Sucker Punch Productions third inFAMOUS installment is the PlayStation 4 exclusive Second Son. Set 7 years after inFAMOUS 2 and with the world seemingly recovering from the events that transpired at the end of that game, Second Son starts a superhero story for a new generation, both in the game world and the hardware, in the form of not-so-reluctant hero Delsin Rowe. There’s no doubt that the game has received a lot of attention and has arrived in the middle of a game drought, so it’s pretty much guaranteed to sell well, but is it a worthy successor to the series that started on the PlayStation 3?
Having played inFAMOUS 1, 2 and Festival of Blood several times (and cursed the horrible missing final blast shard from the first game on more than one occasion), I’ve been looking forward to Second Son since it was revealed. I’ll admit to being a little concerned on how the series would continue considering the lead character seemingly ended things quite finally in the second game. It must be one of the biggest issues for the developers, how to continue a franchise that has games with two distinct endings based on player choice? Sucker Punch have tackled this head on by picking the “good” ending from inFAMOUS 2 and building the scenario from there. If you’ve played the other games you’ll have a decent idea of what this means for the game world, if you haven’t then you’ll be filled in pretty quickly with enough information to get you going. To recap here: the world contains Conduits that are able to manipulate and bend elements to their will, Cole McGrath could control electricity and was the hero that saved the world from a menace known as The Beast, but wiped out the majority of Conduits in the world doing it. Since that’s happened, Conduit survivors (now known as Bio-Terrorists) have been hunted and imprisoned to keep the human population safe, though anyone who has the Conduit gene may exhibit abilities, X-Men style, as they grow older. There’s no need to have played the previous games, inFAMOUS Second Son is a separate story of Delsin and his police officer brother Reggie as they discover Delsin’s powers and go on a quest to save their small town from pain and suffering. Cheery stuff, right?
The tone and style of the story is very similar to the first two games, and laying it on the table now, it’s probably one of the things I’m most torn about. I like to see a game stick by its principles and being comfortable enough with itself to tell its tale in its own way. That said, I’ve seen this type of relationship story play out twice already, and whilst the heart of the inFAMOUS games is about the bond of brotherhood (and was very emotive, for me at least, in the ending of inFAMOUS 2), I was hoping for something a little different this time round. We’ve got Delsin, the anarchist graffiti artist and street punk, who finds out he’s a Conduit, and there’s his sibling Reggie who’s a straight laced small town cop who’s spent his life looking out for his reckless kid brother. You can see where this is all going right from the tutorial mission that introduces the basic mechanics and the characters. Delsin is a relatively likeable character with his enthusiasm and need to prove himself in the fight against the DUP (Department of Unified Protection), and the delight at discovering all the awesome things he can do is conveyed nicely through to the player. This light-hearted tone overshadows what is a pretty dark story mirroring, to a degree, ethnic cleansing; and anything that involves OAPs being impaled with concrete spikes to torture info out of them cannot be taken as matinee entertainment. There’s also the on-trend technique of hiding the really brutal story details in audio logs so that you can be exposed to horrific events but not have to witness them on screen. In Second Son it all builds character backstory and motivation to give you an understanding of why they are like they are, and I commend this in Sucker Punch’s approach because none of the characters does anything without a reason. However, I think the balance isn’t quite right and the “fun” aspects overpower the morality tale.
So following the game’s example, that’s enough about the story, what about being a superhero? The core inFAMOUS experience is parkour and learning to be more badass with your powers, and Second Son flies along this path very quickly. Discovering the smoke ability gets Delsin started, and in no time he’s matched the powers it took Cole McGrath two games to get to, but fortunately that’s not it. There are 4 elemental powers to gain in all, and I’ll not list them to save spoiling the discoveries, even if one does come a bit too late to do much with it. There’s also the melee combat in the form of a chain around your wrist, which you’ll barely use because it leaves you too open to attack in the later stages of the game. Everything is upgradeable depending on the number of blast shards collected from machinery marked on the map (that’s right, no pinging L3 constantly to find them hidden in the environment), and particular upgrades are bought depending on how naughty or nice you’ve been. The Karma system returns as before where you get specific choices at pre-defined points on whether to do good or bad things; each decision moves your Karma meter one way or the other and unlocks different powers. You can “boost” the progress by taking part in optional street actions, or by taking out bad guys in particular ways, and it’s all pretty slick as it’s been used and honed in the previous games. There are more levels of Karma this time round, though this only serves to delay power up progress rather than add new tiers of abilities. Unfortunately, and it may fit with the story, the powers come but our heros vulnerability remains the same – Delsin will get his ass kicked very easily, though bizarrely, not by the bosses.
