the artistry and psychology of gaming


inFamous: Second Son

inFamous: Second Son

Review in Brief
Game: An open-world sandbox game focusing on elemental superpowers set in near-future Seattle.
Good: Beautiful; fair use of motion and touch controls; natural strategies; interesting sandbox tasks; some cool destructible environments.
Bad: Awful morality system; awful interfaces; awful characters; challenge by frustration; overly constrained ability system; checklist-reliant gameplay; few of the previous games’ positive features; nothing new to offer at all.
Verdict: There’s nothing here that wasn’t done just as well, if not better, in the last generation.
Rating: 5/10
Recommendation: Skip this game, and maybe this generation unless someone figures out how to use the new hardware.

“Meet the new gen, same as the old gen.”

In every generation in gaming history, advances in hardware have led to some fundamental changes in the games that can be designed. The third generation enabled the creation of sprites, which would go on to become a fundamental element of game design. The fifth generation introduced three-dimensional graphics, ushering in a new set of paradigms and facilitating entire original genres. The power of sixth generation systems allowed for far more dynamic, realistic, and seamless gameplay, with the graphical realism facilitating nuanced underling game structures. The seventh generation’s main contribution was (in my opinion) in memory, dramatically growing the size of the worlds one could create within a game. Worlds like those seen in Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V would have been inconceivable in the previous generation.

Now we have arrived at the eighth generation, and there is an open question that the new consoles need to answer: what is going to make the eighth generation unique? What is its contribution going to be? How is it going to change game design the way previous generations have done? It’s a question that, in my mind, has yet to be answered. There are untapped frontiers, to be sure, from more realistic and dynamic physics engines to massive, complex simulations to successful usage of non-traditional modes of interaction. However, to date (and, admittedly, the generation is still young), I have seen little evidence that the new games are actually attempting to do much different from those in the seventh generation, aside from some fancy particle animations.

All that brings me to the case of inFamous: Second Son. The inFamous franchise in the seventh generation was a good, if somewhat typical, open-world sandbox game built around the idea of elemental superpowers. It was a perfectly prototypical instance of the sandbox genre that the seventh generation helped actualize, with massive worlds loading seamlessly, seemingly infinite sight lines, and visually distinct design elements. inFamous: Second Son is… well, a somewhat typical open-world sandbox game built around the idea of elemental superpowers. It’s more of the game. It’s another game in the same series, so it’s reasonable to expect there to be similarities, but inFamous: Second Son does nothing new. In fact, the gameplay is a significant step back from its predecessor in numerous ways. But the biggest problem with the game is that ultimately, it does nothing that could not have been done on the PlayStation 3. It wouldn’t have been worth it then, either, but it’s certainly not worth it now.

This is a problem I predict many franchises may face in trying to transition to the eighth generation. In previous major transitions, like that between the fourth and fifth generations, the challenge was to see which franchises could successfully carry themselves into a new medium with clear affordances and constraints: would a franchise rise to higher heights, like Mario, or leave its glory days behind it, like Sonic? With the eighth generation, however, the question is different. The affordances and constraints are not clear. It remains to be seen what will really differentiate games in the eighth generation from the seventh. Thus, the question for the eighth generation is: what franchises will find ways to be even better, and what franchises will fall to repeating the same tricks with superficial, cosmetic updates? inFamous , sadly, seems to be the latter.

The Game
Seven years after the events in New Marais depicted in inFamous 2, Conduits have been almost entirely rounded up and locked away by the Department of Unified Protection. Although there are still free individuals who possess the Conduit gene, they would require contact with another Conduit in order to unlock their potential. Delsin Rowe is one such individual, a kid who comes into contact with an escaped Conduit and finds himself with new superpowers. In the exchange, several people from his village are injured, and the only way to save them is to undo the damage directly by catching the person responsible and drawing out her powers for himself. To do that, Delsin heads to Seattle, a city under siege after several Conduits escaped in it. The D.U.P. has declared martial law in the city, and it is up to Delsin to protect the people from the overbearing military force – or, alternatively, to turn against them himself in an attempt to safeguard his Conduit brethren.

