Super Heroics Enter The Next Generation
The Infamous franchise has, for better or worse, been perceived as a B-List series for Sony. While games like Uncharted and God of War occupy top spots in the hearts of gamers and critics alike, Infamous while not hated, has never been the subject widespread, universal admiration. Unlike Uncharted it didn’t push graphics or narrative forward. Unlike God of War, it didn’t set the world on fire with brutal quick time events, and over the top, action setpieces. It was always “that open world superhero game” that people liked but didn’t love. Now it has a chance to shine on the PS4, and this latest version is an improvement in every single way, though it still falls short of being a timeless classic.
Grunge Is Alive & Well In Seattle
Delsin Rowe is an aging delinquent of the fictional Akomish tribe that finds himself the sole hope of his tribe’s recovery when overzealous government agents ravage his home trying to track down fugitive “Bio-Terrorists.” That’s the term America now applies to “Conduits,” the people from the past games gifted with elemental manipulation super powers. Delsin, however, is unique in that his power is the ability to absorb the power of other Conduits, and so, Mega-Man-esque ability in hand, he goes off to Seattle to confront Brooke Augustine, the head of the government group known as the Department of Unified Protection. Over the course of the journey, he makes good or evil decisions that determine both the style of his powers and the aspects of the game’s story as it winds to its moral/immoral conclusion.
The actual tale being told in Infamous: Second Son is much like the rest of the game itself; an improvement over its predecessors, but not quite enough to put it in the hall of fame. The hokey, science-fiction shenanigans of the previous games have been toned down a lot, making this game a little grittier, more grounded, and actually able to lightly (very lightly) address themes of prejudice. It’s less old school DC/Marvel and edging a bit more toward Vertigo/Image-lite in terms of its story sensibility and that’s not a bad thing. The simpler story and occasionally flat dialog is saved by the impressive performances of the cast. Delsin, his brother Reggie, and the tribe matron Betty are all given strong voice performances and even stronger motion/facial capture to elevate the material to a higher level of quality. There’s some real heart in these performances, even if the dialog isn’t the sharpest or most eloquent around. The more grounded tone of the story also helps to sell these performances since there are no rampaging giant mutant monsters, just people struggling against an oppressive government regime.
Now, as one of the new exclusives for the PS4 in 2014, there’s a lot riding on this game, and in the visual department, it delivers. This is probably the best-looking game out on the console market right now. Beautiful lighting, wet pavement during rainfall, dense, busy streets filled with detail, all within an open world that still manages to hold up formidably against the more controlled linear environments of Killzone: Shadowfall. The framerate is unlocked, varying between 30 frames and 40+ depending on how busy the game is, but it does noticeably drop on rare occasions, such as using the graphic intensive “Radiant Sweep” special attack in areas heavily populated by enemies and enemy equipment.
The sound is another winner. It’s already been mentioned that the voice acting is top notch, but in addition, I:SS manages to ditch the now bog-standard orchestral score for action/dramatic sequences with a more appropriate grunge sound. The variety of guitars and grunge rock on play here make this one of the most musically distinct games of the year, and it will probably win many sound/soundtrack awards as a result. The actual audio quality is also fantastic; it’s an open world game, so open up those home theater speakers and watch the gunfire echo from every direction while special attacks like the Comet Drop shake your walls with teeth chattering bass. It’s not often that sound plays such a strong role in a game, but the overall quality of it in Infamous: Second Son makes it stand out.
Now You’re Playing With Power(s)
Everything about Infamous: Second Son is improved over Infamous 1 and 2. Everything. Better graphics, better controls, better pacing, better powers, better environments, better story missions. It’s easy to say that of the entire trilogy, I:SS is the best of them. Just don’t expect any of these improvements to be dramatic or game changing, but on the whole, they make I:SS the best exclusive AAA title on the PS4 so far. Of course, going up against Knack and Killzone: Shadowfall, that doesn’t mean it’s an extremely tough competition.
