As the first big exclusive for Sony’s Playstation 4 since launch in November, Infamous: Second Son and its development studio, Sucker Punch, have an unenviable position in two regards. First, this is the title that is intended to persuade players to invest in the PS4 as their console for the new generation. Then there are those who have already invested in Sony’s new console. For those people, Infamous: Second Son is the game which needs to satisfy those early adopters and keep them on board. Fortunately, Sony made the safest of bets, as Sucker Punch has delivered an engaging experience that sets the bar for both presentation and gameplay.
Seven years after the events of Infamous 2, Seattle is under martial law after a convoy with three conduits being transferred to a secure prison is destroyed and the prisoners escape. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, command centers for the Department of Unified Protection (DUP) now exist in each district of the city, and armed convoys roam the streets looking for conduits. When Brooke Augustine, leader of the DUP, tortures the Akomish tribe to find out if Delsin Rowe – a member of the tribe – is a conduit, she threatens to undo the work that she has done to round up these “bio-terrorists” and keep humanity safe. This dystopian version of Seattle is only the backdrop to Delsin Rowe’s struggle with power, and the set up for the best story that the Infamous series has ever offered.
Morality is a challenging concept to incorporate in a narrative-driven game, especially one that is open-world. The reason for this, and this can be seen in titles like the Grand Theft Auto series, is no matter what morals the character has throughout the game, there needs to be a consequence for negative actions. When the player decides to kill a civilian for no reason, there needs to be a push back from the game world. In the case of Infamous, the series has always managed to balance good and evil decisions that happen outside of the story and make the world dynamically react to what the protagonist is doing. When a character is constantly injuring civilians, the civilians become more and more violent towards the player. Inversely, as the player does more and more good for society, the world recognizes those good deeds and praises them. This is the element of Infamous that has carried on throughout all of the subsequent iterations, and has made me enjoy going through the game twice to see how the game changes.
How Infamous: Second Son handles morality is extremely similar to the previous games in the series. Our main character, Delsin Rowe, is a good-hearted twenty-something who often finds himself on the wrong side of the law. He vandalizes billboards and sides of buildings and is constantly at odds with his brother Reggie, who is a police officer on the Akomish reserve. Delsin walks the line between good and evil already, much like Cole did in the first game, but his devotion to his family and tribe make him a character to root for, even if he is a delinquent. So when Delsin acquires smoke powers from one of the three escaped convicts and takes it upon himself to try and save his tribe, he and his brother head to Seattle in order to find a cure for the illness that Augustine’s torture has caused. This is the broad strokes of the story, but Infamous: Second Son seems uninterested in creating an over-the-top narrative filled with bombastic tropes that plague many superhero video games.
Instead, what the game offers players is a more character-driven title that explores how power changes people. Every conduit that Delsin meets has a conflicted past that led them to where they are now. How these characters lived within society before their powers, and then what the difference was once they got them is well-conveyed and powerful. Each conduit has their moment when they were most vulnerable, and what they did in that moment is what defined them. With Delsin, we are playing through his moment and creating his future by the karmic decisions we make as players. The unfortunate element of Infamous: Second Son is how these decisions are presented, which is extremely binary and more cinematic than gameplay-oriented. Your choices in a pivotal moment are color-coded so you know that red means its an evil decision and blue means it is a good one. In the original Infamous, a decision was made by the player actually performing the action associated with the karmic choice. So if the player wanted to save a character, they would have to actually go do it. In Infamous: Second Son, the player does nothing but watch Delsin perform the moral choice selected. It is a minor complaint, but feels like an unnecessary step backwards that discourages the choice of video games as the medium to tell this story.
