A huge shadow has been cast over Sony's upcoming Infamous -- and it's called Prototype. It's strange that two very similar games are coming out so close to each other. Both games involve learning superpowers in a post-apocalyptic, open-world environment, but Prototype seemingly has more hype due to the over-the-top nature of its presentation.
In spite of their similarities, the two games play very differently. Whereas Prototype has an immediate hook, Infamous is a more meticulous affair, taking its time to draw the player into its world. Prototype is more of a beat-em-up, with easy lock-ons and quick melee combos. Infamous, on the other hand, plays a lot like a traditional third-person shooter, with the slow progression of a RPG. It may be a bit less flashy than its competitor, but it has the potential to be far more substantial and rewarding.
The game starts with a bang -- literally. A massive explosion has torn apart Empire City, and the main protagonist, Cole, was somehow the cause of the explosion. In the following days, the government issues a quarantine on the city and gangs start taking over the remains of the city. Players take control of Cole days after the explosion, as the city's denizens try to survive the various super-powered gangs, fighting over whatever food can be found.
It's a dark world to deal with, but Cole won't be alone in this adventure. In the first minutes of the game, Cole must use his newfound electrical powers to help power his friend's rooftop generator. He'll escort another friend through a panicked Empire City to help find a gun using his electro-kinesis powers.
The abilities at Cole's disposal are rather simple at first, replicating the mechanics found in other first- and third-person shooters: throwing an electric bolt is like shooting a gun, pushing an electric shock is like using Half-Life 2's gravity gun, and throwing a grenade is ... like throwing a grenade. The one-to-one translation of Cole's powers to other common game mechanics is what most likely keeps Infamous looking rather uninspired.
Anyone familiar with FPS strategy will find it easy to transition into Infamous. Take precision shots with the lightning bolt and use the electric shock as you would a shotgun: up close, with a multitude of enemies. The grenades are sticky, so aiming them directly at enemy bodies is incredibly effective. Instead of finding ammo crates, Cole must find electricity. A meter at the top right indicates Cole's current electric charge. Although his default bolt won't drain his energy, all his other moves will, and Cole will want to keep an eye out for street lamps, car batteries and other sources of energy he can drain from. Electricity also represents Cole's health, meaning players will want to connect to the city's electrical grid as often as possible.
Sucker Punch has, for better or for worse, concealed many of the unique aspects of Infamous. Character development is something the team has not delved into, but the build we played at Comic Con revealed a rudimentary XP system. Each kill we earned awarded us with a few experience points (while stylish kills earned more). We also saw a bit more of the game's morality system in action. At the end of one level, Cole had to make a decision: whether or not to take a recent shipment of food for himself, or to give it to the masses. I chose the good route, leaving the food alone, only to have a radio broadcast call for my death. (Apparently, people don't trust guys with mutant powers.) I ran away from the angry mob, although the more "evil" approach would've been to simply slaughter everyone in sight.
The ramifications of these actions are unclear at this point, but it shouldn't be too far a stretch to assume that experience points and morality choices shape the powers that Cole develops. The Comic Con demo then jumps about 70% into the game, and here we were able to see how significantly Cole has developed. He has a new gliding ability, and his attacks hit with so much force, they feel like completely different abilities than what we used earlier. While in the beginning of the game, Cole can simply push a car out of the way, this new area shows how Cole can force back massive flying fireballs with relative ease. He even takes on much more interesting enemies, like the mech pictured at the top of this article. The sequence we saw at Comic Con was filled with absolute chaos: dozens of enemies fighting each other, with a giant robot fixated on your destruction. Tons of explosions and particles filled the screen in a fight more epic than anything we've seen from this game so far.
Infamous still doesn't have that instantly likable appeal of Prototype, but it certainly has the potential to deliver the same kind of visceral, rewarding feel. Right now, Infamous is a game that meets, but doesn't exceed, technical competence across the board: combat, movement, visuals and presentation are all very solid. How Sucker Punch decides to elaborate on morality and character growth may determine the difference between Infamous being an adequate experience, or a truly memorable one. Considering the developer's fine track record on PS2, we're hopeful it'll be able to deliver.