Review: Infamous: Second Son features stunning visuals and good-enough gameplay
Platform: Playstation 4
After playing through Infamous: Second Son, I'm not convinced that it's enough to sell the PS4 by itself...but if you own a PS4 there's really no excuse not to add this game to your collection.
Infamous: Second Son tells the story of Delsin Rowe -- quite possibly the first major video game hero who wears skinny jeans -- a delinquent in his early 20s. He's a member of the Akomish Native American tribe, and the opening of the game gives us a glimpse of what Delsin's daily life is like. He goofs around, tags things with spray paint, and clashes with his older brother Reggie, the town's sheriff. Delsin may have remained as little more than a small-town troublemaker forever, if not for a chance incident when a transport vehicle carrying several "bio-terrorists" (or "conduits," depending on how polite you want to be to people with superpowers) overturns right in front of him.
From this inciting incident, Delsin's journey begins...and it's a blast right from the very beginning. Over the course of Second Son, Delsin has a chance to master the powers of Smoke, Neon, and Video, and all three are wildly entertaining in slightly different ways. You can only have one power set active at a time, but it's usually quick and easy to find a source of power to switch on the fly. In practice, all three power sets work in basically the same manner and with the same general kinds of abilities -- a simple attack, a powerful one with limited ammunition, a way of moving rapidly around the landscape, etc. By the end of the game you're likely to have exhausted the different ways to combine and chain together your different abilities, and as such the game suffers a bit from a lack of depth and variety in what you do...but it's a ton of fun from start to finish, regardless.
Most of your time in Second Son will be spent either fighting or exploring. The exploring works very well, as Delsin's natural agility combined with his powers means the city is basically one big playground, while the combat is a little less successful. Second Son has the same inconsistent camera aiming issues that few 3rd-person action games aside from the Arkham series have ever really managed to avoid. The game also suffers from a lack of variety in the enemies, since over the course of the game you'll mostly be battling the same four or five types of government soldiers. Blowing up a checkpoint with a fire blast is fun the first time, but you'll be doing the same thing a dozen times (or more) as you fight to liberate the different areas of Seattle's open world environment.
Second Son is a visual masterpiece
Here's a conversation I imagine went on back when publisher Sony and developer Sucker Punch were first planning Second Son:
Sony: "Hey, we really need a game that shows off the Playstation 4's graphical capabilities."
Sucker Punch: "How about a new Infamous where you run around Seattle during the day and night and attack people with smoke, fire, neon beams, and stuff like that?"
Sony: "Okay. Here is a giant bag of money."
I have never played a game as screenshot-friendly as Second Son. It is the perfect match imaginable for the PS4's new "share" button, and I often found myself hitting the button every few minutes in an attempt to capture a new bit of eye-candy that had emerged naturally out of my adventures in the open world. From the very beginning of the game when you're exploring the beach outside your small town with the setting sun at your back, the game is a constant stream of visual treats and surprises.
Running around Seattle at night with the help of Delsin's Neon powers was my absolute favorite part of the game. In this section gameplay, story, and graphics all compliment each other perfectly as you test out your new abilities, seeking out the glowing neon signs that litter the city whenever you need to recharge your batteries. When I found out that the newest update for the game will allow players to manually change the time of day (once they have beaten the game), I knew I would be returning to virtual Seattle soon to race over the rooftops as a streak of neon light.
Looking for shades of grey
There are two main ways to play Second Son: as an inspirational hero who inspires the city or as a heartless villain who confirms everyone's worst fears about what "bio-terrorists" are capable of. I picked
the "heroic" path, as I almost always do on my first playthrough of a game. I didn't get very far in the game, though, before I started chaffing under the moral boundaries the game's "hero-villain" binary established. In order to unlock Delsin's most powerful abilities over the course of the game, you need to have achieved high levels of either good or evil karma...and the two cancel each other out. Blowing up a car and killing some bystanders will cancel out the good karma you earned from performing a drug bust, for example. So playing as a character who does a lot of both good AND evil things means you won't ever be able to access top-tier abilities, which seems like a major (and unnecessary) handicap.
I was frustrated by the good-evil dynamic in Delsin's story because I felt that, especially early on, the game was setting him up as a character who had good intentions but could easily go a bit power-mad thanks to his new abilities. I wanted to play out this kind of story, with Delsin making the "heroic" choices at major points in the game but also happy to take the lives of his enemies (as well as any innocent citizens who might happen to get in his way), but it quickly became clear that trying to follow this path would prevent me from ever reaching the high levels of karma I needed to unlock the most "super" of Delsin's suite of super powers. Once I figured this out, I begrudgingly committed to a full heroic style of play...but I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed by the choices Sucker Punch made.
Another minor annoyance that I experienced with the game's karma system came up when I had a chance to leave my graffiti mark on one of the designated spots in the city. When you do that, you choose between two different designs, one of which is designated as "heroic" and the other the "villainous." In practice, I found these distinctions to be pretty arbitrary, as well as seriously annoying when using the design I felt was going to be cooler would mean sacrificing my "Karmic Streak" super-ability, which depends on maintaining a streak of consistent karmic actions.
One final note about being a "hero" in the world of Second Son concerns a strange choice you are asked to make early in the game. Avoiding major spoilers, you have to decide what to do with a character who has been murdering drug dealers in the city. The "good" choice is to let this character go free under your supervision, and the "bad" choice is to follow the advice of your sheriff brother and to throw the character in jail. I didn't really have any problems making the "good" choice in the context of the game, but it did strike me as just a bit odd that letting a vigilante killer escape without any real punishment was presented as something a hero would do.
The story between the explosions
Second Son touches on a number of notes that will be familiar to any fan of X-Men, and like that comic series it explores the themes of civil rights and "safety vs. security" in great detail. It's much more than a retread of old ideas though, and manages to do some new and interesting things with these classic story elements.
As the title of the game subtly indicates, there's also a lot going on in the story of Second Son concerning the relationship between siblings Delsin and Reggie. Delsin begins the story as an archetypal "second son," deep in the shadow of his older, more respected, more responsible brother. Right from the beginning though, it's clear that the two men actually do care about each other, and the concern Reggie shows for Delsin once his powers begin to manifest is genuinely touching.
Delsin grows in power over the course of Second Son, but he never casts Reggie aside (at least on the "heroic" path -- I can't speak for what happens if you play the game as a villain). Reggie continues to help and guide his younger brother throughout the game, and it's always clear that the strong bond between the two is what enables Delsin to develop into a hero. Even when they disagree, the two engage in funny banter that comes across as genuine -- and the writers at Sucker Punch deserve a lot of credit for including such a satisfying example of brotherly love in their superhero game.
Here are the criteria I consider most important for judging Infamous: Second Son:
#1 Graphics -- 10/10
Second Son is the most visually impressive game I have played in years, and is a perfect compliment to the east screenshot-sharing ability of the PS4.
#2 Action -- 8/10
Though it suffers from some of the same 3D aiming issues that have plagued 3rd-person action games for decades, Second Son delivers satisfying and visceral combat, destruction, and exploration for the vast majority of the time you're playing it.
#3 Depth and Diversity -- 6/10
Blasting enemies with your powers is fun, but I couldn't help wishing there were more different types of enemies and a little more strategy inherent in the combat and some more interesting moral choices.
#4 Story – 9/10
There's a surprising amount of heart mixed in with all the awesome powers in Second Son.
Overall score: 8.3
Infamous: Second Son is a fun, funny, and positively gorgeous game. The actual gameplay could have benefited from a bit more variety, but the game does the job well enough to be an obvious purchase for anyone with a PS4.
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