Republished on Wednesday 30th August 2017: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of September's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Sucker Punch’s primary superpower is its ability to craft compelling connections through the controller. inFAMOUS: Second Son – the third entry in the Seattle-based studio’s comic book-inspired series – is no exception, fusing the DualShock 4 to your fingertips like some kind of elaborate costume piece. The potent property’s inaugural PlayStation 4 outing represents a real step forward in almost every department, but it’s the exclusive’s ever increasing sense of strength that makes it such a thrill to play.
The previous entries in the first-party outfit’s powered-up series never failed to make you feel like a superhero, of course, but miserable main character Cole MacGrath’s borderline suicidal stance on superpowers really started to get in the way. Fortunately, newcomer Delsin Rowe does away with his predecessor’s despondent dialogue, bringing a cheeky grin to every outrageous activity that he partakes in. This makes the character a much better fit for the kind of instant gratification that the franchise thrives on, and you’ll quickly forget that you ever cared for his amped up associate.
While the protagonist’s spiky personality complements his equally razor-sharp tongue, there’s a vulnerability that exists beneath his anarchic exterior. This is exposed courtesy of his relationship with older brother Reggie Rowe, a kind natured cop whose upstanding community work puts him at odds with his sibling’s penchant for petty crime. The sequel never touches The Last of Us’ tear-jerking tier of storytelling, but the small core cast all offer outstanding performances, with star Troy Baker imbuing the lead with an unexpected likeability.
Perhaps the most impressive asset of the plot presentation is the manner in which it effortlessly sells you on the franchise’s fiction. There’s some silly stuff in this open world escapade – much of which we must gloss over in order to avoid spoilers – but the actors bring a natural believability to the whole affair. This can be attributed to the cutting edge motion capture technology that the outfit has employed, but also the writing, which maintains a surprisingly high standard in spite of the pulpy premise.
Of course, the game would still be fun if it was unable to sell you on its outlandish narrative, but you’ll still want to see the 12 hour campaign through to its conclusion in order to see the resolution for all of the characters involved. It’s just a shame that the ethical bullet point that has always defined the franchise has failed to progress with the rest of the property, as the branching decisions that pepper the plot remain as binary as ever before. The problem sits with the structure, which forces you down a good or evil path, and means that there’s rarely room for shades of grey along the way.
Still, while the game will never shake your moral compass to its core, you will have to adapt your playstyle depending on which path you choose. In addition to unlocking different missions depending on your status within the world, you’ll also encounter unique sandbox objectives that reflect your personal paradigm. Busting drug dealers and rescuing wrongfully imprisoned people is a popular pastime when you’re a good guy, but you may opt to sizzle street performers and pound protestors if you’re feeling a little more sinister.
The moment-to-moment combat changes, too. If you’re playing the part of an upstanding citizen, you’ll want to take down enemies with the least amount of force possible, aiming for their legs to dispatch them with due care. This isn’t the case if you’re acting evil, meaning that you can push your powers to the absolute extreme, and revel in the carnage. The various different missions that you’ll encounter throughout the course of the adventure play up these disparate approaches, and do a decent job of allowing you to experiment with your powers.
But it’s not just these branching paths that facilitate the title’s underlying variety, as the actual moves that you have access to will adapt your approach as well. There are a total of four combative capabilities in the game, but seeing as the developer has only detailed two, we’ll gloss over the remaining ones in order to maintain the surprise. Still, the two that it has touched upon – smoke and neon – illustrate our point perfectly, as the former acts a little like an inferno infused six shot, leaving your adversaries wheezing like chain smokers, while the latter is more of a precise tool.
Toggling between all four of the skills is as simple as absorbing the appropriate material from the world, and is something that you’ll need to do more and more frequently as you progress through the game. This is because each power has unique properties, meaning that your DayGlo branded plasma beams may be perfect for bringing down lowly grunts, but won’t be especially effective against the hostile helicopters that you’ll find yourself fighting towards the end. You can level up all of your abilities by collecting Blast Shards, but each option will still have distinctive strengths and weaknesses.
