Great rivalries have been a defining aspect of video games since the medium’s inception. SEGA vs. Nintendo, Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat, Unreal vs. Quake, Sony vs. Microsoft, Halo vs. Call of Duty; these rivalries have come to make gaming what it is. The winners define the trends of the industry, and the losers get to keep going, if they’re lucky.

In 2009, the big rivalry was inFamous vs. Prototype. It was easy to see why. They were both superhero games developed by well-known studios. Sucker Punch was famous for the Sly series, while Radical Entertainment was coming off of the success of The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. Both games featured male characters with super powers. Both were open world titles. They were releasing within a month of one another, and one of them happened to be a PS3 exclusive. The stage was set, the gauntlet was thrown down, sides were chosen, and lines were drawn in the sand. It was to be a heck of a face-off, if you believed the hype at the time.

It wasn’t, of course. Both games came out, both were fairly well-received, and both sold well enough to warrant a sequel. Still, most people picked a side, and they stuck with it. Me, I was a Prototype guy. Prototype let you be a tentacle monster that could absorb people at will, dropkick helicopters, elbow drop tanks, and allowed the player incredible freedom of movement. By comparison, inFamous felt slow and cumbersome. Sure, Cole had some cool powers and inFamous had the better story, but the game didn’t have the freedom of movement that Prototype did, and it was way cooler to be a tentacle monster that could dropkick helicopters than it was to be some random bike delivery boy that couldn’t climb fences and had the ability to shoot sparks out of his fingers. Plus, Prototype didn’t have Zeke. I didn’t finish inFamous. I got a few hours into it, got bored, put it aside, and never touched it again. But I did finish Prototype. Needless to say, I wasn’t that hyped for inFamous 2.

But I was hyped for Second Son. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the fact that it was a technical showpiece for the PS4. Perhaps it was the new hero, Delsin Rowe, who looked like he had the potential to become an interesting character, unlike Cole Macgrath. Maybe it was because the powers looked cool. Maybe it was because the game looked an awful lot like Prototype. Whatever the reason, Second Son drew me in a way that inFamous had never managed before. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Second Son picks up seven years after the good ending of inFamous 2. This time, the story follows Delsin Rowe, a grafitti artist, rebel, and a member of the tribe of fictional Akomish Indians. Delsin leads a pretty sheltered life. Realistically, his biggest problem is escaping from his old brother, Reggie, a cop on the Akomish reservation in Washington State who has a strong belief in what’s right and what’s illegal. As you can imagine, the two are always at odds with one another, but that aside, they share a pretty peaceful existence.

It doesn’t last, of course. InFamous is a series about people getting super powers, and soon enough Delsin runs into a Conduit, and discovers he has the ability to drain powers from other people by touching them. Despite his best intentions, things end up going south pretty quickly, and soon enough Delsin and Reggie are on their way to Seattle to try and set things right.  

If it feels like I’m being coy with the ins and outs of the plot, it’s because I am. Second Son’s story is simple, but it’s pretty good, largely because the game eschews anything beyond a single major plotline and puts all of its focus on its characters. For those coming in without having played either of the previous games, don’t worry, you don’t need to have played them to understand what’s going on. In a lot of ways, Second Son is a reboot, a reimagining of the series - there’s a reason why this game isn’t called inFamous 3 – and Delsin is a big part of that.

Unlike Cole, who was rather boring and one note, Deslin feels alive. Cole wasn’t a fan of his new powers, but Delsin reacts to his powers in a way that most anyone would – he’s freakin’ stoked. He loves having superpowers, and he revels in gaining new abilities to the point of recklessness, but Reggie is always on hand to keep him grounded. These characters just work – in large part because Second Son’s writing is a dramatic improvement over previous games in the series – but a large part of that is also due to the game’s excellent voice acting.

Troy Baker, better known as Bioshock Infinite’s Booker Dewitt and Joel from The Last of Us, absolutely kills it as Deslin, mostly because he doesn’t feel like he’s acting. It’s more like someone just followed Delsin around with a microphone all day. Baker easily balances Delsin’s enthusiasm, snark, and determination, with his pain, anger, and the occasional sense that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, and the character is pretty magnetic as a result. Frankly, it’s nice to see a character with super powers having as much fun as the player is, and Baker’s performance really brings that home as he shouts lines like “I CAN SHOOT MISSILES FROM MY HANDS?!” with the kind of unrestricted glee that you’d expect from a kid who has just discovered that he can do something awesome.

