The first Infamous was one of those games that I just got right away. Presented with an open world and a set of powers, for some reason I took to the traversal like fish to water. I didn’t need to be given a tutorial or require a couple of hours of acclamitisation. As soon as I started moving Cole MacGrath about Empire City, I felt I knew what I could and could not do, much sooner and with greater surety than most other games I came across.
The intuitiveness and sheer pleasure of the simple act of moving about is what defines the Infamous trilogy. I just finished the third game, Second Son, which was part of the bundle with the PS4 I bought recently, and it is a continuation of Sucker Punch’s tradition of exceptional traversal. It’s not just that you can move with great freedom and speed; it’s the sense that Infamous manages to fulfil your fantasy of movement, while still holding onto the character’s sense of weight and gravity. In most games, the controls don’t inspire such satisfaction – I think back to GTA IV and V’s sluggishness, the slight floatiness in Crackdown, the maddeningly fiddly requirement for precision in Metal Gear Solid 3 and 4, and the over-eager snapping to ledges in Assassin’s Creed games. Infamous, though, feels beautifully right. The gap between your imagination of moving from A to B, and how the character – whether it’s Cole or Delsin, the new hero – actually pulls off the move under your control, is very small. It’s a point that in my mind goes beyond input latency or the framerate. The combination of the jump button, the floating ability triggered when you hold down the jump button, and the dash, creates so many possibilities for the way you want to move about. Sucker Punch also uses common sense with regards to the auto-snapping to ledges, so that when you do have to climb (which is not very often) it feels fluid and easy without being trivial.
What all this means is that Infamous, over and above most others, feels great to just pick up and play. You don’t have to go and find a car to jack, you don’t have to wrestle with the conveniently protruding bricks and planks, and you don’t have to be holding down three different buttons at once to subdue an enemy. You still need to think a little bit to make sure that you zip around in the most satisfying way possible though, because Infamous is still subject to the laws of gravity. It really does make you feel super-human: existing in the same world and under the same rules of nature, but with the powers to transcend them whenever they are required. For me, that’s at the core of the Infamous series, and why it’s so pleasurable to play it.
Infamous was never the highest-rated of franchises, and even someone as favourably disposed to it as I have trouble regarding it as true top-tier, fit to stand alongside Uncharted and MGS. The first game was probably the grey-est game in a generation renowned for being grey, Cole was a dull saucepan, and enemies were horribly unexciting to square off against. Infamous 2, despite attempting to deal with many of the problems of the predecessor, is actually the one I find the least memorable – I struggle to remember one instance where the actual plot strand or a set piece left a lasting imprint. It didn’t solve the problem of dull enemies, either. Second Son looks absolutely stunning, with some moments achieving a level of beauty that is a real testament to the power of the platform and the artistic vision of the developers. But the bad guys yet again fail to be anything other than annoying fodder. A common problem in the series is the open world itself, which other than as a stage for the traversal feels like an afterthought. The only interaction between Cole/Delsin and the people in their cities is the former choosing whether or not to hurt the latter, and if you do injure or kill them the only thing that happens is that your karma is affected slightly. Nothing else happens, and there are no real-time consequences in the sandbox. Compare with GTA, where if you cause damage to other people it will raise your wanted level and set the police on you. In other words, when you push the world in Infamous, it does not push back. It’s also disappointing that Second Son, which is much more colourful and interesting than the first two, lacks a true day/night cycle.
One of the strangest things about all three Infamous games is that the flow of the narrative, and how the missions are structured within it, feels so random and inconsequential. One story mission doesn’t segue naturally into the next. You complete one, and next you get a call tasking you with another, but the link between the two rarely feels apparent. In Second Son, for example, Delsin’s brother Reggie calls you about something that is happening somewhere, and does so in a way that implies that you should know why you need to be there, but often you are nonplussed; you go there because it moves the story along, not because you are compelled by the consequence of the previous mission. It’s a shame because all three games actually have terrific denouements, the best kinds of comic book endings that are memorable and thought-provoking.
That these problems run the course of the trilogy makes it apparent where Sucker Punch’s interests reside. Infamous is about platforming, about the joys of getting around, and about interacting with the physical structures of the environment. It’s understandable approach for the custodians of the Sly Cooper games, I guess. The developers, perhaps as tradition dictates, are less invested in weaving the narrative in the gameplay, and breathing more life into their open world. Critics have pointed out that unless there is a more substantive evolution Infamous won’t be able to take the next step into AAA territory. I would agree with that, but I don’t want to see that happen at the expense of what has made the franchise such fun: making the character move, and feeling like a real super-human.