Infamous: Second Son review: over-powered

After two (and a half) games, Sucker Punch has the core of Infamous down to a science. Firing off shots, lobbing bombs, and roaming an open city in Infamous: Second Son is as fun as it ever was in the prior two games. In fact, it's all so immediately recognizable that it feels as if the series has hit a creative rut, even as the fundamentals remain solid.

The familiar feeling is a double-edged sword. Prior Infamous games starred Cole, who sported electric powers. A new hero with new abilities really shouldn't feel exactly like him, especially given that Delsin can absorb powers from other Conduits. The central conceit implies a vast degree of differentiation, but I was left disappointed by how each of the four powers play more-or-less the same as each other. Each has some minor variations--the speed or type of shot, or how it handles vertical climbs, for example--but the basic suite of abilities is barely distinguishable.

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Sometimes the mechanics are so lifted from the previous games that they fail to even make sense in this context. Cole could heal citizens with his electric powers for good karma, which made a certain kind of comic book logic thanks to the existence of defibrillators. But why can I walk up to an ailing man and heal him with neon?

These similarities seem to largely be a practical consideration of the gameplay. Delsin can only use one power at a time, and swaps between them by absorbing them from the environment. Since you could have any of the powers equipped at a given time, it would feel unfair to run up against enemies while using a less combat-focused power, or to need to travel at speed with a less mobile power. So instead of differentiated abilities with freedom to swap at will, we get light variations on a similar pattern.

One area Sucker Punch has seen definite improvement in, though, is characterization. Cole often came off like a scowling jerk even if you made the good karma decisions. Delsin, by contrast, is naturalistic and playful. He's a bit of an impudent putz at the start of the game, fancying himself a revolutionary in the way you might expect from a spoiled teenager, but his arc lets him go through a believable journey to responsibility while hanging onto his rebellious side. His banter with his brother Reggie is always well-done, and the two share some genuine comic moments. The faces are especially well-realized during these scenes, as the two communicate a lot through subtle non-verbal cues.

That presentation carries into the city as well. Perhaps because the series has moved into the realm of real locales, or maybe because this location happens to be in Sucker Punch's backyard, Seattle just feels more lovingly crafted than cities in the other games. The architecture looks vibrant, full of life, and it's really a sight to behold when swept over by rain, fog, or the orange glow of a sunrise. The visuals on the powers are just as impressive, to the point that I'm half-convinced Sucker Punch chose smoke and neon for their ability to play with particle and lighting effects.

If the power of the PlayStation 4 has helped the studio realize its vision in a visual sense, though, it did trip over some of its odder applications of the new system's qualities. Some contextual commands are uselessly relegated to swiping the touch pad when a button press would have done the job. Delsin's hobby as a graffiti artist is exercised by turning the controller sideways, shaking it to make the "can" rattle, and then spraying into a stencil. This is actually a pretty neat application and the art he produces is good for some laughs, but the novelty wears off quickly if you chase down all of the tagging points.

Those graffiti tags can be good or evil, to give the citizenry hope or fear. Infamous has gotten some well-deserved flack for its binary choices in the past, but the karma choices in this one feel a little more earned. By making Delsin more charming and morally ambiguous, most of the decisions are understandable either way. Of course, you're still really best off picking a path and sticking with it to max out your abilities, since some of them unlock at different karma levels.

The main story missions essentially revolve around Delsin preparing himself for the battle ahead. He hears about a Conduit and tries to find them to absorb their powers for use against the primary antagonist. Meanwhile you have to fight through the anti-superpower D.U.P. agency, taking out bases and soldiers at a regular pace. Each region of Seattle also has a handful of side-missions available to liberate it, but these only come in a few flavors and can feel like busywork. That may have been an attempt to pad the length, since I was surprised when the credits rolled. I had assumed I was about 3/4 of the way through the game, and suddenly I found myself in the thick of the final encounter.

Despite that surprise, and my reservations about borrowing liberally from previous games, I was left satisfied. This is an Infamous game through and through, and I'd like to have seen Sucker Punch venture further from its comfort zone. Still, Second Son holds its own as a fundamentally sound entry that makes great strides in presentation thanks to a new console. [7]


This review is based on retail PlayStation 4 disc provided by the publisher. Infamous: Second Son will be available on PlayStation 4 on March 21 for $59.99. The game is rated T.