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The PlayStation 4, compared to the PlayStation 3, is a ridiculous evolution in technically specifications and up until now many console exclusives have gone out of their way to show just what the system is capable in terms of visuals. Both Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack feature graphics the PlayStation 3 would catch on fire attempting. In trade, however, both titles AAA featured uninspired gameplay that failed to capture the imaginations of players to any notable degree. The PlayStation 4 is still waiting for its first big exclusive that drives sales the way Titanfall is currently doing for the Xbox One.
Enter Infamous: Second Son, the PlayStation 4's first post-launch, triple-A console exclusive made by popular and talented development studio Sucker Punch. With two previous Infamous titles under their belt, Sucker Punch should just precisely just what sort of game they'd want to make and how they'd want to make it on a platform as powerful as the PlayStation 4, right? Opportunity was ripe.
Yet much like Infamous: Second Son protagonist Delsin's smoke-powered body allows bullets to pass right through it, opportunity is a nebulous and subtle thing to grasp. Sucker Punch's efforts cannot be denied, but ultimately Infamous: Second Son may fall in line as another good but not great exclusive for the PlayStation 4.
Smoke and Lasers
It should say something that the best moments of Infamous: Second Son revolves around the game's more scripted, heavily controlled sequences. If that doesn't ring odd, it should, because Infamous: Second Son is meant to be an open world action game and open world action games are meant to prioritize emergent, improvisational gameplay experiences. Not so much here. What Second Son does offer is certainly fun, but not to the degree one might expect from the genre based on similar experiences.
The problem revolves around Seattle itself, which is beautifully constructed but awkwardly static. Broken in to several districts, the huge cityscape becomes unduly compartmentalized. Each district features almost identical goals, including freeing it from direct control by the Department of Unified Protection, followed by several missions and sub-goals and then ultimately fighting a final battle before the district is entirely free of D.U.P. control. Once entirely cleared, there's little to no reason to visit a district. All that changes is the removal of several small D.U.P. checkpoints that are rather innocuous and almost completely ignorable. Worse yet, every single one of these districts is identical in this goal structure, beyond slowly growing in difficulty through enemy variety. Slowly. Working to free all of these districts, since beyond the main storyline there's no other specific objectives, is remarkably monotonous and arguably unrewarding.
Clearing districts of D.U.P. as I progressed through the story did provide one bonus, which was always having a generous supply of "blast shards". Blast shards are the currency Delsin spends to upgrade his powers, of which Delsin will unlock several over the course of the game. I never had a problem upgrading each of Delsin's individual powers, which each have several upgrades. I had hoped I could customize powers to an extent, but that isn't an option. They do grow more powerful with blast shard investment however, and players are going to want those upgrade abilities. Mmm, juicing up on blast shards feels good, man (power upgrades are not drugs, kids, because drugs are bad and power upgrades are awesome).
Having constantly upgraded powers is amazing, because Delsin's powers are amazing. Both "smoke" and "neon" powers have been revealed, and I won't spoil any others, but they each change how the game is played in very interesting ways. City traversal powers are by far my favorite. Generally speaking each power grows in strength over the previous, so after jumping around and hovering as smoke, neon is like hopping onto an express train to wherever you damn please. Imagine that with several different skills for each different power.
Awesome powers transition to combat very well, though that comes with an asterisk. Each power kit, yes only one can be selected at a time, is adequately equipped with skills to deal with any combat situation. Snipers comin' at ya? Snipe 'em right back, or even better cross over to his nest and take him out melee. Strong looking baddie going to punch your face? Hit him with a shotgun smoke blast, hit him with a choking grenade, or dodge and get him from afar. The problem arises in that Infamous: Second Son isn't primarily an action title -- it isn't Devil May Cry. Delsin's powers aren't meant to combo and so combat can quickly boiled down to works and what doesn't work, which translates into doing the same thing over and over again since experimentation doesn't really result in anything. Getting more experienced with the combat certainly results in riskier behavior, boy howdy, but that doesn't add the kind of depth to combat Infamous could really have made something out of.
