InFamous: Second Son review – Neon Heat

Title: InFamous: Second Son
Alternative title:
InFamous 3
Developers: Sucker Punch Productions
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
Genre: Action-adventure
Engine: In-house engine
Format: PS4 (reviewed)
Release: March 21, 2014

Superheroes have always dominated the comic books and graphic novels scene, and in recent they have also taken the entire film industry by storm. Even the TV and net industry is threatened to be consumed by the genre.

And yet, surprisingly, quality superhero games are far and few.

Most of them are just some poor tie-ins to their successful film counterparts, while a few original titles such as Viewtiful Joe and Prototype are getting unfortunately shunned by the masses. I know the Batman Arkham series is great, but Batman is an established character with a long history and massive acclaim.

That’s why I love the InFamous series, a critical darling from the PS3 era. Fun, silly sandboxes with flexible powers and great characters – giving you a strong sense of freedom and enjoyment. The series seemingly ended with its second 2011 entry InFamous 2, in a way that appeared to seal the story.

So, to our main review: in 2014 Sucker Punch and Sony released a new PS4 entry to the series called InFamous: Second Son, claiming it to be the next step for the series and a truly “next-gen” title. I will admit I was a bit hyped for the game, and when I first got my PS4 over a half a year ago, Second Son was amongst my first games. So… Was it a fire, or just a show of lights?

Setting & Story

InFamousSS-SS.jpg

Taking place several years since the events of InFamous 2’s good ending (sorry to all villains, folks!), the world is nearly cured after previous protagonist Cole MacGrath sacrificed himself, killing him and most of the Conduits – superpowered human beings who came to be during the events of 2009’s InFamous. Nowadays, Conduits are referred to as “Bio-terrorists” by different governments who hunt down and lock them away from public eye. In the U.S., they are being hunted down by the D.U.P.

Cue the introduction of Delsin Rowe, a young, rebellious graffiti artist of a Native American heritage. After encountering a van driving three ‘bio-terrorists,’ Delsin discovers he possesses the ability to absorb and use other Conduits’ powers, starting with smoke. He then heads to the city of Seattle in pursuit of the concrete powers employed by D.U.P. commander Brooke Augustine, after the latter impaled Delsin’s friends with untakeable spikes.

One of the things I like the most about Second Son’s story is its smaller, more personal scale. In contrast to Cole’s grandiose “save the entire world from destruction” adventures, Delsin’s much more intimate tale is the story of two brothers trying to undo the damage that’s been done to their family and friends. It might be smaller in terms of “ambition” and scope, but no less engrossing or immersive.

For the most part.

Delsin as the protagonist is okay; he has some wits and attitude to him, a well-known “punk” appearance, and the remarks he fires at his enemies alongside his powers can be hilarious sometimes. He does come off as annoyingly arrogant and naive several times, and while he feels a little more human than Cole, I do think he lacks his predecessor’s charisma and roughness.

Delsin’s brother Reggie is probably the best character in the game. The local sheriff at his and Delsin’s settlement, Reggie dislikes Conduits and shows more than a little disdain towards Delsin’s ever-growing powers. Nonetheless, he tries his best to accept Delsin’s situation and look at Conduits differently than how the rest of the population look at them. Sometimes he succeeds, other times not, and this is in those situations where the writing shines, showing the struggle and differences between two radically different siblings and their attempts to accept and respect one another’s beliefs and suggestions. Without a doubt, Delsin and Reggie’s relationship and chemistry are the core of Second Son’s narrative.

If you’ve played previous Sucker Punch, you can expect that the supporting cast is memorable and made of mostly likable rogues and weirdos. I always found it interesting that for a series often held back by its black and white moral system, InFamous always possessed multiple tragic characters with uncommon depth and (somewhat surprisingly) realistic struggles. The same goes for Second Son, featuring such interesting fellas as a drug-addicted woman hunting down drug dealers or a shy geeky shut-in seeking to stop criminal violence. They might be based on trope characters and stereotypes, but come off as far more engaging and likable than their baselines.