One thing that does remain consistent between all four flavours is an unrivalled sense of freedom. Much like Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted, this property has always paraded its parkour-inspired platforming in the past, but here it takes a backseat. Instead, you’ll find yourself simply sprinting up skyscrapers like the Flash, or flying up drainpipes in a cloud of smoggy debris. It all feels incredibly refined, and it makes getting around the city an absolute breeze. There isn’t an enormous amount of side-quest variety, but you’ll find yourself tackling everything that’s on offer regardless, as it’s simply so fun to get around.
In addition to the abovementioned glittery collectibles, sub-missions comprise uncovering secret agents in civilian crowds, tracking down hidden audio files, and decorating the open world environment with Banksy-esque street artwork. This latter minigame is probably the most gimmicky addition to the game, as it sees you holding your DualShock 4 vertically and using its motion sensors to simulate the action of a spray can. It wears out its welcome once you’ve done it a few times, but does provide some much needed respite from the combat heavy action that commands the rest of the game.
The fact that you can flit between these activities so quickly means that you’ll never really find yourself fighting the kind of tedium that plagues other open world games. The setting – which is based upon real-world Seattle – is large in scale, but it never attempts to rival the likes of Los Santos or even Liberty City. As a result, everything feels nicely condensed, and because you can move from one side of the map to the other in less than a minute, your next objective is always close at hand. It means that you can see everything in a reasonable timeframe, but the disparate moral paths provide plenty of replay value.
Moreover, it looks absolutely extraordinary. The biggest compliment that you can pay the game is that many of its districts look like they belong in a more linear release, but everything that you see on the hazy horizon can be reached. The crystal clear resolution certainly helps to impress, but it’s the lighting that’s the real star of the show. While there’s no day and night cycle, you’ll get to explore the city at various different time periods, and the title is at its beautiful best when you’re sprinting across the skyline in a foggy musk, with morning dew giving the pavement below a glitzy gleam.
The weather effects help too, of course, adding a reflective density to the busy city streets. Puddles mirror big television screens and illuminated shop fronts, which warp as you unsettle the water with your movement. Given the pace of the release, it can be hard to appreciate just how good the game looks at times, but you will find yourself stopping to stare on occasion, as there are a couple of locales in particular that set the bar incredibly high for the likes of Naughty Dog and Sony Santa Monica to beat.
It’s not without the odd moment of spectacle either. While the studio’s kept many of the game’s more elaborate moments under wraps, you will come up against a handful of bosses throughout the course of the campaign. These face-offs crescendo with an enormous clash against a colossal rock monster, which will leave you pondering when the developer started taking lessons from the God of War team. You’ll still be doing little more than learning the patterns of your opponents during these occasions, but they add a little extravagance to the adventure, and will have you reaching for your DualShock 4’s vaunted share button on more than a couple of occasions.
Unsurprisingly, it’s during these instances that the developer tends to crank up the title’s surprisingly stellar soundtrack, too. Inspired by the seedy sounds of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s final resting place, the release consistently finds the exact right moment to get your blood pumping with a distorted bassline or delayed guitar riff. The overall audio’s letdown a little by the addition of repetitive civilian speech samples, but the inclusion of ambient effects such as howling winds, subby car stereos, and rippling fires help to accentuate the title’s impressive level of immersion.
There’s an unparalleled sense of empowerment in inFAMOUS: Second Son that makes it a release to be reckoned with. Bursting with more attitude than a high school hardcore band, this out-of-control excursion effortlessly nails the sensation of possessing superpowers. It may put its plot forward a little too forcefully at first, but persevere and you’ll be richly rewarded with an appetising roster of outlandish abilities. While it does little to push the open world format forward, this is still a series that’s very much in bloom.