Luckily even when combat gets boring, it's still thrilling just to sit back and take in both visually and auditorily. It's almost as if Sucker Punch sat back and said, "What powers can we give Delsin that look ridiculously badass," and then the gameplay part came later. Smoke fills the air with fiery particles that crackle and snap, neon streaks and stands out with shrieks and light hums -- every single ability is striking. Here is where Sucker Punch commits all of the PlayStation 4's resources and boy do they cash in. In fact, they might even cash in a little too hard, because when things get crazy the game can chug. The PS4 can only take so much. Luckily players can then just use their kill-combo Karma Bomb to clear the screen and then they're back on the move. Mmm, Karma Bomb... *drool*
There ends my glowing compliments and here begins the "meh". Delsin himself is interesting, suddenly discovering his Conduit powers and driven as much by his need to prove himself as his other more spoilery objectives. He grows, he makes decisions, and he becomes a character worth investing time into. Virtually everything else in the story, from characters the so called Karma system, is shallow and easily forgettable. Never does Sucker Punch take the time to really give purpose or meaning to the Seattle setting or its denizens. Even the more meaningful characters Delsin runs into are typically used and then dismissed until useful again. They never real real, but rather like cardboard cutouts. This is the character Delsin needs to feel attached to, this is the one necessary to progress past this point in the game, this one needs to come across as evil. It's all sadly not compelling in the least.
It doesn't help that the main campaign, the missions that string Delsin throughout the map of Seattle, is actually rather short. If it wasn't for the constant annoyance of freeing districts or the obstacles placed in the way if districts aren't freed, I'd say the main campaign made up maybe only a quarter of my 10-15 play time. Keep in mind the only gameplay other than the main campaign is tediously freeing districts from the D.U.P. and it should make sense when I say that I was bored for a large part of my playthrough. There simply wasn't enough compelling content to keep players interested for that long. Sucker Punch has plans for a free side-story released episodically week-to-week after launch, but right now that's too little too late.
Karma, the "meaningful" decisions players make as they play that directly effects both the story and Delsin's combat options, is also lacking depth. Most, if not virtually all players will decide on either "good" or "evil" in the first minutes of the game and never change from then on. From then on there's no reason to care about the decisions, but the decisions themselves aren't anything most gamers will find particularly gripping anyway. Okay, there is one interesting aspect to the game. I chose the evil or "Infamous" aspect for my first run and found combat much more enticing -- killing and destroying vs. saving and protecting. The story, however, feels much more directed towards a good playthrough. Therein lies the unfortunate decision players have to make: choose good and have slower, more tedious gameplay for a more compelling story; or trade a compelling story for faster, more rewarding combat? That's probably the last decision the developers probably wanted players to feel conflicted over.
Infamous: Second Son, like the PlayStation 4 exclusives prior to it, looks outstanding. Sucker Punch put an obvious priority on Delsin's powers, from each animation to the effects that constantly push the PS4's power to its limits. Seattle is, without a doubt, one of the most brilliant cityscapes in a game I've yet played. Standing high on the Space Needle and staring out at the horizon, the sun just beginning to peak over the mountains in the distance -- it's alarmingly beautiful. Nothing can take the sights and sounds Sucker Punch obviously spent days and months perfecting away from Infamous: Second Son.
Actually playing Infamous: Second Son can be a mixed bag though. There's simply not enough content to drive an open-world gaming experience for the length of the entire game. Combat is enjoyable, in large part because of the presentation rather than the actual impact of gameplay, though I still found it enjoyable to run around fighting the D.U.P where I found them even after the game was finished. Finding reasons to push forward is Second Son is more of a challenge than those meant to be found in-game. There's a lot of tedium is what I'm saying, with little else beyond the surprisingly short campaign to compel players to soldier on.
It's disappointing that Sucker Punch didn't drive to do more with the opportunity they had to be that game on the PlayStation 4. The game that all future PS4 exclusive get compared to. There's certainly no shame in being another good-but-not great exclusive early in a next-gen console's lifespan, especially with such standout visuals. Infamous: Second Son simply is what it is, much like its predecessors -- a lot of potential that's never quite capitalized upon.
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