Review: Visually stunning ‘Infamous: Second Son’ plays it safe

Ben Silverman

Grungy graffiti artist Delsin Rowe isn’t your typical superhero. He bums around in a junky pair of jeans and a knit cap, sports gadgetry no more advanced than a cell phone, and seems more content tagging walls than saving lives.

Infamous: Second Son, however, is as gaudy as its star is gauche.  Releasing this week, the long-awaited PS4 exclusive is a visual smorgasbord that turns Seattle into an action-packed sandbox and shows off the power of Sony’s new system.

Though it's the third Infamous game, Second Son is a standalone effort; you won't need to have played the prior two games to pick up the scent of the story. Superhuman ‘conduits’ live among us, gifted with all sorts of crazy abilities that naturally scare the pants off the powers-that-be. The government-run Department of Unified Protection has been created to capture conduits (unpleasantly referred to as ‘bio-terrorists’), though they often do their job a bit too enthusiastically, setting up a showdown between Delsin and the organization’s grumpy leader.

The struggle between mutants and normals is all very X-Men, but developer Sucker Punch does a masterful job giving Second Son its own identity. Sucker Punch’s offices are a short hop from Seattle in Bellevue, and their knowledge of and passion for the area is powerfully apparent in-game. Seattle is the real star here, a sumptuous, lovingly crafted take on the rainy city.

While you’ll see a handful of notable sights like the Space Needle and Sup Pop Records, they’re under lockdown by the DUP. Armed super soldiers patrol imposing guard stations, lending a dystopian sci-fi vibe to the proceedings. It also lays the groundwork for Second Son’s primary gameplay system: blowing stuff up.

Delsin is a power vacuum. Over the course of the game he gains four distinct types of abilities fueled by various bits of Seattle’s environment. Delsin’s fireball-lobbing Smoke power, for instance, can be replenished by inhaling a chimney or destroying a car and gobbling up the fumes. Neon signs can be absorbed to power time-slowing laser blasts and blazing fast travel. It’s a clever and effective way to keep players connected to the city.

It also means you’ll rarely run out of ammo, which is a good thing, because you spend most of Second Son mopping the floor with bad guys. The fast, frenetic combat is the best the series has seen. All four powers offer significant differences in play style; Smoke is great for damage but lacks mobility, while Video offers stealth options and unrivaled speed bursts. A steady drip of new powers ensures you’re never bored with Delsin’s toys.

Second Son continues the franchise’s tradition of a morality system. Do good deeds and you’ll earn positive karma points and powers; be a jerk and you’ll unlock more vicious attacks. I’ve never really loved how this works in Infamous, which paints its protagonists as generally nice people from the outset. It feels awkward trying to turn Delsin into a supervillain, though I suppose it also manufactures replay value since you’ll have to play as both hero and heel to see all the powers in action. And you'll want to do just that, especially if you default as a good guy. The evil powers are, as expected, a lot more fun.

Unfortunately, Second Son never really soars past previous Infamous games in terms of its overall design. You’ll need to tackle missions to loosen the DUP’s grip on different parts of the city and enable handy fast-travel points, but this grows tedious quickly. The first time you locate and destroy a hidden DUP camera is neat; by the fifth time, not so much. Second Son seems content ticking off the standard open-world boxes, and the game’s wow factor suffers a bit for it.

What the game lacks in substance, however, it makes up for in looks. Infamous: Second Son is a bright, beautiful video game. Bursts of color breathe life into the overcast city. Smoke positively oozes from Delsin’s fingers as he lobs fiery grenades; flares of neon light up the night sky as he dashes up buildings. The game's third act sees you assaulting towering enemy strongholds, triggering chaotic firefights as enemies and powers and bazillions of particle effects light up your TV. It’s impressive stuff. Infamous is the best-looking PS4 game to date.

It’s also the best-sounding. Video game character actor du jour Troy Baker (The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Batman Arkham Origins, plenty of others) and his real-world best friend Travis Willingham give terrific, believable performances as the alternately likeable and irritating Delsin and his conflicted older brother Reggie. They’re the high points in an otherwise mediocre narrative.

But it’s easy to look past the game’s flaws when you’re effortlessly scrambling up skyscrapers and tearing down enemy fortifications with thunderous smoke bombs. While Infamous: Second Son might not be exactly the hero PS4 fans were hoping for, it’s a satisfying showpiece for the console and a worthwhile buy for gamers itching to live out a power fantasy.

What’s hot: Gorgeous delivery; top-notch voice work; you can run up the side of a skyscraper and jump off and fly for a bit and then slam into the ground like The Hulk

What’s not: Repetitive missions; overly familiar gameplay; ho-hum narrative

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