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Hands-on preview: Clouds hang over Infamous Second Son

By Rob Crossley on Wednesday 12th Feb 2014 at 3:00 PM BST

When confronted with the challenge of depicting a Los Angeles flung so far forwards in time that it even made the future look old, director Ridley Scott came up with an inspiring solution.

To achieve that vision for Blade Runner on a shoestring budget, he decided to kill the lights, blanket the set with sheets of smoke and focus just on a handful of marvellously detailed locations. The depth and soul of the metropolis was thus imagined; its awe-inspiring totems of a distant civilisation were assumed. At the cost of nothing, the world of Blade Runner was drawn in the viewers' minds.

Killing the lights in Infamous: Second Son has the opposite effect.

Judging by the beautiful E3 gameplay videos, the team at Sucker Punch has painstakingly created its neo-Seattle; where every single road is strikingly detailed and, quite often, beautiful to stare at. The immensity of such a challenge was, almost certainly, the biggest drain on the studio's resources.

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But the final demo build that CVG played, ahead of its March 21 release date, dimmed the lights and left the game's crowning achievement in the shadows.

By midnight, Second Son's Seattle streets become dank and dreary, likely because the developers at Sucker Punch want to emphasise the supernatural pyrotechnic abilities of its hero, Delsin Rowe. Certainly, the game's lighting and particle effects make for a pleasant firework display, but it doesn't quite justify draining the detail and colour out of a city when people are so eager to see what the PS4's GPU is capable of.

The touch-pad capabilities in the demo were lacking - you swiped your thumb in the right direction to open certain doors. Pressing it down will trigger Delsin to draw in electricity or smoke from a nearby source

The problem with the demo wasn't simply that it removed the next-gen sheen of a sun-kissed city, but instead how it left players with just the core gameplay to examine, and by doing so, highlighting how Infamous: Second Son feels like a PS3 game at heart.

That's not a disaster. There's enough here to keep fans of the series engaged, and the lack of change can be either reassuring or disappointing depending on how much you want Infamous to stick to its template.

A new star of the show stands out as one of the biggest changes. The third instalment in Sucker Punch's flagship series has a new hero, Delsin Rowe, a handsome twentysomething who can relate very particularly to X-Men comics.

In Second Son, state officials are determined to expunge those born with super-powers. Seattle is strewn with airport-like security gates that scan those who pass through, searching for any signs of supernatural abilities. Meanwhile, the city is littered with demonstrations of people calling for those with powers to hand themselves in. You are not welcome.

The lack of change can be either reassuring or disappointing, depending on how much you want Infamous to stick to its template

Seattle's institutionalised fear of 'conduits' such as Delsin marginalises them - they become a hidden presence within the city. Unfortunately, this doesn't inform the gameplay enough. Though it would be interesting to mix within a city's crowd with that constant tension of hiding your powers, there's no real fear of being found out in Second Son. At worst, Delsin will be pursued by a platoon of footsoldier drones until they're wiped out.

Combat features a God of War style chain-whip, and players can now jump between enemies a la Batman Arkham

It would be also be unfair to suggest the plot and its themes carry much originality. It's the classic story of the misunderstood outcast, and the super-hero against the state, if that still does it for you.

The script, however, shines through. Voice acting is of an excellent standard, the writing is sharp, and genuinely warm and witty on occasion. The facial and body animations, particularly during cut-scenes, have that Pixar-like quality of being so good you rarely notice them.

Dialogue adds an important layer of charisma to the missions, which is somewhat lacking elsewhere. The demo suggested Infamous maintains its go-there, kill-them, activate-that challenges, which hinges a lot on the semi-spontaneous play loops that gamers will create for themselves on the way.

Our hero Delsin Rowe is voiced by Troy Baker, who adds adds life to the script. The dialogue itself is sharp, charming and sometimes witty

When en route to a marked location on the map, Delsin will almost certainly cross paths with patrolling 'DUP' police vans, as well as its on-foot agents. These vulgarly yellow-trimmed enemies (think Haze, or even the hero in Body Harvest) are easy to dispatch but can be a threat in numbers.

Pressing attack extends Delsin's bracelet into a God of War-like chain-whip, and pressed a few more times will begin a combo loop. Sucker Punch has added stickiness to fighting against groups, a la Batman Arkham, with Delsin able to jump between enemies mid-combo. It's not half as effective as the Dark Knight's crowd-control methods, but it's nevertheless noticeable and welcomed.

Long and medium distance opportunities come from firing basic energy pulses (neon bullets emitting from Delsin's hands) or energy grenades, which come in either smoke of electric varieties. While this alone probably doesn't offer enough variety and strategy to carry the game through ten hours, additional mini-bosses will force players to think on their feet.

Knights are special DUP foot-soldiers who can leap across the night sky by riding on a crest of materialising rock (think Iceman). They can also encircle themselves in a shield of rubble, and even anchor Delsin to the ground by firing shale at his legs (again, Iceman).

There's also a mini-gun wielding variant of the Knight who shouldn't be taken lightly. His melee attacks send Delsin flying and his outpouring of bullets eliminate any route-one options. Distance doesn't seem to work either - returning shots of energy will result in the Knight morphing into a shield fanged with plates of rock. Overcoming this mini-boss is a welcome riddle that shakes up the straightforward action and set-pieces. Hopefully there will be more.

Slideshow: Take a tour of neo-Seattle

At this juncture, it's hard to estimate the significance of the player's moral decisions. A cut-scene at the beginning of the demo gives the player a clear red-or-blue-pill option, with either route opening up different challenges and a variation on how Delsin looks. (A neat touch: The logo on Delsin's denim jacket changes depending on how malevolent he becomes).

Taking out three of a quartet of DUP soldiers will, often, result in the forth surrendering. Here, players can either tie them up or finish them off, but the consequences of such choices are not yet clear. Either way, you're incapacitating an NPC and won't really think about it again.

Though it would be interesting to mix within a city's crowd with that constant tension of hiding your powers, there's no real fear of being found out in Second Son

There's an assumption that one of the perks of games journalism is getting early access to highly anticipated games. That's often true, but in this case, I wish I hadn't played the Second Son demo. The suspicion is that, instead of informing what the rest of the game will be like, this demo may have sold the final game short. That entrancing E3 demo of a gorgeous metropolis feels like it was hidden away.

So is this an unflattering demo or a revealing one? Having only played thirty minutes of a game so crucial to PlayStation 4 fans, it would probably be rude to hazard a guess.