inFamous: Second Son is an open-world sandbox game set in Seattle. The city is divided into districts, with each district initially under D.U.P. control. To free each district, Delsin must complete a number of tasks within the city, starting with shutting down their communications and ending with driving them out of that area once and for all. Along the way he’ll also complete main missions that drive the story forward, introducing him to other escaped Conduits and unlocking new powers. The gameplay is closely reminiscent of a third-person shooters, with Delsin’s main attack launching projectiles from his hand. Other attacks, like rockets, grenades, and other analogues to traditional weapons, follow as well. The enemies Delsin faces are military troops augmented with Conduit skills, allowing them to launch around the battlefield, encase Delsin in concrete, and perform other abilities in addition to firing their traditional weapons.

The Good
Generally speaking, the main thing to love in the new console generation is the graphics; although it would be difficult to identify particular weaknesses in the seventh generation, there is a noticeable improvement in inFamous: Second Son and other eighth generation games I’ve played. The game does a couple other things right as well, but not nearly enough to outweigh its flaws.

The main improvement I’ve seen in eighth generation games is in the graphics. The graphics in inFamous: Second Son are stunning. The entire game is prettier than many prerendered cutscenes I’ve seen as recently as last generation, and there were several times I was impressed to realize that I was still watching dynamic content rather than a precompiled video. The lighting effects are executed masterfully, and changes in time of day and the weather can be seen not just in the skybox but also in the way light bounces off the ground and the buildings around you. Faces are animated flawlessly, with no discernible polygons and extraordinarily natural movements.

The game has a particular fetish for particle physics, and goes to great lengths to use them whenever possible. Absorbing energy from different sources always takes the form of dancing and mingling particles generated dynamically, and the effect is quite gorgeous even late in the game. In some parts, Delsin absorbs power from neon signs, which I am somewhat sure were chosen specifically because the colors emphasize the complicated physics at play. It’s an effect that, unlike many, never really fades into the background.

I would not go so far as to say inFamous: Second Son has the best graphics I can imagine; there is still a definite animated quality in the game that I speculate will be present for the rest of the generation as well. I feel I can say, however, that we are now only one step away from passing a sort of graphical Turing test, where dynamically-rendered graphics and reality are indistinguishable from one another.

Fair Use of Touch and Motion Controls
Nintendo introduced motion controls and touchscreens last generation, and since then the industry has seemed to be in constant pursuit of ways to actually use them well. Even though, in my opinion, neither motion controls nor touchpad controls have ever actually facilitated improved gameplay design outside of the Wii Sports games, all three companies clamored to include it in their latest consoles. For Sony, that came in the form of a touchpad in the middle of the controller and motion detection on the controller itself.

The problem with touch and motion controls is that in the vast majority of cases, their inclusion in particular games is nothing more than a silly gimmick. It adds nothing to the gameplay, and in the worst (yet depressingly common) case, these gimmicks actively detract and hinder gameplay by interrupting it with finicky, unreliable motion controls that give no tactile feedback and rarely are worked into the actual fabric of the game. For motion controls to be truly desirable, they must be foundational in the game, used commonly enough for the player to develop muscle memory, and actually add something to the game that could not be accomplished with simple button presses.

inFamous: Second Son is not that remarkable game that finally makes these controls desirable. However, it is a rare example of a game that uses them with no real negative side effects. The touchpad is used throughout the game in certain context events, like throwing a door to the side or lifting something up. To complete these events, you drag your thumb across the touchpad in the direction of the action. Ultimately, it is no different than just having those actions mapped to a button, but the motion does not detract from the task at hand either. I might, if pressed, say I actually prefer the motion control to the context button – it did add a tiny sense of deeper interaction.

