I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
I am in love with the inFamous series. inFamous had some tonal issues, but was mechanically sound and held the promise of better things. Those “better things” came in the form of inFamous 2; perhaps one of my favorite games of the past generation. Franchise developers Sucker Punch managed to improve almost every aspect, right down to the color palette. I genuinely love that game. So it is with a somewhat heavy soul that I bring you this news: inFamous: Second Son isn’t quite the improvement we all hoped for. It’s still a great action game, but get ready for a bit of disappointment.
Second Son takes place after the tear-inducing Good ending of inFamous 2. The world is now aware of the existence of superhumans known as Conduits (reclassified as “bio-terrorists”), and a government agency has sprung up to combat this new threat. It’s hard to not draw parallels to X-Men, right down to the superpowered main antagonist and thinly veiled parallels to modern-day prejudice.
Native American protagonist Delsin Rowe is just a regular ninety-nine percenter, tagging billboards on his tribe’s reservation and ranting about the man, but everything changes when a transport carrying some dangerous Conduits crashes right in front of him. Almost immediately, he discovers he can absorb the powers of other Conduits. However, the anti-Conduit authorities mortally wound a sizable amount of his tribe in their search for the escapees and any other Conduits. Delsin’s only choice is to pursue everyone involved in the whole affair to Seattle, where he can acquire the powers he needs to save everyone.
The game primarily deals with discrimination and the government as a nanny state, to varying degrees of success. Using superpowers as a metaphor for homosexuality (someone literally says “you were born this way” at one point) and giving this metaphor to a member of an already marginalized group is a surprisingly effective tactic. It also helps that Delsin is a great character. His growth is fairly close to the usual ‘superhero’s journey’, but the way he grows is worth seeing.
The relationship between Delsin and his brother Reggie is the game’s emotional core, and it’s genuinely some of the best character interaction Sucker Punch has delivered in a while. The studio has always excelled in writing dialogue, and Second Son’s personable and flavorful exchanges are perhaps the company’s zenith. As Delsin becomes more and more comfortable with his new identity as a Conduit, he pushes back against Reggie’s anti-Conduit slurs. Conversely, as Reggie is drawn into the world of Conduits, he begins to change his behavior. The duo’s relationship with their parents could stand to be expanded upon, but the subtle touches are simultaneously compelling. It’s great stuff, and helps set Second Son apart from the scads of sci-fi-concept-as-metaphor-for-discrimination stories out there.
Unfortunately, the anti-government themes aren’t handled quite as well. In the seven years since inFamous 2, the government has set up the Department of Unified Protection (called the DUP in-game, or ‘doop’, which really sucks the menace out of the main threat if you’re a Futurama enthusiast). The DUP is a branch of law enforcement designed to deal with Conduits, and they’ve completely taken over Seattle. There are cameras, drones, and checkpoints everywhere. It’s not particularly subtle, but it’s also not quite crazy enough. The game is literally about a Native American anarchist; you would think Second Son would do a little more with this concept.
Speaking of “not particularly subtle,” the game’s antagonist, DUP head Brooke Augustine, is almost cartoonishly evil. Her dialogue is fun and well-delivered, but she only gets a proper motivation during the final boss fight. It’s a difficult conundrum: most characters get a backstory when Delsin absorbs their powers, but there’s no way to do the power absorption scene without removing Delsin’s primary motivation for being in Seattle. It’s unfortunate, because Augustine’s flashback is compelling, and would’ve been a major boon early on. The supporting cast isn’t stellar either. You gain two major allies over the course of the game, and they get one side mission each. They aren’t bad characters, not by a long shot, but their development is a bit stunted, especially when compared to inFamous 2’s well-rounded cast.
Actually, ‘stunted’ is a pretty fair description of Second Son’s campaign. I beat the whole affair and completed 50% of the side content in about 7 hours. That’s not an inherently bad thing, but it feels like the game ends as soon as the second act does. The ending doesn’t feel natural, instead it feels like Sucker Punch just wanted to get to the climax as soon as possible. After the credits rolled, it took me another 3 or so hours to hit 80% side content, but the side missions aren’t really worth doing.
The act of playing inFamous: Second Son is a delight, thankfully. Delsin starts as a smoke-based hero, with semi-auto smoke blasts and a dash ability that allows him to phase into vents, but gains access to neon and video-based powers. Each powerset has similarities, but the details are just different enough to mix up each combat encounter. Whereas original series protagonist Cole was an electric hero who could drain power from anything with a charge, Delsin has a different set of batteries. Draining smoke gives him access to his smoke repertoire, neon signs give him neon, and video screens give him video. For example, if you’re running low on video and you need a boost ASAP, shoot a DUP vehicle, dash over, and get yourself all smoked up. There’s no power wheel or anything like that.
