Saturday, January 14, 2012

Motion Comic the Video Game: inFAMOUS

I don't know if you can put a price on having your credit card information potentially hacked, but Sony seems to think that if you could, it would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 digital games. The great data breach of '11 may have been a hell of an inconvenience for a lot of people, but for me it meant getting a new debit card and enjoying a bunch of free stuff from a conciliatory company. In days of yore, the ancestors of the Sony executives would commit ritual seppuku to restore their honor. In this modern age, we settle for a free download of inFAMOUS.

Though if they still want to disembowel themselves, we'll understand.

I initially began playing the game almost as soon as it was installed on my PS3, but a little more than halfway through, a higher calling beckoned. I had right around that time put out my intention to play through my Almost Got 'Em list. I was having a lot of fun with it, but I wanted to get a jump on Breath of Fire III to get myself going. So I let inFAMOUS rest, unfinished, while I played through other games for the blog.

That's right. I backlogged inFAMOUS because of The Backlog.

So, time passed, I made a pretty major life change which involved moving, and when I got settled in I spent most of game-playing energy on Breath of Fire III. While in the process of beating it, I made a decision that would directly impact my decision to go finish inFAMOUS.

I started playing Final Fantasy XI again.

And quickly discovered nothing makes me want to go back to single-player games faster than some good ol' FFXI.

The story there is that Ayn and I had been discussing the game a lot, which has undergone some fairly drastic changes in the couple years since I had last seen Vana'diel. All that talk combined with a great Steam deal and a little bit of free time led me to wonder what it would be like to team up with Ayn and have a series of hilarious buddy-cop adventures together. Unfortunately, right around the time I first logged back in was right when Ayn decided he was too old for this shit.

And after I saved him from that toilet bomb.

So while the new iteration of Final Fantasy XI might be a vast improvement in some ways, it's not really all that fun if you don't have a dedicated group of friends to play with. Finding nothing of note in the land of MMOs, I decided to pick up where I'd left off with Cole McGrath and the twisted, ruined, blighted landscape he roams, known as Empire City.

inFAMOUS is another in a long line of games which takes advantage of the kind of game mechanics first made popular by the PS2-defining Grand Theft Auto III. Only instead of using various kinds of firearms to assault mobsters, hookers, police officers, and civilians, you use lightning to assault freakish mutant gangs (and potentially hookers, police officers, and civilians).

Our story begins with Transporter-esque Cole McGrath is tasked with delivering a package with unknown contents. Smack in the middle of Empire City, the thing suddenly lights up and vaporizes a few city blocks and a statistically significant portion of the city's population. Cole wakes up days later to discover that whatever was in that package (later revealed to be the mysterious and coveted Ray Sphere) might have killed everybody else around it, but it's given him the ability to harness the power of electricity. Unfortunately, it also resulted in all the power in Empire City being knocked out and the government quarantining the city. So, everybody's trapped inside rolling in each others stink, and their only hero is allergic to water.

Cole McGrath's version of a shower for the rest of his life.

Actually, that's not entirely true. Cole will start to rapidly lose health if he falls into shallow water, and instantly die if he touches the ocean, but if he's just standing in a puddle the worst that'll happen is you'll inadvertently fry whatever innocent civilian standing next to you - probably one who's part of an escort mission. Cole himself will be relatively unscathed, though.

So Cole, with his new-found powers, wanders a blighted urban landscape with a combination of electricity and parkour, struggling to make sense of what happened and hopefully set things right. Or not, if you just want to be a dick about things. The game lets you decide whether you want to take a good path, usually having something to do with helping citizens in need, or evil, where Cole just uses his powers for his own gain because fuck you society.

Fuck you with lightning.

The game also makes no attempt to infringe upon your ability to just electrocute the living hell out of whatever you see. And not just the people, though even if you follow the "good" path they're a somewhat inevitable target, frequently wandering right into the middle of massive firefights between hordes of explosives-toting psychopaths and the guy shooting lightning down on them. No, this game lets you blow up pretty much anything you might think of as flammable, sometimes in ways that set off chain reactions. More than once I found out that the law of unintended consequences can sometimes mean the destruction of a city block can stem from harmless fun like trying to flip a police car on top of a moving truck.

Now, if you do choose to go the good and honorable route and be a real superhero, the people will turn to your side and begin throwing rocks and bottles at people attacking you, which can actually be pretty useful. I didn't play through the evil side, but I imagine if you do so, they probably throw things at you, at the police shoot at you instead of the bad guys.

