What would happen, if you discovered you had super human powers? The question has been at the heart of many superhero origin stories from Spiderman to the X-Men and now inFAMOUS: Second Son for the PlayStation 4.
The game’s setting and story is heavily influenced by Marvel’s mutant superheroes and the bigotry they face. In Second Son, the mutants are referred to as conduits and are as deeply feared as their comic book brethren. In fact, the preferred label is the slur ‘bio-terrorist’, an uncomfortable riff on our own real world prejudice. So, when Delsin Rowe, a graffiti artist from the fictional Akomish tribe discovers he is a latent conduit, he doesn’t embrace his powers, he justifiably panics.
Delsin’s world dramatically changes when he encounters a fugitive conduit. He discovers, to his horror, that he can drain the power of other conduits and mimic their abilities. The incident puts his small town community in the Department of Unified Protection’s cross-hairs. As a government sanctioned department they round up and lock conduits away, all under the austere gaze of the big bad, Brooke Augustine.
His brother Reggie, the town’s Sheriff, is the person that talks Delsin down from a full blown panic attack. Despite harbouring the same prejudices as the rest of society, Delsin is still his little brother. The relationship between Reggie and Delsin is the emotional core of this video game, with their spirited dynamic formed by strong characterisation, a mix of effective writing and compelling performances from Troy Baker (The Last of Us) and Travis Willingham (Knack).
Early on in the game, you’ll encounter the Karma system and it boils down to whether you want to be a hero or a villain. Your decision affects which missions you will play and changes the tone of Delsin’s story as it progresses. Every in-game action also affects your Karma, which you’ll need to build up to move through different ranks. Each rank level gives you a tier of powers that can be upgraded by spending blast shards. The downside is that there is no room for deviating, you really need to stick to one Karma path to reach all the upgrade perks for being Good or Bad. But, you’re more than likely to replay the game to see how the other half live.
inFAMOUS: Second Son is a visually stunning game with the city of Seattle recreated in remarkable detail. As Seattle is the hometown of developer Sucker Punch Productions, they’ve gone to great lengths to make this town feel grounded and real. They’ve included famous city landmarks to explore, including The Market Theater’s (disgusting) Gum Wall, the Space Needle and lesser known attractions like the Elephant Car Wash. Second Son’s Seattle is not meant to be a one to one remapping of the city, it’s more about capturing the feel and culture of the city. There are also beautiful weather and lighting effects throughout this game, which allow you to experience the city’s different moods: from rain slicked streets at night to dense clouds of fog at dawn.
When it comes to visual effects, Delsin’s Smoke and Neon powers are the most impressive. For example, dashing with your smoke powers Delsin dematerialises into a puff a smoke and ash before reappearing again. Similarly, running through the city using your Neon powers, you’ll leave this beautiful neon trail behind you. The visual language and effects used to convey Delsin’s powers are impressive and give a real sense of inhabiting and using them.
But the visual effects aren’t the only impressive things about Delsin’s new powers. The real drawcard is how inFAMOUS: Second Son empowers your gameplay style, giving you the freedom to play your way. The sets of powers that Delsin acquires become like a toolbox, each better suited to different tasks. The way your powers allow you to move through Seattle is thrilling. You’ll quickly grow accustomed to launching yourself from rooftop to rooftop or running up buildings like a bolt of lightning. This new ease of movement makes a cover system redundant, with the emphasis now on dodging attacks and quickly neutralising threats. And you’ll need all of these powers to free Seattle from the DUP’s martial law grip – an Orwellian dystopia of surveillance and invasive government scrutiny. The DUP’s presence taints the city, an ugly tumour draining the life from its host’s body.
The city is divided into different neighbourhoods with a plethora of DUP checkpoints that you’ll need to obliterate with your powers. In some neighbourhoods you’ll need to destroy jamming towers or mobile communication centres that are heavily guarded. There are a few side missions as well, which include tracking down and catching undercover DUP agents, destroying hidden cameras and tagging walls with your stencil art. Once you severely deplete DUP control of a neighbourhood, you can initiate a showdown. Succeed and the DUP will be gone for good and you’ll open the area up to fast travel. On the whole this works to keep things engrossing outside of the story missions, but the side activities could use a little more variety. Destroying DUP property is the main attraction here, because in this game, blowing stuff up is oodles of fun. You’re encouraged to experiment and that keeps these encounters from feeling repetitive.
The other exciting thing that your superpowers allow, is taking the fight to different vertical planes. You might start out by fighting a couple of DUP guards on the street, before running up a building to take out a couple of snipers. Conversely, you might slink along a few rooftops, scope out a DUP checkpoint below and then drop in with a couple of fireballs. All of these elements come together to let you approach the game in different ways. The type of superhuman you want to be is your choice as defined by the confines of the story, but how you behave in the open world is your choice and that feels real. Whether you’re blowing up DUP check points or just mucking about in the city, using your powers feels effortless and a lot of fun.
inFAMOUS: Second Son works best when it is empowering your choices, after all, it is about enjoying your powers. The story and characters might come from well worn themes, but the writing is so strong, the performances so compelling and the presentation so highly polished that inFAMOUS: Second Son impresses, more than it disappoints.
So what’s it like to wake up with superhuman powers? Turns out that it is a lot of fun.
Review score: 8.5/10
inFAMOUS: Second Son
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: Playstation 4
Rated: M (Violence and drug references)