Aftershock: InFAMOUS 2 Makes No Sense, And It Ruins The Game
“Aftershock” is a recurring feature column on Game Front. We take games we’ve already reviewed, and give them a sober second look once the post-launch dust has settled.
One of the biggest problems in gaming is that the people who write a game’s story are quite often not actually good writers. This isn’t a problem with puzzlers or platformers, where the point is tooling around and having adventures. But when the game intends to be epic in scale, and the developers fumble the ‘epic’ part, it can ruin an otherwise great game.
InFAMOUS 2 is a most excellent example of the problem.
In his review of InFAMOUS 2, Gamefront’s Phil Owen rightly praised the game for being, in almost every way that counts, a vast improvement over InFAMOUS. And he was right to do so. The powers, missions, environments, morality choices and character interactions, practically everything was just better. But not everything. Phil mentioned the ‘convoluted’, ‘poorly told’ story in passing, but indicated that despite that, the game largely doesn’t suffer. Having played my way through both endings of InFAMOUS 2, I disagree strongly.
The story for the InFAMOUS series is, truthfully, as convoluted and silly as Phil says. But there’s good convoluted, and bad convoluted. The good kind works like, say, the 2009 reboot of Star Trek. Somehow it just works and leaves you wanting more. That is of course the essence of the kind of comic books InFAMOUS apes. Who cares if there’s 50 different kinds of Kryptonite? Who care if Peter Parker’s teachers keep turning into bad guys? The rule of cool prevails and besides, at least they have forward momentum.
But the bad kind of convoluted? It leaves you feeling frustrated and, frankly, like you wasted your time. InFAMOUS 2 in a nutshell. The fact that when you reach the end, it makes no sense at all deals a mortal blow to its replay value and nearly ruins a nearly-great game.
To understand why this is, we need to discuss the actual story in detail. WARNING: Major Spoilers.
In InFAMOUS, Cole Macgrath is blessed/cursed with fantastic super powers, granted to him under mysterious circumstances. That’s good news for his city, currently suffering from a plague that has killed thousands, not to mention the arm strange mutants causing problems for the survivors. Cole steps up to defend the city, aided in his quest by an undercover NSA agent. Eventually, Cole meets the game’s big bad, ‘Kessler’. They battle, the undercover NSA agent ends up dying when he tries to destroy the device that gave Cole his powers., and Cole defeats Kessler in the final boss battle.
All run of the mill stuff until we get The Big reveal: Kessler is actually Cole-himself, having travled back in time from an Alternate future. Da-Da-DAAAAAAAAH.
In that timeline, Cole was granted the same powers he endures during the events of InFamous. However, instead of using those powers to attack enemies and/or defend his city, he fled with his wife and kids, choosing to avoid becoming involved in superheroics whatsoever. No big deal, until the arrival of The Beast, a being of immense destructive power, who proceeds to lay that timeline’s world to waste. By the time alternate-future Cole decides to become involved, it’s too late. He loses everything, including his family, and the earth is, apparently doomed.
However, much like current-timeline Cole, alternate-future Cole constantly unlocked new powers; at that moment, he developed the ability to travel through time. He then took a one-way trip into the past, to many years before he had originally received his powers. There, he conspired to give himself his powers earlier, and under harsher circumstances, in order to better prepare himself to battle The Beast, when the time comes. Said preparation includes killing Cole’s girlfriend off so that he won’t have anyone he values more than saving the world.
Follow me so far? Convoluted, yes, but this information, given to you right at the very end, has the effect of making everything that came before it seem much more awesome in retrospect. Not only do you have the destroyed-future scenario, you also have the impending threat of a giant monster from hell (or something), and the hint that Cole is going to have to become a hell of a lot more powerful in order to survive. It’s a perfect sequel-hook and the only reason, aside from Phil’s review of course, that I became extremely interested in playing InFAMOUS 2.
So, far, so good, right?
In InFAMOUS 2, the story picks up almost exactly from where InFAMOUS left off. The city has been destroyed by the plague, and Cole is in the process of fleeing with his best friend and a new ally, another NSA agent named Kuo. Before they can get out, The Beast suddenly materializes as a 500 foot tall giant humanoid with super flame powers. Cole can’t kill him, so he and his crew get the hell out. They go to the InFAMOUS universe’s version of New Orleans, where the plan is to learn more about how Cole’s powers work, pump him up with even greater powers, and get him strong enough to defeat The Beast. Who, by the way, is now marching across the United States on his way to Cole’s current location, predictably laying the country to waste in the process.
Awesome! Violent! We can’t wait to find out what happens! Unfortunately it’s at this moment the story begins to fall apart. I won’t get into every single detail, but here is the Cliff’s Notes version:
* We learn that Super powered individuals have a genetic predisposition, called the ‘conduit gene’. When they’re exposed, as Cole was, to a specific type of energy, their latent powers manifest. Every power is different. Cole can control electricity. Other people can fly, shoot fire, etc.
* That ‘plague’ we mentioned is actually caused when normal humans come in contact with super powered individuals, who are basically radioactive due to the energy they’re harnessing.
* Which means that the more super powered people there are, the worse everyone else is going to be.
* Also, The Beast turns out to be that NSA agent who died in InFAMOUS. Yes, I am not making that up.
* And the Beast’s true goal isn’t to destroy the world, but to activate every single latent super powered individual by blasting them with the necessary energy.
* Which will kill everybody else.
* So Cole either has to kill himself and every other super powered person on earth, or, he has to become totally evil and turn into an even worse threat than the beast.
As hard as it is to believe, here’s where it gets incomprehensible. In-game dialogue reveals that Kessler knew that the NSA agent would become The Beast, and conspired to turn him. Which means:
* Kessler, AKA Cole, created The Beast. The same The Beast he went back in time to defeat.
* And Kessler, AKA Cole, is responsible for creating super powered people in the first place, when he went back in time and created the accident that caused alternate Cole’s powers to develop.
* It also needs to be mentioned that the evil sidekick you acquire during the game suddenly becomes dedicated to self sacrifice, while the good sidekick embraces destroying the entire country. Which has the unique effect of rendering all of your previous moral decisions moot. You literally have the script flipped on you for no good goddamned reason other than for ‘did I just blow your mind?’ reasons. Weak.
By the time you get to the end of InFAMOUS 2, you realize everything in the story is superfluous. The ‘good’ ending decisively kills off every single super powered being on earth, including Cole, while the bad ending has Cole turn into the biggest threat mankind has ever experienced. Either way, you’re trapped in a temporal loop of your own devising. Super powers? Your fault. The Beast? Your fault. The destruction of America? Your fault. It makes what was, for the most part, a really fun comic book story annoyingly static. Pointless even. And that’s the problem. Nothing that happens makes any sense whatsoever. Moral decisions have no impact on the outcome of the story. And the entire plot has a gaping hole the size of a planet, namely “Why didn’t original Cole just go back in time and stop super heroes from being created in the first place?”
A competently told story is essential to making what would otherwise be a massive time-suck feel like a worthwhile use of your time. It’s why Uncharted, or Mass Effect remain replayable no matter how many times you beat them. I wouldn’t argue that InFAMOUS 2 had the potential to be perfect, but I loved it, and spent pretty much all my spare time for 3 days straight playing it. Which is why it annoyed me so much, getting to the end and feeling like I’d basically wasted my time. The sad fact is that I ended InFAMOUS absolutely dying to dive into InFAMOUS 2.
I ended InFAMOUS 2 not caring if they ever release another game in the series, and I doubt I’ll bother playing it again. Whatever else you might think, that’s a FAIL no matter how excellent the rest of the game is.