Let's go ahead and get InFamous' short list of downsides out of the way. Technically, the game is a little rough around the edges; occasional frame rate and draw-in issues and some questionable character animation make it look slightly less impressive than what you'd want from a PlayStation 3 exclusive. It's a little on the hard side in the first few hours, before you start building up your wild electrical superpowers and you can really fight back against the large number of enemies the game throws at you. Oh, and I guess your portly sidekick Zeke is kind of annoying from time to time.
OK, now that those minor complaints are out of the way, I can spend the rest of the review talking about how much fun I had blasting, zapping, climbing, and flying around the big urban comic book world Sucker Punch created for this game.
InFamous really is a comic book transposed into the video game format. It even starts out with a quick, outlandish origin story: You're bike messenger Cole McGrath, delivering a routine package that turns out to be a mysterious, unusual bomb. After unwittingly leveling half of Empire City, you wake up in the smoldering crater with the sudden ability to control electricity and use it as a weapon. You'll need all the help you can get, because the city is placed under quarantine as a plague ravages the survivors and a bunch of gangs terrorize the populace. It's clear the government isn't coming to help anytime soon, so Cole has to step up and try to make a difference amidst all the madness.
In the wake of the bomb, there are a bunch of other comic book-style villains and supporting characters coloring up the ruins of Empire City. There's a frail, embittered old man with telekinetic powers; a freaky telepathic lady with some serious jealousy issues; your aforementioned chubby friend Zeke; your now ex-girlfriend who blames you for blowing up her sister along with half the city's residents; a mysterious Illuminati-esque organization which may or may not have engineered the blast; and, of course, the shadowy, hooded, mechanical-armed figure who's actually pulling all the strings.
I was worried the story would get a little boilerplate (it is a video game, after all), but it throws several major twists at you in the second half that really ratchet up the pace and make you want to keep playing to find out what the heck is going on. It helps that the cutscenes, which are presented like an animated graphic novel, are really slick and well-produced.
Even if the story was trite or nonexistent, though, the quality of the action would be enough to carry InFamous. The speed and feel of the movement, aiming, firing, dodging, climbing, and jumping has a looseness and fluidity that makes the game extremely satisfying to play. Navigating the urban environment is also a pleasure; Cole automatically grabs for ledges and handholds, allowing him to make his way up building faces, lampposts, and just about any other city feature with ease, so you can get around as easily as you can dish out your attacks.
The brilliant controls work with the array of superpowers at your disposal--which mostly mimic established shooter archetypes like grenades, rocket launchers, and sniper rifles, and a few borrowed from Star Wars like a kinetic push and a ground slam--to make it incredibly satisfying to use all your destructive tools against the game's many enemies. There are almost endless ways to combine the many powers together dynamically in a big firefight; it's enough to keep the combat totally engaging till the end of the game, especially since you get access to new powers at regular intervals right up to the last few missions.
You earn experience points for just about everything you do in the game, from stylish enemy takedowns to healing injured civilians, and you can cash these in on numerous upgrades for each power that follow one of two paths, depending on your moral alignment. Stop me if you've heard this one before, but the game presents choices throughout the storyline that lets you play Cole as a good or evil character. Some of the choices seem a little contrived, while some make more sense in context; all of them are explicitly outlined to you by voiceover right before you get to decide, so there's never any mystery about what your options are. You'll probably want to stick to a single alignment throughout a single playthrough, since there are three levels of both good and evil karma to upgrade through.
Anyway, in practical terms your alignment primarily determines which upgrades you have access to. The powers all have three upgrades, one for each karma level, and each subsequent upgrade adds some kind of damage boost, extra effect, or modifier, making it well worth maxing out as many of them as you can. The good versions of the powers focus on restraining enemies without killing them and minimizing civilian casualties, while the evil powers are all about big, wanton destruction. Your alignment also makes your electricity blue or red, but it doesn't have much bearing on the storyline--other than a couple of minor points, and the way the populace reacts to you--so if you don't have any moral hangups, you can tailor your choices to the sort of weapons you'd like to use. Both styles are fun to play, just in different ways.
Empire City is a big open world with three distinctive islands, so like Grand Theft Auto or any of its innumerable ilk, you're free to approach the core story missions and a number of side activities with some flexibility. A few side missions are only available to either good or evil characters, and there are enough different types of objectives that I never got tired of doing side missions, until I reached the end of the game and realized I'd actually done all of them. (It helps that side missions net you a lot of experience points.) The same goes for the game's collectibles; I kept getting derailed from the storyline to climb around looking for blast shards (numbering in the hundreds) and "dead drops," or audio recordings wired into satellite dishes (around three dozen). These collectibles have actual purpose, since the shards increase your charge capacity (essentially your ammo), and the dead drops fill in background story elements by playing back the audio logs of a missing secret government agent who's been working the Empire City case since long before the blast.
Aside from the minor technical issues, there are a lot of good things to say about InFamous' presentation. The city is densely packed and nicely designed with a variety of different building styles (which is nice, since you see them up-close so frequently). In lieu of a repeating day-to-night cycle, I like that the story is broken up into specific days with preset weather and lighting conditions, so the visual backdrop can work to help set the tone of the story. The music is great and has a really gritty, urban feel to it with a lot of driving percussion; I just wish you got to hear more of it. It's a nicely produced package, overall.
But it's the quality of the central action in InFamous that I keep coming back to. Everything else would be fancy window dressing if Sucker Punch hadn't nailed the basic gameplay elements, the simple moving and shooting, as precisely as it did. InFamous feels like a game designed from the very ground up to be fun to play, so I guess it's no surprise that as soon as the credits finished rolling on my good version of Cole, I started up an evil one to play it all over again.