One standout member of the (relatively small) cast is the aforementioned Augustine. A good superhero story needs a strong, terrifying and downright ruthless villain, and Augustine fits right in. This composed, sardonic director of D.U.P. is as powerful as she is sadistic, and her violent methods in capturing Conduits make her not only Delsin’s personal target, but the player’s as well. And (admittedly very surprisingly) similar to other members of the cast, she ain’t purely good or evil in her character, but what some (or most) may consider a member of the “Well Intentioned Extremist” club.  She ends up as a fascinating character with more than it meets the eye, and dare I even say she is one of the finest villains to come out this generation.

Going back to the plot as a whole, it doesn’t outstay its welcome too often and is packed with some cleverly executed and heart-pumping moments. Overall, it’s a fun little story about a young man trying to get away the system, encountering both allies and enemies alike with differing views and tools.

That said, the story IS tackled by some filler and exhausting content. It takes its time until you acquire new powers alongside smoke, and a couple missions leading to or unlocked after obtaining said powers can feel mundane and overlong. Not to mention that they do poorly in developing their associated characters beyond generic redeeming or corrupting missions, as well as progressing the narrative.

I am also disappointed with Second Son’s barebones touch towards themes that were teased and talked over prior to its release. The game never really attempts to explore the human-Conduit relations that much beyond what has already been established in the prequels, and it feels awfully formulaic as a result, a typical cry for racism analogy that never gets more depth or look into.

And we also have the entire lack of touching about the subjects of security and control-over-freedom. For ideas teased so much pre-launch, they are unfortunately skimped over and never get any sense of impact or importance save for dull camera destroying and civilian saving side-missions. Delsin may cry once or twice about freedom and “screw the system,” but the entire thing feels shallow and just for the sake of marking his status as a young troublemaker. A wasted opportunity to tackle such sensitive and concurring themes.

Finally, we have the morality system of the game, a relic from the past which ties up a lot of Second Son’s narrative problems. Every few missions, Delsin gets two choices. One that kicks him more towards his better qualities to turn him into a confident hero, and one when he lets himself being taken by his own selfishness. Ultimately, those choices do little effect on the overall story, other than making Delsin an inconsistent, forced jerk on Bad Karma playthrough.

It’s an outdated system, and Sucker Punch has done nothing to at least make it more flexible and believable. Rather than sticking to the same old binary good-and-evil meter, I’d wish Sucker Punch would’ve allowed players to create “grayer”-level Delsins, with both heroic and evil choices under their belt.

The Bad Karma in particular is a jarring route. Unlike Cole, whose personality and personal task felt a lot more fitting for such polarizing karmic changes, Delsin is just a good kid trying to act all bad and punk. But in the end, all it makes is to severely hurt Delsin’s character growth as an actual anti-hero/villain, a man not quite sure that he desires to be mean and evil. Honestly, he is bad just for the sake of being bad, and that’s just bad.

Gameplay & Design

InFamousSS-GD.jpg

Similar to previous InFamous games, Second Son drops you in the shoes of a superpowered young man in a big, open-ended city.

This time instead of having electricity and ice/fire as abilities, you receive several other… more ‘original’ powers, starting with smoke. Smoke itself is a brutal type of power despite its deceptively gentle appearance and design, and is more action-oriented than following powers Delsin acquires afterwards. It is designed to cause large amounts of havoc and destruction, and is appropriately the easiest power in the game to absorb, with lots of rusty chimneys and flammable vehicles to consume.

Later on you obtain Neon, which is overall a slightly weaker power in terms of raw power and destruction but is designed to be far more faster and accurate than its fiery counterpart. It’s a power branch that focuses on elegant speed and swift sniping over brutal strength or massive destruction, and it possesses what is probably the funniest method of traversal in the game.

You get two more abilities but I won’t delve too further to them due them being more spoiler-ly, but each adds a tasty – if familiar – flavor to the mix. One is a little more stealthy in its approach while the other one is even more aggressive than Smoke.

