Infamous: Second Son Review
More powers, more problems
Infamous: Second Son marks the biggest Spring 2014 first-party release for Sony’s new PlayStation 4 console. The original Infamous debuted on the PS3 years after that console was released, so the opportunity to launch on the newly released PS4 is a great tribute to the franchise’s success and the developers at Sucker Punch Productions. And while Second Son is a technical marvel on the PS4 and retains many of the same elements that made the franchise popular, a few shortfalls prevent it from soaring to dizzying heights.
Second Son picks up years after the ending of Infamous 2. Sadly, for newcomers, the game glosses over most details and only provides a short text entry to setup the narrative. Fans who’ve played the PS3 titles will be excited to see how the world has changed since Cole’s story, and find tons of references and Easter eggs pointing to the previous games. While newcomers to the franchise will likely miss out on the depth of this game world, the narrative makes it fairly easy to jump in. Second Son follows the exploits of Delsin Rowe, a young graffiti artist and a rebellious member of his Native American tribe located near Seattle, WA.
By no choice of his own, Delsin acquires a power to control smoke, and realizes he is a conduit. These supernatural people can channel super power of various elements, much as Cole did with electricity. This instantly gets him labelled as a Bio-Terrorist by the Department of Unified Protection, an organization that was created after the events of Infamous 2 to combat the conduit threat. Delsin realizes his predicament and attempts to relinquish his power to avoid becoming prey to the DUP.
Compared to Cole’s fairly blank-slate character, Delsin lives in a much different world, so finding out he has powers is met with fear, rather than excitement. However, it is not long before personal motivations of revenge take over and the goal becomes the acquisition of more powers. After setting up what could have been an intriguing narrative of an anti-hero, Delsin happily uses his new abilities to take out the DUP. He is frequently joined by his cop brother, Reggie, but their relationship isn’t as interesting or complex as that of Cole and Zeke in the original. Other conduits enter the plot at various points, but provide little beyond a stock typical personality and assisting you on a mission or two. They later become predicable pawns to get Delsin motivated or his aides in final confrontations.
While the story is predictable and weak compared to the past entries, the characters and dialog are not to blame. Everyone delivers their often funny lines with great timing, undoubtedly helped by the great facial animation. The stylized comic book-like cutscenes have been reduced to a minimum for this entry, instead replaced by the usual modern exposition scenes. These are expertly acted out however, and help immerse players in the world. It helps that this is the best PS4 looking title to date.
Perhaps that last statement is significant and should be expanded upon. Infamous: Second Son is indeed a fantastic looking game. It features the same great high resolution textures and effects like those in Killzone: Shadow Fall, but what helps the game stand out is the attention to detail. Water reflections while it rains look incredibly accurate, the particle effects are the best you’ve ever seen, and power abilities all look fantastic. On the whole though, there are still elements that are rather basic, with many of the NPC animations being rigid and unnatural. As well, the audio mix seems off, with loud character voices but explosions that don't pack a punch. Ambient soundtrack is often monotone and repetitive, sometimes clashing and even overlapping with the combat music.
The city of Seattle itself is highly detailed, even more so than the previous Infamous entries and even closely on par to last year’s Grand Theft Auto V, though of course on a much smaller scale. Still, this is an absolutely visually impressive game and a technical achievement that continues to show what’s possible on the next generation of consoles. The impressive lighting changes based on time of day, and there are some great vistas seen from the top of buildings, where players spend most of their time. Unfortunately, the city lacks personality, perhaps because so much time will be spent on these rooftops. Compared to Cole’s grinding on low power and rail lines, rooftop traversal is easily the best option in Second Son, thus your interaction with pedestrians is limited. Even so, their reactions and behavior is generic and hardly distinguishable from the previous games.
Once you’ve got a hang of the basic smoke power and had enough time to ogle the visuals, the main Second Son experience begins. This is still a third person action title, with no significant changes to how the action plays out. You’ve got ranged attacks of various function as well as a melee attack to take down the DUP. While Cole was only capable of controlling electricity, Delsin is more of a superhero, being able to actually control more than one element. Over the course of the game, you’ll be able to unlock four main powers – the first two being smoke and neon, the other two best kept under wraps to avoid spoilers. Each of the powers offers their own version of the same attacks – basic ranged attack, special ability, grenade-like attack, and a movement function.
For example, smoke lets Delsin turn into a mist and dash forward a bit, possibly through a fence, instantly launch rocket-like smoke projectiles, and toss a grenade to make enemies start coughing and be vulnerable to takedowns for a short time. Switch to neon, and your grenades now cause temporary anti-gravity fields, trapping enemies helplessly mid-air; while you blast them with a strong beam of light that needs a short charging time before firing. All of the controls remain the same, so your grenade ability is assigned to the same button with every power. Overall, the combat offers players an opportunity to make use of all the powers you have available in the area, and use your favorites. As has been mentioned, the later powers are most effective and even overpowered, so hopefully players won’t be frustrated by the early experience and at least make it through to the second and third powers.
