Your introductory action in Infamous: Second Son is an awkward minigame in which you hold your DualShock 4 sideways and vandalise a billboard with spray paint. You’re limited to predefined stencils and curtailed by the invisible square that keeps your paint in the correct area of the hoarding. It’s hardly an auspicious start for a game that represents, after Killzone: Shadow Fall, our second real opportunity to see what PlayStation 4 can do when unburdened by multiformat or cross-generational concerns.
The disappointment is only heightened by this section coming after a scrolling wall of expository text and being followed by a tutorial that includes invisible walls and reveals an odd lack of connection between hero Delsin Rowe and his environment. Parkour feels skittish and glitchy, Rowe’s clumsy, flailing form often clipping through objects as he tries to gain purchase on one of the game’s innumerable handholds. If it wasn’t for the breathtaking view – and in terms of lighting, shadow and detail, Second Son exceeds even Shadow Fall’s visual achievements – it would be easy to confuse this with an early release for the previous console generation. And not a very good one.
Things improve rapidly, though. Get past the wobbly beginning and it becomes clear that Sucker Punch has learned plenty from its past mistakes. Rowe quickly gains powers, and by the time he reaches Seattle – where he intends to seek revenge for harm wreaked on his native American hometown by the Department of Unified Protection (DUP) – there’s no longer any need to clamber up the side of a building, since you can turn to smoke and shoot up through a vent instead.
Rowe’s greatest skill is his ability to absorb the powers of other superhumans, known as conduits (or ‘bioterrorists’ in DUP parlance), simply by touching them. In time, he’ll master powers based on smoke, neon, television signals and concrete, the latter also wielded by the head of the DUP and many of its soldiers. Each set of powers grants access to several abilities (acquired by locating DUP Core Relays and cracking them open) and has its own node-based upgrade tree. And each makes navigating the city, and outmanoeuvring enemies, an unremitting pleasure.
One mission sees us locating and investigating a series of crime scenes as we try to track down another conduit. We face no resistance at the first two, documenting evidence with our phone and sending the pictures to Rowe’s brother, Reggie, a police officer and reluctant ally. But by the time we reach the third, DUP officers are already swarming around the scene and there’s no choice but to fight them. Assaulting an unsuspecting patrol with focused blasts of cinder sends them running for cover, so we circle round behind them to get in close and use our flaming chain to finish the job. Then we dive into a vent at the base of a tower block and launch out of the other end on the roof, taking out two enemies with cinder shots before we land, with a flame dash carrying us across the gap to another building to deal with a sniper. Finally, we plummet down into the alley between the structures and punch the ground, sending out a shockwave of flame that catches the remaining DUP grunts off guard.
“Get past the wobbly beginning and it becomes clear Sucker Punch has learned plenty from its past mistakes”
Most encounters prove every bit as exciting and dynamic. Enemies make intelligent use of cover and react violently to the force of your superpowered attacks, deploying their own conduit abilities to escape or retaliate. The game’s main missions are, for the most part, well designed and generously portioned. Even the boss fights – bar two examples, which outstay their welcome – are enjoyable enough.
Those still haunted by the cold, empty stare of the series’ previous star, Cole MacGrath, should also find themselves heartened by Second Son’s cast. Sure, they’re all stock characters: Delsin is the angry, rebellious youth; Reggie, the serious, paternal older brother; Fetch, the eccentric girl with neon-pink hair. But they’re well-realised clichés, granted charm by good writing and excellent performance capture. The story itself is well told, too, and not overlong, foregoing any attempt to pad out the game with filler.
In series tradition, Rowe’s path is shaped by moral choices, too, but they’re telegraphed with about as much subtlety as the neon that illuminates his Seattle. Filling your Karma meter sees you progress toward Hero or Villain status, and a chain of bad actions (headshots, civilian executions) or good ones (nonlethal takedowns, beating up drug dealers) will grant you different-coloured versions of the screen-clearing Karmic Powers. Characters will also treat you differently in cutscenes according to your choices, but your decisions have little real impact. Reggie might chastise you briefly if you opt not to protect the innocent – indiscriminately wiping out a squad of his Seattle-based colleagues, say – but you’ll soon be exchanging sibling-rivalry-fuelled quips again. Still, if you decide to be a hero, your life is made harder by the need to aim for legs behind cover rather than exposed heads and to avoid collateral damage.
As an open-world game, Second Son feels emaciated. There’s little to do in the way of side missions, and what is here becomes repetitive, unlikely to sustain interest beyond a single playthrough. Approach it as an action game that just happens to be set in a nonlinear environment and it makes more sense, but its not-inconsiderable achievements take effort to uncover. By the time you’ve gained the full suite of powers, though, it’s easy to forget its shaky first steps and impossible not to share Rowe’s vocal enthusiasm each time he does something spectacular. And Sucker Punch provides plenty of opportunities to do so.