Review: InFamous: Second Son Is A Barren But Highly Entertaining Beauty
This is it, the definitive PS4 title of the moment, right? If you own a PlayStation 4 this was your answer to Titanfall. However, does the game match the hype? Of course not, it never does but does it come close? Grab a car battery and have a seat.
- Worth The Time?It may be short and lacking a strong narrative but it's great fun and certainly worth your time if only for those breathtaking visuals.
- Things LovedSly Cooper ringtone, Delsin enjoys having his powers, great boss fights, combat is surprisingly fun, navigating the city is just as much fun. Spraypainting is the best use of the DualShock 4 to date. Switching between powers is a joy. Everything about the neon powers is awesome. Second Son is visually incredible.
- Things HatedThe Karma system still feels shallow and token despite trying harder. Second Son lacks any real innovation over its predecessors, open-world feels empty and lifeless.
- RecommendationSeries fans will have a good time with the gameplay and navigation but may feel that nothing has changed. Newcomers may want more substance from an open-world experience but should still enjoy what the gameplay has to offer. Graphics junkies and PS4 owners alike should definitely get Second Son if only because it looks next-gen.
- Name: inFamous: Second Son
- Genre: Karma
- Players: 1+
- Multiplayer: N/A
- Platforms: PS4
- Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
- Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
- Price: $59.99 (R790)
- Reviewed On: PS4
I suppose the best place to begin any review of an inFamous title is with the good and the bad. Normally the ugly would be in the mix too but there is just so much rendered beauty in this game that we’ll neglect the visual denizens for the time being.
InFamous: Second Son is much like its predecessors. There’s a man, a city, some powers, some bad guys and a karma system. The only difference is that this time it’s all different, sort of. It’s different in a way that is rather similar to inFamous 2.
Are you sufficiently baffled? Good, I’ve just given myself some work to do and you a reason to keep reading.
The first two inFamous games were great for different reasons. The original presented this interesting idea of what an average Joe would do if given real power, this tied into a fantastic narrative that kept you hooked to the game. The sequel was light on story but heavy on great gameplay that not only made you feel powerful but was also incredibly fun. Second Son is the third and borrows more from the middle sibling than from its big brother.
Second Son’s very first bit of gameplay is a novel use of the DualShock 4 controller as a spray can which you use to paint graffiti on a billboard. It’s surprisingly intuitive and rather fun. It is perhaps one of the most innovative uses for a controller I’ve seen bar licking the PS4’s touchpad. That may not yet be a thing but just you wait until someone in Japan thinks of it.
The game takes place seven years after inFamous 2 and in the wake of that game’s ending the Department of Unified Protection was created to contain and deal with the Conduits that were springing up everywhere. For the uninitiated, a Conduit is someone with abilities or powers as per the inFamous universe.
It’s a good way to build on the previous games but in such a way that it’s almost a clean slate and thus ideal for newcomers to the franchise. It’s the same trick Guerilla pulled on Killzone: Shadow Fall.
Anyway, you play as Delsin Rowe. He’s really just some guy and we know little else about him other his being Native American, having an affinity for Banksy-style street art and a knack for getting into trouble. Add some special powers and you’ve got the perfect recipe for something not resembling a superhero. Well, you’ve got a recipe. It’s up to you how you flavour it.
Delsin discovers quite by accident that he’s not just a Conduit but a conduit for other Conduit’s powers. So instead of holding only one power he is able to absorb any power (read: the ultimate cheat when it comes to abilities). Through a series of events he finds himself up against the DUP in Seattle and that’s really all you need to know. There are some interesting characters but they’re all really tropes we’ve seen plenty of times. Especially in any movie based around people gaining powers and abilities. The plot tries to have more substance than the gameplay vehicle that it is but again it’s nothing you won’t have enough seen in X-Men, Heroes and no doubt numerous other works of fiction. The narrative could have benefited from actually making use of the game’s name and incorporating the First Sons into the story but it’s understandable if this was done to avoid alienating newcomers. Then again, why is it even called Second Son in the first place?
That said, the plot and characters are interesting enough from minute to minute. This is thanks to some decent dialogue, good voice, Delsin being a surprisingly compelling character and the narrative really moving at a good pace. You always know where it’s going to end up so Sucker Punch doesn’t waste your time in drawing it out needlessly. It would have been nice if they drew the overall experience out a bit longer or provided more to do in Second Son’s rendition of Seattle.
