The city of New Marais is under the thumb of a totalitarian dictator, and desperate for a hero to lead its people to freedom. Meanwhile, swamp monsters have invaded the city. There’s also the matter of the incurable plague that has devastated much of the Eastern sea board. And, oh yeah, there’s an unstoppable monster known only as "The Beast" that is on its way towards the city.
Perhaps Sucker Punch should have stuck to just two or three plot threads to ratchet up the tension in its superhero sandbox sequel. Like many sequels, InFamous 2 is bloated and unfocused, but in its ambitious attempts to do a lot, it almost pulls it off. The original InFamous was well-received by critics and audiences, despite its bland central character and general lack of refinement. Now, Cole McGrath has more challenges, more responsibility, more powers, and a bigger city, and yet the game still feels largely unfocused and rushed.
Players who finished the first game can import trophies, blast shards, and karma from the previous game, and the story continues just as seamlessly. After seemingly saving Empire City – or watching it burn if you chose the evil path – the prophesised Beast arrives and promptly kicks Cole’s butt while wiping out the metropolis. Thanks for all of your hard work in the first game, folks, because in the opening few minutes it's all rendered moot. Now Cole must head down to New Marais to earn new powers and prepare himself to the fight The Beast once again. On his journey, he’ll meet sidekicks Lucy Kuo, a former NSA agent, and Nix, a vengeful New Marais native.
Just as Empire City stood in for New York City, InFamous 2;s New Marais is New Orleans in all but name. You start off in the glitzy neon-streets of the sinful section of town, where you can grind and hop while battling the Militia, the jingoist army that has taken over the city. From there, you'll later unlock its partially flooded section – I don’t know how victims of Katrina will react to this, but Sucker Punch, what the hell? – before moving on to its industrial area.
InFamous 2 stumbles where so many sandbox games have before: its later areas are the least fun to navigate and generally more annoying. Cole can jump on telephone wires and quickly traverse rooftops with some clever parkour moves and a healthy use of his static floating ability. Why would you then create areas without telephone wires, without rooftops, and where he's mostly on foot? Instead of being challenging, the later areas seem to be from a different game.
Sucker Punch built a large and open world and gave Cole lots of interesting powers but never figured out how the two should interact. The city's attention to detail is admirable, but trading out the urban jungle gym of Empire City for the dank swamps, flooded buildings, and largely uniform industrial areas of New Marais was a major mistake. Superhero games are at their best when they are free and fun to explore. It's unfortunate that much of New Marais is restrictive and, unsurprisingly given recent history, quite sad.
There are very few distractions to keep you away from the 40 core story missions. The side missions are often just people telling you to go beat up person X or find object Y. The limited creativity here is understandable due to Sucker Punch and Sony's decision to allow players to create content to supplement the game’s content. The build I played wasn't able to access said content, which explains why the map felt a bit spare, but I question the wisdom of assuming that every player will indulge in the user-generated missions.
Many critics complained that inFamous’s combat became repetitive quickly. As a result, inFamous 2 has many more weapons, but they tend to get repetitive quickly and always feel clunky. The new "amp" melee weapon is actually a frustrating addition because the camera seems to have no idea what to do with it: in a given combat sequence you can be swinging your melee weapon in eight different directions and hit practically nothing because you have no idea what you're aiming at.
For all of my criticism of the weaponry, it’s still fun to jump around and unleash elemental hell on your enemies. The new weapons largely just augment your current ones rather than explore new areas of destruction. Nix's fire and oil powers can incapacitate enemies to make frying them easier, while Lucy's ice powers can freeze them in place. The new ion storm ability is a visual wonder; in a tight spot you can unleash a mini tornado that rips through everything and leaves behind noticeable destruction.
As the game's plot gets going, the morality play at the centre of Cole MacGrath's heart is far less interesting than the weird historical revisionism going on in the background. Aside from overtly referencing the tragedies that befell New Orleans – yes, both the BP oil spill and hurricane are mentioned – there’s also an odd subtext about the looming "Beast" that is slowly marching South.
The sidekicks that Sony was promoting prior to the game's release are supposed to be your moral guides – one good, one evil. The problem is that they're both annoying – one fragile and boring, the other homicidal and stereotypical. The choice between good and evil isn't only black and white, it's between fun and not.
Playing "evil" means you’ll get to pack a trolley cart with explosives and throw it at a mansion full of baddies. You can also beat up protesters, rough up the police, abuse panhandlers, and train an army of monsters to follow you. In comparison, the good side will free police officers before carefully planning...sorry, I fell asleep just writing that sentence. You can stop muggings, heal people, and stop bombs from going off. And in the pursuit of saving people, you’ll inevitably injure a few of them. Being good really sucks.
InFamous 2 is a hard game to hate, but an even tougher game to acclaim. It has great set pieces, some compelling powers that really do make you feel like a superhero, and the ability for users to create their own missions also means the game has room to grow. But the problems with InFamous 2 are more than just the result of raised expectations and an over-filled plate.
The missions are unimaginative, navigation issues prevent you from ever attaining a movement rhythm, and the various narratives are a mess. But worse still, the combat isn’t as tight as it could be and the world itself just seems less polished than its predecessor. Yet, for those moments when the game shines, it shines brightly.