A new generation of hardware should usher in a new generation of not just better looking worlds, but more expansive ones. Infamous: Second Son certainly fits the bill in terms of looking pretty. But it’s a disappointing step backwards in terms of building giant, immersive worlds. The fact that this is an open world game makes this shortcoming all the more stinging. To quote the Talking Heads, “Lights on, nobody home.”
After the jump, it’s a small world after all.
Second Son takes place several years after the events of Infamous 2. The world knows about conduits, the name for superpowered folks in the Infamous universe. Most conduits are now locked up in a Guantanamo Bay style prison. The transport of these prisoners and their subsequent escape brings them in contact with Delsin Rowe, graffiti artist and quippy miscreant. Turns out Delsin is a prime conduit which means he can absorb the powers of other conduits. This is a handy skill given that the only way he can save the members of his tribe — he’s part of a fictional Native American tribe called the Akomish — is by absorbing the concrete powers of the game’s villain — concrete is a type of power in this game — and then using those powers to heal his town’s residents.
The only conduit with concrete powers is Brooke Augustine, head of the police force charged with capturing conduits. Augustine is currently overseeing the lockdown of Seattle, so it’s off to the Emerald City we go. Seattle is beautifully created, if somewhat squished for creative purposes, with plenty of real life shops and landmarks nestled among the various references to other Sucker Punch games. The game returns to the days of old by blocking off half of the city until the story progresses far enough. At first glance this may be disappointing, the disappointment fades when you realize that there’s not that much to do in the city. Well, maybe not fades. More like it’s replaced with a different kind of disappointment.
Did Sucker Punch feel they needed to make an open world game because the previous Infamous games were open world? Or did they want to make a 3rd person action adventure game in a market that hasn’t been kind to any games in that genre that don’t have “Zelda” in their title? Whatever the cause, there is a significant lack of stuff to do here, a lack that is even more glaring when you consider recent open world escapades like Grand Theft Auto V and Assassin’s Creed IV. For all of their faults, those games gave the player a tremendous amount to do as well as solid reasons for doing those things. Naval contracts in Assassin’s Creed IV reward you with money and golden guns, assassination missions give you money and gun-swords, finding the various Mayan stelae rewards you with bulletproof armor. That’s to say nothing of the thrill of taking to the seas and attacking forts, plundering naval convoys and taking down legendary ships. Grand Theft Auto V rewards the player with money and some pretty whacked out characters to experience. When the strangers and freaks mark appeared on the map of Los Santos, you want to go there to see what crazy resident needs your help.
There’s none of that urgency in Second Son.
Not to say that there are no rewards in Second Son. The city is divided up into districts and once you take out an enemy outpost, you can lower their control of the district until a showdown becomes available. Win the showdown and the bad guys are driven out of the district, a silly notion given that there are no physical barriers keeping them from coming back. It’s literally one street over from where they’re already standing. Clearing a district gives you a fast travel point and you also get…uh…no, that’s it. Just a fast travel point. Thrilling stuff.
If the missions used to lower enemy control were interesting, they would be their own reward, but they’re pretty dull. Hidden camera missions have you looking at your phone to see the camera’s viewpoint and then finding the camera and destroying it. Audio drops have you tracking a signal with your cell phone and then picking up an audio log. Secret agent missions have you looking at a picture of an enemy agent on your phone and then murdering them. Stencil art has you making graffiti on the city’s various walls. Admittedly, it’s pretty cool graffiti but it’s not exactly superhero stuff. There are also shard drones to track down so that you can upgrade your powers. Aside from keeping random patrols from harassing you, or going after trophies, I don’t know why you’d do any side missions or care about removing enemy control. Boring is one thing. Boring and inconsequential are a deadly combination.
The story missions have a number of “trace the cell phone signal” and “chase this conduit” missions nestled between the usual “go here and kill these guys” engagements. Then there’s a mission where I had to open up a bunch of port-a-potties looking for an escaped conduit. The story missions are engaging enough, if only to keep hanging out with Delsin and his reluctant cop brother Reggie.
Delsin’s not the dour anti-hero we’ve come to expect, but rather an excited guy who feels he hit the genetic lottery with his superpowers. Sure, his tribe currently has concrete grafted to their limbs and it’s up to him to save them. But he’s not going to let something like that keep him from enjoying running at near light speed in a blur of neon. Reggie, on the other hand, is not quite as thrilled at seeing his brother turn into a bio-terrorist. Reggie’s law-and-order instincts are frequently at odds with Delsin’s free wheeling take on justice. Both characters are voiced extremely well and the story goes to a place with a genuine emotional moment that I didn’t see coming.
Delsin switches between smoke, neon, and video powers by absorbing whatever source is available. Rather than let the player switch on the fly, the game forces the player to use whatever is at hand, which can be frustrating when you really want to use a particular type of power. But it does force you to master all three powers to prepare for various environments. The powers all have a form of a projectile weapon and melee attack as well as a crowd control attack. They play differently enough to not feel like reskinned versions of each other.
Karma makes a return to further differentiate your powers but unlike Infamous 2, where there were very distinct differences between good and evil powers, it seems completely arbitrary. Good karma lets you slow down time when focusing your neon beam attack, whereas bad karma gives you a higher rate of fire. Other than unlocking a couple of different story missions and changing the ending, there’s no compelling reason for one karma track over the other. That said, the good karma track fits in with Delsin’s characterization as an immature but affable man-child. The evil karma path makes him a remorseless psychopath, which makes for some pretty jarring moments when played against the story beats, especially the stuff with his brother.
Second Son looks fantastic and from a technical perspective, it’s a pretty impressive feat especially given that the game is out less than six months from the release of the Playstation 4. Unfortunately the gameplay isn’t up to par with the light show. Like the neon that Delsin channels, it’s all light and no heat.