Infamous 2 review: A study in power

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Infamous 2 review: A study in power
Video games with super-powered protagonists must be a pretty sticky wicket for developers. Make your hero -- or totally rotten villain -- too weak, and they won't tear through crowds of the un-powered with satisfying gusto. Make them too strong, however, and they'll tear through them with unsatisfying ease. If the many, many superhero titles that accidentally tumble into these two unfortunate paradigms are any indication, the sweet spot between these two boundaries is extraordinarily thin.

Infamous 2 integrates a number of minor improvements to its already polished predecessor, but it's biggest change might also be its most imperceptible. Moreso than in Infamous the First, Cole MacGrath has found the happy medium between strength and vulnerability. He finds his electrical equilibrium from his very first step into the lively playground of New Marais -- and, perhaps more impressively -- maintains that balance for the millions of steps that follow.
%Gallery-118056%Much of that balance is built upon Cole's core set of abilities from Infamous, which are available for your use (or misuse) from Infamous 2's outset. That's not the only thing that's carried over -- upon starting the game, you can import your Trophy data from the first installment, affecting your starting Karma, XP and a few in-game quests. Apparently, those civilians you let starve to death in Empire City? They have family in New Marais, and they're none too pleased.

Furious familial relations aside, New Marais is an extremely appealing stomping grounds, with distinct districts that set themselves apart without leaning on Infamous' system of same-seeming street corners and color-coded enemies. They run the gamut from swampland slums to high-rise condominiums, from flooded wards to seedy, sex-fueled red light districts -- the latter includes a game-themed porno theater, the marquee for which prominently features surefire classics like "Hey, Low Reach!" and "Uncharted Love."

You'll clamber across every square inch of New Marais in search of as many supernatural weapons as you can find to topple The Beast; a ten-story titan who, in the opening moments of Infamous 2, reduces Empire City to rubble. For a majority of the game, The Beast isn't the party responsible for terrorizing Cole and Co. -- that much is achieved well enough by New Marais' xenophobic, well-armed militia -- though an ever-present countdown lets you know how many miles stand between you and certain annihilation.

Your new, Beast-stomping powers are earned in a number of ways. Some are simple rewards for completing story missions, though a majority come from Infamous 2's much-improved power unlock system. Each power feels important, by virtue of the fact that they're something of a chore to acquire. There are three steps to the process:

  1. Powers are discovered by reaching a certain point in the story or a particular Karmic level.
  2. Those powers become available to purchase by fulfilling a stunt requirement -- i.e., perform 10 headshots, or by pushing five enemies off of rooftops.
  3. Finally, each power is then purchased using XP, which is distributed for performing stunts and completing missions.

Infamous 2 toes a perfect line between too-strong and too-puny, between human and superhuman, between risk and restraint.

It might be prohibitively convoluted if each power weren't so darn desirable. They're split into variations on subcategories this time around -- bolts, grenades, melee attacks with the new "Amp" weapon, and so on -- which you can equip on-the-go using a handy, one-button quick swap function. The variations are stark enough to merit compulsive collecting; for example, bolts now come in the split-shot, rapid fire and long-distance flavors. It's not just variety for variety's sake; each situation calls for a different application of these powers to claim victory over your evenly matched foes.

The real stars of the show are the new travel abilities, many of which focus on getting Cole over tall buildings in fewer bounds than were once required in Infamous Prime. Instead of laboriously climbing from perch to perch, Cole can now propel himself off of exploding cars, shoot himself into the air on a pillar of ice, gain an extra few feet from his improved hover ability or -- your soon-to-be favorite innovation -- can drag himself towards any distant point using the new, ingenious Lightning Tether ability.

Even this is well-balanced -- if Cole could up and fly to his every destination, all of his other travel powers would become forfeit. When used in tandem, however, these new mechanics give Infamous 2 some of the most enjoyable locomotion ever introduced to the open-world action genre.

You'll master Infamous 2's unique rhythm of motion as you grind between hunting for collectibles (Dead Drops and energy-boosting Blast Shards make a triumphant return) and completing missions. There's around 12 hours worth of primary missions this time around -- each of which make excellent use of the game's distinct set pieces and new abilities -- and around twice as many secondary missions. Like in the first game, most of these sidequests are cut from a dozen-or-so recurring molds, but there's a few surprises thrown in the mix to break up the repetition. Surprises like vengeful family members.

There's also roughly infinity user-generated missions, which can be created and encountered seamlessly while you play through the campaign. These feel a little chintzy when compared to their pre-made counterparts, but the tools upon which they're built seem to have endless creative applications. One Sucker Punch-developed UGC mission you'll discover allows you to use your powers to play Skee-Ball, which, it should be noted, is more difficult than actual Skee-Ball.

Unfortunately, some of Infamous 2's new features don't meet their bulletpoint expectations. For one thing, though unscripted, city-wide boss fights have been a highly publicized feature of this sequel, you'll really only come across one of them during the main campaign. Sure, many of your foes are towering behemoths -- though almost all of your fights against them tightly scripted, and pinned to a singular location.

And then there's Kuo and Nix, the two diametrically opposite female leads which represent a majority of the game's good and evil decisions. They're exceedingly well-acted and well-written characters, which you'll spend the first half of the game familiarizing yourself with until you inevitably are forced to decide between them. Once you do, though, they both inexplicably, disappointingly disappear from the narrative arc for a majority of the game's second half.

Morality is also still a troublingly binary decision, though it has a much larger impact on your playstyle this time around. Good and evil characters are functionally inverse, each of which earning around ten unique powers based on their ethical disposition. It works, but it still feels like the game is sidestepping the issue of moral ambiguity -- save for the game's very last Karmic decision, which is a philosophical doozy.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely -- though that saying's not exactly applicable in the world of inFamous, where maintaining your Karmic positivity is as simple as doing all the green quests. However, other entries in the superhero genre serve as incontestable evidence that absolute power actually corrupts itself. When a hero's suite of supernatural abilities reach levels of god-like potency, it strips those abilities of their context when compared to the plight of mere mortals. If you'll forgive the circuitousness: It strips those powers of their power.

Infamous 2 toes a perfect line between too-strong and too-puny, between human and superhuman, between risk and restraint. It halfheartedly delivers on a few of its promises, but its shortcomings are far outweighed by this one stellar achievement: It knows how to make you feel powerful.

This review is based on a retail PS3 copy of Infamous 2 provided by Sony Computer Entertainment.
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