World traversal is still in the form of climbing and letting the character automatically grab ledges and pipes to move vertically through the city. And it’s still hit and miss. Assassins Creed has nailed the free running aspect of its gameplay, inFAMOUS remains awkward and frustrating. Maybe in an effort to minimise the shouting at the grab-impaired collection of polygons on screen, the devs have provided new travel modes to scale buildings, and they’re much more preferable. Shifting to smoke to move through ventilation or running straight up the side of a skyscraper as in [Prototype] is much more satisfying, and quicker too. Because you spend less time with your nose scraping against the brickwork you’ll also appreciate the detail that’s gone into this dystopian depiction of Seattle – inFAMOUS Second Son is a stunningly beautiful game, there’s nothing that doesn’t look good. I’ve always loved the particle and lighting effects present in this series, it lends so much atmosphere, and it’s almost a character in its own right here. I genuinely can’t think of a way to describe it to do it justice, so I’m just going to drop three images I took in game below, then move on.
Voice talent wise, we see the prolific Troy Baker in the lead character role and he delivers it well, or at least on a par with Nolan North’s McGrath. More understated is Travis Willingham who plays Reggie, and seems to able to ground the events and cement the brotherly feeling with his performance. Gone (I hope) are the days of actors just phoning in a performance, and of too many repeated phrases in the background; the audio work here builds a decently convincing city scape and only falls down with the weird default to TV speakers in the audio settings ignoring the great surround sound option, and Delsin’s repetitive boasts of his own graffiti prowess. The graffiti is one of the innovations that comes from the use of the DualShock 4, and is probably my favourite implementation to date. Rotating the controller through 90 degrees, you can use it like a spray can to colour stencils on walls with all the appropriate sound effects coming through the speaker. It brings a smile to my face each time and makes me feel a little like Banksy. The only way this could be improved is if the spraying you do on screen is fully translated to the environment instead of the game loading the pre-rendered finished artwork. The touchpad is also used for interactions, mainly swiping to open doors and lift panels, and it’s not so under or overused that it becomes a gimmick, you get used to it being part of the side missions needed for 100% completion.
Speaking of side missions, these become old fast. Each section of the city needs a set number doing before you can free it from DUP control, and whilst they’re great to begin with, once you’ve done 10 districts you’re weary of them. Find blast shards, destroy control checkpoints, destroy other things, find stuff; it could have done with breaking up a bit. Maybe in the same way as the post-release Paper Trail, which is a side mission that you do in conjunction with internet puzzle solving. Registering on the site and linking the game opens up an additional mission that in turn unlocks clues and puzzles to be solved on the website. It’s a really well put together idea that adds extra value to the game, and is promised support for several weeks post launch. Let’s hope it keeps the variety going and the braincells working outside the game.
I’m conscious that as you’ve been reading this you’ll think I didn’t enjoy inFAMOUS Second Son, and I don’t want to leave it like that. It’s phenomenal to look at, the story is well scripted and acted, the size is just right considering you’ll probably do two playthroughs to see the alternate Karma endings, and the new abilities of the PlayStation 4 are incorporated as part of the game and not just because they have to be. It’s a must have game, but… and it’s the but that holds me back from giving it full marks. If I’d never played inFAMOUS then I wouldn’t be debating the score with myself. However, remove the graphical polish and this plays and works like the older games, and even carries some of the issues with it (grab the f’ing ledges, Delsin!). Whereas the next-gen Killzone opted for a different style along with its story telling shift, Second Son is a similar story in a similar style, and I couldn’t appreciate the finished game with the same sense of wonder and excitement as I got from the last-gen games. Heed this though – don’t pass it up, there’s nothing out on the PlayStation 4 like it.