Being good or evil will unlock certain missions for you to run through in each part of Liberty - sorry, Empire City. Completing a mission from one side will lock out ones from another. That's going to be an important point later in this post.

Anyway, I played through on the good path, unraveling the secrets of the Ray Sphere and the ruthless super-villains out to get it. Make no mistake, they are super-villains, and Cole is cast in the role of the reluctant comic book hero. He has a sidekick in the form of his overweight and not overly appealing cousin, Zeke, and a love interest, his girlfriend Trish. Trish becomes a little less interested in him when she discovered that his powers came from him causing the explosion which killed her sister.

Trish pops up every now and again to ask for Cole's help with some humanitarian-themed mission. Zeke hangs around trying to grab a piece of the spotlight his gravel-voiced, rock-bodied, super-powered cousin is in, which of course never leads to him making any bad decisions for his own gain.

Nope, no inferiority issues here.

Empire City is broken into three main islands, and each one is home to a different super-villain and their heinous bands of henchmen. Primary amongst them are The First Sons, which are led by the game's main villain, Kessler. Second to the First Sons are the Dust Men, garbage sack-wearing, troll-looking guys who follow Alden, the previous leader of the First Sons who got ousted by Kessler. Finally, the Reapers, our initial generic henchmen controlled by Sasha, who was a member of the First Sons until Kessler kicked her out. Though both of their stories tie into Kessler, Sasha and Alden both have their own complex backstories to resolve, and Sasha's in particular is left wide open for a role in the sequel.

I think a lot of her is left wide open.

Now, the story is a pretty well done. Between all the different people pulling Cole's electrified strings and his own internal conflict over how best to use his powers, we get a plot with many layers to it, and multiple levels to be explored. Put up against the backdrop of a city being enveloped in chaos and disorder, it's an interesting tale, but at its heart inFAMOUS is a very familiar story - a super-hero origin. The Ray Sphere is a radioactive lightning bolt, and it bit Cole right in his face.

Sucker Punch, the game's publisher, does its very best to make it clear that you're playing your way through a comic book. The cutscenes are all done in dramatic splash-panel format. Everything is presented in a single-frame drawing with comic-inspired artwork as Cole gives a voiceover explaining whatever relevant plot point the cutscene is there to illustrate. Primarily, they're usually along the lines of:

A) Cole has to learn to control his new powers.
B) Someone is in trouble and only Cole can save them.
C) Cole needs to make a decision about using his powers for himself or for others.
D) Cole is having a confrontation with a villain, or uncovering a piece of the mystery about how he go this powers.

So, again, this game is a comic book that you can play.

Also available as a video game you can read.

With that in mind, it plays really well. Once you get the hang of Cole's lightning blasts, shooting Reapers in the face becomes fun and rewarding. And by the face, I mean you get extra points towards unlocking new powers when you manage to actually shoot someone in the head. As the game goes on, Cole gains new powers as he absorbs massive amounts of electricity throughout the city. Each of these can be used for a variety of functions. The energy surge can blow opponents off their feet, or pick up cars and toss them at people. The precision blast can be used to snipe enemies from relatively safe distances, or take out turret positions without exposing yourself to a hail of gunfire.

Actually, now that I think about it, most of his powers have the application of either blowing up a vehicle, a person, or both.

Everything he passes over while gliding explodes.

Also, inFAMOUS utilizes a tutorial mechanic I've always appreciated in games. Rather than have you sit through a lengthy explanation of your new power or let you practice using it, they just thrust you into a situation where you have to use it correctly and let you sink or swim. None of Cole's powers are difficult to master if you just want to blast the shit out of things, but with some experience you can also get a lot of nuance out of them.

Pictured: Nuance.

Although I should mention, in what may or may not have been an intentional move by the designers, the best way to win a fight when you're surrounded is often to just climb up as high as you can go and rain lightning down upon the mortals below, like an angry god casting judgment. Standard higher ground tactics, or something more symbolic?

Also, one of his powers is transforming into a white bull.

The game also thinks up some creative applications for electric-based powers. For example, you can trail people at certain points by following their bio-electric signature to see where they've been. You can also read the impulses in people's brains to see their thoughts. Cole can use his powers to drain all the energy out of a person's body, using them as a battery to recharge himself, or shackled them to the ground in a way which relates to electricity not even a little bit, but, whatever, we'll let that one slide. He can also act as a super defibrillator, healing injured people on the streets (usually people you blew up in the first place) regardless of what their injury is.

"This should fix those six gunshot wounds."

