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Fantastic Movement In Superhero Games Came Long Before Spider-Man

Infamous is celebrating its 15-year anniversary today, May 26, 2024. Below, we look back at how its focus on traversal paved the way for modern AAA superhero games.

Soaring over a canyon in an Iron Man-like suit of metal armor in Anthem. Swinging through the financial district as a giant Sandman crushes cars below him in Spider-Man 2. Few mechanics in gaming feel as good as superhuman traversal. One of the most electrifying examples of superhero movement came 15 years ago when Sucker Punch launched Infamous.

Infamous–which was inspired by Batman Begins, Channel Zero, Shooting Wars, and other comic and comic adaptations–put you in control of the electrically powered superhuman Cole MacGrath. The city he fought to protect–or sometimes abuse if you chose that moral path–was also his source of power.

“We wanted to give you powers that worked well in a video game context, and video games are really good for shooting things, ranged combat,” Infamous game director Nate Fox said in a 2009 interview with Engadget. “So we figured we’d have a lot of that in the game, and electricity was a good marriage to that because shooting a lightning bolt into somebody’s face is something that everybody understands.”

Cole MacGrath, protagonist of the first two Infamous games.

Outside discharging bolts of electricity, Cole could grind on rails at accelerated speeds, float through the sky using propulsion from his hands, and navigate over nearly any building in Empire City. Infamous’s traversal wasn’t nearly as fast-paced as Insomniac’s later Spider-Man series, but it was also gripping and dynamic. A climbing system similar to the one found in Assassin’s Creed underlined everything Cole could do with his powers. It made it feel like every part of the city was scalable–and that’s exactly what Sucker Punch was aiming for.

“We quickly found that electrical powers were super fun and crazy beautiful,” Fox said. “After that, we had a ton of development work to do, both building a streaming world and creating a climbable city.”

Empire City was a playground in every way. Buildings were lined with pipes that players could grapple, a railway that Cole could grind ran throughout the city, and rooftops were surrounded by so many climbable objects–power lines, billboards, antennas–that there was never a shortage of routes to take as you flew through the city.

That achievement was special in 2009 as seamless open worlds weren’t nearly as spectacular as what we see in sandboxes today. They had been done before, but something of Infamous’s scale was technically impressive as an open-world sandbox that had no slowdown from end-to-end.

“The urban climbing in Infamous is spectacular,” said Sucker Punch co-founder and Infamous programming lead Bruce Oberg in a 2009 interview on the official PlayStation blog. “You can go anywhere you can see, and there are no loading screens. It’s truly an open-world sandbox.”

Combining rail grinding and Cole’s electrical floating ability was a wonderful way to connect the city and superhero gameplay. The electrical abilities were a natural extension of both the player and the world around them.

Much like every other major city set in a fictional comic universe, Empire City was loosely shaped to resemble New York City. This was not because of its iconic landmarks or deep history, but because of the influence that Grand Theft Auto 3 had on the team.

Fox has mentioned multiple times that swinging aimlessly around New York while looking for someone to help was a major point of inspiration for the team. DNA from both games can be seen in the free-flowing gameplay that made Infamous’s side missions and collectibles such a joy to complete.

“I think everybody fired up Grand Theft Auto 3 and thought, ‘This game is so cool. I wish I were a superhero in this city!'” Fox said. “I mean it’s kind of obvious, right? So, ta-da! That’s the game we started to look at and make.”

While Sucker Punch may have been a recognizable name in 2009, Infamous was new to the gaming world. The grungy, gray backdrop of Empire City could have fallen flat if it weren’t filled with incredible platforming that’s still incredibly fun to play 15 years later.

The team at Sucker Punch made a jump from making the Sly Cooper series to making a huge, sandbox-style comic-book adventure. Its roots developing a cartoonish and visually colorful platformer with incredibly sharp gameplay shine in how players get Cole McGrath moves around rooftops and highway underpasses.

Cole wreaks havoc.Cole wreaks havoc.

“What we really [wanted] to do is come up with our equivalent, and I am not in any way likening our work to Miyamoto’s, but we need our Zelda to the Mario,” said Sucker Punch co-founder and Infamous producer Brian Fleming in an interview with AOL. “We need a title that works better earlier in the lifecycle of the game, of the platform, we need something that is a good complement, that brings out different skill sets that we have, but is similar enough that the technology you build and things could be brought forward into a Sly game someday.”

Little did Fleming, Fox, and Oberg know in 2009 that Infamous would go on to become a cornerstone of Sucker Punch much like Sly Cooper. Its sequels built on its amazing traversal mechanics and made Infamous a beloved name in open-world superhero game design–even if the last entry, Second Son, released in 2014. Fans have been clamoring for a new entry or remake every year since.

“We developed a bunch [of] different pitches and the idea of doing a superhero comic sort of universe,” Fleming said. “It kind of felt like a half step away from that, but still played off some of the strengths in terms of art, and presentation and all that, so you know, you start talking about it, and then we had a lot to learn about doing realism and character design, and play control with real people. It took a long time. It’s a journey.”

Traversal is the most important element in open-world game design and Infamous is one of the earliest games to make superhuman movement the core gameplay. Insomniac’s Spider-Man–one of the most celebrated superhero games of the last decade–shares DNA with Sucker Punch’s latest Infamous game, Second Son.

Iteration is a huge element in how the entire game industry–not just a single game or series–gets better. Infamous was one huge step in improving how it feels to control a superhuman in a sandbox. While Cole may not be as notable as Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne, he’s a big part of why it feels so good to swing, parkour, and fly around the big city in dozens of other games.

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