As the first big exclusive title for the PS4 post-launch, inFAMOUS: Second Son has a heavy weight of expectation on its shoulders. Like its protagonist Delsin Rowe, inFAMOUS will be closely scrutinised to determine whether or not it lives up to the lofty heights that have been set. Ultimately, inFAMOUS: Second Son is a brilliant and exhilarating sandbox superhero game weighed down by a narrative that never hits as hard as intended. Like Delsin, it’s fun, but flawed.
It’s been seven years since the events of inFAMOUS 2, and in that time the government has formed the D.U.P. (Department of Unified Protection) in order to capture and imprison any and all Conduits and thus keep the peace. Delsin Rowe, an Akomish Native American living with his tribe in upstate Washington is a burn-out and the local delinquent, much to the chagrin of his Sheriff brother Reggie.
A convoy passing through the sleepy town crashes and three Conduits are released and escape. Delsin comes into contact with Hank, who possesses the power of Smoke, and absorbs his power revealing for the first time that he is a Conduit himself. D.U.P. head Brooke Augustine — a Conduit herself with the power of Concrete — interrogates Delsin about his contact with Hank and unsatisfied with his answer proceeds to torture members of the Akomish tribe to get the information she desires. Upon waking a week later, Delsin learns that Augustine’s method of torture is killing the tribe and the only way to reverse it is to absorb her power. With Reggie reluctantly in tow, Delsin heads to nearby Seattle to confront Augustine and save the tribe.
It’s a much more personal story than the previous two games and one that attempts to touch the player on an emotional level. Once in Seattle though, Delsin’s story takes a backseat to the broader themes of freedom vs safety. Pitting personal liberty against government intervention is not new, but it is current so Second Son scores some resonance there. However, it’s painted in such broad strokes and with such basic characerisation that it is little more than background noise.
Delsin is the classic anti-authoritarian decked out in his denim jacket and using his “mad tagging skills” to fight back against the man. Augustine is a villain with an agenda; she does what she does for reasons… reasons you could not possibly understand. Her motivations come from a misguided sense of doing what’s right. All the characters in Second Son are painted tagged with the same can. They’re broad, stereotypical cliches we’ve seen time and time again. In a typical comic book styled, superhero sandbox game it’s less of an issue, but because Second Son wants and tries to offer a more emotional story, the characterisations diminish the impact.
Likewise, the return of the morality system from the previous games offers little in the way of engaging the player or having them feel the weight of any decision. It’s a binary system that has room only for pure good or pure evil. There’s no middle ground in the world of inFAMOUS. The lack of narrative impact isn’t even the biggest sin committed by the morality system. Many of the various upgrades and powerups Delsin can access are tied to morality. Once you make the first “moral” decision it makes sense to stick with that alignment for the remainder of the game, lest powering up become much more difficult.
If you do decide to go one way and then the other, any and all alignment based powerups you have unlocked will become unavailable to you. Morality is largely a way to access powers and hardly changes the story in any meaningful way. There are of course differences to the story, but they are superficial. My advice is to pick an alignment and stick with it, then choose the other on your second playthrough.
The story does have some merit and there are moments of genuine intrigue, shock and even emotional resonance, but on the whole it isn’t as good as it could or should be. Thankfully then, the gameplay is entirely excellent. While remaining true to the inFAMOUS experience established over the course of two games, Second Son streamlines, improves and polishes. Gone are the days of arduously parkouring up buildings or running/rail grinding to get through the city.
All four of Deslin’s powers (which I won’t spoil) give him access to some form of fast movement or another. Smoke allows him to enter an air vent and instantly appear at the top of a building exiting via a connecting air duct while Neon gives access to a dash move that turns him into something like a Tron lightcycle, letting him do things like scale buildings.
Gameplay is more than ever about speed, power, movement and, ultimately, combat. While inFAMOUS has never been one to shy away from combat, Second Son really nails the balance between enemies, Delsin, powers and the level design. Battles are both staged and impromptu affairs. The game throws waves of enemies at the player inside ever changing locations and who boast an impressive variety of skills. Learning how to defeat the different enemy types becomes a puzzle within itself and figuring out how to best make use of the available powers to do so is quite rewarding.
Despite growing increasingly powerful, Delsin never seems impervious. It’s an important facet to Second Son which keeps the player on their toes for the duration. Getting too cocky will get Delsin killed. Each encounter needs to be strategic and somewhat careful, especially on harder difficulties. That’s half the fun though. Surgically taking apart a D.U.P. unit with all your skills and powers makes you feel like a superhuman. Standing over the unconcious (or dead if playing as evil) bodies of your enemies and observing the outcome of a battle is especially cool. The semi destructible environments add a layer of debris that makes it appear as though some real destruction and chaos has happened, making you feel even more badass.
The most instantly noticeable aspect of Second Son is just how gorgeous it is. Sucker Punch has obviously had access to PS4 dev kits for some time as inFAMOUS is easily the PS4’s best looking game. It is possibly the prettiest game available for current-gen consoles overall. Seattle is painstakingly rendered in immaculate detail. Rain slicks over roads and buildings giving a sheen which reflects the myriad lights and neon signs throughout the city. Textures are impeccable and on occasion I forgot I wasn’t looking at an image of real buildings and streets.
Lighting and particle effects are the most impressive weapon in Second Son’s graphical arsenal. Smoke billows and shifts realistically in reaction to wind, Delsin, the enemies and the use of powers. Puffs of smoke dissipate or linger depending on whether you’re fighting on a rooftop or a closed in alley. I can’t help but think that the powers that have been chosen for this installment were partially due to being able to show off the power of the PS4. Neon is the prettiest of all the powers. Using it leaves trails of pink Neon light — like a long exposure photograph — littered throughout Seattle. They slowly disappear, but it’s a sight to behold to look back at an area filled with lingering Neon remnants. It’s something that would likely not have been possible on last-gen consoles.
Characters move fluidly and as if they were living humans, thanks to a combination of voice-acting and motion capture. The models look great and avoid the uncanny valley by retaining somewhat of a cartoonish, comic book aesthetic. Although once or twice they do veer that way. It’s more a case of adjusting to just how realistically humans can be rendered in 2014 and less a case of Second Son doing it badly. It truly is an amazing looking game and sets the bar for any future PS4 exclusives. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if no game visually surpasses Second Son until Uncharted 4.
In spite of my reservations about the narrative and morality system at play in Second Son, I still have no qualms in recommending it highly. It’s a streamlined, fast-paced superhero game. It’s gorgeous to look at and although the story isn’t much to write home about there is enough there to keep you engaged. Despite his appearance and pre-release assumptions, Delsin isn’t the d-bag he could have been. He occasionally annoys, but is genuinely likable and relatable. His quest to help his people is an admirable one, but one that ultimately gets lost in the high drama and histrionics of the government vs liberty scenario.
inFAMOUS: Second Son is better than either game that came before it and a great step forward for the franchise. Fans of the originals will find plenty to love here and even skeptics may find some merit. As the first exclusive for the PS4 since launch, Second Son doesn’t quite live up to expectations, but it comes damn close.
inFAMOUS: Second Son