I love video games, but it’s rare for me to play them right when they are first released. Normally it takes me a somewhere from a few months to a few years to get around to playing to a game. I’ve got a considerable backlog of games that I’ve been meaning to play and it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to start chipping away at the list. With that in mind, I’ve created a series of posts called Late to the Party, wherein I discuss the games that came out in the preceding years that I’m finally getting around to experiencing. Today’s entry in the series is Infamous: Second Son, referred to hereafter as just Second Son.
I have been dodging spoilers for Second Son ever since it was released in March 2014. With most games it really isn’t that big of a deal if someone spoils the plot for me, but there are a few games that I hold in special regard and thus try to avoid spoilers for. The Infamous games are part of that small pantheon, having earned a spot thanks to how much I liked the first two games. Last week I was finally able to play Second Son, so now I can stop fast-forwarding whenever it comes up in games media, and I can now write about it. Seeing as how I seem to be the last person on this planet to play this game, I feel fine going into spoiler territory myself in discussing Second Son, but I won’t say how the game ends. As a final bit of housekeeping, before starting this commentary let me also state that I just played the main game and the free Paper Trail DLC. I have not yet played the First Light DLC, so you will not see anything related to it in this commentary.
Chasing the Light
In the universe of the Infamous games, there exist amongst the population a small number of persons who have the ability to manipulate physical matter. These people are called Conduits, and the normal part of humanity has become very wary of them. Second Son picks up seven years after the events of Infamous 2, and during that in-between time the American government created a new organization called the Department of Unified Protection (DUP) for the expressed purpose of finding Conduits, who were relabeled as “Bio-Terrorists,” and imprisoning them in a secure facility. The story of Second Son begins with Delsin Rowe, a young man living with his Native American tribe in Washington State. Delsin is a perpetual troublemaker, and at the start of the game he is vandalizing a billboard but gets caught by his older brother Reggie, who is the local sheriff. Their argument over Delsin’s behavior is cut short when an Army truck crashes nearby them, and three individuals in prison outfits escape. Two of them get away, but Reggie and Delsin catch up to the third escapee, who turns out to be a Conduit with smoke powers. Delsin tackles the escapee, but to his horror finds that he has somehow absorbed the Conduit’s powers. Soon the DUP show up and their ruthless leader, a woman named Brooke Augustine, captures the Smoke Conduit. Surprisingly, Augustine is herself a Conduit who can manipulate concrete, and she puts several concrete daggers into Delsin’s legs while interrogating him. When Delsin awakens, he finds that Augustine also interrogated other members of his tribe and put concrete shards into them too when they refused to reveal that Delsin has Conduit abilities. Augustine’s concrete cannot be removed surgically and is slowly killing the people pierced by it, but Delsin realizes there is a possible solution. What has become clear is that Delsin is a very special kind of Conduit, in that his power is that he can absorb and copy the powers of other Conduits. What he needs to do is find Augustine and absorb her powers so that he can heal his tribe. Augustine is in Seattle, where the other two escaped Conduits have fled to, so Delsin and Reggie set off for the city. There they find that the DUP has occupied Seattle in force, imposed martial law, and is rounding up suspected Conduits. Delsin inevitably comes into conflict with the DUP and does battle with them many times as he tries to get closer to Augustine. In the process of fighting the DUP, Delsin comes into contact with the other two escaped Conduits. First he meets Fetch, a woman with neon-based powers who has been ritualistically killing drug dealers, and later he tracks down Eugene, a shy gamer who can summon angelic beings out of electronic display screens. Both have troubled pasts and Delsin can either help them rise above their inner demons and save those around them or embrace their dark sides and go down the blood-soaked path of revenge. Absorbing and copying both Fetch and Eugene’s powers, Delsin becomes progressively stronger and at the end of the game, after some dramatic events, he finally confronts Augustine in her tower in downtown Seattle for one final battle.
