A superpowered sandbox game sounds rather par for the course in this day and age of gaming, right alongside near-future military shooters or free-to-play fantasy MOBAs. We’ve seen the concept explored in series from Prototype to Darksiders to Crackdown to the previous two Infamous games. Hell, even Saints Row 4 completely ditched any and all associations to Grand Theft Auto to dive into the superpowered leap-tall-buildings-in-a-single-bound genre.
That’s why it’s great to see Infamous: Second Son try incredibly hard to keep things fresh. It’s set in Seattle, a location rarely frequented by such games, and stars a young Native American man named Deslin Rowe, who very well may be the first video game protagonist from that culture since Turok was stalking Velociraptors. Ditching traditional powers like Telekinesis, Ice and Electricity, Infamous bends the rules of what’s a plausible superpower by introducing Smoke, Neon and a third one so strange, if you had a thousand tries you wouldn’t guess it.
Still, the game suffers by being relatively scarce on substantive content. The main questline and certain base takeovers are harrowing enough, but though the map is littered with stuff to do, most of it can feel meaningless. Powers are innovative in concept, but not always the tightest in execution. Second Son may easily be the best game in its own series, but is that good enough?
While I played the original Infamous, I skipped the sequel, so apologies for any gaps in lore knowledge. But here in Second Son, Cole is dead, but superpowered people, called “conduits,” live on. Deslin Rowe starts off as an average human, just a punk kid living on an Indian Reservation who has his life turned upside down when a transport full of powerful “bio-terrorists” (conduits) crashes nearby. When Deslin and his cop older brother Reggie investigate, Deslin is snatched by one of them. A man named Hank can shoot fireballs from his hands and flow through air vents as human smoke, and suddenly, Deslin can too.
Deslin learns he’s something of a “power sponge,” as he so eloquently puts it. Think Peter Petrelli from Heroes. But then forget everything else about Heroes, because Second Son is nothing, nothing like that.
The Department of Unified Protection (D.U.P.) comes to town led by a stern woman named “Augustine” with the ability to shoot spikes of concrete anywhere she pleases, usually into people. She tortures Deslin’s tribe for information about the escaped convincts, and he wakes up weeks later discovering his friends and family riddled with rocks. The only way to fix them is to acquire her power for himself, so Deslin and Reggie head to Seattle to track down the other two conduit escapees. Deslin wants their powers for himself, whatever they may be, so he can take on Augustine, swipe her power, heal his tribe and perhaps save the entire city in the process.
Like the previous Infamous games, there’s a binary morality system where you can choose to either be a hero to the citizens of Seattle, or a power-hungry supervillain. I’m coming to feel like any moral choice system that literally separates every decision you make into “blue” and “red” is outdated, and I feel like it’s less about creating truly tough decisions and is mainly in place to lure players into a second playthrough by locking half the powers behind a “karma” wall. Deslin seemed like a good enough guy, his propensity for mischievous spray-painting aside, so I made him a hero. And while the game is good, I can’t say I’ll ever play the entire thing twice for the other half of the power modifications. I will assume that instead of lying on the ground tied up, enemies end up as bloody chunks strewn all over the road.
The three new powers are where Infamous really shines, both in gameplay creativity and visuals. While the condensed version of Seattle is nice and the sunsets are certainly pretty, it’s probably not one of gaming’s most impressive vistas. But the particle effects of at least the first two powers, Smoke and Neon, are easily the coolest the genre has ever seen thanks to the new power of the PS4, and as a result firefights with D.U.P. soldiers aren’t cartoony, they’re pulse-pounding and visually spectacular.
You start with Smoke, which is technically cheating because there is a fair amount of fire involved. It’s the least mobile of the three powers; in order to make it to a rooftop you have to find a smoke vent on the bottom of the building so you can shoot through it to the top. It might be the best all around for combat with a lobbed smoke grenade that makes enemies cough so you can subdue or execute them, and an invaluable upgrade that allows for one-hit headshots from just the basic fireball attack. I will say that the basic attack with this power, and all the others, feels a bit like pelting your opponents with tennis balls. There’s just a sort of “oomph” lacking that plagued past Infamous games as well, and it hasn’t been fixed here.
Neon is my favorite of the three powers, easily the best for mobility while making combat a blast as well. Once you upgrade to unlimited lightspeed sprint, you can zoom across the map, running up skyscrapers like they aren’t even there. Aiming your projectile attack with Neon shifts the game into slow-motion, and combat gets a little more dynamic and interesting. You can go for instakill headshots to earn evil Karma points, or you can try to light-bind enemies’ legs. Tougher opponents require shots on both legs, making evil execution the “easy” choice, but it’s fun to try and zip around and catch their ankles when trying to be a good guy.
