BEWARE: Here be spoilers. If you don't want to know anything about the plot spark or powers beyond Smoke and Neon, don't read on.
Hot damn, inFamous: Second Son is pretty.
Even twenty hours in, on my second playthrough, there are still moments when I have to stand on a rooftop and gawp at the details and the draw distance.
Of course, this is not the first time that a PS4 exclusive has impressed me with its pinsharp vision and next-gen graphical sensibilities. Killzone: Shadow Fall made my retinas weep with joy, but that visually stunning veneer belied a game that was rather by-the-numbers and uninspired in terms of design. I'll admit that I was a little worried inFamous: Second Son might follow suit.
Thankfully, I was wrong.
Combining open world design with a strong story, and allowing you to colour in the patches of moral uncertainty with red or blue is something inFamous has long stood for, embodying the grand question of what would an ordinary person do if they developed superpowers? Second Son sees us step into the shoes of Delsin Rowe, a youthful, energetic fellow who discovers he has the ability to pilfer the powers of other Prime Conduits -- that is, superpowered mutant folk with special abilities. However, thanks to decades-long propaganda by the Department of Unified Protection, the public perceives Conduits to be "Bio-Terrorists" and menaces to society, and certain DUP officers have been imbued with concrete powers of their own to combat the Bio-Terrorist "threat". Delsin, after a run-in with the DUP and an escaped Conduit results in his family and friends being brutalised at the hands of DUP brass, vows to journey to the base of operations in Seattle, and steal the power that inflicted the damage back from the organisation's director -- Brooke Augustine.
Delsin is a vastly different character to the absent Cole McGrath, and frankly all the better for it, brought to life in superb fashion by the ever-excellent Troy Baker. And "brought to life" is right -- the added visual fidelity allows for a much greater degree of nuanced performance from Baker and his fellow actors. The exchanges between Baker as Delsin, and Travis Willingham as the older brother, Reggie, are fantastically worked. The visual expression exceeds that of L.A. Noire (where confused of thoughtful characters still looked as if they were doing an enormous poo and plummeted head first into the uncanny valley), and applies that level of detail not just to faces but to entire character models and the city of Seattle in general. It's impressive stuff, and it allows us to sink more deeply into the lives of these characters.
Delsin himself -- an Akomish young man, headstrong, wilful, and street-smart -- is clearly aimed towards a late-teen/twentysomething audience, and the struggle at the heart of Second Son is that between giving himself entirely over to his powers or learning how to use them to help and protect people from the oppression of the Department of Unified Protection. He's young, excitable, and has an infectious energy and eagerness to test out his skills and try out new things -- a trait that matches one's own desire for experimentation and exploration in games such as this. It rather makes him one of the most endearing central characters in an open world superhero game for some time.
And you can shape him a little more than you could Cole, to a certain extent. The Karma system in this game extends beyond narrative forks in the road to moment-to-moment gameplay. Out on the streets of Seattle, you'll be constantly bombarded with opportunities to engaging in light and dark quests, from narrative missions to simply helping or hurting others. The Karma system is in play all of the time now, and it extends to how you take enemies down as well. Clear out the majority of a group of foes and the remaining miscreant will probably surrender. Do you then subdue them, or execute them?
The Karmic system ties into your powers as well. There are certain abilities that can only be unlocked by advancing through Karmic levels -- do enough good deeds and you'll rise through the blue ranks, allowing you to funnel Power Shards (the game's upgrade currency) into positive Karmic skills, and the same goes for aggressive, evil playthroughs. There's little room for grey, though, so you'll kind of need to stick to your Karmic path if you want to get the most out of the game, with the two sides seeming rather mutually exclusive. There's an incentive to replay, though, as your Karmic choice will reflect certain playstyles. On a fundamental level, evil is all about headshots, whilst being a hero, as the good Shepherd Book taught us in Firefly, is all about kneecapping.
Powers are, of course, and the very heart of everything, and Delsin is not just restricted to one. As a Conduit who can absorb the powers of others, he gradually grows his potential arsenal. All of the powers behave quite similarly for the most part, though there are some key differences. Run and gun gameplay is a massive part of Second Son. Delsin moves more fluidly than Cole did, and he can shower foes with superpowered projectiles while on the move. But the nature of those projectiles varies depending on the power. Video's spray and pray machine gun approach is markedly different to Smoke's powerful, punchy cannonballs, or Neon's zippy marksmen-esque precision. Smoke and Neon have stun and stasis abilities mapped to L1, but pressing that button with Video equipped renders you invisible for a short space of time. In melee, the fiery chain of Smoke is a great all-rounder, with the swift Neon sword allowing for a greater degree of crowd control, and the enormous two-handed blade of Video providing slow-but-satisfying degrees of heavy power.
Switching between powers requires you to absorb the relevant energy from your surroundings. Sucking the sulfurous gases out of chimneys or busted cars will give you Smoke, siphoning the data out of satellite dishes, tech consoles, and televisions will imbue you with Video powers, but the most satisfying (and cool-looking) power absorption by far happens when you throw an arm out, and the neon from a bar sign cascades from the light fittings in fluid fashion, and fill you up. I'm not sure I'll ever get bored of seeing that.
