Infamous 2: Making Lightning Strike Twice

by Joe Juba on Jul 20, 2010 at 12:15 PM

This feature originally ran as the cover story in issue 207 of Game Informer magazine, and contains exclusive details and insight from Sucker Punch about its electrifying open-world sequel.

In an industry dominated by long-running series, gamers know what to expect from sequels. For years, most developers approached follow-ups with a predictable philosophy: Take the original framework and throw in more weapons and bigger levels. While this tactic gives fans more of what they love, it also leaves little room for each entry to establish its own identity.

Perhaps that’s why some studios are rethinking the traditional approach to sequels. Last year, Uncharted 2 and Assassin’s CreedII weren’t just bigger and better versions of their predecessors – they leveraged superior technology and cinematic flair to immerse gamers, achieving even greater acclaim than the originals. This level of refinement is the goal for the team at Sucker Punch Productions as it crafts the successor to its 2009 hit Infamous. As an open-world superhero sandbox, Infamous 2 is certainly bigger and better…but Sucker Punch isn’t stopping there. This sequel isn’t just about amping up the powers and the stakes for hero Cole MacGrath; it’s about transforming a great superhero experience into a mind-blowing one.

Any developer would be proud to produce a game as successful as the original Infamous. Telling the story of a regular person coping with extraordinary powers, the PS3-exclusive title has sold nearly 2 million copies. A suite of electric superpowers allows players to live the hero fantasy by traversing a wide-open city and reclaiming it from thugs and super-powered menaces. The team at Sucker Punch worked for months to hone and balance these elements, ultimately forming the core of what makes Infamous so satisfying.

“On a sequel, you have new challenges,” says producer Brian Fleming. “A lot of the structural problems are fixed. You’re already building on a strong structure, so the problem becomes – or the opportunity, really – is capitalizing on what that structure presents.”

With Infamous’ powers-and-parkour formula a proven success, the team’s focus has shifted. Gamers already know what Cole MacGrath can do, and Infamous 2 brings you closer to his god-like abilities than ever. “[Infamous] is a very solid game about acting out the role of a normal guy who gets superpowers,” says game director Nate Fox. “But one thing that we really want to nail and hit out of the park is have it be more emotional, more personal, more physical, more visceral. Just more immediate to you as you’re playing…we just want to yank you through the screen and into the world, on all axes.”

Creating a more engrossing superhero experience isn’t an easily quantifiable goal. It is something that forms in the player’s mind when multiple facets of gameplay and design intersect: a new vision for Cole, increased emphasis on characters, streets packed with civilians, and cinematic camera angles that put players in the middle of the action.

Enhancements like these may seem peripheral, but they are instrumental in creating a game that could break into the highest tier of acclaimed titles. Uncharted 2, for example, retains most of the basic mechanics from the first game. However, developer Naughty Dog’s attention to detail (and familiarity with the PS3’s technology) transformed a good third-person action framework into Game of the Year material.

“Environments, animations, lighting – all of those things matter for drawing people in,” Fleming explains. “The slogan I’ve been talking about since we began is ‘no stone unturned.’ We have to make everything better, and that’s in service to the larger goal, which is to draw people closer and closer to the experience of being Cole MacGrath.”

While no single feature is responsible for ratcheting up the intensity of Infamous 2, you can trace the cascading improvements to one starting point: an overwhelming new adversary.

Infamous 2 opens with utter defeat. Whether you had saved or subjugated the citizens by the end of Infamous, Cole was the most powerful being in Empire City. That changes with the arrival of the Beast, a mysterious character with immense power.

“At the end of the first game, you had a vision of the Beast – this Armageddon-style end-of-days foe that’s going to come after you,” says Fox. “We’re going to, of course, deliver that.”

The first game’s antagonist, Kessler, traveled back in time to prepare Cole for his inevitable battle with the Beast. As a result, all of the major events Cole endured – obtaining electrical powers, the quarantine of Empire City, and the death of his girlfriend Trish – were orchestrated to harden him for the devastation the Beast would bring. It wasn’t enough. Cole and the Beast fight in Empire City, but despite Kessler’s scheming, Cole can’t contend with such a foe; Kessler had counted on Cole having a few more years to hone his abilities.

“Kessler did a pretty shoddy job, I guess,” Fox jokes. “Kessler tried to prepare Cole, and he pulled out all the stops to do it, but timelines have schismed. Reality has changed as a result of Kessler tampering with it.” Forced to confront the Beast earlier than anticipated, Cole barely escapes with his life, but he formulates a plan to ensure that his next encounter with the Beast goes his way.

“You’re forced to leave the city and look for ways to make Cole, who is already a superhero, into a super superhero,” Fox says. This search takes players south to the fictional city of New Marais, a dangerous and diverse area similar to New Orleans. This is where the organization called the First Sons developed the Ray Sphere, the object that gave Cole his power in Infamous. After fleeing Empire City, Cole searches New Marais and the surrounding areas for other pieces of First Sons technology to augment his electrical abilities, uncovering bits of his own backstory along the way. Putting together the pieces and learning more about the First Sons is important, but Cole won’t ignore what brought him to New Marais in the first place.

