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Joystiq Review: inFamous

Okay, right at the top, let's get this out of the way -- electricity control is a terrible superpower. Sure, it's flashy, and makes for a great video game mechanic, but any crime fighter who could easily be bested by Dry Rubber Shoes Man simply shouldn't be tasked with the vigilant protection of a city and its inhabitants.

Despite this obvious weakness, Sucker Punch's open-world action opus, inFamous, has a lot going for it. Rather than tumbling into the pitfalls often visited by sandbox action games (too repetitive, poorly balanced difficulty, no sense of direction, non-existent story), it takes the road less traveled, exhibiting an extraordinary amount of polish and attention to detail.

As a result, Sucker Punch has crafted a game that I feel comfortable labeling "the greatest superhero game I've ever played."

Gallery: inFamous: Sony Gamer Day 2009 Images | 33 Photos

Let's not argue semantics -- it's totally a superhero game. In it, you play as a superhero (or supervillain). The fact that your digital do-gooder (or evildoer) isn't on loan from the hallowed halls of DC or Marvel Comics doesn't diminish his supernatural properties. In fact, playing as a non-licensed superperson is surprisingly refreshing. His quirks and history haven't been set in canonical stone by Bendises, Eisners and Vaughans. I found myself becoming quickly invested in my hero, referring to him by a superalias of my own invention, which was, of course, Professor Sparkington.

Remember that short-lived Kids WB cartoon, Static Shock? The rules of Sparky's powers are similar -- you have a number of electricity-based powers at your disposal (such as a basic bolt of electricity, a force push-esque attack, shock grenades and storm control), though to keep yourself juiced up, you'll need to keep an eye out for electrically powered objects you can drain. Draining these objects also restores your health, so you'll probably find yourself with an inexplicable affection for phone booths and car batteries by the time you reach inFamous' credits.

The greatest superhero game I've ever played.

As fun as using these powers are (especially when linked together in devastating combos), simply traveling around Empire City (the game's post-apocalyptic setting) is a blast. Any building can be scaled with the greatest of ease thanks to the protagonist's innate magnetism to ledges. Early in the game, you'll gain the ability to grind on power cables and train tracks. The first time you take out an enemy out while doing so will probably trigger pleasure centers in your brain that you didn't even know you had.

The movement and combat blend together with remarkable fluidity. In one swift motion, you'll grind across a power line (zapping enemies below), plummet to the ground (releasing an energy wave upon impact), hurl a few enemies into the air and shoot them down like clay pigeons, roll behind a car and drain it, and take out the remaining baddies with shock grenades. Hop onto a train track, and grind forth to even pimper encounters.

As far as sandbox settings go, Empire City isn't all that fleshed out. You won't find yourself entering any buildings in search of hee-larious Easter Eggs -- your adventures will be limited to rooftops, streets, alleys and sewers. Still, there's something enticing about how Empire is molded by your virtuous/nefarious actions. Neighborhoods are revived as you restore their power. Citizens come to your defense if you spend your days protecting them. Should you fill your schedule with their systematic murder, you'll find their reaction to be less than favorable.

The game is broken up into story missions and side quests. There's around a dozen types of these optional tasks, some of which are really cool (manage to board a turret-equipped bus of death without, you know, dying) and a couple of which are pace-disrupting and tedious (climb all over my building for 15 minutes, destroying tiny surveillance drones). Thankfully, the former group far outweighs the latter.

Another strength garnered by being a non-licensed superhero game: inFamous doesn't have to cater to fan service. As such, its story doesn't conform to the "Monster of the Week" format often subscribed to by other comic book adaptations. In other words, the game doesn't bombard you with mini-arcs involving dozens of antagonists -- it has a single, cohesive, incredibly engaging storyline, which is aided by the game's gorgeous graphic novel-esque cutscenes.

Outside of these missions, there's still plenty to do in Empire City. Collecting Battery Shards which are dispersed throughout the city increases your maximum power. You can seek out "dead drops" which give you a bit more backstory on the game's ancillary characters. Chasing down the game's many collectibles (and trophies) will likely let the player squeeze about 30 hours of enjoyment out of inFamous. Double that, should you decide to play through it again as a character of opposite morals.

A few slight hiccups disrupt the seamless weave of action and motion Sucker Punch has crafted, the most puzzling of these being the extremely sparing use of music during gameplay. The rare, tedious side missions are made all the more unbearable when performed to near silence. The badass moments don't reach their badass zenith due to a lack of accompaniment. Also, Sparky's ledge magnetism doesn't always work as you might like, adhering you to a windowsill in the midst of an intense timed mission.

Still, these don't do much to tarnish an altogether brilliant gaming experience. The cityscape is beautiful, and free of load times and pop-ups. The plot is gripping and well paced. The gameplay is fluid, frantic and entirely enjoyable. The animations are butter smooth. The character and power progression is engrossing.

However, in light of these achievements, inFamous' greatest contribution to the sandbox genre is how it finally gives an explanation as to why its protagonist can't swim.

(He's full of electricity. Duh.)

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