Motion controls are used in exactly one portion of the game. Delsin is a graffiti artist, and a couple dozen times throughout the game you’ll have the opportunity to draw some graffiti. To do so, you move the controller as if it was the spray can to spray an outline on the wall. By design, you can actually hold the controller vertically with your index finger on the trigger as if it was a real spray can, but you can also do it normally as well. The light bar on the controller changes color to reflect the color of paint you’re using. Ultimately, both seem to be like Sony asked Sucker Punch to use the motion controls somewhere to demonstrate the capability, but the developers still deserve credit for using it in a way that is not frustrating. Because there is no time constraint on the sequences, inconsistencies in the motion controls are not irritating, and the action being mimicked is one with no feedback either, removing that as a concern.

Natural Strategies and Varied Gameplay
One of the goals for game designers ought to be to create mechanics, settings, and enemies such that the strategies emerge naturally, rather than being dictated. The player should feel like the strategy that they choose to approach a battle is of their own design rather than handed to them by the game. For example, they should think, “I can sneak behind them and flank them” instead of the game implicitly (or explicitly) stating, “To complete this section, the only way to succeed is to flank the enemy.”

The strategies in inFamous: Second Son almost entirely fit this category. Never in the game did I perceive that any thought was put into a way in which the player should actually approach a battle or a particular type of enemy. Enemies are thrown at the player in combinations and patterns that seem to leave absolutely no recourse except a tedious sequence of running, hiding, and attacking opportunistically. Enemies are not given any weak spots for the player to exploit or patterns for the player to predict, leaving the player completely on their own to figure out the right way to defeat the enemy.

That paragraph is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, of course: inFamous: Second Son actually goes too far in this direction, and would have benefited from some attention to how exactly it expected the player to complete certain sections or defeat certain combinations of enemies. However, to its credit, this does mean that the player has completely free reign to try to design their own strategies for tackling the game’s foes… if you’re like me, those strategies are not very fun to actually execute, but they work and the game certainly didn’t suggest them. The one exception is the stealth elements of the game; the game is explicitly designed to facilitate stealth from sneaking up behind enemies or using an invisibility ability, and this represents one of the game’s only enjoyable strategies to perform.

Interesting Optional Tasks
One of the problems with inFamous: Second Son that I’ll discuss later is it relies too heavily on what I call “checklist gameplay”. The game gives you a world map with icons scattered across it, and your gameplay outside the main quest is essentially to cross the icons off of it. Many sandbox games rely on this to a certain extent, and while I think it is a bit lazy, it is also somewhat necessary for the genre. Games should not depend too heavily on it (as inFamous: Second Son does), but to include it is acceptable so long as the items on the checklist are at least interesting.

Fortunately, in inFamous: Second Son, the items on the checklist are interesting. Only one of the tasks is reminiscent of the “Assassin flags” structure of collectible-based sidequests, and it still differs in that the collectibles are dynamic (requiring more interaction to attain) and actually serve a gameplay purpose, purchasing skill upgrades. The remaining tasks are all somewhat interesting. My favorites are tasks where you are assigned to finding a hidden camera by looking at the camera’s feed; you have to mentally imagine rotating the field to match the location shown in the feed to figure out where the camera is located. In another, you are tasked with finding a hidden spy by his picture. If you identify him, you can hit him with a strong attack and knock him out instantly, but if your initial attack is too weak or he notices you, he will flee, forcing you to chase him down (and, in my experience, draw every other enemy in the area in to chase you). A third involves tracking down an audio log given only your distance to its signal, forcing you to try to navigate a sphere around the log to identify when your distance to it grows and shrinks.

The game’s main sidequest is to free each of the thirteen districts in Seattle from D.U.P. control, although calling it a ‘sidequest’ ignores the fact that on several instances portions of it become necessary to push forward the main quest. Each district starts with destroying a heavily-guarded communication device, itself something of its own kind of mission. The districts each conclude with an ultimate mission to drive the D.U.P. out once and for all by challenging them to an open battle, bookending the districts nicely. Overall, while inFamous: Second Son relies too often on giving the player a decontextualized to-do list to drive the gameplay outside the main plot, at least the items on the to-do list are often fun.

