InFamous: Second Son is one of those games you want to show off your shiny new next gen console with. It’s visually one of the most spectacular things yet seen on a console, and just the thing to have people ooing and ahhing around your TV. While it might have been too much to expect at this early stage in the consoles lifetime, it is slightly disappointing that there isn’t as much of a gameplay revolution to match the visual one, with Second Son not trying anything particularly new when compared to it’s predecessors.
Delsin Rowe is a troublemaker living with the rest of his Native American tribe outside Seattle, spending his days spraying tags on billboards and getting arrested by his police brother Reggie. When a prison truck of Conduits crashes in the village (Conduits being the inFamous world’s term for people with powers, with the people in charge opting for the less glamorous term ‘bio-terrorists’), Delsin discovers he has had powers all along when he saps the ability to control smoke from a survivor of the crash. The DUP, the governmental body created to deal with the Conduit ‘threat’, eventually show up to clean up the mess and bring with them the villain of the game, it’s director Brooke Augustine. After sweeping through the town and encasing the rest of Delsin’s tribe in varying amounts of concrete with her powers, Augustine disappears off to Seattle to track down the other escaped Conduits, with Delsin and Reggie not far behind.
Hitting Seattle is when the visual aspect of InFamous takes you by surprise. This is a technically next gen game in every sense of the word. The rain slicked asphalt of the roads reflecting the neon lights of the store fronts as newspaper flits past. Every piece of visual minutia continued to blow me away even after spending hours in the city. This presentation counts doubly so for the animation of the main characters, especially Delsin and Reggie, with the performance capture of their faces matches the amazingly well delivered script. We aren’t talking anything Oscar worthy here, but dialogue that flows more naturally than I have seen in a game in a long while and genuinely laugh out loud banter between the two makes for extremely likeable characters. Augustine also benefits from great acting, delivering a uniquely evil performance without crossing into campy or cliché.
While the delivery of the 6-8 hours of story content is impeccable, the actual gameplay doesn’t move away from “clear this area of bad dudes” very often. It’s lucky then that combat is almost always fun, and requires constant reading of the battle and it’s surrounding environment. Even by the end of the game, and having filled out most of the power tech tree, you never feel insanely over powered. Groups of 4-5 standard enemies in the open can still mess you up pretty quickly, requiring smart management of power supplies, tactical retreats and constant use of the movement based powers to survive. Fights become even more dangerous when the more heavy duty DUP soldiers start to appear, requiring use of the more powerful forms of the various powers.
The powers themselves allow for some really interesting approaches to combat. All four of the powers follow a similar pattern, with a melee, a standard quick ranged shot, a grenade style arced explosive, a dash and a “heavy” attack. The effects of these powers is what makes them interesting however, with the heavy attack for Smoke taking the form of an explosive fireball, while the Neon is a focused laser beam requiring a few seconds to charge. Using the powers drains away your personal charge, which can be refilled from the environment. If you running out of Smoke, hit the rooftops and find a chimney.
There is a pretty severe downside to the power variety however, in that you can only hold energy for one power at a time, with charging from a different power source causing you to lose the previous one. Apart from a few moments in combat where accidentally draining causes a power switch you were not expecting, this mechanic would be little more than annoying. The problem however is that at various points in the story missions the game will force you to use only a specific power, normally Smoke, without any warning. It appears that mechanically this is only to serve a few lines of throwaway dialogue or explain away an effect used in a cutscene. If you happen to have ploughed upgrades into some other power, and barely touched Smoke (as happened in my first playthrough) then you very quickly find yourself immensely outgunned in any of the combat scenarios that the story beats will throw you, and will find some of the boss fights more tricky than they presumably were supposed to be.
As with the previous games in the series, the concept of karma plays into numerous systems as well as the storyline. Heroic actions like roughing up drug dealers or helping out injured citizens will net you good karma, whereas silencing street musicians with a neon blast or scaring the crap out of anti-bio-terrorist protests will bump up your bad karma. This comes to a head during the main storyline, where a set of exceptionally binary moral choices have to be made. All but the final choice left no possible grey area to hide in, and forces the player down a saint or sinner route.
Once you have chosen a side, the game does force you to stick to it to see Delsin’s full conduit potential. The higher tier abilities are locked behind the higher karma levels, meaning that you are actively but performing an action that goes against your current alignment resets out your ‘karma bomb’ meter to zero, powering what is essentially your screen clearing superhero smart bomb. While playing as good Delsin, I could not even guess count of the number of times I lost a almost full meter when an errant grenade power sent a car flying into an innocent group of civilians. Collateral damage is not your friend.
InFamous had a lot of potential energy behind it’s release, being the first big triple-A Playstation 4 exclusive since the consoles launch at the tail end of last year. After the delay of Watch Dogs, this was the next big title to look at for what next gen has in store. In some ways it delivers, with visuals that were just not possible on the previous consoles, with incredible levels of detail in the world and the fidelity and accompanying performance of the characters never before seen on consoles. The gameplay doesn’t quite have the same generational leap, with 8-10 hours of InFamous branded gameplay, very similar to that last game. While this may not be the reason to pick up a PS4 that people were hoping for, it is a really great excuse.