There's not much that's particularly new here in practical terms, but I had much more fun than I thought I would given the plethora of superpower games there are on the market, and so much of that has to do with Sucker Punch's realisation of Seattle itself.
I've never been to the Emerald City, so I can't speak as to the faithful representation of its districts or landmarks (except for Space Needle, which you get to climb and deface in the name of freedom!), but Sucker Punch have done a good job of making the city not only feel alive and lived in, but making the things that you do seem like they have an impact. With the city under DUP lockdown, your actions to disrupt their plans become very visible very quickly. DUP checkpoints are nearly entirely destructible, you can bring down watchtowers and barricades, and the more power you take back from the DUP within a district, the more the citizens of that district will begin to applaud your actions. It was something that was on the periphery of my vision until someone ran up to me in the street, thanked me effusively, and snap a picture with his camera phone. In a game whose story concerns public opinion of Conduits and the DUP propaganda machine to keep those with powers locked up and contained, it's nice to see that as you follow a positive Karmic path people begin applauding you, and if you go the other way they run and cower in fear.
Second Son's Seattle is broken up into districts under varying degrees of DUP control. They all start out with a 100% rating, but the ease with which you can take down the DUP grows more and more difficult the closer you get to the Downtown area where there are more towers, auto-turrets, and a greater density of DUP officers, often with increasingly potent concrete-based powers of their own. Each district has a mobile DUP control unit that needs to be taken down, and it's nearly always under heavy guard. Delsin is not a tank, he can't withstand an enormous amount of direct damage, and so making the most of the dash moves mapped to Circle is of paramount importance. Knwoing when to stand and fight, and when to run and find a better vantage point that gives you the upper hand is crucial. Scoping out some of the larger bases becomes of paramount importance. Unless you can bring in a heavenly chorus to rain down celestial fire or launch yourself into the air like a rocket before plummeting to the ground and unleashing a mini earthquake, that is. But even your most powerful, area-clearing super attacks need charging up with an unbroken chain of Karmic activity. Planning is sometimes a requirement.
Second Son also does well to utilise the DualShock 4's unique capabilities to good effect to situate you in the world. The speaker warbles when Delsin's phone goes off as well as occasionally channelling environmental music and police reports. The touchpad is a little more gimmicky, but is incorporated in inoffensive fashion for gesture based interactions like opening cell doors, lifting power cores out of DUP mobile units, and simply as a button for siphoning off powers from smoke stacks, signs, and satellites. But the best feature has to be using the motion control to graffiti stencil art onto DUP billboards in a bid to reduce their influence in a district. As well as main missions and DUP strongholds to take down, there are tons of little incidental tasks to engage in to decrease the DUP control in an area. Some range from simply shooting down surveillance drones and absorbing their Power Shard cores to ferreting out hidden cameras or using a profile pic to locate and run down a DUP informant or undercover agent. Some, however, involve flipping the DualShock 4 on its side, shaking it like an aerosol can, and then steadily painting Banksy-esque works of art onto the Seattle skyline. It's perhaps a bit of a shame that we can't draw our own little tags in these moments, but frankly the art that gets produced is much better and funnier than anything my cack-handed "talents" would've come up with.
inFamous: Second Son is a fairly short game as open-world titles go, in a similar manner to Sleeping Dogs in that regard. But like Sleeping Dogs, it feels the better for it, and I rarely found myself to be bored. In fact, I'd say that out of all three inFamous games, this one has certainly been my favourite. And I don't know whether that's down to the affable nature of Delsin Rowe and the fantastic performances by Baker and co., or perhaps the delicate balancing of the powers themselves, all of them familiar yet sparkling with a little pizazz and different enough to allow for multiple playstyles. The difficulty balancing certainly comes into it -- making you feel like a badass yet constantly challenging you, and indeed Sucker Punch said they'd tuned up the normal difficulty mode to provide a little extra bite. It shows, and it's all the better for it.
To be honest, I think it's all of the above. Everything's been put together in Second Son in almost perfect fashion, and it makes for an incredibly satisfying experience. All of it, from the taut script full of witty one-liners and zinger-stuffed banter to the fluidity of combat and the superpowered traversal to the detail that has gone into creating Seattle itself -- Sucker Punch has meshed these parts together wonderfully.
"Enjoy your power!" reads the tagline, and I have. It's been an absolute blast, and fans of the series are going to love it.
- Superb productions values
- Cracking script and excellent performances - graphical fidelity really allows for very detailed, expressive acting
- Powers are great fun and subtly varied
- Simply city dynamics, particularly re. DUP work very nicely indeed
- Little filler, tightly packaged, and superbly paced
- Perfect starting point for newcomers thanks to the new protagonist, but series fans will love it too
- Little that's particularly new
- Some camera issues with the Neon Dash
- More depth and variety to side missions would be welcome (though the Paper Trail is pretty cool)
The Short Version: In many ways, inFamous: Second Son is a lot like its sales rival Titanfall -- it doesn't do much that's new, but rather refines and polishes and balances everything that came before in expert fashion, providing new little twists and expanding in areas that had the scope for it to deliver a blockbuster experience that rarely lets you down.
And that's pretty damn awesome.