Destructible Environments
One of the cool things in inFamous: Second Son is the presence of several destructible pieces of architecture. These are always constructed by the D.U.P. and serve as their outposts, checkpoints, or defensive perimeters, and for the most part, they are completely destructible with some of Delsin’s stronger powers. The physics underlying these is impressive: the pieces completely destruct naturally in response to Delsin’s moves rather than following some kind of scripted falling sequence. Similarly, it appears that the way enemies react to the falling buildings is realistic as well; I saw enemies defeated by falling debris, I saw enemies die after standing on a building as it fell, and I saw enemies shoot at me with debris falling around them because none of the pieces hit them specifically.

Realistically, inFamous: Second Son does not actually use these often enough to really get credit for them in this review. There are certain scripted structures that can be destroyed, taking down the enemies standing on top of or below them in the process. The reason I mention it here, however, is that in the beginning of this review, I mentioned that the eighth generation will need to find some kind of new innovations on which to hang its hat. Robust physics engines underlying game design are one possible way this could be done. We have already seen games like Battlefield 4 feature largely dynamic, destructible environments, although that was on the macro scale while inFamous: Second Son executes this on a micro scale. The technology exists in this generation to have entire cities completely manipulable and destructible, with the very buildings and terrain responding to exactly whatever just happened within the game. Imagine an inFamous game where every single street sign, building, and skyscraper could be knocked down or blown away. Your morality system basically writes itself, then: the moral thing to do is to be careful, but it’s fun and easier to be reckless, introducing a real incentive to the evil path. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point here is, physics is one area where gaming can still improve, and the eighth generation has the cycles to do it.

The Bad
In many ways, inFamous: Second Son is an unfortunate step backwards for the series as a whole. It is not as good as its predecessor, and I don’t mean that it just isn’t a sufficiently incremental improvement; it actively misses on some of the things that made the earlier games good. The game also continues to make many of the same mistakes the earlier games have made, even with ample opportunity to fix them. More importantly, however, inFamous: Second Son does not offer anything at all new. The game could have been created for the PlayStation 3 without changing anything except for the graphics. How can the game be considered a next-generation game if it does not actually do anything the previous generation could not have done?

Morality System Remains Broken
My first criticism of the game is a tired one. This criticism has applied to the previous two games and it applies here, too: the morality system is downright stupid. To a certain extent, you might think that after three games, it has come time to consider the morality system, flaws and all, to be foundational to the franchise: after all, the very title of the game is meant to reflect one of the two approaches you may take. I, however, take the opposite approach. The morality system was broken in the first game, but then it was still somewhat experimental; it was something new, and there was no way to know it wouldn’t work that way until they tried it. In the second game, they made the same mistakes again, and then it became somewhat less excusable. This is the third time the same mistakes have been made, however, and now it’s downright inexcusable. The morality system in inFamous needs either to be either radically overhauled or removed altogether, and inFamous: Second Son does neither.

Let’s run through the problems with the system real quick Ñ see if you can sing along at home. First, the immoral decisions are extremely stupid. The moral decisions make enough sense, healing people on the streets, saving people from false imprisonment, and choosing to mentor wayward souls instead of locking them back up. The immoral decisions, however, are not just evil, they’re downright sociopathic. Some of the options for earning evil karma include killing street musicians, killing protesters, killing people waving signs advertising sales, and otherwise murdering people in cold blood. inFamous bills itself as allowing you to choose whether to be a hero or an anti-hero, but instead you choose between being a hero or a villain. That actually would work if only you had a choice as to whether to be the villain in the main plot, but no matter what you’re still the hero with regard to the D.U.P. and the imprisoned Conduits, regardless of what you choose to do out in the regular world.

