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Review: InFamous Second Son delivers last-gen heroics

By Tamoor Hussain on Thursday 20th Mar 2014 at 2:00 PM UTC

The most glaring weakness of InFamous was its leading man, Cole McGrath; a gravel-voiced super-bore.

Developer Sucker Punch has tried to remedy this problem since the series' 2009 debut. However, a proposed character redesign for the 2011 sequel was abandoned following backlash from fans demanding vanilla Cole stays put.

The solution was implemented in InFamous 2's 'good ending', where the character was killed off. Or, as the story portrays, sacrificed for the greater good. It was a smart exit strategy, enacting a canonical end for McGrath whilst giving fans agency in his fate.

Not wanting to dance on the graves of the dearly departed, but everything is much better now he's gone. New protagonist Delsin Rowe is one of the highlights of InFamous Second Son, and manages to bring life to an experience that, in many ways, feels quite worn and familiar.

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A 24-year old beanie hat wearing member of the fictional Native American Akomish tribe, Delsin is the likeable roguish type, resplendent with a chain bracelet and a silver-tongue to charm allies and zing enemies. He's Nathan Drake meets Peter Parker, an amiable protagonist that's immediately more interesting than Cole was.

Part of Rowe's magnetism comes - unfortunately - from the emotionally vacant world he lives in, and the transformation his powers have on the greyed surroundings.

After a run-in with an escaped 'Conduit' (X-Men in Infamous lore), Delsin acquires powers that instantly marginalise him from the city he grew up in. Seattle's Department of Unified Protection (DUP) brand the likes of Rowe as "bio-terrorists".

Delsin's adventure begins when Betty, a surrogate mother figure, is injured by Augustine, the superpowered leader of DUP (they fight fire with fire). Realising that he can absorb the ability of others, Delsin begins a quest to acquire Augustine's power in a bid to save Betty.

Joining him is older brother Reggie, a by-the-books cop not beyond arresting his troublesome younger brother (hence 'second son'). Delsin's power is a source of conflict between the two, and how Reggie's preconceptions of bio-terrorists are reconciled proves to be an interesting narrative thread.

The back and forths between the two brothers, whether it's facetious banter or about matters of peril, are always enjoyable. The writing is sharp and voice acting by Troy Baker (Delsin Rowe) and Travis Willingham (Reggie Rowe) is excellent.

Delsin is the likeable roguish type with a silver-tongue to charm allies and zing enemies. He's Nathan Drake meets Peter Parker

In fact, the story overall is much stronger here than in the two PS3 games that preceded it. Second Son tells a simple tale that doesn't get bogged down in its own lore, instead emphasising the portrayal of characters over an outrageous plot.

The main story is tied to meeting other Conduits, each of whom are interesting in their own ways. Fetch Walker is killing off drug dealers for reasons we won't spoil, while another conduit is anchored by anxiety and trust issues. Moral decisions made by the player will shape what becomes of these wayward Conduits, either redeemed as forces for good or corrupted as agents of evil.

Meanwhile the game's antagonist, Augustine, is just enough of an enigma, and has interesting motivations driving her actions.

The broad strokes of Second Son's gameplay are the same as in the previous two games: using abilities to bound rooftops and scale buildings, completing various go-kill-that missions, making good-or-evil moral decisions, and hunting down Blast Shards to unlock new skills (which is as satisfying as ever).

But therein lies the problem: Second Son achieves what its predecessors had, but not much more beyond. It plays well but it's difficult to shake that sense of familiarity. Three games in, it's not unreasonable to expect new ingredients to be thrown into the mix, but what this PS4 successor goes for instead is a few small and smart tweaks.

The platforming is no longer about granular ledge hopping and more about sweeping leaps and soaring glides. Manually scaling buildings is both inefficient and unintuitive; if you're using your arms you're doing it wrong. Employing your powers to get around is essential, and it's where the game really shines.

Buildings in the world are thoughtfully designed around Delsin's movement abilities. With Smoke, he can dash into vents at ground level and be puffed out into the sky, then seamlessly transitioning into dashing laterally - twice with an upgrade - and turning his hands into thrusters for a controlled glide. Fans placed on rooftops will give him some height again if he dashes into them.

Neon turns his his body into beams of light and lets him travel at rapid speed. Unlock the continuous Light Speed Run and he becomes a fabulous Flash, blurring around the city while leaving Akira-like coloured light trails. Although it's better suited to travelling along surfaces, with the Photon Jump upgrade Delsin can launch himself towards the side of buildings to continue his luminous sprint.

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The 'video' power gives Delsin wings. Of all the abilities it covers the most distance, but at the cost of precision and manoeuvrability. Dash into satellites on rooftops and he'll convert into a digital signal (genuinely) and beam himself into the air, appearing again to glide down to another rooftop.

There's a skill to combining jumps, glides and the special movement abilities to maintain a momentum. Do it properly and travelling from one side of the Seattle to another is as exhilarating and cool as it is gliding and grapneling around Arkham City as Batman.

Main missions will inevitably throw you into clashes with the DUP, and the lack of variety here would be more of an issue if the combat wasn't so much fun. The weak link is melee, which never develops beyond the basic three-hit combo, but is compensated for by an arsenal of super-skills.

