By Chris Matel
There's a somewhat dubious association between the use of open-world structure in videogames and their being classified as “sandbox” design. The low-profile, mostly quadrangle backyard play areas composed of granular filling are (maybe, were?) places to physically manifest creative thought. Wars can be fought, kingdoms erected, sewers carved, and mud baths fashioned with juvenile revelry in a defined geometry: the construct might be limited, but the user's imagination makes that physical constraint an almost limitless tool to be explored.
In game design, however, use of the word has become a catch-all for almost any instance where scripted, pathed or confined linearity don't make up the player-character's environment. Hundreds of simulated square-miles (-kilometers) might be boasted and could be fun to explore, but if I'm relegated to completing preloaded tasks by the direction of mission designers, it's hard to appropriate the concept of a sandbox to that narrow, planned structure. Open-worlds are playgrounds, sure enough, but sandboxes they necessarily aren't.
How, then, does Sucker Punch Productions co-founder Brian Fleming get away with lumping the aforementioned non-synonymous concepts together as he glosses, “we know we're doing an open-environment game, we know we're doing a sandbox game,” when talking about creating inFamous 2? Seemingly, because they are. User-generated content (UGC) isn't a new or wholly novel feature, especially when it comes to products under Sony Computer Entertainment's parent umbrella, but Sucker Punch's first steps into making use of it look to be promising even if its implementation doesn't appear to be inherently grounded to the inFamous IP.
In Seattle's SoDo district, I recently went hands-on with newly minted demos of inFamous 2, available to play at a rented out warehouse made over with ceiling-high posters, dozens of PS3s, and a tube of lightning. As passersby inquisitively gawked into the florescently lit setting from their craft store errands just next door, via an ajar side portal, I watched UGC testers walk through the process of creating missions in the game. It wasn't that the horde of professional, enthusiast and freelanced writers in attendance couldn't jump in and try it for ourselves—in fact, we were encouraged and continually invited to—it's just there's a somewhat meaty tool set to play with that has a learning curve to be conquered first.
Two new campaign-derived demos were available to explore as well, but their content turned out to be less intriguing. While one showcased the sequel's ambitions of creating a bigger scale with a giant creature, the Behemoth, lumbering through the streets of thankfully-not-another-NYC setting, New Marais, it did so with little impact. As a friendly karma'd Cole MacGrath, unrestrained abilities without need to re-charge or cool down, along with infinite health, left little urgency in the battle. The baddy was tall, mean, and had the requisite glowing vulnerable parts, and Cole's new-found ability to kinetically launch cars was noted—but with a souped-up character, it was only a demo of functionality and not of experience.
Similarly, “Forced Conduits,” the second taste of the story, continued the trend of an invincible, unstoppable Cole as I plodded him through Gasworks Park—a nod to the public park set on the edge of Seattle's Lake Union. With little frustration I took Cole from one warehouse to another in search of a blast core, while sidekick Zeke rang in as the op's handler. Gun-totting militia and elementally enhanced enemies made up my opposition as each of the first two safe's failed to house my objective. Just before unlocking the final safe, however, a more medium-sized Ice Titan encounter allowed me an opportunity to get better acquainted with Cole's new melee weapon: a modified bike fork (he was a courier, remember), dubbed the Amp. Also, a cluster shock bomb attack and forward-jetting maneuver demonstrated the more varied move set of a villainous karma'd Cole.
Yet neither left me any more impressed or disappointed about the sequel. Sucker Punch already showed they could do a little bit darker drama and more 'realistic' artistry when they launched the IP in 2009, coming off of their lighthearted, cartoonish Sly Cooper series. Based on what was shown from the campaign, it would seem the formula for inFamous 2 has seen some technical upgrades, but is still largely the same with: cleaner animations, better visual fidelity, environment destructibility, and added powers. Cole's voice, on the other hand, has recognizably been tweaked—evidently he's picked up chain-smoking and seen things no man should since his last outing, as a more gravely and burdened voice than Snake's grumbled from his pipes.
For better or worse, Cole's second visit to the Blu-ray format appeared somewhat hard to distinguish from his first, had it not been for Karl Deckard and his UGC crew. Titled as the Senior Systems Designer, Deckard spoke about how they're tuning inFamous into a closer realization of a sandbox experience. His team recognizes the inevitable pit falls of player-created content, but it's the unexpected and quirky which he believes should be embraced: “Early on we were afraid there were only going to be a few types of missions someone [could] create—we got rid of that notion quite quickly...you can do whatever you want.” As Deckard put it, it's a risky move to allow custom content into a narrative setting, but, “why is what [the player] doing less important than what we're doing?”
Indeed, after sampling previously created content and witnessing custom missions being crafted on-the-fly, there's an obvious open-ended structure to inFamous 2. Unlike LittleBigPlanet, the focus here isn't about creating full-on levels from scratch. Instead, it's about making missions that can be uploaded and indulged in seamlessly whenever in-game. Meaning, at the input of the Start button: missions can be created, tested, uploaded and played even while climbing poles in New Marais. No separate entry on the frontend. No laborious separation between creating and playing.
When in the editor, missions are created less by placing objects, which can be done anywhere in or above New Marais, than it is by programming logic and defining parameters. As it was repeatedly pointed out, this isn't a map editor, it's an option to use objects to populate the established game world and set goals. Along with texture blocks and static objects, characters can be placed and programmed with custom settings. Thus, a militia enemy can become your best friend, protecting a Cole who has no electrical powers while he skirts across roof tops.
Then again, do like the above and max out Cole's health and power, but populate a corridor with a surge of charging enemies while you fight to keep them from crossing a goal marker. “You tend to think of user-generated content as hobbled together things,” Deckard says, describing how some player-content may not 'fit in' with the overall feel of the game, but he concludes, "that's okay.”
There aren't indefinite possibilities, however, since a thermometer sidebar only allows you so many assets packed into your mission, but with the available controls and smart planning, they can range from mini-games to complete narrative experiences with dialogue boxes. Not to mention, it's fairly user-friendly. Node icons show onscreen while editing, connecting entities to monitored characteristics and logic (if X, then Y). Moreover, tedium and redundancy look as if they'll be at a minimum with easy copy and paste controls, and a script showing all of your additions, including the order in which events will unfold. Once you feel you have everything in place, it's quick and easy to save the file and test out the settings. If something doesn't work right, just head back into the editor. If you're still stuck, you can always opt to “remix” an existing user's mission (the original creator still gets credit with a mention no matter what) or start from a template.
Once the genius is finished, it can be uploaded to the game's server with tags describing its composition. Shared missions will then be up for community ratings, the most popular of which become “Famous.” Missions favored by development staff can also be afforded the token of “Sucker Punch Featured Content.” Of course, non of the community's creative juice has to spilled in your version of the story. Various filters can either plot specific kinds of user missions on your mini-map, or none at all.
While some studios mistakenly look to multiplayer modes to tack new elements on their single-player affairs, it's nice to see Sucker Punch continue their tradition of challenging themselves with user-created content that doesn't appear to be haphazard or disingenuous. Whatever the outcome is of the story they created on the disc, there's at least an option to take established and working gameplay, and re-work it in a way you'd like to mess around with. This time around, inFamous 2 might appropriately mix open-world gameplay with sandbox possibilities.
We're fielding ideas on creation ideas. Got the beta? Let us know what you're working on. Share the wealth, and tips, with us on Twitter @gamers_hell