The real problem with the evil decisions is that there is no incentive to be evil besides being evil itself. Villains in stories are rarely evil for the sake of being evil; they are evil because there is personal gain available that they consider to be of higher priority than moral decision-making. In inFamous: Second Son, however, there is no personal gain to justify and incentivize evil decisions. Killing street musicians is just because you hate street musicians, for example. The same can be said for many of the good decisions as well, but with good decisions there is an inherent positive inner emotion that comes with the act. Maybe it’s just the humanist in me, but I tend to think that with nothing to gain and nothing to lose, people will act good; few people will be evil simply for the sake of being evil.

The frustrating thing about this in inFamous: Second Son is that in a few areas, the game actually does come somewhat close to properly incentivizing good and evil behavior. When you’re in combat situations, for example, there are sometimes civilians in the area: you can be careful and avoid killing them, or you can be reckless and let them be collateral damage. Here, there is an actual incentive for evil karma: it’s easier to win without caring about civilians, so being good is a little more challenging than being evil. The game has that incentive built in, but the problem is that to completely pursue the villain path, you need to be far more evil than that, as well as making some of the sociopathic plot decisions.

And that leads to the next remaining problem with the system. The game suggests that as you go long, you are constantly choosing whether to be good or evil, but in actuality, you never ever should try to be anything but what you have already decided to be. There are unlockable skills and abilities that you can only attain once you’ve reached a significant level of goodness or evilness, and there are no rewards for remaining in the middle and going back and forth. The game may as well ask you right at the beginning, “Would you like to be good or evil?”, and then only show you good or evil mission indicators. Evil actions can still work against your progress toward being a hero, but you never need to actually see the availability of the other line because there is never any reason to move back and forth between the two.

What’s bizarre is that it almost seems like the game realizes this; when you make you first karma decision, the game says, “You have chosen to start on the path to being a hero!” as if that’s the only time in the game you’ll get to choose. Yet the evil sidequest options are still around, you are still given the indicators for evil-specific plot missions, and the skill screen still reflects the skills you have decided to never be able to get. So, effectively, the game tells you to choose one of two game-defining paths, but then consistently reminds you what you could have had if you had chosen the other path.

And that’s only the gameplay side of the problems with the karma system. On the one hand, I admire the game’s attempts to merge the gameplay and the plot, but they are nothing more than failed attempts. For example, there are certain attacks that can only be triggered by a string of actions toward a particular kind… why should how good or evil you decide to be have any influence over the power of your attacks? It makes some sense that your skills are based on the karma elements since the evil skills lend themselves to more destruction while the good ones lend themselves to more control (arguably), but overall, this merger between the gameplay and plot is a failure as well.

The problems on the plot side are almost as significant as the ones on the gameplay side. The plot has to be written to allow for both good and evil decisions, all while still preserving the same overall plot. That means that the plot is kept open enough to allow for enormous individual character variation, which keeps the plot from ever being that interesting – after all, the same events have to happen whether the player decides to be a paragon of justice and morality or a sociopathic serial killer with a vendetta against street musicians. To me, it seems like that must be partially the reason why the main character, Delsin Rowe, is so obnoxious… but I don’t know what the excuse is for everyone else.

Awful Characters
Delsin Rowe is a very weak main character in a genre that relies on the main character being at least moderately appealing. You spend the entire game with this character listening to his quips and jokes, so he ought to at least be somewhat enjoyable to be around. Cole MacGrath was a somewhat enjoyable character, if a bit boring, but at least he seemed to approach the surrounding situation with the necessary seriousness. Delsin, on the other hand, comes across like an immature, whiny brat for almost the entirety of the game. It becomes difficult to take the significant plot points seriously, partially because the character has never demonstrated the emotional capacity to deal with serious events and partially because he’s right back to dropping pithy one-liners shortly after inadvertently killing a half-dozen civilians or witnessing a life-altering tragedy.