“The Beast is coming,” Fleming says. “That’s the heartbeat of the game: his travels, wreaking havoc on the cities on his way south, and you preparing. He knows where you are and why you’re there.”

The change in location to New Marais provides a golden opportunity for Sucker Punch to showcase its commitment to providing an even more entertaining superhero sandbox. It isn’t just about giving you someplace new to explore; New Marais is practically a character itself, with its own strange corners and dark alleys that you will uncover over time. Empire City was large, but it didn’t convey the cultural diversity and architectural variety one would find in a major metropolitan area. Inspired by New Orleans (and other cities in that region of North America), New Marais is a richer backdrop for Cole’s exploits.

“My father is from New Orleans,” Fox tells us. “I grew up hearing these stories about this city that kind of has everything. It’s got these swamps filled with man-eating lizards, plantations, above-ground cemeteries, and cool architecture. This is exactly the kind of place where you want a superhero game to take place. New Marais is the kind of city where you feel like you could get stabbed at any time of day.”

As soon as Cole arrives in New Marais, he’s already in trouble. The city has been taken over by the Militia, a violent and well-equipped group devoted to the cause of human purity. Since the events of the first game, strange things have been happening across the country, and more people seem to be developing powers – or abnormalities, at least. The explosion in Empire City was not an isolated occurrence; the Militia, under the leadership of the well-bred and charismatic Bertrand, is determined to keep New Marais safe from anyone who exhibits any real or imagined non-human characteristics. Unsurprisingly, they don’t take well to an out-of-towner who can shoot lightning.

During the game demo, we see Cole break in on a Militia rally, but a group of mutant bayou creatures crashes the party, too. The streets are swarming with Militia soldiers, panicked civilians, and freaks – everyone trying to survive the chaos. Cole fights his way through the mayhem in an attempt to reach Bertrand, running across numerous battles already in progress. “The city is very alive,” Fox says. “One of the things we learned from the first game is that it’s very interesting to come upon conflict. We like to have problems: pedestrians getting attacked by the Militia, freaks coming in from the swamp. Coming upon existing battles makes the place feel really alive.”

Increasing the ambient action is another way that Infamous 2 is poised to raise the bar from its predecessor. In our demo, we notice a drastic increase in the number of people and cars on the street at once, which gives players more chances to affect the world around them.

“There are two parts to it,” explains development director Chris Zimmerman. “Adding more detail and interactivity in the environment, and having more activity in the city. More cars, more people, more bad guys, more everything. It just feels more like a city. It’s more energetic if you have 100 guys on screen all the time, and it makes the game more fun because we can just throw waves of bad guys at you and it makes you feel more heroic.” The bottom line is that gamers can expect to interact with a teeming, vibrant city – whether they’re down on the streets or grinding the power lines between rooftops.

The city is just one half of Infamous 2’s open-world superhero equation; the second half is making you feel like Cole’s extraordinary powers are right at your fingertips. Unlike the original, this entry begins with Cole as a certified superhero, so you won’t be forced to gradually reacquire familiar abilities.

“We want you to start out feeling like a full-on superhero and ramp up from there,” Fox says. “We looked at all the powers from that vantage point.” Cole may not have all of his abilities from the last game in their exact same form, but the goal is to avoid making players feel like they’ve moved backwards. For instance, Cole’s ability to grind on power cables isn’t a skill you need to learn again – you can do that right from the start.

“You’re certainly more powerful at the beginning of this game than you were at the beginning of the last game,” Fleming tells us. That doesn’t mean things will be easy; because of the threat posed by the Beast, simply being powerful isn’t enough. Cole needs to become unbelievably powerful, which means obtaining new abilities that complement the ones he already has.

One of the highlights of Infamous was cruising around at high speed on power lines and train tracks, and Cole’s electrified mobility is significantly expanded in Infamous 2. We saw two new powers in action, both related in concept to the first game’s induction grind. Using specially designated areas on the sides of buildings, the induction launch allows Cole to launch himself upward, immediately taking to the skies for easy access to the rooftops. If you don’t want to go up, you can use another new ability to jet horizontally across the faces of buildings.

A more agile, maneuverable Cole sounds like fun, but you can’t beat the Beast by outrunning him. That’s where some new heavy firepower will be useful; one of Cole’s most devastating powers (currently called the ionic vortex) creates an electrified tornado that lifts enemies, tears through the environment, and generally leaves ruins in its wake. It’s not just a strong gust of wind – we saw Cole use it to take down a helicopter in one shot.

