Friday, March 22, 2013

inFamous 2

This game has been sitting in my collection for some time. Mostly because there were more urgent games to play. I did like many aspects of the first inFamous. Most importantly the game was very enjoyable to play. I realized that I haven't actually written about inFamous yet (I played it way before starting this blog) so I will touch it a bit as I go.What I remember of it anyway. In short, inFamous 2 is a direct sequel which in video game terms often means "improved version of the first" and I have to say that this is mostly true - again.

1. Being an electric man

Much of the strength of inFamous comes from factors that are very similar to Assassin's Creed. It allows the player to feel how it is like to be a superhero. This is achieved through efficient controls and design of powers that are simple to use yet highly impressive. Curiously the greatest feeling of power in inFamous is not how easily the player can defeat enemies but the various methods that allow them to travel across the city rapidly. It is a game where movement has been made highly enjoyable. Indeed out of somewhat similar games, only Mirror's Edge clearly surpasses inFamous whereas games like Assassin's Creed fall behind. Of course the comparison is a bit unfair - the protagonist Cole McGrath has a handful of movement-related superpowers after all. The biggest mistake in the original game was to give out these powers quite slowly. In inFamous 2, Cole starts with all movement powers from the first game.

He does get even more powerful movement abilities towards the end of the game though. In addition to being able to float in the air and "grind" (move very quickly, like on rails) on electric wires, by the end Cole can launch himself high into the air and use a lightning-themed grappling hook. I actually have no idea how one would do this stuff with electricty (the launch is ice-based though) but it doesn't really matter. What matters is how effectively the player can guide Cole through the city. In a sense it is these feats of movement that truly make Cole feel like a superhero. This is partly due to the surprisingly unimaginative design of combat powers. My biggest issue with the first game was that most of Cole's combat powers worked exactly like firearms. You have your pistol-like basic projectiles, electric grenades and electric rockets (with or without guidance).

inFamous 2 is not much better in this respect. New combat powers are mostly variations of old ones and while they are satisfying to use (especially the redirect rockets) they don't convey the feeling of electricity as well as they could. Sure, electricity courses through steel fences and instantly kills enemies standing in water but that is more or less all there is to it. Although combat powers themselves are perhaps the weakest link in this "electric man simulation", fueling them again enhances the experience; Cole gains his energy and health back by draining it out of nearby electric devices and power sources. This means that the game has an abundance of recovery available. More on this in the next section.I really don't know how electricty-based powers should work, but I'd imagine they would be quite a bit less controllable than firearms.

2. Combat pacing and healing

One interesting topic about game design is how healing affects the overall experience of combat in the game. In the past most games were exercises of sparing limited healing resources and this created a certain suspense but also caused some frustrating save/load sessions. The modern approach on the other hand is to allow players to regain health by simply resting for a while. This approach makes damage less permanent. Neither approach is very realistic, but that is the way of getting damage in combat. The tabletop RPG Hunter: The Reckoning makes a valid point: if a character actually gets injured from a weapon, they often spend weeks or months in the hospital bed. In a tabletop roleplaying game this can be made to work, but obviously it is not very desirable in action packed video games.

This means that once again we can disregard realism. Realism is overrated anyway. Both approaches have their uses, and indeed both are still present in modern games - the resting approach is just much more common. The issue with that approach is that it leaves out the suspense element entirely. It is simply not possible to use limited access to healing as a game design element because healing is ubiquitously available to the player. In inFamous, healing is abundant but not ubiquitous. The city is usually full of sources of electricity - often healing is just around the corner or even already in sight. Indeed, if the player has upgraded Cole's drain speed, he can become almost invulnerable if connected to an infinite power source. Infinite power sources are only available in a few specific missions. However this does mean that Cole can actually heal under gunfire.

Searching for power sources is usually not a desperate effort but rather like pit-stopping during a fight. Just a quick drain and off again. To counterbalance the abundance of healing, Cole actually takes quite a bit of damage from enemies. Staying in open space for too long is quite deadly. This means that the player's health changes very rapidly; taking damage is fast and so is healing. This also translates into how combat flows in the game. When combined with all the movement-related powers, the combat experience is one where the player changes position constantly - hiding to quickly recharge, and popping up from an unexpected direction to unleash a burst of electricity. Cole can easily take out a bunch of enemies quickly if they haven't spread out - but if they have, the player has to switch positions rapidly.

The system works fairly well because no one has a lot of health. At least not in the beginning. The game drops the ball a bit towards the end when it introduces rank-and-file enemies that can take way too much punishment before they drop. The game doesn't really need this either - the increase in difficulty could have been achieved by increasing numbers, or using nastier enemy positioning.


At its base, inFamous 2 is a fairly typical modern game. It uses a lot of the same tropes that are becoming ubiquitous and adds its own twists. Where the game succeeds is in creating the superhero experience for the player. Superpowers in the game are enjoyable to use, although some of them are rather unimaginative re-themings of familiar concepts. As a sequel it is a pretty straightforward iteration in the sense that it has more refined game mechanics. While better as a game, I felt that storywise it was rather lacking. The first game had an interesting story - the sequel really can't keep up to any expectations. I also found the npc role reversal in the final mission of the game a bit cheap. A very minor spoiler here: the bad npc is your ally in the good final mission while the good npc is your ally in the evil version. It felt a bit like they wanted to do a twist so badly, but they really couldn't come up with anything even remotely credible.

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