The antihero of the electric grid.
About five hours into Sucker Punch’s latest open-world crime fighter, I realized this was no ordinary sequel. While the first third of inFAMOUS 2 seemed like a predictable rehash of the first game—minus the awesome underground platforming sequences—the back two-thirds are full of non-stop awe and wonder.
inFAMOUS 2 is so sly and subtle and smart in its innovations that you may not even notice you’ve been swept up in its electric spell until it’s all over. You’ll look back at the mayhem you’ve witnessed (and caused) and see the beautiful wreckage behind you. But unlike other open-world games like Just Cause 2 or the Grand Theft Auto series where the object is to create as much chaos as possible, inFAMOUS 2 is all about controlled chaos. There’s a real method to the madness.
Cole McGrath, a lightning-rod-cum-superhero, leaves Empire City—a stand-in for New York City—for the balmy bawdiness of New Marais—a comic book version of New Orleans. Among the first game’s many twists, we learned in the final moments that Cole’s powers were granted him so that he might fight off “The Beast”, a giant baddie dead-set on mass destruction. In order to stand a chance against the molten behemoth, Cole needs to jet down to New Marais to obtain a special device.
I’ll leave you to discover the many plot details, but suffice it to say, this is a series steeped in the logic of Saturday morning cartoons and ‘60s-era superhero comics. Rather than adapting comics or cartoons to the video game medium, however, Sucker Punch has instead dived headlong into the lore, creating a full, vibrant, and living world. It’s dark, but it’s cartoon dark. It’s goofy, but it’s comic book goofy. Even at its grimiest, the neon lights of New Marais always give the world a light-hearted feel.
Much like their criminally underappreciated Sly Cooper games, Sucker Punch’s inFAMOUS series has improved greatly in the sequel. Where the first game was a fun—if often repetitive and predictable—take on open-world superhero games like Crackdown and Spider-Man 2, the sequel finds its own unique voice and style. Everything is bigger, faster, and more destructive.
Because Cole begins the game with the majority of his prior powers intact, I was worried the game would simply rehash the prior game, but without the annoying performance issues of the first. But by the time I got to the second area, I began to realize just how much had changed.
Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that one of the most impressive things about this game is how it incorporates teamwork into the combat mix. Playing as Cole, I felt incredibly powerful and simultaneously incredibly vulnerable. Using a teammate and one of my powerful ionic powers, I could take out fifty enemies in a single stroke; but in the next minute, I could be taken out by one or two well-placed shots to my electricity-rattled noggin. Battles are bigger and more destructive than nearly any game like it, but they can also require enormous precision and careful planning.
The structure of the game has been simplified, and much like the Assassin’s Creed series, it’s been fine-tuned with an almost invisible elegance. You can follow the storyline exclusively or you can branch off and do any number of side missions along the way. As motivation, side missions grant you access to further abilities and let you take back sections of the city from the assorted toughs running the place.
In addition, there are user-created missions that are cycled into the game dynamically. Because I was playing the game pre-release, these were all designed by Sucker Punch themselves, so it’s impossible to tell what these will look like once the community starts designing these missions. As they now stand, some fit into the game’s fiction more than others, but at the very least, they’re a fun distraction if you’re looking for something else to do. In and of themselves, they’re mostly forgettable, but as a design innovation, I’m blown away.
The one thing that has remained painfully intact from the prior entry, however, is the morality system. Like the first game, there’s no benefit to playing the middle ground. You stand to gain the most by playing either all evil all the time or all good all the time. And while that makes sense within the fiction, it makes for an ugly bit of design.
Do I kill 100 civilians in order to kill the bad guy? Or do I spare the innocent and look for a less expedient alternative? Like Tom Cruise’s preternaturally chestnut hair, there are no shades of gray here. It’s all or nothing. And if you want to see all the game has to offer, both in terms of Cole’s powers and in terms of the storyline, you’ll have to play through the game twice. It’s disappointing that Sucker Punch has stuck with such a clunky contrivance.
Morality system aside, once I got a few hours into inFAMOUS 2, I couldn’t put it down. I had to see what would happen next. I had to see the next big battle for New Marais. I had to see the next enemy variety, the next power, the next environment, the next mission type, and on and on. If nothing else testifies to the lure of power, it’s exactly that sense of needing to experience the next big, beautiful, destructive thing.
And Sucker Punch knows it. Once you begin the game, quit, and then return, you’ll never have to bother with a menu or title screen again. Just fire the disc up, and you’re back exactly where you were before, ready to get back to the business of being a superhero.
inFAMOUS 2 is focused without being linear and wild without ever coming completely unhinged. It has all the exhilarating derring-do of Saturday morning do-gooders but with the wickedly wry smile of those who stay home on Sunday to watch Saturday’s fare all over again.