Infamous: Second Son review: PS4 exclusive looks amazing, but a little short on ideas

Infamous: Second Son
PS4
Sucker Punch Productions/Sony Computer Entertainment
Rating: Teen

Infamous: Second Son
PS4
Sucker Punch Productions/Sony Computer Entertainment
Rating: Teen

Rating

4 Stars4/5

Steve Tilley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:18 PM ET

Morality is a tricky concept to play with in video games. We all want to be the heroes of our own stories – save the day, be cheered by friends and strangers, win the affections of the girl or boy. But games give us licence to act out in ways that we could never get away with in the real world, especially when we’re playing as characters we didn’t have a hand in creating.

So while I’ve never actually believed that nice guys finish last, if there’s one thing the Infamous games have taught me, it’s that bad boys have more fun.

Infamous: Second Son is the third game in Sucker Punch Productions’ critically acclaimed series about normal people with extraordinary powers. With this being Sony’s first major PlayStation 4 exclusive of 2014, and coming out less than two weeks after the Xbox One’s own Titanfall juggernaut, expectations for Second Son have been as high as the iconic Space Needle in the game’s virtual recreation of Seattle.

As a technical showpiece, Infamous: Second Son doesn’t disappoint: it’s an absolutely amazing-looking game, and edges out Killzone: Shadow Fall as the PS4’s most visually impressive title to date. But it doesn’t have quite enough substance to balance out its sizzle, like exquisite icing slathered on a cake that turns out to be lacking an ingredient or two.

Second Son is set seven years after the events of Infamous 2, when the few surviving Conduits – people with the ability to manipulate, control and weaponize specific forms of matter – have been rounded up and imprisoned by the Department of Unified Protection (sort of a scarier, heavily armed version of the Department of Homeland Security), overseen by a powerful Conduit named Brooke Augustine (sort of a scarier, super-powered version of Hillary Clinton.)

The game casts players as Delsin Rowe, a toque-wearing 20-something slacker in a small Pacific Northwest town, who delights in tagging billboards with graffiti and causing grief for his police officer brother, Reggie. But when a truck carrying three Conduit prisoners crashes in their town, Delsin accidentally absorbs the smoke-based abilities of one of the prisoners, and an unwilling hero – or anti-hero – is born.

This brings the wrath of Augustine down on Delsin, his town and ultimately the entire city of Seattle, which is occupied by DUP forces as the hunt continues for the other two escaped “bio-terrorists.” With an ever-increasing array of superpowers, Delsin must ultimately find the other Conduits, free Seattle from the grip of DUP forces and deal with Augustine – an early contender for the best video game villain of 2014 – once and for all.

This being an Infamous game, it’s up to you, the player, to decide whether Delsin will protect the citizens of Seattle or strike fear into their hearts. Will you amass good karma by carefully avoiding civilian casualties as you battle soldiers in the streets, or will you unleash devastating attacks regardless of the collateral damage? Will you subdue armed drug dealers, or massacre anti-Conduit protesters? Will you help and support your fellow Conduits, or corrupt them to bring them under your influence?

Starting out with his initial set of smoke powers – including launching up and out of vents, hurling sulphur grenades and unleashing cinder missiles – Delsin gradually upgrades and expands his abilities, eventually catching up with the other two escaped Conduits, a feisty former drug addict named Fetch who draws her powers from neon signs (seriously), and an uber-nerd named Eugene whose obsession with a World of Warcraft-type fantasy game fuels his video-based powers (also seriously.)

The smoke powers lean towards straight-up offence, neon favours precision attacks and speed – including a delightful endless sprint ability that allows Delsin to run up the sides of buildings – and the video powers focus on stealth, flight and summoning either virtual angels or digital demons as backup, depending which way Delsin’s karma meter is tilting.

Delsin’s abilities stretch far beyond his predecessor Cole MacGrath’s powers in Infamous or Infamous 2, and Second Son has a sense of speed and fluidity that’s a bit reminiscent of Crackdown or Saints Row IV. It’s incredibly rewarding to experiment with the various sets of abilities, which can be switched simply by siphoning the appropriate source of matter, and the game’s nearly flawless controls fuel a real sense of superheroic empowerment.

I can’t help but play as a noble character in games that offer some sort of morality meter, and Second Son is no different: I completed the storyline as a “true hero” and got the quote-unquote good ending. But on a second playthrough, I found that imagining Delsin as a selfish, power-hungry douchebag actually made him a more interesting character, especially when it caused him to clash with his goody-goody brother Reggie.

And to be honest, some of the exclusively evil powers are just a lot more fun to use. Why summon a single angel as backup when being bad allows you summon three demons? What’s the point of having all these nice cars driving around Seattle if you can’t blow them up just for kicks? And that guitar-playing hipster on the corner… well, he’s just asking to be fried in his own skin, isn’t he?

But like other Infamous games before it, Second Son doesn’t allow for a lot of moral wiggle room. Sure, you can choose to be a little bit good and a little bit bad – I couldn’t help but disrupt the anti-Conduit protests, even if I didn’t actually kill anyone involved – but several powers remain locked out until you fully commit to one side or the other and build up sufficient good or evil karma.

Sucker Punch’s skill with production design has never been more evident than in Second Son, from the particle-drenched special effects to the fantastic voice work (Troy Baker, who voiced Joel in The Last of Us and Booker in BioShock: Infinite, lends his pipes to Delsin) to the incredible detail of the world itself. Although I did find the Seattle setting to be a curious choice… the first two Infamous games were set in fictional cities, and to suddenly have real-world elements like the Space Needle, the Seattle Center Monorail and Sub-Pop Records appear in the game is actually a bit jarring, especially when virtually everything else about the city has been altered or created from scratch.

Unfortunately, Second Son runs short of ideas before it runs out of spectacle. While the story is more personal and interesting than that of previous Infamous games, I eventually got a bit weary of repeating the same tasks over and over to liberate areas of the city and beef up Delsin’s powers. Hunting for a secret DUP agent in a crowd of faces, searching for audio logs or using the DualShock 4 controller as a virtual spray can to create Banksy-style street art is fun… the first five or 10 times. Then it just gets a bit tedious, a problem exacerbated by the scarcity of unique one-off side missions in the game. (Note: A separate set of “Paper Trail” missions, which are added via a free downloadable patch, weren’t available for this review.)

I was also a bit disappointed by the endgame, and the way it falls back on so many familiar video game cliches: isolate the player, restrict his powers, wear him down with some tough fights and/or platforming sequences and then dump him in an enclosed box with a boss that needs to be chipped away at in stages. It’s not that it’s unfun, necessarily, it’s just so very, very predictable.

These quibbles aside, Infamous: Second Son is a game that truly showcases the PS4’s impressive technology, and succeeds in ushering one of Sony’s best exclusive franchises into the next generation. It’s by far the most impressive and enjoyable of the three Infamous games, and marks an evolution not just in visual presentation, but in the scope of things that can be done in an open-world superhero game.

And remember, while it’s good to be good, it’s sometimes better to be bad.


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