Most of Delsin's powers are the same as Cole's: rapid fire energy zaps, missile attacks, incapacitating traps and a ground-pounds. Again, their attributes change to suit your good/evil playing style, so a Smoke Shot incapacitates with good karma, or destroys indiscriminately with bad. And Neon's stasis ability can either subdue or obliterate.

Within combat Second Son rewards multiple karmic incapacitation or kills with access to a devastating special move unique to each power. In smoke, Delsin leaps into the air and crashes back to the ground as a human fire bomb. In neon, his hands unleash a barrage of laser shots, and in video a salvo of digital demons bombard the enemy. Each is an impressively cinematic show of Delsin's destructive capabilities.

The beauty of combat is in zipping around and siphoning power from sources in the environments. The smoke from the engine of a broken down car, the blinking neon sign of a Chinese restaurant or the video feed on a rooftop satellite will let Delsin shift between his powers on the fly. Multiple sources for each power are integrated in natural ways and highlighted on the mini-map for easy access.

Varied enemy types provide the connective tissue between Rowe's powers. Each DUP goon is asier to deal with using a specific power, which encourages regular switching. Standard DUP goons can be taken out with cough-inducing sulphur grenade, but armoured types may require neon's precision laser shots. Larger super-powered enemies, meanwhile, can be kept in check using video's homing swords

For those that want it, there's a rewarding element of strategy that also blends into a thrilling back-and-forth between retreating to power-up and going on the offensive fully-powered. If you combine it with the abilities that get Delsin up buildings and across gaps, it can become a cinematic ballet of super-powered chaos.

At the same time, Delsin's frailty dampens the combat experience. Enemy mobs as small as two soldiers with machine guns are enough to take him to brink of death.

In this respect, InFamous Second Son doesn't give players the superhero power-trip it should. Sure, you can fire laser beams out of your hands and turn into smoke, but it's a bummer that generic soldier A and B can put you down with little effort when you're moving at the speed of light. We'd rather a little more Hulk and a little less Dazzler.

Second Son's gameplay trimmings task players with taking back districts from the DUP by completing side-activities. Destroying scanning stations and security cameras, or exposing undercover agents loosen their grip on an area, and freeing it completely unlocks a fast travel point, but it all feels like busy work. Outside of main missions, hunting down Blast Shards for upgrades should be the main concern as it results in appreciable gameplay benefits.

Delsin can also indulge his inner-Banksy and graffiti certain locations. It's a relatively inconsequential addition, but the cool art you get to see at the end is just enough of a reward to offset the annoying nature of the shoehorned motion-controlled mini-game.

For the first time in the series, InFamous takes place in a real city: Seattle. While it serves its function as a jungle-gym well, it fails to capture a sense of place. Take a moment to stop, look, and listen to it and the coastal seaport city feels hauntingly empty.

The lack of gameplay variety would be more of an issue if the combat wasn't so much fun

When they're not walking the streets aimlessly, the city's population stares blankly into the distance. Entire blocks are abandoned and, were it not for the for the faint humming of cars and distant police sirens, the silence would be deafening. It feels like a level editor more than a real bustling city.

A day one patch increases the density of the population and traffic, but this is limited to pockets in specific areas; their behaviour remains unchanged, so impact is negligible.

It's a shame because, technically, Second Son is a handsome spectacle. It's colourful, rich in detail and has some of the best effects we've seen on console; using abilities leave flittering embers, faint streaks of neon lights and cool glitch effects. The animation for absorbing neon, in particular, is stunning; the coloured lights snake off their signs and fizzle into Delsin's fingers, leaving the area around him unlit and darkened.

At night, the luminescent ambience of the city is an impressive showing of lighting tech, but without a day and night cycle the display is limited to a single section of the game. Broad daylight serves as the backdrop for most of the game, and it just further accents how hollow the city actually is.

Given that GTA 5, Sleeping Dogs, and Assassin's Creed 4 present dynamic, lifelike worlds on last-gen hardware, it's difficult to overlook how barren and dull Second Son feels.

InFamous Second Son inherits a lot from its predecessors but offers too little to the mix. Rowe himself holds the game together, while the satisfying traversal and combat mechanics show flashes of excellence. At times it feels too safe and at others it glimmers with neat ideas, which overall is just enough to recommend it.

As one of the first major first-party releases for PlayStation 4, Second Son leaves a lot to be desired. Disappointingly, it's a game that clearly has one foot still planted firmly in the last-gen. This isn't the InFamous the PS4 deserves, but the one fans need right now.

The verdict

Second Son sticks too close to the InFamous template, and skimps on the next-gen trimmings. There are flashes of excellence, but overall it feels a little too familiar.

  • Delsin Rowe (Troy Baker) adds life to the story
  • Combat is often challenging and strategic
  • Cool visual flourishes
  • The concept should aspire for more
  • Poor application of side-missions
  • Seattle is soulless
7
Format
PlayStation 4
Developer
Sucker Punch
Publisher
Sony
Genre
Action, Adventure

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