Sometimes you just want more, and sometimes you get it. Then you might ask for it to be better, and you get it. And when you finally get everything you ask for, you’re disappointed. It’s because you, despite having full agency over your body and mind, don’t know what you want. And if you don’t know that, how can someone else?
Case in point, we have Infamous: Second Son. It is the third in the series, replacing fictional cities and a gruff Cole MacGrath with a real(ish) Seattle and a rambunctious Delsin Rowe. It continues off the canonical “good” ending from Infamous 2, but that’s not really necessary to know to get into Second Son. Basically the US government is rounding up anyone with supernatural powers and labeling them as bio-terrorists.
Delsin, as it happens, is one of those people (a “conduit” in Infamous vernacular) and doesn’t take kindly to that label, especially when it’s causing the slow death of his Native American tribe. Brooke Augustine, leader of the Department of Unified Protection and a real dick, has used his own conduit powers to inflect a concrete-based malady upon Delsin’s people, and now Delsin has to find Augustine, absorb his powers, and reverse its effects.
That second bit is perhaps the most important, considering it sets Delsin apart from Cole and away from being just another parkour-capable, blast-happy dude with a lot of ostensibly deep philosophical and emotional problems to solve. Instead of just getting stronger abilities as you unlock upgrades, Delsin earns entirely new powers to play with.
Unfortunately, many of these new sets are analogous to the previous one. You start with smoke and eventually gain powers like neon and whatnot, but you always have something to facilitate traversal and a handful of attacks that are more or less variants of things coming out of your hands. The game tries to focus your malicious or heroic intent on how the powers operate (e.g. smoke incapacitates rather easily) but it all feels rather uniform.
Granted, the differences are quantifiable such that smoke can fire huge, splashy rockets and neon can fire precision shots, but given that they have familiar parallels to conventional shooter vocabulary (RPGs and snipers, in this case), it makes the variety feel much more homogenous than it actually is. And, while as gratifying as they are, the ultimate Karma Bomb moves are all basically giant area-of-effect attacks that have you fall from high above, further muting the contrast.
The combat, however, is still pretty fun. While you blast guys off of rooftops and smash them in the face with your smoke chains, you are reminded of what it feels like to have power but, with your quickly diminishing health, also are reminded of why that power matters. You can easily wipe the floor with all the grunts you encounter, but to come out on top and still smiling instead of panting and bleeding? That’s much more rewarding.
And while you shoot bad guys in the face with your neon hand bolts, you’re likely to simply destroy parts of the world. Granted, this doesn’t include whole buildings and such like in Red Faction: Guerrilla, but you can permanently eradicate whole shanty DUP establishments and even utilize such destructible environments in your quest. You could plan out a whole assault on a base and free its captives and put down its hostiles, or you can knock out structure by structure as you come and go. Your impact will be there waiting.
That, in addition to the good concept—if poor execution—of the multiple powers thing makes you fee like you have a great deal of tangible impact on how the game unfolds. Even with the incredibly easy-to-see and deliberately plain (and, consequently, inconsequential) design of good and bad karma, the trance induced upon you as you bash in bridges and barriers and faces, the gameplay feels fairly portentous, even if the narrative choices don’t.
It helps that the game looks absolutely incredible. It’s hard to express how impressive Second Son looks in motion without you actually playing it. Even a 720p HD trailer doesn’t do it justice because you simply lose out on the raw visuals of a pure render happening in front of you. It’s such a small thing (quite literally), but after seeing Delsin’s fingers simply gesticulate about as he moved in the world finally convinced me that we are in the new generation of games.
It’s not even the high fidelity or the advanced shaders or ambient light, but it’s the art, as well. As incongruous as some of it might seem at times, it all comes in at a high bar. Seeing neon blend into smoke in an organic way as you wander the night makes the world seem much more cohesive.
At least on an aesthetic level. As a Seattle, this is a fairly poor representation. It is overly flat and lacking any distinct Seattle flavor. As stated by a local familiar with both the city and the game, it comes across as a generic landscape with a few landmark features scattered about.
The most egregious thing isn’t even Seattle-specific, though it could be considering simply how lively the northwestern hub sounds on the streets. Compared to Second Son, Seattle might as well be the aural equivalent of Carnival. Carried over from Infamous 2 in the worst case of hereditary fealty, this game is deathly silent. It warps the natural atmosphere and turns it into something eerie and disconcerting.
An insistence to remain the same as its past versions, though, is most pervasive. You still collect shards and you still complete side quests to earn more goodies and you still progress almost wholly the same as you did before. The experience of going through story beat to story beat is different enough, but seeing the progression of Delsin is all too familiar.
This is especially disappointing considering the additional freedom afforded to the combat. Most defining of the past Infamous games where—aside from the parkour and supernatural gliding—was the stilted, obviously binary moral choices. I touched on it briefly before, but it bears repeating how mind-numbingly dull the seismic choices that you have to make actually are. They are as predictable as the sunrise tomorrow, but not nearly as beautiful.
I will say, though, that Delsin is far and away more interesting than Cole ever was. But that is far too little too late to make Second Son much more than a strange conglomeration of homage and incremental improvements. Its actual contents are far from terrible, but it’s also nothing revolutionary, and just barely evolutionary. Infamous: Second Son does what it does well, but we’ve seen it do its shtick before.
+ Graphics that make me believe we’re in the next generation
+ Delsin has a far more interesting character arc and foundation than Cole ever did
+ Combat choices, given the permanence through actions, feels important
– Story choices are as bland as dipping tofu in water
– The city, visual and aurally, is incredibly dead and inconsequential
Final Score 7 out of 10
Game Review: Infamous: Second Son
Release: March 21, 2014
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4