InFamous: Second Son is the first bonafide “system justifier” for the PlayStation 4, just as much as Titanfall is for the Xbox One. Technically, this open world adventure game could have easily existed on the PlayStation 3. Yet, the moment you see the first puddle of water on the rain-soaked pavement of Second Son’s fictionalized take on Seattle, Washington, you really do feel like this new console generation is close to hitting its stride. It’s this level of detail and refined art direction that makes Seattle a star of Second Son just as much as its Native American protagonist, Delsin Rowe.
In some ways, Infamous: Second Son could be mistaken for an excellent X-Men video game. The police state imposed on Seattle and the public fear that your neighbor might have mutant abilities echoes the Chris Claremont storylines of Uncanny X-Men and the Mutant Registration Act. These circumstances also echo today’s issues of security at the expense of freedoms. The tenuous situation is the canvas for how the player chooses to act, whether it’s to guide Delsin toward a noble path for good or a direction corrupt on power. The game’s moral decision points are clearly defined and the Second Son lays out the price of assaulting bystanders and the ramifications subduing law enforcers as opposed to killing them. It’s a binary system devoid of gray areas, which is fine since both paths are still weighted and based on your choices. And its gratifying to see the external results of your choices, whether you affirm the fears of the populace or win them over as they acknowledge the efforts you make to do good.
The risks of breaking the law and following it are initially and respectively personified in Delsin’s introduction and that of his police officer brother, Reggie. Delsin reacts to his newfound superpowers with fear and apprehension, so much so that he’s all too eager to find a way to be a normal human again. It’s a more genuine and believable reaction compared to Delsin’s cockiness portrayed in the trailers and pre-launch marketing materials of Second Son. The latter is the Delsin you spend most of your time with in the game’s 10 hour playthrough. That said, his transition from reluctant superhero to an overly confident one could have been less abrupt.
This hurried pacing feels like a conscious design choice by developer Sucker Punch Productions. The more you play Second Son, the more it wants you to play and gives you a wealth of traversal powers to maintain your momentum. You dash through the streets in puffs of smoke and use one vent to teleport yourself to another vent at near-instantaneous speed. And you will need all of these mobility powers to survive Second Son’s hostile encounters, from police reinforcements to perched snipers. Engaging in a one-on-one (or three-on-one) fight is as easy to jump into as it is to jump out of. The game effectively communicates the incentives to be in constant motion and that there’s nothing to gain from standing still.
When comparing the challenges of minimizing damage and death in Second Son, I recall the quote from Morgan Freeman’s character in David Fincher’s Se7en, “…love costs: it takes effort and work.” It’s no surprise to hear from many of my games press colleagues that they went down the path of good before trying out the route of evil. The latter was the version of the game without restraint and the slightly less challenging path.
InFamous: Second Son truly lets you stretch your combat legs during the boss fights. These demand precision but you always feel like you have the means to act and react in kind. They’re long battles by adventure game standards and these are encounters that feel worthwhile in both their variety and sense of gratification upon victory.
For all its unquestionable prettiness, Sucker Punch’s interpretation of Seattle is still a classic open world playground. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—given the morality system of Second Son, one can imagine the game design complexities of making important life or death choices if this really was a living and breathing world. It’s a fundamentally antiquated open world, but I could see Sucker Punch (or another equally talented studio) transcend this familiar design in a few years.
I also appreciate Sucker Punch for making completionist incentives feel attractive and worth the time. The city’s manageable layout, coupled with the side missions invite non-story play sessions. It isn’t a Seattle over saturated with collectables that feel like a chore to track down. And while I am typically indifferent to motion control gameplay, it’s fun to going along with Delsin’s propagandist adventures and pretend that my PS4 controller is a spray can. Using the motion controls and the touchpad still feels gimmicky, but it doesn’t detract from the overall experience and is certainly implemented with inventiveness that feels practical in the context of Delsin’s narrative.
It’s features like these that make Second Son a wholly enjoyable ride from beginning to end, despite the heavy handed nature of the story and clear cut morality paths. And while this urban open world doesn’t present anything fundamentally new, its take on Seattle is still one of the prettiest virtual cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting.
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment:
Release Date: March 21, 2014
Platform: PlayStation 4