Before we go there, let’s just touch on Delsin. He’s not a great character, he won’t go on my list of memorable protagonists and he didn’t really stand out all that much. However, he’s fun to be around for however long it takes you to play the game because he’s a lot like Spider-Man. Not in the radioactive semen, deals with the devil sort of way but more in how he handles his powers. He absolutely loves them and even in tense battles he’s still having fun using these abilities and feeling powerful. He also likes to crack wise which doesn’t hurt. As an aside: Delsin is voiced by ever-present Troy Baker and it was a little jarring at times just how similar he sounded to Nathan Drake from Uncharted. It was jarring for more than just the voice though but keep that in mind for later. It was certainly nothing to dampen the experience but I could practically hear the Uncharted theme in the background.
Let’s start picking up some loose threads, boys and girls… and bio-terrorists.
This game is short. The core narrative will take you perhaps 7-9 hours to complete and the latter is at a leisurely pace with plenty of deaths and retries to boot. As with previous titles in the series, Second Son is an open-world game but not really a sandbox game and this is a distinction I’ve come to note.
An open-world simply means you are free to roam about wherever you like but a sandbox populates that world with plenty of activities to keep you preoccupied. What self-respecting toddler plays in a sandbox without a couple of toys, a spade and possibly some things to bury only to dig them up again.
Similarly, Second Son gives you this bite-the-back-of-your-hand pretty sandbox to frolic in, complete with particle effects to make the sand look extra lovely, and yet for the most part it’s rather barren. The game’s version of Seattle isn’t all that big either. When Batman: Arkham City gave us a relatively small world it was with the intention of cramming it so full of content that there is something to do on every street corner. Granted, Batman has decades of mythos and backstory from which to draw Riddler challenges and side missions but Sucker Punch seems eager to build the inFamous universe and there’s no better way to do that than with intriguing side activities that supplement your core experience.
If you develop an aversion to the story missions there is scarcely anything else to do. The bulk of your sundry activities go toward taking over a district from the DUP by destroying bases, hunting down hidden DUP agents, destroying security cameras and using that awesome spray can feature to do little works of graffiti all over town. Other than that you can destroy drugs, beat up anti-bio-terrorist protesters or kill off Russian gang members. Which of those you choose to do depends on your karmic alignment.
You can (see: have to) also collect Blast Shards which allow you to upgrade your abilities. There is also an interesting social/online integrated series of missions called Paper Trails which each give out a series of clues and some evidence to analyse. These get sent to your Paper Trails account for further analysis in discovering the mysterious origami-themed Conduit behind a series of murders.
The vast bulk of these side activities take up little to no time at all and are all the same. That’s not an exaggeration, they are all exactly the same. The graffiti is all different though. That’s the shining light amongst all this copy-paste. Story missions meanwhile don’t vary too much either though there’s always a little something to keep it different or fresh.
Second Son plays exactly like its predecessors, this is both a good and a bad thing. Movement, controls and even the basic attacks for each power are all based on the structures implemented by inFamous 2 back in 2011. I think you can see where this is going. There is nothing wrong with the control scheme, it works great and is intuitive but using the same structure for powers seems a bit lazy. There are four very different powers but they all provide much the same sort of attacks. This is not a large criticism but rather a huge area where Sucker Punch has something really good but could clearly have improved it.
Of course, you don’t want the powers handling too differently but some diversity would be welcome.
Your basic attacks for each power can be compared to weapons in a third-person shooter. Your light attack is a submachine gun, heavy attack is a shotgun, grenades are grenades, bombs are bombs and your area-effect attack is essentially an airstrike performed by Snoopy in his scale F-32.
Beyond those basic powers are upgrades for them as well as upgrades specific to a certain karmic alignment branching off from each attack type. Unilaterally the ‘Ruthless’ karmic upgrades seem to be better and more useful, especially for navigation. Which makes me wonder who would want to be good in the first place. Unless that’s a moral decision in and of itself. Do I forsake being good just for greater power? Well played, Sucker Punch. Assuming that was in any way intentional. If not then incentivise people to be good, you evil bastards.
There is a lack of diversity in terms of what each power offers but it is a joy to switch between powers on the fly. Powers are replenished by draining neon signs, smoke vents or other things (we’ll keep the other powers a secret). It’s actually rather enjoyable to run out of smoke, run over to a neon sign and suddenly you’re shooting laser beams from your hands.
It takes a bit of time and a few upgrades before you feel any sort of real power although even at the highest level Delsin doesn’t feel very Godlike. In fact, he dies rather easily. The game prefers you to go in with a slower, ranged approach rather than getting up in enemies’ faces. I had a penchant for the latter approach and as a result died, a lot. However, I’m about as skilled a gamer as a fingerless mongoose so it is certainly possible to play the game up close and personal. This combat approach suits the high-energy, high-intensity feel of battles far more. If you choose to be bad then at some point civilians will attack you in groups of five or six. Three punches here is enough to kill Delsin and thus equivalent to a few shots from an enemy gun. Logic.
