Saturday, January 31, 2015

Impressions #23: inFamous: Second Son

The inFamous franchise has always been a popular one for owners of the PlayStation 3. Developed by Sucker Punch, the creators of the Sly Cooper franchise, inFamous used many common superhero tropes to create its own universe and world. Both of the games on the PS3 followed protagonist Cole McGrath, also known as “The Electric Man” and “The Demon of Empire City,” and his desire to grow and develop his powers in preparation to face “The Beast”. Those who played those games know that his story, in either of the second entry's two possible endings, comes to a very definitive end. Of course, that did not stop the creation of a new entry in the franchise for Sony's relatively new PS4. This sequel, inFamous: Second Son, is the subject for this week's article.

InFamous: Second Son is an interesting game, because it is one of the exclusive games that came out extremely early in the new console generation. As a result, it occupies this unfortunate space between superhero-sandbox game and PS4 tech demo. It also presented a large change in direction for the series in terms of tone. Though the game still feels very distinctly like an inFamous game, it seems like many of the best elements of that franchise were diluted somewhat. This all combines to create a game that, while satisfactory, does not quite live up to its predecessors.

But before we get into that, it is important to discuss the story of the inFamous franchise as a whole. In the world of inFamous, certain people are born with abilities that may or may not awaken. Referred to as “conduits”, these people, if their latent talents manifest, have fast healing, enhanced physical prowess, and the power to channel a particular material. This material can be anything in particular, even man-made. At the end of inFamous, the protagonist, in the canonical Good Ending, sacrifices his life and the lives of all conduits in order to save all normal people from a terrible, and highly lethal, plague.
Second Son takes place after this event. As it turns out, not all conduits were killed, only most of them. After these random people began to manifest all sorts of strange and powerful new abilities, governments began to fear them. Later on, the United States government began to take steps to fight against these “bio-terrorists.” As a result, the Department of Unified Protection (DUP) is formed. Headed by a concrete-wielding conduit named Brooke Augustine, and armed with technology to detect and combat conduits, the DUP have absolute authority to imprison or eliminate anyone who possesses the conduit-gene.
This is a remarkable change in tone from previous inFamous games. The PS3 titles were very comic book-inspired. It was mostly about people with superpowers going up against other people with superpowers. Second Son, on the other hand, is extremely heavy-handed with its political commentary. Allegories to the modern-war War on Terror are overt, obvious, and all over the place. Furthermore, these concepts are linked together by imagery of the police state, like an Edward Snowden-inspired social commentary. While I am not against politics in video game, in fact I often encourage it, the game seems almost afraid that the player will not understand the message they are attempting to make. I strongly feel that it would have better for Sucker Punch to be more subtle with the way they introduce and comment on these issues. Social commentary is far more likely to make a lasting impact when it does not sound, to the audience, preach-y.

Of course, being an inFamous game, the karma system makes a return. As the game progresses, players are given good and/or evil karma based on how they play, what they do, and what decisions they make in the story. Starting at neutral, Delsin Rowe will shift, over time, towards either a Good or an Evil alignment as karma is accumulated. Though the plot will follow the same rough path regardless of these choices, events will be altered to reflect karmic alignment. Further, certain upgrades to the player's powers will be either unlocked or blocked off depending on which side of the spectrum Delsin stands on. This is nothing new, and behaves much like it did back in the old inFamous games.
For a couple of years, I have been a major critic of this karma system. Back then, these choices were always between childishly-binary extremes. For example, in the original inFamous, one of the moral choices is to decide whether to inform someone that their wife died so that they will let allow the protagonist to advance, or to just kill them to get them out of the way. In the immortal words of Yahtzee Croshaw in his Bioshock review, back when these systems were more commonplace, “You can choose to be either Mother Teresa or a baby-eater, with no apparent middle ground.”
Some of the choices present in inFamous: Second Son still have this degree of cartoonish morality. On the other hand, many of the decisions that affect moral standing do not really seem to be all that different from each other. In a few scenes, Delsin comes into contact with other people that have powers. When his brother, who is a police officer, attempts to bring them into custody for crimes they have committed, the protagonist is given a choice. He can free the conduit, setting them on the path to redemption for good karma. Alternatively, he can free the conduit, allowing them to run-free on society and show the world how strong they are for evil karma. In either case, the player makes the exact same action. However, the only difference is in the logical reason behind the action.

Fortunately, the game plays well. Like the PS3 inFamous games, it is mostly an open-world sandbox where the player is free to use their powers as they see fit. The city contains many side quests, which players can undertake in order to wrest the city of Seattle, Washington, where the game takes places, from the DUP, much like the territory side-quests from old games in the franchise. However, there does not seem to be as much as there was in those entries. In fact, the game feels a lot shorter. It can be beaten, 100%, in a single weekend. Some franchise fans might be put off by that. However, with my busy schedule, and the various side projects that I have going on, I appreciated the fact that the game was a bit more succinct.
Unlike Cole McGrath, Delsin Rowe is not an electrical-conduit. In fact, he channels a very unique material. He channels others conduit powers, with the ability to absorb and use as many abilities as he can find. The first power he acquires is Smoke, followed by Neon, Video, and lastly Concrete.
Each power controls similarly, with different properties and upgrade paths keeping them apart. That seems like a missed opportunity, given that they could have made each power feel unique, and not just a small twist of familiar mechanics. The player can change these powers by absorbing the appropriate element, like smoke for smoke powers. I found myself more heavily relying on Neon, as that power allows one to run up walls and dash infinitely. Furthermore, neon signs are plentiful in the environment. Others may find more use from other powers, but I am willing to bet that most chose similarly, especially since Concrete does not become available until the game's final boss fight.

As I said in the introduction, Second Son feels much like a tech demo. Specifically, the game makes used of the PS4 controller's motion controls and touch pad in a way that strongly resembles the forced SIXAXIS integration seen in early PS3 games. Two large examples come to find. First and foremost is Delsin's desire to tag walls with his spraypaint art. In a couple of optional missions, Delsin can find a suitable wall and make the choice to paint it with happy, blue art for good karma or angry, red art for evil karma. In either case, the player will have to tilt the control and move it around to paint the picture, using motion controls. I would personally rather just use the analog stick as this just felt cumbersome. I even experienced hand cramps from holding the controller sideways a few times.
The other example comes from the liberal use of the touch pad. Some of these uses are good. For example, context-sensitive actions are all mapped to pressing the touch-pad down as a button. This is simple, intuitive, and easy to understand. The more damning use fortunately only occurs one in the game. In order to pass through a DUP checkpoint, players will, early on in the game, need to use the touch pad to move their thumb into position so that a machine can take a blood sample and test Delsin for the conduit-gene. (Spoilers: He gets detected.) Again, it feels forced and does not really work as well as the designer intended. It took me a few minutes to figure out how the mechanic worked, and it only occurs exactly one time. Aside from that one time, players will never need to use it to get through any content, mandatory or otherwise. In these respects, it feels like a tech demo, despite being an otherwise solid game.

As a fan of the inFamous franchise, I cannot help but be disappointed by Second Son. Though developed by the same people, and in some respects improving upon the controls of the PS3 games, many parts of this game feel forced. The story heavy-handedly attaches social commentary to a setting that makes it seem weird and out-of-place. Portions of the gameplay are very gimmicky, strongly resembling that of a tech demo, and not a real interactive experience. Lastly, the game seems unsure of itself when reusing the moral choice system of its predecessors. Fortunately, it does enough right to justify playing it at a discounted price. It is not a bad game, it just does not live up to what I come to expect from Sucker Punch. It is a good game to get for someone who already has a PS4, but not worth getting a new console for.

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