For a game that I got as essentially a Hallmark card from Sony reading "Sorry we let all your shit get jacked," inFAMOUS really fit the bill as the sad-eyed puppy dog. The game is quick, fun, has an actually decent story to go with some great mechanics, and hit me with a twist ending I never saw coming. Not only that, but Cole waking up on the day of the final battle is honestly one of the most heartbreaking and touching scenes I've ever seen in a video game, and they accomplished it without having him say or do anything. I'd say more, but I don't want to spoil the moment if you haven't played. What I will say is that even after everything else that had happened up to that point, nothing got me more pumped up to go fight Kessler to the death than that moment before the final battle.

I hated this bastard more than GameFAQs guy.

The ending changes based on whether you did enough good or evil acts to fill up Cole's karma meter one way or the other. If you want to see both endings, you'll have to play through twice, which brings me back to the point I told you I'd get to earlier. In the industry, we call this a callback.

"...she was in a car with Engelbert Humperdinck. No, no. Yes."

I'm going to use this game to talk about something that bothers me occasionally. The idea of "replayability" in video games; meaning, how good a game is at making you want to play it again after you've already beat it. This concept has been around for as long as there have been games of any sort, but it's carried a special connotation in video games ever since a game called Chrono Trigger brought us the concept of New Game +.

How fitting that it was ahead of its time.

New Game + lets you start over from the beginning of a game with some kind of added benefit, usually letting you keep all your skills, levels, and/or weapons and items as you start over. In a game with a lot of paths to walk down, like Chrono Trigger, it's a great way to speed up running through the early parts again so you can reach the alternate endings. Plus, it can let you power through side quests and optional missions early in the game if you want, or even take on challenges you weren't strong enough for the first time around and didn't want to waste time with.
Ignoring the much stronger claim to replayability - that being games with no added bonuses upon beating it, it was just so good you want to do it again - a New Game + mode is a pretty solid way to do things. Also valid is the idea they use in inFAMOUS and other games, where you have to choose one of two or more parts of a branching story, and only by playing through again can you see what you missed. You still get a whole story, you just have to live with your choices and how they'll affect things. It's the video game version of choose your own adventure.

Saving your game = keeping your finger on the last page you were on.

You made a choice, you've gotta live with it. Ignoring the fact that you might want to just play it through again because you like it, the option of multiple endings to a game is one that increases replayability without actually forcing you to do anything unless you really want to. You still had the chance to enjoy the game fully, you just now have the option of enjoying it differently. Regardless of how you choose to play it through, you get the full experience every time.

But lately I've been seeing a few titles sneak in bits here and there where you can't do everything until after you've already beaten the game. In order to actually see the full narrative, go everywhere you're able to go, do everything there is to do, you've got to beat the game and start over. This isn't the same as with the decision-making games where you choose your own way forward. There are games out there where you can do absolutely everything the game allows you to do, not missing anything, and then find out that if you want the REAL ending you've got to start all over and do it again. Imagine if you rented a movie and instead of showing you the ending, it rolled credits an hour in and told you "Congratulations! You've unlocked [deleted scenes], [director commentary], and  [Hard Mode]. Go to the menu screen to choose new costumes!" Then you had to watch everything you'd just seen again to get to the real ending.

I guess they have at least dabbled with that idea.

That's not replayability. Replayability is when you play a game the whole way through and say "maybe this time I'll play through Suikoden with a completely different team." Or "this time, I'll win the Superbowl with the Detroit Lions." Or "This time I'll play through Skyrim as a Khajit, and go through the whole game completely drunk."
For those of you not familiar with the Elder Scrolls series, you can get your character drunk. Though I suppose you could try playing through any game you've already beaten blind drunk to see if it adds anything to the experience.

Or I guess play this sober?

Point being, a game should be replayable based on its own merits, not because the designers decided you need to.

All that said, inFAMOUS is great as a game, and just as good as a comic book where you turn the pages with a control pad. I fully intend to play through the sequel to get the rest of the story. First, however, there's a few other things on my agenda.

I'd intended to strike Suikoden III off of my "Almost Got 'Em" list and have that post ready to go, but emulating it didn't turn out to be as workable as I'd hoped. I grabbed my copy of it during a visit home, and I'll begin playing through that one soon. What I have been playing though, because I remembered I owned it and also that I apparently love the taste of my own anguished tears, is Demon's Souls. Expect something about that experience soon.

I've been keeping a busy schedule, so I need to get back to work. You, however, at least until next time, should keep playing.

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