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inFamous: Second Son review (PS4)

inFamous: Second Son by Sucker Punch for PlayStation 4 As the first major PS4 exclusive since the console’s launch line-up hit shelves a little over four months ago, there’s no getting away from the fact that there’s enormous pressure on developer Sucker Punch to impress with inFamous: Second Son. A console is only as good as its games, and exclusive games are the best benchmark of all, their very exclusivity going a long way to determine a specific platform’s value in relation to the competition.

Thankfully, then, for Sucker Punch, Sony and, most importantly, for PS4 owners, Second Son does not disappoint. In fact, once you’ve gotten past the fact that protagonist Delsin Rowe is universally underwhelming as a personality, it reveals itself to be a great asset for a console that is still very much in its infancy. Ultimately, the degree to which you will enjoy Second Son is wholly dependent on how willing you are to look past its flimsy plot and characters and instead concentrate on its provision of legitimately slick, action-heavy gameplay within a visually stunning urban open-world.

The core narrative revolves around themes of suspicion, corruption, politics, control and fear – even going so far as to question what it means to be human in a world where evolution is sending the species down two distinct paths. On the one path you have the ‘regular’ humans, types like you and us that spend their days worrying about rent, debt and calories. On the other are Conduits, mutants that posses super-powers and spend their time worrying about whether or not they should reveal their abilities to a human population that predominantly sees them as both a threat and an abomination.

Delsin is new to the super-powered side of life, unwittingly realising his innate talent to absorb other Conduit’s powers during the game’s extended introduction. Following an event that kicks off a plot fuelled principally by a desire for personal justice and revenge, it’s up to you, as Delsin, to decide how to use your new powers.

Do you do the responsible thing and become a force for positive change and try to bring Conduits and humans together? Or do you become a walking advert for the idea that ‘power corrupts’ and promote, through violence and intimidation, the belief that Conduits are superior to humans and should therefore not be held back by their genetically-challenged cousins?

Your moral choices are ranked and displayed via a Karma system that takes note of major decisions you make as the narrative unfolds, as well as minor actions you take as you explore and interact with the game’s digital recreation of Seattle. Corrupting fellow Conduits and bringing them around to a life of inflicting destruction and pain, for example, results in major swings towards the ‘Bad’ side of your Karmic barometer, while encouraging them to prove to humans that their supernatural powers can be used to subdue rampant criminal activity is considered a morally ‘Good’ act.

At certain key points you’re explicitly asked to choose between undertaking a ‘Good’ or a ‘Bad’ mission, the disregarded option being removed from the game completely and resulting in a fairly significant change in the direction of the Delsin’s story arc – including which of two possible endings you get to see. Frankly, quite possibly because of the lack of charisma he possesses right from the start, the morally questionable options result in a better experience (both in terms of narrative and gameplay) and removes any effort required to try and force yourself to actually like this person you’re playing as.

For every enemy or civilian you kill you’re given negative Karma points, sending you further and quicker towards the dark side. It’s possible to ‘subdue’ enemies by essentially tying them up and leaving them in the open for their comrades to rescue them later, but doing so can be more fiddly and liable to get you killed in the process. Combat sequences can feature so many enemies, attacking from so many different angles, that not accidentally killing foes becomes an incredibly challenging act. Naturally, then, most players will build up the Bad side of the Karma meter. Therefore, if you are intent on being a ‘Good’ Delsin, you’re forced into a slower, more considered pace of play that doesn’t altogether fit with the monstrous powers at your disposal.

inFamous: Second Son by Sucker Punch for PlayStation 4There are a number of these abilities to unlock and master, but it’s Smoke and Neon that you become most familiar with given that they’re the first you unlock. While difficult in their applications, both Smoke and Neon are at their most devastating and enjoyable when you throw caution to the wind and throw yourself into the middle of an enemy group – making it difficult to motivate yourself to adhere to the ‘Good’ moral path by showing mercy.

Smoke provides you with the power of flames, manifesting itself in the form of grenades that can be conjured out of thin air, a fire-tipped chain-link whip and a powerful rocket – the latter hit with strict ammo limitations that prevents you from relying on it too much. Neon, while it does provide melee options, is more helpfully thought of as a gun – with Delsin able to shoot bolts of pink/purple lightning from his fists. While it might sound as though Neon is more suited to ranged combat, it’s as viable in tight spaces as Smoke when combined with expert use of your traversal capabilities.

You see, Delsin’s powers are not solely about combat – they’re equally important as a means for navigating the environment and staying one step ahead of opponents. Neon, for example, lets you transform your entire body into a ball of energy and travel at high speed through people, over obstacles and up the sides of buildings. Immediately, the value of such an ability is evident in that you can scale the game’s tallest buildings in a matter of seconds. Its real value, however, comes during combat. Spend some time honing your skills and before long Delsin is zigzagging through enemies, stopping here and there to shoot and kill a few, before taking energy form again and popping up in a new place to unleash some more destruction. It’s genuinely satisfying to have this level of power at your disposal when so few limitations are needlessly tacked on.

Smoke has similar traversal attributes, but they manifest themselves in different ways. You can literally turn yourself into a ball of smoke and slip straight through gates and fences that you’d otherwise lose time trying to jump/climb over; possibly getting yourself shot in the back of the head in the process. Further, vents at the bases of buildings can be ‘smoked’ into which results in you instantly appearing on the roof having exited through a handily-positioned grate or chimney stationed there.