Part of that might be because Delsin must have within his character the potential for both radical good and radical evil while keeping 95% of his lines the same. A character that is too immature to really be good or evil is a decent way to accomplish that unreasonable demand (although the demand was imposed by Sucker Punch on themselves, so no excuses granted). However, that doesn’t explain why the other characters in the game as so similarly shallow and one-dimensional. Sure, some of them require some Delsin-like flexibility, but for the most part the characters are all straightforward archetypes. In the closing portion of the game, Delsin even seems to acknowledge this, referring to the characters merely by the high school stereotype into which they fit. It’s as if he himself recognizes that these characters have no depth whatsoever.

The game features five characters most prominently, and each and every one has fundamental flaws. For one, none of them have any consistency. The police officer in the game, for instance, rants for several lines on why he will not go along with a plan, then immediately thereafter decides to go along with it after all; there is no discernible impetus for the change of heart in the middle. A second character undergoes a radical character shift mere moments after coming into contact with Delsin. The villain spouts off on a grand master plan while simultaneously oblivious to the fact that the majority of her actions throughout the game have absolutely nothing to do with that plan. The characters undergo no development beyond random instant changes of hearts, and themselves are unlikable in the first place.

Awful Interfaces
To move away from the plot for a moment, inFamous: Second Son also has major problems with the user interfaces throughout the game. This is especially disheartening because the interfaces and information visualizations were some of the most impressive parts of inFamous 2, but inFamous: Second Son has taken an enormous step back. The first, and most infuriatingly simple, problem is that the text in the game is absolutely tiny. The text in the menus is tiny, the subtitles are tiny, the text in the skill upgrade screen is tiny. It’s impossible to see it quickly and efficiently; several times I had to pause and lean in close to the TV to actually get a feel for what the words were. I play on a 42″ inch TV, so it’s not like I’m trying to play the game on a potato. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to play on a more personal 21″ TV.

The minimap has a similar issue: the icons on the minimap are almost indiscernible as well. The game relies on icons on the minimap to mark your location, the location of your enemies, the location of power sources, and the locations of sidequests. However, the icons are so small it is often extremely difficult to actually tell what you’re looking at. For example, one kind of sidequest is marked by a blue dot with a fist, while another is marked just by a blue dot. The icons are so small, though, that it can be easy to miss the fist in the former kind and think that it’s a mission for the latter kind of sidequest. On top of that, the minimap, in an effort to feel ‘natural’ I guess, has a jagged bottom and a couple holes peering through to the world behind it. Many times, that means you momentarily see a flash of something on the minimap and may think it was a sidequest, but in actuality it was just something moving behind the minimap. Overall, the sum of these issues is that the minimap is frustratingly hard to use.

Beyond the size issues, the skill level-up screen has a major problem as well. Broadly, Delsin accesses four categories of skills throughout the game, and the skill level-up system presents these as a tree. Each skill may be a prerequisite for another skill, and many skills have several internal levels as well. You level up these skills by spending blast shards that you find out in the game world. The problem is that the screen is very difficult to use. The potential skills are spread out, so in order to make an informed decision, you must slowly and deliberately move around the screen to find all the skills available. Some of them are only marked with small yellow boxes, making them difficult to find. At one point, the game told me I had an upgrade available, but I was never able to actually find it. This all stands in stark contrast to the way the previous game did its information visualization, with a fantastically well-organized screen, constant alerts as to the availability of upgrades, and tips on how to unlock upgrades most quickly.

Challenge by Frustration
One of the incredible elements of the previous inFamous games was the structure of the enemies. New enemies would be introduced initially as boss fights, but as the player got better at the game and unlocked new abilities, it became fair for former bosses to become common on the battlefield. Each enemy had a certain script that dictated the strategy that the player must use to defeat it. Challenge was introduced over time as the player had to start figuring out how to execute multiple strategies at once or as the margin for error got narrower with the presence of additional enemies. In that way, the difficulty curve was smooth, and difficulty seemed to emerge naturally from the structure of the game. It was one of my main points of praise for both the previous games in the series.

