Over the past year or two I've read a couple of books and watched a couple of films that personally I think would make epic video games.
inFamous: Second Son Review: Delsin You Do, Delsin You Don’t
I’ll start with the bad, because inFamous: Second Son is rather a good game on the whole. Now this is the main, big bad which plagues the game.
The new American superhero romp inFamous: Second Son suffers from exactly the same problem as the last two games in the series: a reductive, pointless obsession with forcing you, the player, to choose “good” or “evil”.
Like inFamous and inFamous 2, the player in inFamous: Second Son takes control of a person who has just discovered that they are a “conduit”. That is, an individual who channels a natural- or unnatural- element.
In this case we are Delsin Rowe, a Native American descendant who witnesses an accident where several conduits escape from incarceration. Conduits have now been named “bioterrorists” and are hunted as criminals, thanks to a new state-trotting government agency called the D.U.P., headed by an authoritarian mynx called Augustine. When Delsin grabs one of the conduits’ hands to help him up, Delsin experiences a super-powered seizure, gaining a glimpse into the man’s past, and assuming the man’s power- the power of smoke.
Delsin looks like he should be a lame wisecracking teenager. An irritating protagonist you want to avoid listening to at all costs. But he’s not. He is well written, and even better acted by Troy Baker, who pulls another near-perfect performance, adding human intonation and joyful soul to all of Delsin’s lines. Words which in any other actor’s mouth would sound corny and aggravate your ears sound natural and likeable under Troy’s tongue. As a player, it’s genuinely enjoyable playing in Delsin’s Converse sneakers thanks to this creative work.
However, despite the pedigree of the game’s narrative, that “be good or be evil” problem rears its head. Like inFamous and inFamous 2, our solid introduction to running around and using Delsin’s powers to shoot, move and do weird smokey stuff is interrupted awkwardly when the game demands you to choose a good or evil path. Augustine is a really excellent villain, but the game’s initial choice of lying to her or telling her the truth about your power begins the game’s spiral into what is problematic storytelling territory. (It doesn’t even make a difference which one you choose.)
Rather than let the player experience their well-written, highly developed characters and gameworld in an elegant, emotional narrative, the game’s developer Sucker Punch have decided to force the player down one narrative path or the other, rendering both worse off. Just like in the last two games in the series, arbitrary moments and gameplay choices throughout the game give you two different versions of Delsin- the evil Delsin and the good Delsin. Choose to lie to those around you and kill your enemies- evil. Choose to support truth, justice and the American way- good.
The binary good/ evil split breaks the immersion for the player. You aren’t going to feel truly connected to Delsin knowing that he could just as easily be an idiotic villain making bad decisions (the stuff he does in the Evil ending is truly idiotic). Game length is also reduced due to this decision: in effect you’re getting half of the levels as good, half as evil- remove the obsession with polar opposite moralities and add a more progressive morality system and we would have a longer game with a more nuanced, subtle approach to the problem of supehero morality. A story about one flawed hero is more compelling than double-story about a decent hero and a blunt, lame villain.
The whole thing undermines just how good SuckerPunch’s super-powered Seattle could be. Because their super-powered Seattle is fantastic.
Standing at a bus stop, watching a news broadcast on a television through a shop window (classic inFamous) in what appear to be lived-in, well-weathered streets, a passerby stops and double-takes when she sees Delsin. She’s an Asian-American woman wearing a professional outfit, her arms folded as she approaches the bus stop. She noticeably halts when she spots our hero. For a moment consternation crosses her face, before it turns to a smile, and she walks on past, now waving one arm and shouting “You go, Delsin!”
This wasn’t any scripted moment or cutscene, this was simply me standing at a bus stop to watch a nearby news broadcast which tied to the game’s story. The way the woman reacted, and the way the bus stop was plastered with timetables, advertisements and litter looked stunningly real; while in the background neon glows and concrete cracks and streets and buildings and people stretch off into the distance making this one of the most incredibly well-designed environments I’ve ever seen in gaming.
Then of course, there are the graphics which support this world and these characters and these powers.
inFamous Second Son is the best looking game I’ve ever played. It isn’t flawless, there are some niggles in terms of how the world works, but graphically, simply from a design and visual standpoint, I’ve never seen a better looking game.
The graffiti, the iconography and logo design, the character design, everything looks excellent, and the graphical benchmark is amazing. The lights which scatter the world border on reality: sun-glare on skyscrapers will actually blind your camera-eye, just like in real life. When Delsin bursts into a puff of smoke and quickly moves several meters, the thousands of little particles of his smoke cast a shadow- just like (it would) in real life. The headlights and blinkers of cars on Seattle’s rain-soaked streets leave reflections of headlights on the road and hoods and walls they pass by- just like real life.
