What would you do if you developed super powers? Would you use them for good, use them for evil or just be generally annoying? If your answer is that you are undecided on morality but insistent on being annoying, you might just be Delsin Rowe. This fellow is the protagonist of inFAMOUS Second Son, the latest chapter in the Sony franchise where you once again play as a super powered individual in an open world city. Delsin is a young delinquent from the state of Washington; he has a distaste for ‘the man’ and a love of aerosol paint. Though he seems destined for a life of petty vandalism – interspersed with the odd Zeitgesit documentary or a visit to a conspiracy forum – his trajectory is changed when he inherits a super power. To be exact, he touches a convicts arm and gains the ability to manipulate smoke.
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility (or so I am told) – which is manifested here by a noble quest. Delsin lives in a world where super powered individuals exist (see the ridiculous ending to inFAMOUS 2 for the explanation), but they are branded as bio-terrorists. These individuals are othered and persecuted, mainly by the D.U.P and their sinister leader Augustine. She is a conduit (the supposedly politically correct term for ‘bio-terrorists’) herself and can manipulate concrete. However, she has been rounding up all the other conduits into a pseudo prison, where they are locked away and experimented on. The game makes it very clear that it’s not a nice place to be and that the conduits are very hard done by. Your job becomes take down the mean concrete lady, in order to get revenge (due to an incident towards the beginning) and to stop persecution.
It’s not a terribly interesting narrative; in fact it’s wholly forgettable. The character performances are excellent though, in terms of voice acting and character animation. Characters interact with each other in a very realistic way; it’s just a shame that they are not interesting outside of pure performance. Lame characters well portrayed are still lame characters. Without the material to back them up though, the technical achievements and acting aren’t as impressive as they could be. Delsin moves and sounds like a real person, it’s just that the person in question isn’t very appealing. It’s somewhat entrancing to watch for a while, due to the quality, but this appeal burns out fast when you realise there’s nothing beneath the surface.
Narrative problems mean that the focus falls on the gameplay. Delsin is apparently a sponge for super powers, so the structure of the game becomes find new powers in order to have a better chance against your eventual foe. This makes it stand out from previous inFAMOUS titles, where you just had just the one power (electricity), but sadly none of the new powers are that impressive. They’re good enough though, allowing for you to have a fun old time with four distinct power sources – but everything is a bit samey. The controller layout works the same way for each power source: One button will always be a glide, one a heavy attack, one shooting, one traversal, etc. The result of this is that powers don’t feel very distinct; they have their slight alterations but not enough to make any stand out. It puts you in the scenario where every power provides a way to do the same thing; the problem is that you will prefer one way over the over for a variety of functions. You may really like the heavy attack of smoke, but like how traversal is handled in a later power – which is somewhat problematic. You can’t just switch between powers on the fly, you have to find the correct source and completely swap to the new power-set. This feels limiting and would work better if there was a more substantial reason to keep swapping.
You don’t have the most creative or imaginative arsenal in Second Son, but that is true of so many games. Core combat remains a lot of fun and some of the powers have nice tweaks to them which improve the action even more. Movement feels great, the game controls nicely and combat scenarios are fun. This is good, as you spend a lot of time blasting foes. Enemy design isn’t hugely varied, but there’s enough there to keep you entertained. There’s also a slight element of destructibility which, though incredibly restricted, does make combat feel more impactful. The game factors destructible elements into combat scenarios quite well, making the most of a limited system. Overall, this holds true to combat as a whole, it is disappointingly limited in places but the game does a good job of recognising its limitations and playing within them.
Another side to the gameplay is traversal, which compliments combat but exists in separation. In the other inFAMOUS games, the focus was on climbing up buildings and grinding on rails. This isn’t really the case now, climbing is still there but it isn’t the focus. You get powers which negate the need to climb, making traversal easier and certainly flashier – at a point in the game you can literally run up buildings, like Prototype or Saints Row 4. Moving around the city in Second Son is enjoyable, it’s empowering and there’s a nice sense of speed to it. It is the one place where you do feel overtly powerful, rather than limited, and this is a good thing. However, it comes at a slight cost. Because traversal is so much simpler, the design of the city doesn’t have to be as deliberate. It’s not as carefully crafted as the world of inFAMOUS 1 (for example), as new methods of traversal apply to pretty much any building. This makes the city less interesting, but it also makes the early game underwhelming. Near the start your power-set doesn’t seem matched to your environment. Architecture doesn’t seem designed with you in mind, which is a great thing in open world games focused on immersion, but not in ones focused on traversal and empowerment. Also, the city doesn’t feel alive or immersive enough to allow this to be even a slight positive.