With so few open-world games giving you a means of attack or movement over and above other the usual sets of guns, swords and vehicles, it’s an understatement to say that it’s liberating to have such an extreme set of skills to deploy, experiment with and improve (via a robust upgrade tree). Furthermore, these are not the only powers available to you, but (disappointingly, perhaps) they are the only ones present for much of the game’s running time and are the ones you will spend most time upgrading. Perhaps your best ability of all is one unlocked later in the game that grants temporary invisibility, but to explain its uses too deeply would ruin much of its appeal.

The unlucky individuals at the wrong end of your aggressions are chiefly the Department of Unified Protection (DUP), a militaristic group with a seemingly unlimited budget set up to identify, suppress and imprison any and all Conduits under the flimsy guise of protecting humanity. A contradictory organisation, DUP uses Conduit powers to achieve its goals and it’s the group’s leader, Augustine, who reveals herself to be arguably the most interesting of the game’s characters.

DUP controls Seattle from bases it has set up in each of the city’s districts, and it’s within these walls that Second Son’s most consistently tough battles can be found. While they represent little in the way of threat when solo, groups of DUP can be remarkably tough to defeat – not just because of their high numbers, but because the diversity of troop type demands that you utilise a range of attack options within the same combat sequence. Regular foot soldiers keel over and die fairly easily, but having snipers, heavily-armoured goliaths and even those with the ability to teleport short distances means you must always stay mobile and intelligently choose the order in which you pick off targets in order to succeed.

Combat doesn’t become especially difficult until you’ve unlocked the second of Seattle’s two islands, at which point the number of high-level DUP soldiers increases dramatically. To make things easier, each of Delsin’s abilities has a visually arresting special attack capable of clearing out entire areas with a single strike, although earning the right to use it requires you to build up a ‘Karmic Streak’. Depending on the situation this can be difficult to attain, forcing you to chain together enemy incapacitations in fairly quick succession – an act that puts you at greater risk of death given that retreating to allow your health to regenerate results in your chain resetting to zero.

It’s difficult to overstate just how impressive these special attacks are, creating a visual spectacle that more than makes for up any difficulty experienced in unlocking them in the first place. That aesthetic quality is mirrored throughout Second Son as a whole, singling it out as a legitimate next-gen title and cementing it as the new benchmark against which PS4 graphical impact should be measured.

inFamous: Second Son by Sucker Punch for PlayStation 4Seattle itself, which features a day/night cycle, alongside periods of heavy rain and blinding sunlight, is beautiful to behold. It’s worth making your way to the to the top of the tallest buildings just to experience the seemingly never-ending draw distance combined with a diversity of environment that embeds different areas with a personality of their own. There are no complaints either regarding animation quality or frame rates, with even the most intense moments of combat occurring without even the slightest hint of a hiccup.

Where Second Son is likely to split its potential audience is in the tight focus of its gameplay. While there are various optional quests and tasks to embark upon, the vast majority of your time is spent either fighting or racing through the world using the accelerated parkour Delsin’s powers facilitate. Compared to a Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed or Saints Row, there’s little in the way of deviation from action, but the fact that Sucker Punch’s approach remains engaging all the way to the credits speaks volumes about how entertaining the core mechanics are and how well they’ve been executed.

Until you’ve worked out how best to use all of the tools at your disposal, and come to some sort of decision regarding which ones you prefer and therefore gravitate towards, Second Son can feel a little one-dimensional. Once you’ve mastered the techniques and progressed to the point where combat is genuinely challenging, though, the true nature and variety of what’s on offer becomes evident.

There’s no doubt that room for improvement remains, though. Much was lauded in the build-up to release regarding destructible environments, but in reality only a tiny amount of the world can be impacted in such a way. The small-scale structures the DUP has constructed around the city in an attempt to keep order can mostly be destroyed completely, but none of the buildings that make up Seattle’s core landscape can be so much as scratched. Being able to bring down an entire watchtower, but not being able to break even the flimsiest of glass shop fronts does mildly disrupt the believability of Sucker Punch’s creation.

Then there are the narrative issues that begin with Delsin’s bland and predictable personality, and end with his questionable undertaking of such a dangerous mission without much in the way of a legitimately believable motive. As it stands, Second Son is an impressive achievement, but to a large degree it’s the protagonist that stands as the primary cause for the game not quite managing to attain ‘essential’ status. It’s likely that Fetch, a fellow Seattle-based Conduit, would have made for a much more accomplished and intriguing lead character, not least because of her more interesting motivation for taking up the Conduit cause from the start.

Still, while Delsin might hamper the experience he doesn’t come anywhere near to undermining it completely and, once things get into full swing, it’s not difficult to overlook such faults and instead concentrate on the noteworthy positives. There’s even an argument to be made for the fact that Delsin’s insipid nature allows you to think more readily about his physical skills, which, after all, are Second Son’s most valuable asset.

Whatever the case, there’s no denying that Sucker Punch has achieved a great success with Second Son and delivered a game that is not only worthy of its blockbuster-grade hype, but also the superior of its PS3-based franchise predecessors. By focusing on getting a smaller number of key elements right, Second Son delivers an experience that oozes quality of design and execution in most of the right places. Yes, the character and story could have done with some fleshing out, but that’s less of a problem when playing as morally-questionable mutant is this much fun.

Score: 86%

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