Like all the best things – the universe, firework displays, people – inFamous starts with a bang. It happens, in real time, from within the start-up menu, which, before that point, has shown a relaxed corner of the game’s San Francisco-like setting, Empire City. It’s an attention-grabbing intro, and it leaves our hero (or anti-hero, more on which shortly) slightly crispy, and at the bottom of a very big hole.
Two apparently unrelated things then happen, as retold through the game’s brilliant, ink-splashed dynamic comic book cut-scenes. A plague sweeps across the city, turning the whole place into a crime-ridden disaster zone, and forcing the government to establish a quarantine. Mutated hooded gangs rule the streets, sanitation goes to hell, you can’t get a taxi anywhere – it’s awful. And, at the same time, Cole, our blast-surviving leading man, develops superpowers. Sparkly, electric ones.
It’s a classic setup, in comic terms – a great disaster, and the emergence of a new hero with the potential to set things right again. From start to finish, inFamous makes excellent, unflashy use of the superhero sensibility it borrows from the best graphic novels (think the twisted realism and moral intelligence of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen). It influences both the game’s tight plot, and also its ace, distinctive visuals, which mix the clean urban detail of GTA (grand skylines and gorgeous lighting) with a slightly fantastic cartoon edge (monstrous enemies and crackling powers).
The game’s not just a looker, it’s also structured really smartly, which sounds like a dull thing to be good at, but is actually crucial and brilliant. You start on a rooftop, the temporary home of your slacker buddy Zeke. At this point you can only do the basics. There’s a ‘simple’ lightning bolt, which you aim using circle and fire with R1 (your beginner’s pop-gun), a Force-style push triggered with X (which drains your electro-energy, unlike the basic zap), and climbing. Really good climbing.
It’s good in two ways: it’s super-powered, for one thing, so Cole can drop from any height without hurting himself, catch any ledge without finger-tip slipping, and scale just about any building (or giant industrial crane) in the city. And it’s also good because it feels brilliant, a lovely balance of speed, fluidity and looseness on the one hand, and path-finding challenge on the other.
There are occasional frustrations when the game wants to lock you onto the wrong piece of scenery, but it’s a muscular and liberating experience that makes Assassin’s Creed seem clumsy and Prince Of Persia feel like it’s running on autopilot. It’s also the element of inFamous that is most reminiscent of Sucker Punch’s creeping, cat-burgling PlayStation 2 series Sly Cooper. Like Insomniac moving from Ratchet & Clank to Resistance, and Naughty Dog from Jak And Daxter to Uncharted, inFamous sees another big Sony studio graduate from a previously cartoony world into a fully-fledged, grown-up adventure.
As you explore the world and strike up a relationship with mission-dealing FBI agent Moya, you’ll be given the location of electrical sub-stations that you need to reactivate. Head to the marker on your GTA-style mini-map, jump into the sewer and you’ll have a short pipe-and-platform obstacle course to run before juicing up a generator and restoring a portion of the city’s power grid. These sub-stations form the spine of the story missions, and each one you reactivate opens up new tasks and areas, plus a new power.