Another way the team is expanding Cole’s arsenal is by making his melee combat more satisfying by tying it to his powers. “We had melee [in Infamous], but we didn’t have it,” Fox admits. “It didn’t feel like you were really just cold-cocking people into next week.” The solution to the problem is surprisingly simple: Give Cole a huge metal pipe. Because Cole is constantly flowing with electricity, it makes sense to have him harness it during close combat. By carrying around something like an oversized tuning fork, Cole always has an electrically charged weapon handy to dole out some punishment. During the Militia rally in New Marais, we saw Cole wreck at least a dozen enemies with this weapon, and each combo strike was accompanied by a camera effect to sell the impact.

Cole’s supernatural powers may be lightning-based, but he also has a unique set of natural skills unrelated to his encounter with the Ray Sphere. He is an excellent climber, having engaged in urban exploration as a hobby for years. When combined with his superpowers, this degree of mobility and destruction is what gives Infamous its identity – an identity that gets stronger in Infamous 2. You will see fewer situations where it feels like Cole is jumping up the sides of buildings, and more where he is scrambling to the top using a variety of objects in the environment, creating a more satisfying sense of improvisation.

“Cole getting around – the marriage of parkour and superpowers – creates this incredible jungle gym of mobility,” Fox says. “It becomes this landscape of opportunities when you can zip up a building, then find a wire that goes across empty space. You’re making it up as you go, and you’re stringing together these cool moves that allow you to dominate the space in a way that only Cole can do.”

You can list a hero’s powers and weaknesses, but many modern superpowered characters aren’t defined by their abilities; they’re defined by how they use them. Morality is a significant aspect of hero myths – whether heroes choose to fight for the greater good or personal gain is a defining characteristic. In the first Infamous, players were faced with making choices that would establish Cole as either the scourge of Empire City or its guardian angel, but many of these karma moments were presented as black-and-white scenarios. Don’t expect Infamous 2 to lay out your path so clearly.

“There are bigger consequences to your choices, and it’s not really obvious what’s good and bad,” Fox says. This shift in the approach to decision-making isn’t intended to trick players into making choices they don’t want – it just introduces some nuances to the process. Ideally, players will approach moral dilemmas in Infamous 2 on a case-by-case basis, rather than just blindly adhering to good or evil.

The team at Sucker Punch is tight-lipped when it comes to clarifying how the game will react to your choices. “Morality is certainly a big part of the product,” Fox assures us. “And we are committed to making it impactful and meaningful, and have it be something you feel is responsive to how you’re playing the game.”

Your choices will lead you toward one of two drastically different endings – and they won’t be like the original Infamous’ endings, where you just experienced a different shade of the same events. On a related note, whether or not your karma or decisions carry over from the previous game is uncertain, though Fox tells us: “It is, philosophically, something that we don’t ignore.”

Beyond that, all of the specifics of karma – powers associated with good and bad, how the city dynamic changes, and how the story branches – remain mysteries for the time being.

As players explore the sights of New Marais, scurrying across buildings and zapping the Militia, they may not immediately notice the final major improvement to Infamous 2. Sucker Punch’s ability to effectively use the technology of the PlayStation 3 isn’t as flashy as firing off an electric tornado, but it has just as great an impact on your ability to step into the shoes of a superhero.

With a clear idea of what defines Infamous as a franchise, the team has dug into the PS3 hardware and addressed several complaints from the first game that were rooted in the technology. For example, instead of relying on comic book panels to tell the story, Infamous 2 features cutscenes that highlight the characters’ personalities and relationships The comic-style interludes are still a part of the game, but they will be used for larger sections of exposition rather than detailing critical interactions between characters.

“We’re able to have a much more empathetic narrative this time,” Zimmerman says. “The characters are much more believable, much more likeable if only because the technology is there to let you do a camera close-up on somebody. We couldn’t do that in the last game, so we needed to keep the camera away for technical reasons. This time we don’t.”

Better cutscenes, cinematic camera angles, more destructible objects, and swarms of characters on-screen are just a handful of ways the team is leveraging its partnership with Sony to tap into the power of the hardware and deliver a superhero experience that aims to impress on all fronts. Hitting the right beats in terms of fusing technology and gameplay doesn’t just make this sequel better – it establishes the strength of the Infamous name. After all, the Infamous 2 project isn’t just a sequel; it’s the next step in what could potentially be one of Sony’s cornerstone franchises. “We’re trying to build the IP,” Fleming says. “We’re trying to make it stronger, more diverse, more interesting. Also, more refined, higher quality, because we’re trying to invest in the property itself.”

“The space we’re playing in – the third-person action genre – is the Game of the Year space,” Zimmerman observes. “You look around and it’s Uncharted 2, it’s Assassin’s Creed, it’s God of War. It’s all these great games, and you have to be able to compete on all axes with them. On the axes of character and story and stuff, we’re much better set up this time so we can take a big, hard swing at it.”

Sucker Punch is proud of its work on the original Infamous, but there is always room for improvement. With Infamous 2, the studio is seizing an opportunity to show gamers what Cole MacGrath can truly accomplish. “[Infamous] functioned well and felt good,” Fox says. “It was a superhero game that you could get into and have a good time. The second game, if we do our jobs right, will hopefully give you a heart attack.”