For better or for worse, Infamous: Second Son takes the series in some interesting new directions
Say what you will, good or bad, about Infamous: Second Son. One thing that you can’t say about it is that it was designed as a lazy, cookie cutter sequel or that it lacks ambition. It is a game that is impressive, both technologically and artistically. It is also a game that appears to have been designed from the ground up, keeping the spirit of the previous games alive without being just an iteration in the series. There are some good and bad changes from the previous games, and unfortunately, they net out a little bit to the negative. Infamous: Second Son lacks the compelling story and characters that made the first game so special. It is also lacking in the excellent physics-based gameplay and thrilling combat that made Infamous 2 especially fun. This game’s open world city is gorgeous and the game is a nice technical showcase for the Playstation 4. As such, it is a solid title, but one that probably won’t be remembered as one of the platform’s greats a few years from now.
By now, the Infamous formula is clearly established. It is an open world action game where you, as the protagonist, are gifted with various super powers. You can upgrade those powers by collecting bonuses as you complete missions, and you unlock access to either “good” or “evil” powers through your actions in the game. You progress the story with the main missions, which also usually unlock new powers, and you can do missions on the side.
With New York and New Orleans having been represented in the previous two games, Sucker Punch made the bold choice of setting this game in Seattle. It isn’t a fictional stand-in for Seattle like the cities in most open world action games, but it is actual “Seattle”. Beyond the space needle being in the game though, I couldn’t tell you how fairly it is represented. I can tell you, however, that the city looks absolutely mind blowing. At this point, Infamous: Second Son might be the most impressive combination of graphics and size ever produced. Animations in both cut scenes and combat are perfect. The powers that you have look amazing. The smoke powers that you begin the game with have some impressive effects that you may have seen if you watched a trailer, but they only scratch the surface. The other powers that you get look just as good, if not better. There can be tons of effects on the screen without the frame rate taking a serious hit (I only noticed a bad frame rate about twice in this game). The full color palette actually gets used – this is still a huge plus in an era where most action games are still loaded with browns and grays. The game has The Last of Us quality graphics, but in a huge, open world city with a mile or more of view distance. There are almost no loading screens once you start the game up. It is seamless and huge.
Seattle is populated with such a variety of stuff that the great graphics never wear off. When it comes to creating a city that has character and uniqueness, there aren’t many games that have done it better. Almost no two city blocks look the same. For that matter, almost no two buildings look the same. I can’t remember a store front or a skyscraper being repeated once in this game. So many open world games are guilty of being too big and then reusing their assets over and over again, but not this one. It is miles better than the previous two games in this regard. This is what I mean about the game not being a lazy sequel.
Another major departure from the previous games is with the powers that become available to you. Unlike Infamous 1 and 2, you don’t have one set of elemental powers that never changes. Instead, you eventually learn four sets of powers that constantly change, based on what power source you drained last. You start off with smoke and you recharge it by draining smoke from burning cars or smoke stacks. You later learn other powers (one of them right at the final boss battle), and you recharge those by draining them form the appropriate sources. Sucker Punch came up with some clever powers for this game, instead of just using ordinary elements like “fire” or “ice”. I don’t want to spoil what those powers are, because they are really cool and their visual and sound effects are spectacular.
Changing up your powers each time that you drain a different power source is an interesting decision that pays dividends. Not only is the visual variety good to have, but the system also forces you to adapt to your environment. If you run out of smoke, then you may have to drain something else to survive. It makes battles more dynamic than they otherwise would have been. There is a little bit of potential here that goes to waste though, because the powers operate similarly in combat. Smoke is arguably the best combat power, but with each one there is a dash, a basic attack, and a limited use power attack that does splash damage. A couple of powers have a “stun grenade” and another excels for flying between rooftops. One power offers brief invisibility. Beyond that though, the differences are largely cosmetic. I would have loved to see less overlap in the powers so that each one would operate completely different.