Catching up with Augustine
If there is one major weak point to Second Son, it is the story. That’s not to say it’s bad, but I was feeling a bit let down when I got to the end of the game. Much of this has to do with how disconnected Second Son’s story is from the storyline of the first two Infamous games. Standalone tales are fine, but as a fan of the first two Infamous games I really wanted to see more connections and references to the events of the previous games. Leaving that behind, let me now give a few thoughts on the story that we get from Second Son. I was surprised that there weren’t that many big morality choices and at least two of them were not overly consequential to the game’s plot. The story itself progresses a bit too quickly for my taste and I kept waiting for a major plot twist, but nothing like that happened until the end, which came a lot sooner than I thought it would. That big reveal at the end of the game, when Delsin faced off against Augustine, also didn’t hit that hard, though on a side note I gotta say that the two boss fights against Augustine are some of the best in the Infamous series. Being a more compact plot, we never get much development of the side characters, which is truly a shame. I would have loved an extra mission or two with both Fetch and Eugene to delve more into their stories, and additionally some more time in the story to build the bond between Delsin and Reggie so that we get something closer to the friendship we had between Cole and Zeke in the first two Infamous games. Though the other characters didn’t get the screen time they needed or deserved, they are, however, all very well acted. As for Delsin, he works just fine as a protagonist with the only problem I had with him being that he never struck me as the kind of guy who would choose the bad karma choices in the game. While it is true that he’s a rebel and has had run-ins with the law, I don’t get the impression that he actually wants to hurt anyone. At the end of this story discussion I do want to add that there are some very interesting plot details to be found within the free Paper Trail DLC. In it Delsin is unraveling the mystery of another Conduit whose powers revolve around paper (I know that paper sounds like an incredibly dumb power to have, but somehow Second Son makes it quite menacing). This Conduit served as Augustine’s secret agent and was working behind the scenes during the events of the main game. It’s likely this Paper Conduit will play a role in any sequel to Second Son, but while the plot fragments to be found in the Paper Trail DLC were intriguing, they are locked away behind some very tedious puzzles that were not much fun to solve.
Riding the monorail
Second Son’s gameplay is similar to that of Infamous and Infamous 2, but changes enough things to give it a distinct feel from the others. The most notable of these is that Delsin has up to four different types of Conduit powers to work with, depending on how far you are into the story. While there are similarities between the power sets, each has its strengths and weaknesses and incentivizes particular playstyles. For example, the neon powers are centered around speed, precision, and fighting opponents at range, while the smoke powers focus on overwhelming force and generally work better at shorter distances, and video powers offer an interesting hybrid fighting style as well as a stealth option (concrete powers are acquired at the end of the game, so you won’t get to use them much). The thing you have to keep in mind, however, is that Delsin cannot switch between power types on the fly, and instead must find a power source for the particular power type you want in order to change his abilities. While most of the time there are enough power sources of different types nearby to make this a minor point, there will be instances where you’ll have to improvise and switch to a power you didn’t originally intend to use. Enemy variety has been slightly increased from Infamous 2, with the big changeup being that DUP soldiers and agents have limited concrete powers that were given to them by Augustine. You’ll see the typical riflemen, snipers, RPG soldiers, heavy gunners, and vehicles that you’re used to seeing in lots of video games, but in addition to these you’ll have to deal with some concrete acolytes who can be quite deadly if you’re careless. For my part I’m glad to see that the RPG soldiers are no longer absurdly self-sacrificial like they were in the first two Infamous games, so they’ll no longer take one for the team and shoot you at point-blank range. The cover system of the first two Infamous games has also been stripped away, meaning you’ll have to stay mobile while fighting, or just find something big enough to hide behind while healing. Outside of combat you’ll be spending a lot of time traversing Seattle, and how you go about it has changed too. In the first two Infamous games your character had electricity-based powers and relied heavily on things like power lines and electrified rails to get around town. You won’t see said objects in Second Son, so instead you’ll be doing things like using your smoke powers to shoot up to the top of a building through an air vent. Manually climbing up buildings is inexplicably more difficult in Second Son than the last two Infamous games, with Delsin strangely having a harder time grabbing handholds, but this problem goes away the moment you unlock the ability to run straight up walls with your neon powers, and later you’ll get a limited flight ability with the video powers.