Baker isn’t alone. Travis Willingham may not have the breadth of material with Reggie that Baker does with Delsin, but he makes the most of what he’s given, and it’s the interplay between these two characters is really what sells the plot. They act like people who have known one another all their lives, and have a past that exists outside the games, even if you haven’t seen it. It’s a relationship that feels lived-in, and that sense of realism adds a sense of gravitas to a story that wouldn’t otherwise have much of it.

Of course, Reggie isn’t the only person Delsin interacts with. There are a number of other Conduits in Second Son, and Delsin’s interactions with them make up the meat and potatoes of Second Son’s plot. The most notable is Brooke Augustine, the head of the Department of Unified Protection or D.U.P., a government-backed organization tasked with rounding up and imprisoning Conduits. She’s the game’s big bad, and she’s pretty impressive. Things tend to happen when Augustine shows up, and almost all of them are bad. Christine Dunford chews the scenery every chance she gets, but it’s the good kind of scenery chewing, reminiscent of what Kurt Russell did in Tombstone. Sure, it can get cheesy, but it’s the good kind of cheesy. there were times that I half expected Augustine to ask Delsin if he was going to do something or just stand there and bleed.

There are other Conduits running around Seattle, too. For the most part, they’re as well-voiced as the rest of the cast, and their individual stories are generally well realized, if a little generic in one case. Still, they’re a lot of fun, and their missions are generally interesting. It’s a shame, then, that they don’t stick around for very long. You’ll spend a little time tracking them down, usually have a boss encounter of some kind, obtain their power, do a few missions with them, and then, poof, they disappear from the city until the story requires that they be present.

The missions with the other Conduits are some of the most interesting in the game, and you’ll often wish that you could spend a little more time with them. The game also spices things up by having Delsin make moral choices, which alternate between the traditional good and evil decisions that the series is infamous for. This changes the missions, cutscenes, and the dialogue, and usually revolves around either “corrupting” or “redeeming” the Conduits Delsin meets over the course of the story. You’ll only make a few, though they will change a good bit of content, and this time Sucker Punch had the good sense not to tie Delsin’s physical appearance to your morality as they did with Cole. There’s no demonic Delsin here. The only thing that changes is Delsin’s jacket, no matter your morality.

The other Conduits may not hang around as long as you’d like, but their powers sure do. Delsin acquires four power sets over the course of the game, including smoke, neon, and two that I will not spoil here. Each power set comes with a number of core abilities ranging from a standard bolt and missiles to more powerful area of effect abilities, as well as a means of traversal unique to that power set. Smoke, for instance, allows you to dash through fences and grates, while neon allows you to run at impossible speeds and leap across great distances. Traversal has always been a sticking point of inFamous, especially when compared to Prototype’s glorious freedom of movement, and Second Son alleviates many of those issues right off the bat by simply giving you an advanced movement option from the word go.

Unfortunately, you can only have one power set equipped at a time, and cannot switch between them without finding a power source that Delsin can drain – smoke from a vent, or a neon sign, for example. This means that you’ll probably spend most of your time with one power set, but it’s not as much of a problem as you’d think. Every set has an answer for just about everything, and each one feels unique, despite the fact that many of them share the same core abilities.

As you play through the game, you’ll be able to acquire shards that allow you to acquire more powers, or upgrade your existing abilities, and how you play matters: some powers and upgrades are only available if you’ve been playing a good or evil path, and those decisions will affect how you approach any given situation. Those playing the evil route will spend most of their time aiming for headshots and launching explosive missiles at the D.U.P. soldiers, while those playing good will go for non-lethal shots. Handle enough situations the same way and you’ll earn a Karmic Streak, which will allow you to unleash a Karma Bomb, a massive attack unique to each power set that will incapacitate or kill all the enemies around you, and level most of the surrounding environment. It’s an interesting system that encourages you to pick a path and stick to it. The only downside is that an accidental kill or incapacitation will reset your streak to zero, which can be frustrating during the more intense combat sections.

