Grand Theft Auto all but invented the open-world sandbox gameplay model. There have been a lot of pretenders, looking to claim the crown of the best in this fledgling genre, but few have come close to Rockstar's opus... until now.
inFamous opens with vague recollections of some sort of massive detonation - our hero, handily played by you, is at the center of the blast. Yet, unlike many others in the area, he's not dead - in fact, he seems to have... powers...
And so is introduced one of the most exciting, polished and entertaining games of the year. It's only May and already there's a strong candidate for Game of the Year and it's exclusive to the PlayStation 3.
You take control of an everyman called Cole. His unremarkable existence just became remarkable, thanks to powers imbued by the aforementioned cataclysm. He was already a formidable free runner, able to traverse the city in ways most of us could only dream about. Now he can control electricity itself, flinging bolts of juice around like so much left over candy. He can throw out blasts of physics forces, too, causing objects to explode or fly around as if they were discarded, day-old newspapers caught in a Wellington wind. That's not all - there are numerous powers and improvements to existing powers to unlock as you progress.
Like most modern games, there's a progression and improvement structure built in. Killing enemies or performing many other acts in the game earns you XP - unlike most XP-related games, however, you don't use XP to level up. Instead, it's like a form of currency - you use it to purchase upgrades to your abilities through the pause menu (abilities themselves will normally be unlocked via story progression).
You power most of your abilities through the acquisition of electricity. You can get more of the stuff from anything in the game that is powered - clicking the left stick in will bring nearby electrified objects to your attention. This mechanic drives much of the story, as players will need to ensure sections of the city are powered up if they want to be effective in there - Cole doesn't like hanging out in blacked out parts of town.
If you've been thinking GTA up until now, there's a major part of the game missing in inFamous - vehicles. They're there, of course, it's a city - you just don't ever steal or ride in any. Instead, Cole gets around by clambering over the buildings themselves - and he's quite the accomplished free runner. The system used to negotiate precarious ledges and pipes covering the various buildings in the city is nothing short of exceptional. At no point do you feel you can't get somewhere and yet it's not so simple as to be pointless button mashing. You have to look and think about what you're doing, but the ability to move in the air combined with the soft-locking system will keep you on track.
Jump from a distance to a pipe and Cole will slide down it for a bit, really selling the fact that you just leapt between buildings. You'll never die if you fall (or even take damage), thanks to Cole's powers, but the snazzy presentation technique of tweaking the field of view when you look (or fall) down still makes you feel vulnerable as you "Spider-Man" your way around.
Enemies in the game start off as the regular gun-wielding variety, easily dispatched by a jolt of electricity. Shooting in this way is much like any third-person shooter, with an over-the-shoulder camera triggered by pulling in L1, then bolts of electricity sent out by pulling R2. You can also hit X while zoomed in to trigger a shockwave (the aforementioned physics force that pushes things away from you) and later upgrades include energy grenades, which consume quite a bit of your stored electricity. Fortunately, by finding broken fragments of a power source as you negotiate the city, you can upgrade the amount of electrical charge you can hold at any one time.
More advanced foes, like the Conduit, really take advantage of the game engine's graphical effects, which are already used to good effect in the game. The Conduit, should you let him, will send a devastating surge of energy through the ground towards you, ripping up the earth and doing massive damage should you stand there and take the hit. He'll also warp around the place to keep you on your toes.
Once enemies are knocked down, you can close in on them and use one of your touch abilities - you can essentially handcuff them with electrical energy, preventing them from escape but not killing them, which earns you good karma. Alternatively, you can drain their life force to return energy to you but doing so will earn you bad karma. You can do the same thing to regular citizen NPCs, even healing them (apparently jolts of electricity are good for what ails ya) - if you want to...
Karma determines whether you are good or evil and has a big part to play in how the game plays out. Be too much of a bad guy and the citizens will throw rocks at you. Be too much of a good guy and your real-life girlfriend will dump you for a lumberjack. Additionally, whether you're good or bad will affect which power upgrades you can use, along with which side quests you can perform and how NPCs will react to your presence.
Graphically, if you're looking at screenshots, it can seem a little dull - low detail geometry, no anti-aliasing and low resolution textures abound - particularly in the vehicles, which we're used to looking pretty spangly. In motion, however, it's mostly very good - there are so many post-effects employed, particularly during certain story sequences, that the environments come to life. They're also littered with trash and many parts of the scene will blow to pieces in the middle of a firefight. It's far better looking than something like Mercenaries 2, for example, and gives GTA a run for its money as well. The cutscenes, whilst a little out of place, look good in their own right. Max Payne-style comic book sequences suit the feel of the game no problem, they just seem... odd... compared to most modern action games.
Fun, however, is one place inFamous is not even slightly lacking. Whatever you're doing, be it questing for an NPC or just cruising around pretending to be everyone's favorite web slinger, inFamous is FUN! The combination of character animation, abilities (including being able to target enemies from over the edge of an obstacle, the simple cover system, surviving a fall from any height and so much more), super powers, enemies, visual style and controls is, well, exemplary. At no point will you find yourself bored or thinking of anything else - in fact, while you're not playing inFamous, you'll be thinking about it and itching to get back in front of the television.
In a nutshell, then, inFamous is amazing. The feeling of "ability" engendered by the game's openness and the soft-lock system that allows you to go exactly where you want to and land precisely where you intended is genre-defining. All other developers of games like this - here is your template, copy it like FPS developers once copied Halo. Add in super powers, the ability to be good or evil, a rich environment, killer story, solid characters and a fun-as-hell city to traverse and, well, you have the best game on PS3. Bar none. Period.
Any other games vying for the crown of Game of the Year 2009 pay attention - there's a new kid in town and he means business.