Augustine’s trail of destruction
The karma system of the last two Infamous games also returns in Second Son. Delsin earns either positive or negative karma, depending on his actions, and his overall karma rating affects a number of things in the game, such as which powers are available for him to use, public perception of Delsin, and how certain parts of the story play out. The whole point of the karma system is for you to decide whether Delsin is a selfless hero, or a selfish jerk. There’s no benefit to trying to be neutral, so when you play Second Son you’ll need to decide early on which Delsin you’re going to be and from that point forward you’ll want to max out his positive or negative karma to unlock the top-tier powers from that side of the skill tree. Not everyone is going to like this binary morality system (especially in our post-modern, relativistic society) but on the plus side it does incentivize you to play through the game twice—once as good Delsin and once as evil Delsin.
Whereas the first two Infamous games were set in fictional cities that were roughly based upon real ones, Second Son takes place in Seattle. Obviously it’s a very condensed version of Seattle, but it is an interesting change for an Infamous game to be in a real place. I visited Seattle myself several years ago but I only saw a few sections of it, so I can’t say just how faithful Second Son’s Seattle is to the real city. No doubt there have been many adjustments to Seattle for the sake of gameplay, and as a non-resident of the city it doesn’t bother me if landmarks were moved around or parts of the city got left out. What Second Son does seem to capture is the colorfulness of the real Seattle and the general greenery of the Pacific Northwest. I did get those peculiar vibes of the real city while running around in Second Son, and like previous Infamous games, the city is very much alive with the random citizens walking around and doing various things, as well as reacting to your actions. The DUP has a heavy presence in Seattle in the beginning of the game, and if you want to kick them out you’ll have to do so district by district. Completing side quests eventually unlock district showdowns whereby you can fight a DUP response force and if you win the DUP will cease patrols in that area. Every district has the same sorts of missions such as finding collectibles, destroying DUP checkpoints, tagging buildings, and hunting down DUP informants, which can get very repetitive and it’s disappointing that there is such a low variety of mission types, but Second Son’s base gameplay is strong enough for me to largely overlook this gripe.
As would be expected from an Infamous game on the PlayStation 4, Second Son’s graphics and performance are a step up from its PlayStation 3 predecessors and even though it came out over two years ago and certainly doesn’t look as good as games like Uncharted 4 that came out this year, Second Son can still turn a few heads. Lighting in particular is a standout in my mind, with sunrises and sunsets adding an appropriate glow to Seattle and setting the mood for the main story missions that take place during them. Facial animations, particle effects, weather, and reflections are also good, and to record all this and more, Second Son comes with one of my favorite gaming features: photo mode. While regular screenshots are usually sufficient to demonstrate a game’s visual aesthetic, being able to pause and toy around with the camera really lets you capture a game in all its glory. However, you can’t spend all your time gawking at the artistic quality of a game, and when you’re actually playing Second Son you’ll be pleased to see that it runs very smoothly, even during battles with large groups of enemies. Throughout my entire time with the game I only experienced two instances of framerate drops, and two incidents lasting ten-seconds each are nothing in the context of a fifteen-hour game. When Second Son came out in 2014 it was a showcase title for what the PlayStation 4 was capable of doing visually, and I have no doubt that the next Infamous game will be similar in that regard.
Lighting and particle effects on display
Second Son doesn’t check all the boxes I would have liked for an Infamous game, but I still enjoyed playing it. Though it stumbles in the story department, Second Son’s gameplay, world, graphics, and performance are strong enough to still make it a very good game and a worthy entry into the Infamous series. When you play Second Son, you feel like a super hero, (or villain) which is the whole point of the Infamous games, and can live out that hero/villain fantasy as you see fit. Given the substantial jump we saw between Infamous and Infamous 2 on PlayStation 3, I’d be very curious to see how any sequel to Second Son turns out, as well as which of the game’s two endings becomes canon. Seeing as how it’s been over two years since Second Son was released, if there will be another Infamous game on PlayStation 4, we hopefully will not have to wait too long for its announcement.