If the power sets have a problem, it’s this: you don’t have access to all of them until late in the game. By that time, you’ll probably have a go to power that you’ve spent a lot of time upgrading, and switching sets probably won’t feel worthwhile until the game forces you to. As unique as the sets are, the customization behind them is pretty simplistic, and it would have been nice to see more variation in the sets themselves, or to have full access to them earlier. Another ability wouldn’t hurt, either, but it’s ultimately a minor qualm, and most players will probably dig at least one or two of the sets on offer.

You’ll also spend a lot of time exploring the Sucker Punch’s re-creation city of Seattle. And yes, this is Seattle, Space Needle and all, not some cheap knockoff the way Empire City was. Sucker Punch knows this city, and it shows. A lot of time has gone towards recreating Seattle’s unique vibe, from the constant rain and the street musicians to the hipster clothing and the clothing shops. It’s a city with an identity, and in a world where most video game cities don’t have one, this is a good, good thing. It feels quite unlike anything else out there, and part of the game’s appeal comes from uncovering the Seattle’s cool intricacies.

Like most cities in open world video games, Seattle has a ton of optional content hidden around the city streets, which range from hunting down audio logs and finding and destroying D.U.P. drones to spreading anti-D.U.P. graffiti art, destroying D.U.P. cameras and checkpoints, and weeding out undercover D.U.P. agents hiding out in the populace. In addition, good characters can perform drug busts, heal injured citizens, and saving suspected Conduits from lynch mobs, while evil characters can beat down anti-Conduit protest groups, street performers, and Russian thugs.

Completing this side missions allows you to wrest control of the city’s districts away from the D.U.P. one by one. Finish enough of them, and you’ll unlock a final showdown with the D.U.P. for total control of the area. These are pretty challenging segments, unless of course you’ve been saving a Karma Bomb. The problem with these missions is that they’re nothing we haven’t seen before, and in a post- GTA V world, that just isn’t good enough anymore. Sure, they’re fun, and they’ll keep you entertained, but they’re reminiscent of the extra missions in the first Assassin’s Creed: pretty cool the first few times, but once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

The same cannot be said of the game’s graphics. Second Son is absolutely gorgeous, from the character models and the textures to the incredible lighting, which is most impressive when you use the neon power. Everything from running to draining the elements behind the powers looks amazing, and it becomes obvious early on that the game simply wouldn’t have been possible on last gen consoles, especially not in 1080p, and with the level of anti-aliasing that is on display.

The only visual downside comes from the fact that Second Son is often too impressive. The game is a victim of its own success. You’ll marvel at the lighting and the particle effects, but you’ll also notice that water doesn’t react when Delsin steps in a puddle. Even when it’s raining, the city barely looks wet. It’s a minor qualm that is only noticeable because of how excellent the rest of the game looks, but it does occasionally break immersion.

Thankfully, the sound design doesn’t suffer from any similar problems. As mentioned, the voice acting is very well done, as are the game’s sound effects, which convey the sheer strength of the powers on display, and exactly what is going on at any given time, even if you can’t see it. The biggest accomplishment, however, is the music. It fits right in, so you won’t be surprised when the credits roll and you realize all of the game’s music was recorded by local Seattle artists.

And that’s the thing about Second Son. It feels like a labor of love from a studio that has learned from its past mistakes and is ready to move beyond them. It’s the kind of game that serves as both a reboot and a next step, the kind that acknowledges where a series has been while showing you where it’s going, and the kind that’s not afraid to look to a former rival for some inspiration (thanks Prototype). There’s still work to be done: the open world could use some more work, and adding a little more depth to the powers wouldn’t hurt, but the core of Second Son is solid, and begging to be built upon. I wasn’t an inFamous fan before Second Son, but now I can’t wait to see where Sucker Punch goes next.  

 

Final Score - 8/10

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Will Borger
Managing Editor

Will has been gaming ever since he stumbled across a friend’s copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 in the early 90s. The rest, as they say, is history. He has a deep and abiding love for storytelling and the written word, and spends most of his free time absorbing and discussing stories through literature, games, film, and television, and writing his own fiction.

You can follow him on Twitter @Will_Borger.