Powers in general are fun and easy to utilize, be it for combat, exploration or just messing around like a crazy maniac. Different powers add some variety to hostile encounters, especially areas littered with different flavors of light or screen. Each power covers another one’s weakness, with Smoke and [REDACTED] offer strength and large scale damage, while Neon adds up high level of mobility as well as accuracy, and [REDACTED] focuses on a more quieter and tactical style. It’s advised to try and switch between all those powers when possible, adding a sense of balance to Delsin.

Balance is also where Second Son sometimes stumbles.

Combat is incredibly fast and dynamic, demanding players to act quick and always be on the move while offering a lovely arsenal of attacks to shoot. No matter which power you use, it’s always a challenging matter when it comes to combat. Fun to use your various meanings of mobility, too.

That said, enemies can be overly aggressive and be presented by the dozens. Enemies from all classes, including regular foot soldiers, brutes and powerful executives, come into the battlefield in all of their glory. On paper, it might sound like a recipe for an extremely satisfying and explosive fun, but in motion the game can escalate to a chaotic mess at times. AI is extremely aggressive and once enemies set their eyes on you, a shooting target might seem less hollowed than Delsin.

This is not helped by Delsin’s below average health, which drops to near-death after a mere handful of bullets. Those two issues make the game difficult and challenging at times, yes, but not in an amusing and fun; instead, they can make combat frustrating and exhausting sometimes. I love challenging action games, but Second Son’s way is just cheap and downright annoying at times.

Moving on, while Delsin’s powers are much fun, I am a little disappointed with them. In the end, it boils down that Second Son’s powers can feel like a mere recolor of each other. Each power has its own ‘bullet’ firing, floating mechanic and some superior form of attack in their arsenal. Sure, they are still tons of fun and vary in power and speed, but ultimately feel shallow and indistinguishable in the large picture.

That is not helped by the rather unremarkable and generic upgrades that you unlock as you progress the story. Maybe Cole had only one major power – electricity – and it might sound very limited, but at least he could master it to the fullest and make some really cool stuff, whereas Delsin is a Jack of all-trades who only pushes his powers forward enough to make them capable.

Boss fights are fun for the most time. Some are very entertaining like Fetch’s Neon showdown which requests players to quickly dash through an enclosed area while evading the girl’s deadly laser beams. Others can fall a bit short due to the rather exhaustive length of some of them, but overall, they are all satisfying to some degree and offer to test what the player has learnt up to this point.

As for the game’s open-world format, Seattle is beautiful but compare to other open world games of its time, including Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Saints Row IV, Watch Dogs, the overwhelming Grand Theft Auto V and even its own predecessors, it comes off as small and sparsely packed. As many have pointed out already, Seattle is less of a living, breathing and evolving settlement, and more of a small, interactive playground for players to test their skills.

Side activities are entertaining once in awhile, but overall shallow and repetitive, mostly used to tilt Delsin’s karma to either the light or the dark side. You can either destroy drug deals, heal the wounded or free suspected Conduits if you choose to be Delsin Nicerowe, or kill gang members, deny sparing defeated enemies or disturb street shows if you prefer being Dicksin Rowevil.

You can also chase Drones carrying Shards (the collectible of the day), and to be fair, it’s actually pretty fun as well as rewarding. Shards can be used to upgrade your powers, so there is at least a reward for chasing those little bastards, some of which slowly roam Seattle’s skies.

The biggest fun of Second Son’s Seattle is clearing the D.U.P. settlements, headquarters scattered in each of the city’s districts. Those are heavily guarded sites filled with agents and superpowered captains seeking to destroy Delsin at all cost, and without doubt add a lot of fun action to the rather stale open-world, even IF they don’t evolve much further than the usual “kill them all” style. You also get to take on a massive unit of D.U.P. agents in a showdown after clearing an entire district.

The main story will take around 11 hours to finish, more or less the standard length of sandbox games nowadays. Additional content in Seattle might take a dozen more hours, so there is more than a little meat to chew here after you’re done.

Visuals & Audio

InFamousSS-VA

If one knows Sony’s studios, they can expect a hell of a visual feast, more often than not. Sucker Punch, however, used to be a step behind: while their games were always pretty, stylish and often vivid, the overall technical experience always felt bellow many of their peers such as Naughty Dog or Guerrilla Games.