As you switch to other powers (strictly tied to story progression), you become much more mobile with the ability to traverse any terrain as a glowing orb, in any direction, akin to Prototype. The other powers also offer this type of free-form movement, so players aren’t forced to manually climb ledges and similar traversal tasks. That’s good not only because these methods are extremely freeing, but also because the basic platforming in Second Son is rather poor. Compared to previous games, where climbing was a big part of the game and performed well, Delsin seems to be very awkward to control and has a knack to clip through and glitch around the environment, making climbing a chore. The camera can also be rather awkward in combat.
Switching between powers is also tricky – you can only switch by draining the specific power from a source. For example, if you’re out of smoke energy but are standing next to a neon sign, you can drain it and begin attacking with the corresponding power. While all powers are solid, smoke is definitely the least versatile. Since it’s also the power you start out with, it presents a rather tough opening set of missions. Because it’s the only power in your arsenal, your locations to recharge are very rare, leading to many frustrating deaths and a constant need to escape from combat. Fans will be familiar with this back-and-forth mechanic, but it proves to be annoying at first. Once you gain new elements, the variety means that power sources become much more densely allocated across the city, making it much easier to survive. The AI doesn't put up much of a challenge unless they overwhelm you in numbers, having the same basic routines and often running around with little reason.
The super attacks from previous games have been reworked into Karma Bombs. Each of your powers offers one bomb that can be filled by performing a certain amount of either good or evil actions in a row. These attacks can then be used to cause devastating damage to surrounding foes in spectacular fashion (while also making the framerate drop noticeably). Paying as a hero the karma bomb can be difficult to attain because accidentally hurting a bystander (they love to run in front of your shots) resets your progress, but it will remain ready indefinitely as long as no evil action is performed. One of the powers you unlock later on makes earning hero streaks extremely easy. To earn an evil karma bomb, you must go on a killing spree to fill up the meter. That's much easier to attain, but it may be lost if you're out of action for too long.
Second Son is at its best during the open-world combat approach that has become a successful pillar of the franchise. Once you've got the three main powers available, your options are only limited by your nearby power sources and imagination. Free-running up vertical walls before trapping enemies on the roof in a neon gravity field then crashing down on those below; draining smoke from a nearby vehicle to switch your power and unleashing a blast into even more foes. The combat is fast, free flowing, and satisfying - but again, it comes with a caveat that you've already unlocked at least two of the three powers. The third power definitely feels the strongest and most enjoyable to play with. The fourth is actually only unlocked upon the completion of the main story - so while it's fully implemented and offers a new skill tree to unlock, all you can do with it is take out random enemies that still remain in Seattle. It's like getting another weapon in your arsenal after the war has been won - it will be fun to mess around with against the random enemies that remain in Seattle, but it feels rather insignificant at that point.
As mentioned, the good/evil morality returns, offering players activities and some story choices to select their alignment. There’s a character progression system that gives your attacks more strength and makes them more efficient, by redeeming shards that are randomly spread through the city via drones or DUP outposts. Each power has its own unlock tree. Some abilities are locked away by your karma alignment, and you must pick a side in order to maximize the available skills. Some dialog and gameplay change as well, including two different endings. But the system remains binary, offering no ambiguity. The story choices that are supposed to have a different outcome don't vary much aside from a few lines of dialog and an overall alternate ending, as the game was clearly written with the Hero path in mind. Hearing the dialog after an evil choice makes Delsin look like he has a mood disorder, making rash comments in a cutscene and then going right back to his usual self.
Infamous: Second Son is a relatively short experience. The story is brief and straightforward, and that means there’s only about half the number of missions compared to previous games. Once you’re done, the map is littered with a few DUP outposts to clear out and lots of side activities. But these should really be called very basic and extremely short minigames, rather than side missions. Destroying a hidden camera or chasing down a DUP agent takes minutes if not seconds, and nothing changes from one activity to the next. These minigames don't take advantage of your powers in any creative way, and could have just as easily existed in previous titles. The developers have said they will attempt to increase value by adding free DLC, but even so, the game is disappointingly lacking in content not just as an open world game, but even as an Infamous title.
Being a first party title means the game must use the fancy new features of the DualShock 4 controller. A few audio effects play through the controller's speaker, such as draining a power or hearing Delsin's phone ring. The touchpad is used quite heavily, as you must press it to drain powers from a source; it's also occasionally used for directional swiping to disable turrets or command centers. Overall however, its implementation does not get in the way of having comfortable controls in the heat of battle. One unique minigame that sees Delsin spray graffiti around the town tasks players with holding the DS4 sideways and aiming the reticule on the screen with motion controls.
Following the success of the franchise on the PlayStation 3, expectations were high for the PS4 debut of Sucker Punch Productions. What they delivered with Second Son is an enjoyable, albeit brief experience. The city of Seattle is extremely detailed and atmospheric, but lacks memorable traits or engaging side activities. Delsin is a better character than Cole, and the dialog is great, but the overall plot leaves something to be desired. The game is a technical showcase for the PlayStation 4 and sets the bar high for future titles. Although not as big of a misstep as Killzone: Shadow Fall, Second Son marks yet another first-party Sony title that impresses technically but takes a step back in the overall gameplay experience compared to its PS3 predecessors. Hopefully, this is a trend that won’t last too much longer.