demo showed off a lot of promise, as well as the expected rough edges from a work in progress. The camera was a little troublesome in spots, the frame rate dipped in some areas, and the number of effects during some of the crazier combat segments, such as the tunnel battle, made it difficult to follow the action. Now, that all said, Infamous has a lot going for it. The game's open-world feel and the sheer freedom of hopping around and climbing places are very cool. The different ways you can use Cole's abilities and upgrade them--by collecting shards, which are debris you can absorb from the explosion--is a nice touch. We also have to call out the stylish cinematic screens that move the story along. Sucker Punch's games have always had a cool, artistic flair to them, and Infamous stays true to the spirit of the Sly Cooper comic panel motif, although clearly with a more hard-edge style. In fact, the layered, animated look of the cinematics gives them more life than some of the high production CG movies we've seen in other games.
The visuals continue their positive development toward a finished product with more polish being layered in. We especially like the distinct personality the city is taking on the more we see of the game. The outdoor park area and claustrophobic tunnels of the black water mission had a unique look to them that was different from the first areas we saw. The Warren district offered another take on the ruined-city motif, with some subtle color-palette tweaks and different architecture that was very effective. The look extended to the Dust Men and golems we encountered, which all had a disturbing patchwork feel to them.
Based on what we played, Infamous is coming along nicely. The game seems to be doing a fine job of balancing style and substance with impressive visuals, engaging gameplay, and a meaty story. While there's still the expected assortment of rough edges, they're mostly overshadowed by the potential on display. The sense of freedom when you're going about your business, the intriguing story, and being able to mix up your powers and interact with the city are compelling draws. Infamous is slated to ship later this year for the PlayStation 3, so look for more on the game in the coming months.