Early on, the traversal isn’t quite as easy as it should be, but a couple well-placed upgrades will make navigating Seattle genuinely fun. I found myself attached to Neon’s unlimited running in the post-credits sandbox, but during the actual story, I used Video’s mid-air boost quite a bit. Second Son is less about parkour and more about pointing Delsin in a certain direction and pressing the circle button until you get there. There are certain points on rooftops that help with getting around, like a satellite dish you can Video dash into that launches you into the air.
All this is well and good, but the inFamous series has been plagued with a design aspect since day one that Sucker Punch refuses to address for some reason. Certain enemies have explosive attacks that, when they connect, do absurd levels of damage, launch Delsin into the air in slow motion for a short period of time, then immediately speed things up as every foe in the area converges on you while Delsin goes through his ‘getting up’ animation. Now, animation priority is fine in games where the combat is designed around character animation, but the inFamous series has always been a very multifaceted third person shooter. If you’re not moving in these games, you’re in trouble. And it’s kind of hard to move when your character is taking their sweet time, going through an animation that really needs to be faster.
That’s not always a problem, thankfully, and I was able to avoid it once I got better at switching on the fly. It’s also not hard to game the combat system once you get abilities that make it easier to sneak up on enemies and subdue or execute them. You see, the subdue/execute option is tied into the game’s Karma system. Do enough Karmic actions in a row, and you’ll activate a super move based on whichever powerset you’ve got equipped at the moment. You’ve probably seen the Smoke-based one; where Delsin launches into the air and smashes into the ground. Eventually, I had a system: turn invisible with Video, sneak around subduing enemies, find a Neon station, and use that super move to wipe out everyone. The fluid nature of Second Son’s combat means that you’ll probably find your niche, which is no bad thing.
The returning Good/Evil Karma system is still dumb, from both a gameplay and story perspective. Delsin literally starts the game excited about being a superhero and helping the people of Seattle; there’s no reason for him to start murdering. I tried to play the whole game from the perspective of Delsin, and I only encountered one moral choice moment that gave me pause. Every other time, it just made more sense for him to go with the Good option. There are Good/Evil options in combat and random sandbox events, so that’ll help in getting your Karma meter up, but there’s really no reason to besides the entire franchise revolving around this silly concept. There aren’t a whole lot of super useful upgrades locked behind either side, so there’s no mechanical reason to go one way or the other. You basically have to pick a side from the word ‘go’, and the game locks missions depending on your alignment, so there’s no opportunity to role-play. You would think someone would’ve figured out how to make this work after 3 games. inFamous 2 came close, with the choices based more in order versus chaos, two characters who represent each side, and a fairly clever series of role reversals towards the end of that game. This is another step back.
If you want some actual structure in your sandboxes, the game has a decent amount of side missions for your perusal. Sadly, they’re mostly just fetch quests and scavenger hunts without a whole lot of flavor. The obligatory audio log quest line is somewhat interesting, but it’s another scavenger hunt. A phone call from a side character introducing some of these missions would go a long way towards fleshing out the characters and giving the player a better idea of what’s going on. You can also tag walls with a somewhat entertaining spray painting mechanic, but the game doesn’t quite lean on that idea as well as it should. Completing side missions go towards liberating the city, which doesn’t really hold any tangible advantages besides less enemies and a genuinely funny little subplot you have to see to believe.
There’s also a Spartan Ops-esque series of missions called ‘Paper Trail’ that is (theoretically) supported by an online portion set to roll out over the next five weeks, but I had trouble getting it to work at time of writing. The first mission was interesting, and I’m excited to see where the whole thing goes. It’s got an interesting new character, a compelling story, and potential new mechanics. This is the “flavor” I was looking for in the game’s main side missions.
The game’s depiction of Seattle is a gorgeous recreation of an already gorgeous city, and it’s definitely the best open world Sucker Punch has ever depicted. New Marais had more personality, but Seattle is just so beautiful. I had a feeling Sucker Punch would be able to properly iterate on the PS4’s hardware, and that feeling was spot-on. The framerate took a few hits early on, but it definitely smoothed out towards the game’s end.
When I say inFamous: Second Son is more of a step back for the series, that’s not really an insult. Second Son has moments that come close to inFamous 2’s dizzying heights, but the rest of the game is more on the level of the first inFamous. And you know what? The first inFamous was pretty great, and that was an early PS3 game. If this was a late PS4 release, Second Son’s lack of proper iteration might be less excusable, but for a new console debut, this game is almost unparalleled.
At the very least, it’s the best PS4 exclusive yet. That alone might be worth a look.