The player gets plenty of chances to make moral decisions themselves in the actual gameplay, though. All the usual causes of karma changes can be found in the open-world of Seattle. Killing civilians will result in negative karma, while subduing enemies will have an opposite effect. There are side missions that will simply enhance whichever karmic alignment you belong to at the moment, such as destroying hidden cameras, finding audio logs, and finding undercover agents of the DUP. One of the interesting side missions that has been added to Infamous: Second Son is spray painting. Delsin is very much a character that is anti-establishment, though sometimes it’s hard to tell if the sentiment is ironic or not, but because of his anarchist mentality, he loves to vandalize the streets of Seattle. Players will select either a negative design or positive one, which will influence their karma, and then proceed to actually act out spray painting that design. Delsin will make stencils and players tilt the Dualshock 4 to the side and shake it to simulate shaking the can of paint. Then simply press R2 to spray. It’s a neat little gimmick that feels great, even if it serves very little purpose in the grand scheme of things.
Other neat little features that incorporate the Dualshock 4 is the touchpad functionality and speaker integration. Similar to Knack, picking up blast shards, which are used to upgrade powers in the game, creates a noise that emits from the controller’s speaker. The same goes for the ringtone of Delsin’s whenever someone is calling him. The touchpad sees a lot more satisfying use though. It starts off feeling kind of contrived as you’re picking up cars and scanning hands with it, but then you start getting used to it and it feels extremely intuitive. There are people locked up in suspension pens throughout Seattle, and with the quick swipe of a finger to the left or right of the touchpad, Delsin will tear the door off the pen, letting the people free. It is such a simple mechanic but it aids in providing a feeling of empowerment, instead of simply shooting a lock off a door.
This feeling of empowerment is carried throughout the game as you upgrade each new power that you acquire from the various conduits you meet. Naturally, an evil playthrough will have your character overwhelmingly strong and this definitely encourages playing on Expert difficulty so that there’s more of a challenge, but players who are more altruistic will likely want to stay on Normal difficulty as that is challenging enough. Combat gets heated really quickly, and players will find themselves dashing away from combat and trying to regain their health. The downside to the fluidity of the gameplay and how fast everything moves is that I often had to wrestle with the camera when quickly dashing in the opposite direction, so as to not run into more gunfire. It wasn’t a common problem, especially once I raised the sensitivity of the aiming, but it occurred far more times than I wanted and had me frustrated each time it happened.
For having combat scenarios that can become overwhelmingly hectic with an abundance of enemies onscreen, a ridiculous amount of explosions and particle effects, it is a wonder that the game runs as smoothly as it does. The game ran well above 30 frames per second at all times, and would fluctuate but rarely to a noticeable degree. On top of that, all of the modelling of characters’ faces and expressions are incredible, and add to the cinematic sensibilities of Infamous: Second Son. This game and Killzone: Shadow Fall are prime examples of titles that show off the power of the Playstation 4, and will entice those who demand high visual fidelity in their video games. That being said, the game had many instances of characters’ limbs going through objects in the environment and trying to climb up buildings quickly showcased how stiff some of the animations are.
The biggest problem that Infamous: Second Son faces is just how formulaic the Infamous franchise has become. Each new power acquired by Delsin requires him to find core relays to upgrade them immediately afterwards so that he can use different abilities within them. The various powers are all fairly similar to each other, with minor tweaks, but they all are based around a core concept. For example, the Smoke power has a grenade which causes enemies to cough, making them vulnerable to executions and being subdued. Meanwhile, the Neon power’s equivalent is a grenade which puts enemies in stasis and causes them to be vulnerable to attacks. Every power has a different projectile, a different heavy attack, a different agility movement, or a different hovering ability, but with few exceptions are they drastically different. It became glaringly obvious how little had actually been changed in terms of the mechanics and narrative beats for Infamous: Second Son, and that is disappointing for a title that does almost everything else so much better than before.
Disappointing is hardly a word I can use to describe the overall package which Infamous: Second Son presents, though. There are few games that make me want to do every option they present me with, whether its to go take out a DUP command post, spray paint a wall, collect all the blast shards, try out a different power, or just go around stopping drug dealers. As with the previous two games, you’ll probably be immediately compelled to run through the game again to see what happens differently under a different karmic alignment, but the gameplay will never incite boredom, even if it is the same as its always been. The change in presentation and the character-driven story in Infamous: Second Son is another step in the right direction, paving the way for Sucker Punch to continue its explorations of morality, while still providing an exceptional gameplay experience that never gets old.