InFamous: Second Son is different. It’s clearly a massive step-forward in terms of graphical power for the team; it is not as remarkable as many others claimed it to be (and I am talking about even when it was released in 2014), but still an incredible, lively party of lights and colors that holds up very well to date.

Second Son may go down in history as one of the finest games when it comes to lighting effects: each power and a source of light is brought to life beautifully and stylishly, be it the darkly reddish flair of smoke or the dazzlingly bright flash of neon. And when the sun reflects on the city, especially after rain… it’s a beautiful, jaw-dropping sight to behold!

Artistically, Second Son excels at balancing between dreary realism and the heroic eye sight of a young superhero. Seattle is gorgeous and capturing, filled with impressive skyscrapers and some lavish environments. Also, the thematic usage of colors such as red, blue, orange and gray is very welcome, as well is the graffiti-like style used to express Delsin’s rebellious outlook on the world. Characters possess very down-to earth designs, and facial expressions are lively enough, even though Delsin looks a bit TOO similar to his voice actor…

The fact they at least kept the comic-style cutscenes of the previous games to the background scenes is welcome as well.

When it comes to the audio part, Second Son is no slouch, either. The soundtrack is trimming with rockish, ever-changing tunes that go hand in hand with the aforementioned rebellious and headstrong nature of the protagonist. Some encounters become far more exciting thanks to Second Son’s lovely soundtrack, while it also have a few melancholic and quieter tunes that are surprisingly pleasant to listen to. It’s a pleasantly solid soundtrack all around, and Delsin’s personality reflects very well upon it.

Troy Baker, who in recent years became as well known and popular as Nolan North, leads the cast as Delsin, and his work is just splendid as the young and arrogant hero. Travis Willingham does a very good job as the more serious big brother/moral annoyance Reggie, and generally the same goes to the rest of the cast which brings all of their characters to life with a touch of a comic-like melodramatic flair added to their more grounded performances. And, of course, special credit goes to Christine Dunford who is a major factor in making Brooke Augustine the threatening and intimidating villain she is.

Oh, and that lovely cover for “Nirvana – heart shaped box -” during the credit is a lovely addition, a fitting concluding song for the entire game.

Final Verdict

Despite my many criticisms to InFamous Second Son, both in its storytelling and gameplay, I still very much like it. It’s tons of fun with unique superpowers and non-stopping action. The story might not be an Oscar-quality one or on par with InFamous 1 & 2, but it’s still an entertaining one with some really great characters that I would love to see in more games.

It has lots of flaws, some have been carried over from its ancestors such as an outdated and overly unnecessary Karma system that offers little more than an excuse to play the game a second round and doesn’t affect the story and gameplay as much. Others such as the imbalance in combat and lackluster open-world are also present, and in one way might be seen as Sucker Punch’s desire to maintain some traditions and design ideas from the past, even if they hamper the whole experience.

InFamous: Second Son is a decent game regardless those glaring issues that beg to be fixed. It may not be as clever as it pretends to be, but it is a fine next step for Sucker Punch in creating their next project. It’s highly entertaining when in motion, it looks beautiful and it sounds great. It may be a very flawed game, but I still loved playing it. You have my recommendation of it… Just don’t expect a “next-gen” revolution.

In Points:

The Good:

  • A smaller, more intimate and personal story than previous entries, with great supporting characters and a sublime antagonist
  • Combat is fun and dynamic, always encouraging changing between the different powers that cover each other’s weaknesses and problems
  • High production values and a striking usage of both lighting and colors make Seattle a beautifully-realized backdrop to the game

The Bad

  • Story is held back by an outdated Karma system and protagonist inconsistencies, alongside poorly explored themes
  • Combat can get unbalanced and frustrating due overpowered enemies, surprisingly low health and disappointing upgrades
  • Seattle feels sparse and under-developed in content in comparison to other sandbox games

& The Ugly:

  • Why don’t I get Paper powers from that weird Paper Trail side story?!
Advertisements

One thought on “InFamous: Second Son review – Neon Heat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s