Sucker Punch is an apt title for the developers of InFamous 2. This game looks generic at first glance, but it contains some design choices that provoke deeper political meditations on the social contract. It may not be Chomsky, but it certainly makes you think more than the faux-intellectualism in Modern Warfare games where “War’s bad, mmmkay?” quotes are sprinkled between triumphalist gun porn.
Let’s deal with the first glance — it’s set in an open world, you play as a superhero with electricity powers that upgrade as the game progresses, and there’s a binary morality system that influences the story and the powers you get along the way. Nothing particularly new in that, but it’s in the details that things get interesting.
The first interesting detail is the choice of open world setting — New Marais, a recreation of New Orleans, post-hurricane Katrina. Apart from mimicking the colonial architecture of the French quarter, they have simulated the effects of flood. The town is dilapidated and largely without power. One sector in particular is especially slummy and semi-submerged. The citizens are struck by disease and there is no government to assist. Sucker Punch has based its broken city on a real disaster, rather than an imagined one. This more affecting than the more typical fare of apocalyptic New York or the Fallout 3’s “Independence Day” depiction of iconic DC landmarks being destroyed.
Even though the story is fictional, you can’t help thinking about New Orleans as you traverse the space. Katrina said to Americans (not for the first time): the government has not got your back. Despite the myths America tells itself about how special it is based on whuppin ass overseas, it clearly cannot look after its own.
New Marais takes it one step further. It is in anarchy — the state is not merely incompetent, it is absent. Private interests emerge to fill the power vacuum. Because this is a videogame, these private interests include superpowered mutants and militia groups. Weird swamp mutants are terrorising the people and the militia seem to be the only ones who can keep them at bay. The militia are mini-fascists who treat citizens like crap and aren’t big on the healthcare and food side of things; their claim to power is based on the protection they provide. New Marais has been taken back to a near-feudal condition.
Your character, Cole McGrath, came to new Marais with his tail between his legs after being smashed the colossal Beast in the game’s opening. The Beast is making his way to New Marais too and Cole’s personal mission is to power up so as to be strong enough to take him on. Every time you start the game up it tells you how many miles away the Beast is, and he gets closer as Cole progresses through missions, which is a nice way to keep the endgame in mind and give a sense of pacing.
The flooded, depowered nature of New Marais city has ramifications for how Cole experiences the place. Cole needs power to recharge his own electrical abilities and he is not keen on water. Finally we have a decent narrative excuse as to why a character can’t swim! The ruined slums also ruin Cole’s ease of traversal and regeneration. The mutants and militia provide early game fodder for Cole to zap. Just who he zaps depends on his moral choices.
The morality system is another interesting detail, more for the story it provides than the choice it allows. It is basically a binary choice between playing Cole as “good” — someone who sublimates his own power to help the people of the city, or “evil” — where Cole regards the people as a means to his own end. At the extreme ends of the karma meter, you unlock karma-based powers and story choices. In order to get these benefits, you will have to decide early on to be good or evil and stick with it. There are no rewards for playing it neutral.
It is the lack of choice that made the system interesting for me. I played as a goody-two shoes — which I always do, despite it all — and some of the “good” choices, especially towards the end, are not what I would have chosen for myself but I had to see them through because I was committed to that path. It doesn’t make decisions difficult, but it makes them painful. I was genuinely moved by the choices I had to make at the end. I watched the “evil” endings on YouTube and there was some poignant stuff in there too. The morality system is more a way to tell two different stories rather than a simulation of real decision-making, but the choices and stories were written better here than in InFamous.
Another interesting detail that made InFamous 2 shine is the mechanics of Cole’s electrical powers. Many of Cole’s offensive powers are roughly akin to different guns — there’s weak bolts that are like pistols, higher powered bolts like rifles, a zoom-in sniper bolt, an area effect blast that’s like a shotgun, and electro-rockets and grenades. The interesting bit is that, once they are unlocked, Cole has access to all of them and they use the same ammo — Cole’s own electricity reserves. I love this for two reasons. Firstly, it breaks the “2 guns only” rule that so many shooters seem to have these days. Secondly, I didn’t hoard grenades and rockets.
In other shooters, I jealously hoard my grenades, fretting that there is an even bigger battle around the corner where I will need them, and if I use them now I will never be given another one and I tend to or stick to automatic rifles because of their high ammo capacity compared to shotguns, but here I could pull out whatever I thought was best for the situation. Sometimes that situation involved grenade spam, I am not ashamed. It was a revelation to open up my play style to the full arsenal of weapons and powers, instead of finding a few tried and true techniques.
The missions and enemy types are also designed to require you to use your full gamut of powers and I never felt the missions getting stale. There are some truly large battles to be had, including fights that take part over many city blocks where you are beset by a combination of large foes and annoying small ones and you have to keep moving and switch up your attacks to prevail. The ability to throw cars may seem like an overpowered luxury, but it’s strictly necessary when a mutant acid-spewing behemoth is stomping after you.
Certain upgrades only become available when you have completed a prerequisite task, eg get a certain number of headshots or whatnot. This provides further incentive to mix up your tactics. As I’ve said before, I don’t mind these tasks when they are tied to in-game rewards rather than mere trophies.
Checkpointing in missions is also handled well, which is good because many of them are multistaged affairs that involved going to numerous locations or taking down a beastie in various stages and you don’t have to start all over again if you fail halfway through.
Side missions and collectibles are compelling but not too overwhelming — in my older age, I get put off by too much distraction. I like to grind to get extra rewards and powers but once I fill out the power tree, I am done. There’s a reasonably interesting user-generated content feature here too, where players can design their own missions and upload them for others to play. I gave some of these a go out of curiosity — they were OK, they do not count as side missions for the sake of unlocking upgrades, so there is little reward for playing them beyond just wanting more InFamous 2. I found there was enough content in the story missions to sate me.
InFamous 2 has its niggles — traversal and building climbing are a lot smoother than in InFamous, but it can get frustrating. For a guy who can scale the side of a building, Cole has particular difficulty getting onto a ladder. Sometimes in big battles the camera can betray you But these are niggles. InFamous 2, has a unique setting and a better-than-average story that combine to be surprisingly thought-provoking. It’s also got a neat set of mechanics and mission design that encourages you to use them all. Overall, it’s pretty damn smooth.
Oh and one last thing, sorry I couldn’t resist – I’ve made it this far!