Second Son is the game that finally sees the Infamous series flirt with greatness. It brings nothing new to the well-established open world superhero genre, and like its predecessors it still falls short on its ambition to get the player thinking about power and responsibility, but it’s a terrific play nonetheless, and a great advertisement for the power of the PlayStation 4.
Second Son takes place seven years after the events of Infamous 2, with the militaristic and oppressive Department of Unified Protection (DUP) using the Seattle population’s fear of conduits (super beings) to usher in something of a surveillance state. Conduits are now labelled “bio-terrorists” despite DUP founder and leader Brooke Augustine’s obvious and powerful superhuman abilities, and under her command the government paramilitary wing has managed to round up and imprison almost all conduits in the state.
The player dons the jacket, beanie, and tatts of graffiti artist and vandal Delsin Rowe, a Native American causing headaches for his strait-laced sheriff brother on their tribe’s Washington reservation until a chance meeting with an escaped conduit grants him superpowers — and with them, the opportunity to stand up for the oppressed and also change the trajectory of his life.
Delsin is that most common of protagonists: confident, good-looking, and cheeky, but also extremely likeable — a massive improvement on the series’ prior douchenozzle “hero” Cole MacGrath. He’s different in other ways too: where Cole had just lightning-based powers, Delsin has access to smoke, neon, and others, which he switches between by draining them from his immediate environment. The new powers not only look fantastic — there is some seriously impressive smoke and lighting work here in particular — they are varied enough to give the player a pleasing number of options when it comes to bringing down the DUP.
Smoke starts Delsin with heavy-hitting missiles and grenades that temporarily incapacitate, while neon is more of a sniper loadout, for example, and all powers come with exciting upgrade trees. Along with attacks, the equipped element also dictates Delsin's movement style but regardless of what’s being used, getting around the various neighbourhoods of Seattle is a breeze. An early smoke upgrade allows the player to ghost through objects as well as sprint into vents at the foot of buildings only to emerge a split second later at the apex of the skyline, while neon grants him the power to sprint up vertical surfaces and jump impressive distances.
The freedom of movement and attack style here makes the combat the game is built around a pleasurable and varied experience, with everything from stealth to tank approaches able to be switched between in an instant. Enemies aren’t always the smartest when it comes to battling Delsin, but many are bolstered by their own concrete-based powers that allow them to create platforms and shields at will, and there is a decent variety of foes to smash or subdue.
The DUP structures that blight the city are almost all completely destructible Red Faction-style, and it’s very satisfying to dive off a skyscraper and roar directly down into a manned checkpoint flaming fist first like some kind of flesh-covered bunker buster. There are some neat little touches as well, like the tiny amount of slo-mo that kicks in as Delsin is thrown back by the fiery eruption of an enemy’s grenade, or the way some foes will surrender after watching you dispatch their mates.
Whether said surrender is accepted is completely up to the player of course, and that’s where the series’ karma system comes into play. As with prior games, actions throughout Second Son can be classed as good or evil, and that influences not just the reaction of others to Delsin’s presence, but also the upgrades and missions he can unlock and the story ending he will get. Kick an injured pedestrian and get a bit of bad karma. Shoot enemies in the feet rather than face and get a bit of good karma. It’s pretty straightforward, and as good as a morality system will get in an action game until there are the funds for truly divergent branching storylines and nuanced crowd behaviour.
There is one slight problem though: Delsin might be a slight miscreant, but he’s no full-blown psychopath, and so it always feels a little dissonant going the evil route. It’s still great fun though, particularly when using one particular baseball bat-style attack that sends pedestrian and cars flying with a satisfying *thunk*, or when flying out of nowhere to smash one's fist through the windscreen of an in-motion car.
More problematic are the game's repetitive missions and actions, particularly its side activities, which don’t have any story advancement tied to them. Turning your DualShock 4 sideways and wielding it like a spray can is enjoyable the first few times, but soon players will skip these activities just to save themselves a couple of minutes of non-baddie-wrecking tedium. Same goes for the find-the-secret-agent and hidden-camera missions, but even the short cinematic of Delsin destroying a core and acquiring a new power wears pretty thin after a while. The game's main missions fare better as they are nicely partnered with story and ability progression, but there is something of a lack of imagination on display.
Even so, it’s hard to be upset with Second Son’s wares. The game’s dazzling animation (particularly its expressive faces), draw distance, attractive and detailed recreation of a mini-Seattle, and rock solid frame rate in the face of many explosions and much destruction get it over the mark and then some. While topics like the surveillance state, Guantanamo Bay prison, racism, and immigration are briefly touched upon then dropped altogether in favour of “Here is some badass destruction”, the moment-to-moment writing is convincing. Second Son works best when viewed as a smaller character study than as a wide-ranging critique of post-9/11 America.
And that's perfectly fine — great, even. Ain't nuthin' wrong with giving some virtual fools the bash without having to think too hard about whether it's a good idea to do so, especially when it's a crisp, attractively-presented, superpower-infused beating of the flavour you'll find here.