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inFamous 2 Review

4
  • PS3

It's not quite as refined as you'd expect a sequel to be, but Infamous 2 is still an electrifying good time.

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With Infamous, Sucker Punch delivered a deeply satisfying and (pardon the pun) downright electric open-world action game. Two years later, Infamous 2 improves in some pleasing, meaningful ways on what I thought was already one of the most playable games ever made in this genre. But it also exhibits a surprising lack of polish in several areas, some more integral to the experience than others. It's only because the core gameplay is still so much fun in Infamous 2 that these rough patches stand out as much as they do.

Specifically, it was the fluidly responsive controls and the laundry list of explosive powers that made the first game such a joy. The controls remain apparently unchanged, again allowing superhero Cole MacGrath to aim and dodge with the ease and mobility that a superhero should. There's also a generous list of new variations on the game's stable of weapon-like electric powers, which still fall into familiar categories like grenade, rocket, and pea shooter. You can even choose between ice- and fire-related variants on these powers later in the game (by making what feels like a contrived, button-prompted moral decision) that further broadens your arsenal. The expanded lineup of powers is certainly robust enough, and the flow of combat is further streamlined by a handy pop-up menu that lets you cycle through available types of abilities on the fly. The powers are once again split across both sides of the moral coin, and while it felt like the first Infamous taunted my pure-hearted boy scout with a bunch of more entertaining, destructive-looking powers available only to an evil character, this time the game does a better job of assigning some desirable abilities to the good side too.

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Unfortunately, Infamous 2 shares its predecessor's predilection for overwhelming you with enemies from all sides. You become so overly powerful in the second half, the game responds by ramping up the number and ferocity of the enemies, but there are a few too many cases where the combat feels cheap. It's just not much fun when you get surrounded by elite soldiers who can slide right up behind you, knock you down with a shotgun, then keep damaging you while you're waiting to climb out of a stun animation and regain control. Liberal checkpoints aren't much consolation when things like that happen two or three times in a row. On the whole it's still a blast to lay waste to hordes of enemies in this game, but you do start to wish the enemy design and placement were as refined as the controls and abilities.

In most games, getting from place to place is just a means to an end, so it says a lot about the first Infamous that simply traversing the urban sprawl was an enjoyable end in itself. Sucker Punch has made Cole even more mobile in this sequel, through both new abilities and new environmental features. The "static thrusters" that let you make like a flying squirrel will now get you some extra lift, and there's an ice jump--the single best incentive to play a good character, second to satisfying your own conscience--that shoots you straight upward at the touch of a button. Likewise, new electrified vertical rails on most buildings will send you flying skyward as soon as you touch them. The magnetic way that Cole gravitates to things he can cling to or climb on is still much appreciated, but there are the few frustrating instances where he ends up sticking to the wrong grapple point, which ultimately makes it take longer to get where you're going. Like the combat, it's another case where the central idea is so good that you wish the implementation was a bit more refined.

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Origin stories are probably the easiest sort of superhero tale to write, and sure enough, Cole's first tentative steps into his new power and responsibility did a great job of buoying and driving the story in the first game. Now that he's a full-fledged hero, Infamous 2 is inherently a little less exciting, sending Cole south to the New Orleans-esque New Marais to escape the Beast, the towering dervish of destruction foretold in the vision that ended the first game. New Marais is where Cole believes he can seek the origin of the ray sphere technology that started all this mess, and thus amplify his powers to the degree necessary to take on the Beast and stop its wanton rampage across the Eastern seaboard.

Every time you start the game and load your save, there's a great framing device that tells you how many miles the Beast has left to travel before it reaches and obliterates New Marais. The Beast's progress is tied to your own progress through the story, so there's no actual timer ticking down, but this still creates a foreboding backdrop behind your local troubles, which are many. An anti-mutant politician called Bertrand has the city in near-martial lockdown, and mutated swamp freaks are rampaging through some quarters of town. In this already heated mix, Cole and his now-tolerable sidekick Zeke run up against some other gifted individuals with their own superpowers, and tangle with Bertrand's militia, the monsters, and an elite team of high-tech mercenaries as well. The game does a decent job of humanizing its new characters, but in general there's a little too much going on for the story to find its center. By contrast, I really enjoyed the singular mystique the first Infamous built up around the Kessler character and Cole's struggle to understand his new powers and the menace he was fighting. By comparison, the plot here feels a bit scattered. The first game's morality system returns here, and while you generate small amounts of good or bad karma by the way you behave in combat and such, the big story-related moral decisions boil down to fairly contrived freeze-frame button prompts. These choices really only act as gateways to which cutscenes you see and which powers you get to access (and, in a few cases, which missions you have available), though again, I couldn't help picking the good option in every case on my first playthrough.

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At least New Marais is much more visually interesting than the grey grit of Empire City, not least because it's a pleasure town rife with neon-lined casinos and brothels, and marked by some authentic-looking architecture. More generally, Sucker Punch has also broadened the game's color palette, enriching the game's look with brilliant orange-red sunsets and other elements that make the game more interesting to look at. Best of all, the first game's spotty frame rate has mostly been corrected here, making for a more fluid experience.

In direct contrast to the lovely visual presentation, there's a bizarre lack of sound work in almost every area of the game. Out in the open world you'd expect to hear way more ambient sound than the occasional murmur of a passerby or honking car that's here. Crickets, the rumble of a passing streetcar, the lapping of the water that surrounds the city, even some basic white noise--any and all of those things would have made the world feel busier and more alive, but none of them are consistently there. There's a similar dearth of sound design in places ranging from the abilities menu to major dramatic cutscenes. That might sound like a nitpick, but you don't realize how necessary good sound is until you take some of it away.

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With a whopping 40 story missions, 60 side missions, hundreds of power-enabling blast shards to collect, and endless minor street crimes to prevent (or commit), Infamous 2 is already chockablock with content. So in a sense, it almost doesn't matter whether the game's user-generated mission framework is actually any good or not. But it is. There's a pretty easy-to-use mission editor in here that lets you work from a template or start with a blank slate to create all kinds of custom missions that focus on combat, physics puzzles, or even basic narrative-driven scenarios. People are already making some pretty elaborate missions, but of course there are also the requisite short obstacle courses designed to quickly net you a bunch of trophies and the requisite recreations of Super Mario Bros.' 1-1. The best part about Infamous 2's user-made content is that you can see as much or as little of it as you want. The game makes it simple to filter which missions show up in your world based on a broad range of criteria, or just disable it all completely. There's already an argument to be made in favor of playing the game through twice on good and evil paths, and since the user missions let you earn karma and experience just like the story ones, their value is evergreen.

Whatever complaints you might make about the ways Infamous 2 could be better, the core of the game is so much fun that it's inarguably worth playing. It's only because the series has so much potential, and already makes good on so much of that potential, that I feel compelled to point out those faults at all. The day we see an Infamous 3 that makes good on everything this series could be, well, that will be an exciting day.

Brad Shoemaker on Google+