The various flavours of superpower in the game paint the your screen bright blue, smokey red, fiery yellow, literally neon pink. Often you will have five or six sources of these colours moving around on screen at once, and every colour will reflect off every surface.
Everywhere sharp edges at an incredibly high resolution tie to what is amazingly smooth video output.
It’s really a thing of wonder, and leaves a brilliant spark lingering in the mind about where we might be headed next with the new hardware at our fingertips. To say this is an improvement on what we saw from the last generation of consoles would be an understatement.
Unfortunately, while the game’s gameplay is also an improvement on the last games, it is where the other bad aspect of Second Son’s experience lies. This is a minor problem: Sucker Punch’s decision to stick to their “everything is a floating edge-magnet” physics model.
In inFamous Second Son, Delsin will never fall faster than ten miles per hour. Even if you leap off the game’s tallest skyscraper, he will float harmlessly to the ground. What’s worse is that if you try to climb the skyscraper using your humanney hands instead of your powers, Delsin’s palms and footsoles will suction automatically onto window ledges and railings. You can’t just jump over a bannister or drop off an edge; Delsin’s limbs have to pull you towards the surfaces which you can climb on whether you want to or not.
Many open world games that have jumping-and-clambering movement over buildings handle it without magnetic climbing fine. For example Batman: Arkham City, where you don’t automatically grab onto window ledges or rooftops, but if you’re obviously going for them and you press a button to climb, hey presto, Batman does so. It doesn’t feel limiting. It feels liberating.
But in inFamous: Second Son, again like in the previous games in the series, you can’t really climb or move around with freedom. There’s no “free running”; instead, there’s gluey clambering.
Fortunately, while mobility is an issue when you try to climb, it isn’t otherwise. Running around on the ground? Great. Zipping around as a smokecloud? Excellent. Turning into a living beam of neon light and zipping straight up walls and over fences? Incredible. I won’t spoil the other powers the game offers you- but each one of them is incredibly liberating and fun to use. Unlike the previous two games, you actually feel like a superhero when you spin over Seattle in superpowers. As Cole in the last games, I just felt like a lame-ish dude who could do some cool electric stuff.
Locomotion aside, the game’s gameplay isn’t anything particularly revolutionary, but I found the escapades to be had around Seattle a refined, exciting expansion of the freedoms we had in the older games. Some useless moves are removed- like Cole’s ability to crouch behind cover and roll. This is replaced with highly mobile dash functions; a smoke dash to carry you into vents or a neon sprint to carry you up walls.
Lots of other nice little details pepper combat and missions: when enemies sense they are overwhelmed, they offer themselves up, so you can either kill them (evil) or subdue them (good). Upgrade you abilities and you can subdue enemies with well placed head shots or leg-shots.
At first the game’s combat and gameplay is a little too hectic- a problem which plagued the earlier games and other open world titles like Grand Theft Auto. It’s hard to fight enemies effectively when they’re all around you, you can’t address them all at once and they won’t stop shooting.
But as you continue in inFamous: Second Son , your options open up: the Neon power allows you to slow down time while you’re aiming, making really tough encounters more strategic and easy to swallow. A further upgrade (gained by picking up shards scattered throughout the city) will let you fill up the “slow motion meter” by neon-dashing, so fights in Neon become an incredible ballet of glowing dodges followed by slow motion blasts followed by fluorescent sprints.
All the powers are very well balanced, complimenting each other to such cinematic, thrilling ends, even if some are underpowered and enemy types leave a little to be desired.
inFamous: Second Son‘s main triumph is to paint its super-powered humans as normal people. There are no costumes here, no iconography or slogans, just remarkably normal people trying to deal with their past, present and future as individuals with powers in a tale of solidarity against a truly compelling villain. .
The main thing to take away is that inFamous Second Son is an incredibly fun experience, despite the very minor steps taken in the gameplay department. It captures the mature, realistic superhero fare the series has been aiming for better than ever before. What it lacks in the layered gameplay of inFamous 1 and 2, it makes up for with grounded, simple fun far beyond what the first games achieved. I’ve continued playing hours after I finished it, just because swooping around Seattle and finishing the well-balanced side missions is just so enjoyable.
I’m currently at fifteen hours of gameplay, and I could easily start a whole thing again, experiencing in full the other half of Delsin’s story, where the same character becomes a foolish and spontaneous villain, in inFamous’ endless self-contradiction.
Here’s Betty’s impeccably rendered face, relating exactly how I feel about the game overall (t’s getting old, but you can still find youthful joy within):