Still, there’s a lot to like in this game. The controls have noticeably improved, with I:SS managing to avoid the “sticky” character situation that plagues other open world games like Assassin’s Creed and even past Infamous games. Delsin goes where you want him to, and you rarely have to worry about him unpredictably grabbing onto a pole or leaping onto a box just because the game suspected you might want to take that detour. I:SS also gets you into the game—and more importantly, the super powers—quickly. Within the first hour of the game, your mobility is drastically improved by the now standard Infamous glide-ability, something past games held hostage until much later. Infamous has clearly been taking lessons from that surprise super-hero game of 2013, Saints Row 4, which did away with a slow trickle of powers being drip fed, in favor of letting players feel powerful quickly.
The big change to the super powers is that Delsin gets an array of different power sets as opposed to finding new uses for the same elemental ability. Delsin starts with smoke, but quickly moves on to neon and then other materials/elements. Each power set manages to feel distinct from the others, with different uses depending on the player’s style, or the situation at hand. Neon, for example, is a more precise ability for people that prefer sniping. Smoke, on the other hand, is more damaging ability that best serves the run n’ gun player that favors wholesale destruction. This is balanced by the fact that Delsin can only use one power set at a time, so combos like starting with a neon headshot followed by a smoke bomb to the group aren’t possible. In order to switch powers, Delsin needs to siphon energy from the appropriate source, so it IS possible for Delsin to open with a neon headshot, then if he’s next to a smouldering car or smoke stack, absorb the smoke ability and then follow on with smoke-based attacks, but he’ll need to find a neon sign in order to return to using neon abilities.
And the abilities are FUN. There’s a technique to each of them, but they all follow a trend of being flashy, powerful and taking full advantage of the PS4’s power. The neon ability “Light Speed,” for example, gives Delsin an ability to run like the Flash, blazing through streets, right up walls, and vaulting over buildings. Not only is it a fantastic ability to use in combat for people that prefer high mobility, it looks absolutely gorgeous with its purple “strobe motion” effect that leaves behind a light trail and stroboscopic silhouette after-images, reminiscent of the effect from the 80s anime classic Akira whenever the futuristic motorcycles sped past the camera. Smoke, on the other hand, has the infamous “comet bomb” attack widely promoted in teaser videos, and it is just as destructive as it looks. The destruction, by the way, is a half step between the last generation and what people would call next generation. You still can’t lay waste to entire city blocks, but the structures that the DUP have erected around Seattle are fully, permanently destructible. So while you can’t blow up Space Needle, you can completely obliterate the fortress hastily retro-fitted onto it.
The game is also much more compact and moves at a faster pace than its predecessors. One of the goals of the game is to clear out the DUP presence in each district of Seattle. Doing so allows Delsin to fast-travel around town (an impressive technical feat with no loading screen) and opens up side-missions in each district, but again, this content isn’t overwhelming. Players won’t be spending hours tracking down 100 power shards and performing a handful of missions dozens of times. There’s still some repetition of side-activities, but the missions are infrequent enough and the gameplay frenetic enough that it never feels like a grind.
There’s also an interesting experiment at work with a combination of in-game activities and a web-based “alternate reality game” called “Papertrail,” that is being carried over a period of six weeks from the game’s launch. It manages to mix the superheroic activities of Delsin in-game with some detective/puzzle solving skills on the web. It’s quite promising and, the brief taste already available in the game shows imagination and potential for this kind of well integrated multimedia effort.
Infamous: Second Son is worth the time of PS4 owners. It’s not a long game—the campaign can be wrapped up to 100% completion in 12-15 hours—and the story feels like the good campaign is the canon plot with the evil feeling less consistent. But the powers are polished and improved, the pace moves briskly, and it goes without saying that it is absolutely gorgeous. There’s still every chance that it’ll be outshone by games later in the year such as Dragon Age: Inquisition or Destiny, but for now, the PS4 has at least one game early in 2014 that provides some fun, fast, imaginative combat with serious technical “Wow” factor. It’s a beautiful game that plays well and improves on its predecessors.