There’s a reason we’re so infatuated with superheroes: power. Flight, fire, invulnerability, invisibility — whatever the special ability, we’re envious of and enthralled by it. The idea of rising above our banal normality into the strata of demigod is an elixir too intoxicating to ignore. Given our lack of actual superheroes (military and emergency services personnel not included — you guys rock), the closest we can get to feeling like a true comic-book star is through games. The problem? The number of good superhero games is relatively small. Adaptations of the most renowned stars — Batman, Superman, Spiderman — vary greatly in quality, which can be infuriating for those who want to take control of an honest-to-goodness, all-conquering badass.
Enter, then, Sony’s Infamous franchise, developed by Sucker Punch. Its first two iterations on PS3 gave players control of Cole McGrath, a normal person imbued with supernatural powers: he could manipulate electricity, wielding it as a weapon, form of transport and healing tool. It also offered a moral quandary to players, in the form of a binary choice — be good, and save your failing city, or be evil, and have its citizens tremble at your electrified knees.
This third installment, Second Son, takes the franchise to a new setting and introduces us to a new protagonist, Delsin Rowe. Our introduction to him is one typical of many superheroes. Delsin is a member of the Akomish, a Native American tribe who live in Washington State. A graffiti artist, Delsin is something of a waster, tagging buildings and being repeatedly arrested by his brother, Reggie, the local sheriff. When a bus transporting a group of Conduits — those imbued with special powers or abilities — crashes next to Delsin’s town, an interaction with one of the escapees activates his own powers. Delsin is, as he describes himself, a “sponge,” able to draw a Conduit’s power and use it for himself.
The first ability gained is control over smoke. Delsin can absorb smoke into his body, using it to fire burning projectiles, dash through gates and fences, drop sulfur bombs, float between buildings and use vents to quickly climb buildings. The game’s opening acts slowly introduce both the player and Delsin to his new powers, as well as the game’s protagonists, the Department of Unified Protection, or D.U.P., and its head Brooke Augustine. Augustine manages a prison designed to keep Conduits under guard and prevent them from using their powers to harm or commit crimes, and is intent on bringing the escaped prisoners back to her detention facility. She is a Conduit herself, and, when she suspects that Delsin may be a Conduit, uses her control of concrete to torture the Akomish people.
This sets the wheels in motion for the main setting of the game, the city of Seattle. Augustine takes her D.U.P. forces there to capture the remaining Conduits, and Delsin and his brother quickly follow. Delsin’s plan is simple: absorb Augustine’s power and heal the members of his tribe afflicted with the concrete barbs she left embedded in their bodies.
Seattle is where Infamous: Second Son starts to pick up steam. My first couple of hours in the city were spent removing D.U.P. forces from certain areas, seeking out energy cores to drain and unlock new powers, scaling buildings with Delsin’s parkour skills and otherwise marveling in the fictional world of Seattle.
And what a world. Infamous is the first game to truly showcase the power of the new generation of home consoles. Every aspect of its world feels like a huge step up from everything that’s come before. Seattle itself is utterly gorgeous. The game dynamically switches between day, dusk and night depending on the mission at hand, and regardless of time of day Seattle will blow you away. Every texture, detail, shaft of light, puddle of rain, pedestrian, car, bush, tree, billowing piece of trash and flashing neon sign is beautiful. Standing atop the Space Needle, gazing across Infamous‘ cityscape, watching the sun bloom and flare across the camera lens, seeing dust particles catch in the light, marveling at the rain hitting the camera and splashing in the puddles that form on the ground: Infamous is the game you want to sit someone in front of to show the power of the PS4.
That’s all before you use Delsin’s powers. Delsin himself, as well as the major supporting characters, are animated well, with realistic facial animations and pleasantly smooth movements, but it’s when Delsin fires up his abilities that Infamous will leave you breathless. Delsin gains three main powers across the game’s span and each offers its own visual delight. Smoke is your first entry and deftly displays the PS4′s physics processing. Throw a blast of smoke at an enemy soldier and it will curl and rip its way through the air, burning embers blasting out from the black smoke, before smacking into the soldier, billowing and exploding around them. The trails and wisps that linger in the air, slowly dissipating, are wonderful to behold. Deslin’s second power is neon — and arguably the game’s standout showcase. Absorbing neon straight from the bright lights lining many of the buildings in Seattle, Deslin can direct bursts of bright, colored light at enemies, or use his powers to run at light speed over cars, obstacles and even buildings. One of his special powers, called the radiant sweep, sees Deslin slam into the ground, sending a neon shockwave at surrounding enemies, lifting the into the air and trapping them in luminescent stasis bubbles. He then rises into the air and directs thunderous rounds of piercing neon light at any and all trapped enemies. As a final blow, giant neon bubbles start exploding all around Deslin. It’s insane, stunning, magnificent. I spent so many minutes of gameplay just slack-jawed in awe at the particle effects and lighting engine that Infamous uses. Last up is video, which again showcases incredible particle effects, surrounding Deslin in blue, pixelated squares, sprouting giant angel wings to swoop over buildings or producing a giant sword to slice through enemies. It’s dramatic and different, but neon really is the standout here.
