The first must-own PlayStation 4 game is here. I’m not quite ready to say that the PS4 is yet a must-own system as the pool of great games is still incredibly shallow but if you don’t get “Infamous: Second Son” once you do sign up for the next generation of Sony, then your machine isn’t really fulfilling its entire purpose. While I do have a couple of sticking points that hold me back from complete adoration of “Second Son,” it’s undeniably a masterful example of gameplay development. Much like the highly acclaimed “Infamous” games that preceded it, “Second Son” is a master class in hero development—the art of apportioning out protagonist abilities to keep a game constantly fresh. As your heroic (or villainous) Delsin becomes increasingly powerful, “Infamous: Second Son” avoids the repetition that plagues the action game genre. It’s disappointingly thin on a narrative level but it looks great and, most importantly, it’s the first PS4 game that had me itching to play it every time I put down the controller.
Whereas the first two games saw the rise (and more rise) and fall of Cole MacGrath, the protagonist shifts this time to Delsin, a young man in a 2016 vision of Seattle that plays like a mix between “1984” and Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” films. Just as in those works based on the Marvel comics, the world knows that people with special powers exist…and the government is doing their best to keep them under control. In order to keep the mutants from running the world, the system has gone overboard, essentially turning the city into a paranoid military state. The Department of Unified Protection operates checkpoints at which average citizens are scanned for abnormalities and they are willing to unleash a whole lot of firepower to keep the Conduits (also known as bioterrorists) under control.
Enter Delsin Rowe, an unassuming young man living in Washington whose life is forever changed when a prison transport convoying three Conduits crashes in his vicinity. As he’s trying to pull one of the superheroes from the wreckage, he somehow absorbs his powers. Delsin is a Conduit, able to take on new powers. Of course, this makes him extremely dangerous and the target of the evil Brooke Augustine, who has the remarkable ability to control concrete—you can imagine how that could come in handy in combat. Now that Delsin’s emergence has made his tribe of Native Americans a target of this power-mad super-villain, he has to go to Seattle to stop her. The city is overrun by authority figures with guns and superpowers of their own. Time to become infamous.
As you progress through “Second Son,” you’ll singlehandedly (mostly, you do make a few allies) weaken the control of the DUP on Seattle. Serving as side missions, you can constantly drain their power through small actions like destroying tracking drones (and absorbing their power shards to increase your abilities) or vandalizing their control centers. However, the majority of “Second Son” is about becoming increasingly ass-kicking. There are essentially four power trees—smoke, neon, video, and concrete. Yes, this is not your standard earth, wind, and fire. (Although it’s not far). Each set of skills works off the same control scheme but the constant character growth keeps the game fresh. The storytelling in modern classics like “God of War” and “Bioshock” are the game’s real foundation but they stay entertaining through their upgradeable tree of powers and the choices that can be made within. The same structure allows “Second Son” to stay consistently fun.
Sadly, it doesn’t quite have the narrative punch of those games. The storytelling is awfully familiar and the mission structure even feels a bit thin compared to “Infamous 2”. The PS4 has yet to produce a truly great story of its own. And “Second Son” doesn’t qualify, in no small part because it feels like the set-up for a new franchise instead of a satisfying story on its own. I was never bored by “Second Son” but the narrative doesn’t really get its hooks in you and doesn’t surprise even in the way the previous two games did.
I must say that “Second Son” looks absolutely amazing (check out some screenshots here). Sucker Punch has fully embraced the potential of the PS4. Want some stats? When Delsin turns into smoke and dashes forward, he breaks apart into 11,000 individual particles before reforming. Actor Troy Baker’s face was captured to 22,321 separate vertices for in-game animations. Each raindrop is considered a separate particle to be rendered by the graphics engine and there are 30,000 of them. Every horizon, every neon sign, every NPC—“Infamous: Second Son” is the best-looking PS4 game yet. While I wish it sometimes had a bit more of its own visual personality instead of feeling like a souped-up version of the other two games, I understand the need to connect to the franchise. And that’s true in the thin storytelling too. This is the connective tissue to the previous generation “Infamous” games and way more than “Killzone: Shadow Fall”, I can’t wait to see where the developers take it now.