The last power has been kept under wraps by Sucker Punch, but I feel it has to be discussed given the fact that you’ll likely spend at least a third of the game using it. Without revealing specific plot points about how you get it, I’ll say that the third power is…Video.
While Smoke and Neon and Concrete are somewhat non-traditional powers (along with Glass, Wire and Paper, spoken of, but not seen in the game), Video is a whole other level of bizarre. It’s so strange it almost completely changes the tone of the game, as you can summon digital angels and demons to aid you in battle, pulled out of the portals of video screens.
Video is quite fun as a “good guy” player as instead of lobbing grenades, your special power is invisibility. When you upgrade it, you can race around subduing enemies without being seen, and take out a whole platoon with ease. It’s a welcome change from mashing the projectile attack, which is good because Video’s projectile attack is terrible. It’s also pretty neat from a mobility perspective as you gain digital angel wings that will loft you up the sides of buildings and even allow you to hover and glide almost indefinitely. Neon was still my favorite by the end, but Video was a close second. Smoke, despite being the most heavily advertised power, relies too much on air vents to reach high buildings and it’s just too much of a sacrifice for its minimal gains in combat.
All the powers function similarly to one another, but there are enough differences to make them each feel distinct. I’m incredibly impressed with both the concept and execution of all three of these abilities, and they’re definitely the highlight of the game. I also like how the upgrade system isn’t just “get more health” or “do more damage” which you often see in lazier games. Each upgrade changes individual powers dynamically, making combat more interesting, not just easier.
The story is so-so. Deslin is likable enough and it’s the first time we really get to see something resembling voice actor Troy Baker’s face in digital form. His banter with his brother is funny at times, and as a whole, the series seems to have taken a more lighthearted turn. Cole had comic relief side-characters in his games, but here Deslin largely is the comic relief. Still, the story wasn’t particularly memorable, and its commentary on surveillance and America’s slow supposed transformation into a police state is unsubtle.
The main story features some interesting missions, but far and away my favorite activities were clearing out D.U.P. strongholds, which require the most strategy of anything in the game, and each sectors “final battle” with the D.U.P. where you force them out for good.
Unfortunately, the game allows for a sort of “easy button” with these segments, if you choose to use it. All three powers have an “uber move.” If you subdue or execute enough enemies in a row, you can press down on your D-pad to unleash a devastating barrage of smoke/lasers/angels to obliterate everything on screen. I soon learned that an easy way to beat base clears or district battles was to preload an uber move before the event, and then unleash it right away to destroy 90% of enemies allowing for easy clean-up on the rest. With powers like Video’s invisibility in particular, even if you don’t preload your super special ahead of time, you can usually get it in a minute or two, provided you don’t accidentally break your karma streak. While the powers in the game rarely feel overpowered (unlike the comically easy Saints Row 4, for example) the exception are these special movies which eliminate strategy entirely from the equation. While they look cool, I don’t think they do much to make gameplay more dynamic.
I’m also a bit disappointed in the side missions of the game. While the main story and the big D.U.P. base fights are fun, all the other side activities are pretty mundane by comparison. There’s one that has you track a digital file by walking around with your cell phone to get near its location. Another has you shoot out a tiny hidden camera in an area by calculating its angle of view. Deslin expresses his artistic side in an endless series of spray-paint murals where you wave the Dualshock around to paint Banksy-like stencil street art on walls. The idea is cool and fits with his character and the theme of the game, but the gameplay feels out of place, and the equivalent of a Wii game telling you to suddenly “waggle” in an otherwise motion-free experience.
Even the more action oriented side-quests aren’t anything special. The most eventful one has you track down a “spy” with their picture, and then chase them down as they flee. With slow-motion neon shooting, these chases can last all of five seconds.
I did like tracking down quadracopters to get extra shards for power upgrades, but I’m a collectible fiend so I may be a bit biased in that regard. But still, most of these side-quests are anything but. The only ones with any real substance at all are the “Cole’s Legacy” missions that were just added into the game in a day one patch, and the episodic “Paper Trail” quests that will be released weekly (though for some reason I had “connection problems” and my progress on the first one could never save).
Infamous is a good game. I don’t know about great, but “good” is enough to be the best in the series, and the best exclusive PS4 has to offer right now. With 100% completion and new missions to come there are plenty of worthwhile hours to be spent with the game, and it’s definitely worth picking up if you’re a fan of the series or the genre. The powers are innovative and a lot of fun, I just wish there was a bit more to do with them, and a more compelling story that perhaps took itself just a little more seriously.
Developer: Sucker Punch
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Released: March 21st, 2014