Infamous lives and breathes through its sound, too. Explosions, bursts of neon, streaks of smoke, screaming pedestrians, clattering gunfire — the streets of Seattle are never quiet as you romp through encounters with D.U.P. soldiers, drug dealers, protesters and other such citizens waiting to start a fight. The ambient sounds of the city pale in comparison to the voice acting, however. What really sets this installment of the Infamousfranchise apart from the others, as well as many other games in the genre, is its tone. It’s dramatic, but has a constant current of comedy running through it. Deslin and his brother have witty, humorous exchanges that almost belies the deep emotional bond the two share. Deslin himself comments on his actions as you play, offering a funny slight or appropriately awed reaction to a new power or particularly cool takedown. Other supporting characters engage in banter, and even Deslin’s exchanges with antagonist Augustine are — though tense and dramatic — filled with sarcasm and dry humor. It’s a refreshing change from the constantly dark, dramatic, overbearing tone of many games today — the humanity of the characters as they make light of an otherwise pretty depressing situation stops the story from drying up or overstaying its course.
The same, unfortunately, can’t quite be said of the gameplay. If you liked Infamous and its sequel, you’ll feel right at home with what’s on offer here. The third person shooting, the parkour, the battle sequences, the side quests and exploration and zoned areas. Everything feels familiar. It doesn’t feel tired yet, though, which is a testament to the fresh nature of Second Son‘s new setting, cast and powers. It does, however, have pacing issues. The opening of the game, leading up to entering Seattle for the first time is great, but once you’re there and have gained the core smoke powers, it’s a slightly awkward time. Traversing the environment feels laborious, with the parkour system not working as fluidly as Assassin’s Creed and smoke powers not offering enough speed or power to leap between buildings in the manner you may be expecting. Similarly, the D.U.P. enemies initially feel rather brutal and overpowering, which offers an intense challenge to initial skirmishes that makes completing a given task a satisfying delight. Once new powers are unlocked, though, these two elements flip. Neon and video powers allow Deslin to move around Seattle at breakneck pace, letting him leap, soar and navigate the environment with appropriate gusto. Battles, however, become slightly routine. The enemies faced will adapt to Deslin’s new powers, but it’s too easy to adopt the same tactic for each encounter. Staying in the distance and picking off the snipers, sweeping in and destroying the brute soldiers then dispatching the rest with a karma bomb. Rinse and repeat.
It shouldn’t detract from your purchase, however, as battles — even if they can feel a little same-y — are always a visual and aural treat. Besides the side missions are more than enough to balance having to fight through waves of D.U.P. soldiers. Bust drug dealers, take down groups protesting Conduits, find hidden D.U.P. agents, disable D.U.P. cameras, tag graffiti art on walls and buildings — which uses the DualShock 4′s motion sensors to nice effect — and destroy drones monitoring Seattle’s civilians. Or, climb the Space Needle and just stare at the gorgeous scenery. Perhaps you’d rather weave beautiful light trails with your neon powers? If you’ve chosen to be evil, you can wander out into streets and blow up everything in sight, just for fun. Seattle is a big, open playground, waiting for you to use your arsenal of weapons and powers.
Which brings me to Infamous‘s notorious feature: Karma. Gamers have more than enough reason to play through Infamous multiple times. Pick a difficulty and go through as good. Then, go back through as evil. Then, bump things up to hard and go through it again. Choosing between good and evil offers its own rewards and sacrifices. Good Deslin is beloved by citizens, but he has to be cautious in battles — kill a civilian and you’ll be punished for it. Evil Deslin? Seattle’s locals will hate him, but he can just go hell for leather and kill anyone — soldier or streetwalker — without remorse. Other characters can be manipulated, too, brought onto the evil track or shown the light, impacting the story Infamous tells. As for the ending, there’s two variations depending on the morality Deslin has portrayed during his time in Seattle. I played through as good, which is always my preference for such games, but the moment I saw that evil Deslin could one-shot enemies by disintegrating them I knew another playthrough was in order.
Ultimately, Infamous can be summed up as such: do you own a PS4? If you answered yes to that question, then buy a copy of Infamous. Right now. If you want to showcase what your console can do, it’s perfect. If you want a genuinely good superhero game, it’s perfect. If you want a thoroughly enjoyable open-world game to romp around in, it’s perfect. If you’ve tried either of the franchise’s other installments and didn’t enjoy the gameplay, I’m not sure you’ll find much to love here — except for the graphics, sound and story. It’s a beautiful, amusing, utterly enjoyable experience that offers the first real reason to go out and buy a PlayStation 4. Infamoussignificantly raises the bar for what we should be expecting from our brand new consoles. The moment you step into Deslin’s shoes and shoot a bright stream of neon at your enemies, you’ll wonder why you wasted your time on all of those other superhero games. It’s a power as intoxicating as it is beautiful.
Infamous: Second Son () is $59.99 and available at Amazon.com.