You will have a good time in Second Son’s Seattle, but it’s not a very memorable game world. It looks stunning, on a technical level, but it doesn’t stand out. Though it inherits the identity of Seattle, it never feels like a real place. Apart from the odd recognisable landmark, it could be any city anywhere. There’s an odd lack of background noise, which saps atmosphere from your surroundings, and it never seems to exist separately from you. Architecture is placed in a way that is ambivalent to the player, but the overall feel of the city still comes off as inauthentic. The focus is you at all times, at no point is the actual world believable. This isn’t inherently problematic, as it can be outweighed in a better game. In Second Son though, this approach doesn’t provide enough positives to stop it being an issue. If it’s all about me and not about immersion, fill the streets with compelling side content that take advantage of my powers. Sadly the game doesn’t do this, there are activities to do but they are all repeating objectives. Every sector has a similar group of side missions and you go around ticking the boxes until you get 100%. It’s fun while it lasts, but there is a lack of more meaningful side content. It gives you nice distractions, but nothing substantial to tuck into outside of the main course. This is also hampered by the game not being very long (by genre standards), even if you take into account ticking all those side activity boxes. Getting this stuff done is entertaining, but not inherently. The actual objectives are dull, they are only enjoyable because of the strength of the core mechanics (movement and combat are fun). This is fine, but more meaningful side content would make for a great improvement.
One overbearing issue with the game, the albatross that has hung around the neck of the inFAMOUS series since its conception, is the busted morality system. Good and bad choices return once again, and still make no sense at all. The system is just too arbitrary and binary, not actually giving you a choice despite occasionally prompting you to make one. The core issue (besides how certain parts of the evil plot line don’t quite add up) is that only extremes are rewarded; there is no reason to ever not go full good or full bad. Maxing out your karma in one way is the only way to get the best powers, keeping a middle ground or being dynamic is actively dissuaded. However the game still acts like you have a choice, stopping at rare points to ask whether you want to do the good thing or the bad thing. In reality, the choice was made for you at the start, in any one play through you will only ever be one-hundred percent good or one-hundred percent bad. Once you make your first choice, the rest are done for you, yet it still quizzes you throughout. This could perhaps work if the game used it as a way of showing consequence, recognising that you are always going to make the one choice, but making this moment meaningful by placing an interesting decision in front of you. It would be nice if the game used these scripted choice moments to garner moments of reflection, instead though these parts are purely arbitrary. The choices are not at all interesting and just feel thrown in for the hell of it.
On the flip side, the karma system is worked well into the core gameplay. This makes a case for having the good/bad split, but also gives further evidence for the argument that good and evil should just be starting choices. This complaint aside, your karmic state does change how you play the game. If you are good then the focus is on precision, certain powers force you to play deliberately in a way that is very enjoyable. On the other hand, if you are bad then you are more destructive – which makes for its own kind of fun. This makes karma worthwhile and makes the game more interesting to play. This also slightly makes up for the somewhat unimpressive (and samey) powers, as once again they are used smartly throughout. It’s one of the many cases where Second Son boasts impressive design in a way that’s a lot of fun. However Second Son never gets past this, it is fun but you feel it’s not as fun as it could be. There’s a really nice core here, but it’s not quite impressive enough to make the game special by its self and some of the surroundings bring the game down.
Speaking both metaphorically and literally, inFAMOUS Second Son just lacks that spark. On one hand, everything is good but it’s lacking that special something. Examples of this include how the game is a graphical show piece, but it lacks the attention to detail and the little touches you see in other (better) open world titles – the game has everything it needs but not enough to make it truly excel. On the other hand you can’t help but miss the electricity powers of inFAMOUS 1 and 2, knowing how fun they were makes the powers here even less impressive. The first game just did everything a bit better and didn’t fall into the same pot holes; Second Son is inherently not as original and just not as good. This makes it a rather standard instalment; its changes to the formula are relatively uninteresting but everything is very solid. It’s a good game, but it could have been a lot better.
In more than one way, inFAMOUS Second Son is just missing that spark. There's fun to be had here, but even when it's at its best something feels missing.