In addition to the PS4’s graphical power, Infamous: Second Son also makes some use of the console’s other features, with more limited success. The game makes great use of the controller’s speaker. Some neat sound effects come out of there when you recharge your powers and when your cell phone rings. Your character, Delsin, is a graffiti artist, so one of the game’s activities is a spray painting minigame, where you turn the controller sideways and hold it like a spray can. It isn’t bad, but it feels too much like a Wii game gimmick from 2007. The spray painting could have been interesting if there had been some challenge to it and some reward for painting without drips or errors. There isn’t, so it is rather dull. A missed opportunity. The game also makes occasional use of the touch pad. Most of these uses are “touch and swipe”, which are just an inefficient substitute for a button press. Disappointingly, the game makes no use of the smartphone/tablet PS4 app. This would have been a perfect game to put the city map on the second screen, since you will frequently have that map open.
There are some other side activities, such as finding audio recordings and collecting power shards. Other reviewers have pointed out that these activities lack variety, and I mostly agree. Typically every district has the same activities. First, you destroy the enemy (DUP) headquarters. Then, you collect shards or destroy various things that are marked on your map. Last, you get into a final showdown to complete the district. There are about fifteen or so of these cycles that play out mostly the same and get stale by the game’s end. I wish that the game’s side missions had been designed with the same “no copy and paste” rule that the visuals were apparently drawn up with.
No matter what mission you are on, the most common activity is combat. Every major mission, at one time or another, requires you to beat down some bad guys. It is a visually impressive affair and the controls are tight and responsive. Enemies have pretty good AI and they are good at navigating 3D space. The challenge level is decent without being unfair.
Combat is still lacking though, and it can be annoying at times. This game, like its predecessors, has regenerating health. You are rather fragile in this game and enemies can do a lot of damage quickly, which means that you have to frequently flee combat and find some place to regenerate. You can regenerate by drawing from a power source, but the sources in this game are fewer in number and more spread out than the previous games (in Infamous 1 and 2, you could draw from cars or light poles in the street and get into a protracted fight). Outside of some destructible structures, combat also lacks a physics aspect, which was a huge part of the previous games. You can’t blow enemies off of a rooftop with a force wave anymore. Nor can you crush them with a car. The powers aren’t as well balanced as they could be. With each set of powers, you will probably find yourself ignoring one or two of them because the other ones are better. The worst aspect of the combat though is the way that you are constantly getting knocked into your “stun/stumble” animation. Enemies are equipped with lots of splash damage attacks that make you stumble if they land within ten feet of you. The final boss spams the living hell out of you with these and then crushes you while you get stuck in “stumble” mode. In between the more frequent interruptions and the smaller variety of useful attacks, I found the combat in this game to be a decent but forgettable experience.
The presentation in Infamous: Second Son is excellent, and no expense was spared when it came to providing good voice actors and realistic looking characters. Unfortunately, though, that presentation goes to waste on a terrible, poorly written, and unimaginative story with some really bland characters. Just about everything in it is either boring or stupid. The game takes place in a city under martial law, where Conduits (i.e. people with super powers) are detained or killed on sight. The villain in the game calls Conduits “bio-terrorists”, which is one of the dumber uses of the word “terrorist” that I have seen in this medium. Given how overused that theme is in video games nowadays, that is saying a lot. The villain is a horribly uncharismatic brute who is not only a Conduit, but also has imbued the DUP with Conduit powers. But yet, she has sold the population on the idea that all Conduits are dangerous and should be rounded up without a trial. Imagine Barack Obama declaring that all black people are dangerous and need to be put in prison, so he creates a special army of black people to do it – and he is an ugly woman in a trench coat. That is the story in Infamous: Second Son. It might have made for some good satire had it not taken itself seriously. It never provides a plausible reason why these conditions have come to pass – the population is just a retarded sheeple. Even if you have good karma, your moron brother uses the word “bio-terrorist” halfway through the game. The Delsin character is okay and a couple of the Conduits that you meet are interesting, but beyond that, the story in this game is irredeemable.
When you step back and look at both the good and the bad, Infamous: Second Son is an ambitious title that takes the series in some interesting new directions. I think that I like the previous games better, but with that said, Sucker Punch deserves some kudos for some of the chances that they took. The series has a ton of upside if they decide to make an Infamous 4. The lousy story is kind of a bummer, especially after the series started so strong. Even without the story though, the game has a lot going for it between its beautiful open world city and some cool super powers. The game is worth owning for now, and it is a nice way to show off what this console can do. A few years from now though, it probably won’t be remembered as much more than that.