The Karma system is… well it’s simplified to the point of being more black and white than the 1950’s and infinitely more hilarious. Unintentionally of course. Right at the beginning of the game, when you are more neutral than good or bad, you are presented with the options of beating up protesters for bad karma or destroying drugs for good karma. It’s so bipolar it needs prescription drugs. Is the middle-ground made of lava or something?
This is nothing new though, it’s what we’ve come to expect from inFamous but an effort has been made to make your karmic alignment have something more of a tangible translation to the game.
It changes Delsin’s demeanour and character interactions greatly, in addition to changing the colour of his clothing because no truly bad guy wears blue. Megamind being a case in point. The endings are vastly different and without spoiling anything the evil ending seemed a little too harsh even for Delsin’s character at that point. It’s almost certainly not the ending that Sucker Punch will carry forward into the next game.
If you’re new to this, listen up. With infamous games there are good and bad endings. Which ending you got is irrelevant because Sucker Punch will choose one to be canon. Essentially you have to play the game twice, as I am currently doing. That’s one of enhancing replayability but it’s also a cheap way of doing it.
Ultimately, this karma system feels dated and more than a little silly. It’s a good thing big moral decisions are few and far between. It’s a small improvement over previous games but still so shallow and inconsequential it may as well be a token feature.
Second Son is perhaps at its best when you’re just looking at it. The game is breathtakingly gorgeous. It runs at 1080p and 30 frames per second for the most part with the frame rate only dipping once during a very intense action scene.
The dynamic lighting, weather and shadow effects are stellar, facial animations are more than just up to scratch and capture muscular nuances well. The game looks amazing at night especially thanks to all those pretty lights. Despite powers handling in much the same way, they are all visually diverse and spectacles to behold in their own right.
Second Son isn’t just pretty, it’s visually vibrant with a very colourful aesthetic that makes the most of tech on hand to deliver a visual feast.
The game has some truly great boss fights. the sort of stuff you don’t see anymore that’s not only challenging but has that sense of occasion to it. It’s something I rather appreciated to see. Why mention this? well, because that’s the point of a review, I’m here to tell you what’s good about the game and what isn’t. back to my point. Whilst in the midst of a boss fight it happened to be raining and this game is so pretty that I became entranced by the ripples made in a puddle of water by my feet. I may or may not have died as a direct result of that.
I could sit and watch Delsin absorb neon energy for days. It’s that pretty to watch. It’s even better when you’re navigating using the neon powers.
The downside here is that with these amazing visuals the shoddier aspects are all the more noticeable. The game still using outdated and frankly laughable animations for a lot of things. Delsin moves exactly like Cole and it looks a little weird but works for the most part. It does not work when you’re scaling a building and the only animation he seems capable of is an awkward jump that should guarantee a painful fall. It’s the same robotic animation used inFamous 2. Compare it with the organic way characters climb in Assassin’s Creed. Fortunately most of the powers prevent you from having to shuffle up the side of a building to get to the top. There are also no transition animations. Delsin will snap from whichever position he was in to the position my button prompt demanded.
This is why the Nathan Drake comparison was jarring. In 2014, with a game that wants to look this good I expect the character to interact with the world intelligently. When I brush against a wall he should put his end there or when i walk into an obstacle he puts his hands up against it instead of walking face first into a lamp post.
More fundamentally, if you try to pass under a diagonally fallen pillar then Delsin will refuse to go forward instead of simply ducking an inch. On top of that, walk over rock surfaces and you’ll see his feet disappear.
It shows that Sucker Punch can build a beautiful game but haven’t yet thought to make it intelligently immersive and beautiful.
That said, you can navigate so quickly around Seattle that you really do need to remember to stop and smell the charred flesh. Moving around has never been so fluid, intuitive and fast. Every power gives you a dash ability but most give you the tools to move around really quickly. Again, there are some interaction issues here where navigation gets halted by an arbitrary canopy or feature jutting out from a building. Regardless, it never stops navigating the city from being one of Second Son’s best aspects. It really is that fun to run along walls as a neon streak.
The city feels a little lifeless too but this is explained early on by saying it’s a result of the DUP taking over.
There a few little touches which bring a smile to fans of Suck Punch’s games. You’ll also realise that they love to name drop themselves. I heard the word sucker punch at least a dozen times. There are a few Easter eggs to be found but the best one has to be Delsin’s ringtone being the Sly Cooper theme song.
Ultimately, Second Son is not the system seller people thought it might be. It’s certainly not going to be the best game of the year but it’s genuinely a very good game. It lacks in a lot of areas and was clearly made using an outdated, simplified and arguably lazy way of thinking but by God it is great fun and looks incredible.