So, naturally, inFamous: Second Son decided, “Hey, let’s not do that anymore.” The difficulty in the new game is utterly artificial and best described as challenge by frustration. The only challenge present in the game is the fact that nearly ever enemy has an attack that can knock you back and interrupt your attack sequence. Winning the battles is actually relatively easy: fire at an enemy for a while, run and hide when you start taking damage, rinse and repeat. None of the enemies in the game really have their own dedicated strategies; sure, one is more susceptible to melee attacks while another requires you to perform a finishing move at the end, but for the most part they are all effectively the same. The only difficulty is the frustration of having your attacks interrupted half the time. You know exactly how to win the battle, and you know you eventually will, it’s just a matter of convincing the game to let you actually get a shot off. The attacks that knock you back don’t do much damage, which is part of what makes them more frustrating than challenging: they just get in your way and stretch out how long it takes to finally get past the battle.

I alluded to this problem above. What this means is that a very natural strategy emerges, which is good; the player doesn’t feel like the strategy is dictated and mandated. The problem is that the natural strategy that emerges just sucks. It isn’t very fun, it isn’t intelligently challenging, and it never really changes. Get a few shots in, run and hide, rinse and repeat. You never really attain that awesome level of power that lets you run into a group of enemies and tear them apart. Every battle is equally challenging, no matter how much you have been upgraded, and none of the challenge is ever particularly engaging. Thus, the game preserves the organic combat dynamics from earlier games, but organic does not necessarily mean good, and the dynamics in inFamous: Second Son are not good at all.

Overly Constrained Abilities
As mentioned above, there are three powers available in inFamous: Second Son: the initial one, smoke, lends itself to fire-based attacks. The other two are neon and television, which lend themselves to… well, other kinds of attacks. For starts, let’s pause and appreciate how stupid the new powers are. Electricity made some sense: electricity is a power source, so it makes some semblance of sense that electricity could power superpowers. Smoke and neon, however, do not hold energy at all. Why should absorbing those actually facilitate powers? But those I could see past; at least smoke and neon are entities that could be absorbed. Television? What the heck are you absorbing when you absorb television? How does that make any sense at all? I know, it’s a video game, it’s not supposed to be perfectly in tune with the laws of reality, but this is a level of absurdity that I have trouble seeing past.

But let’s imagine for a second that the sources of power weren’t stupid. Let’s pretend they were fire, light, and wind, three things that could actually power things. Let’s pretend that the powers themselves stayed the same. Even with that, there is still a very frustrating balance amongst three powers. First, 90% of the powers are exactly identical. Each of them has a regular firing attack, a fast-travel move, a one-hit knockout move, a powerful rocket-like move, and a grenade move, as well as hovering, healing, absorbing energy, and subduing enemies. So, despite the presence of three powers, the majority of the game is the same regardless of which one you use.

The differences are somewhat subtle. For smoke, the rocket-like attack is instantaneous, whereas for neon it requires a moment of charging and for television is lag between aiming and striking. None of them are particularly problematic, each just is a matter of getting used to it. That’s the trouble here: they don’t really facilitate alternate strategies, but they’re just different enough to require a little bit of a learning curve. But because they aren’t ultimately all that different, the learning curve simply gets you back to where you were with the previous power. That’s a major problem: throughout the game, you have to relearn to use nearly the same kinds of powers you have been using all along just to get back to being as good as you were previously.

The only difference that really comes up often, in my opinion, is the difference in fast travel moves. For smoke, it’s the ability to teleport forward by about twenty meters. For neon, it’s the ability to run straight forward infinitely even going up and down buildings. For television, it’s the ability to fly in a straight line over empty space or straight up the sides of buildings. Here, there is an actual difference. Neon is best for covering long distances, smoke is the best for offensive combat, and television is the best for defensive combat. So, what happens when you find yourself in one mode and want to shift to another? You have to run around the game world until you can find a source for an alternate power. If you’re currently using smoke but want to cover a large distance, you have to find a source for neon; you can’t just switch to neon on the fly.

That’s a major problem for two reasons. First, it restricts the interesting ways in which powers could be used throughout the game. There are no interesting combinations to be had because you’re locked into only using one at a time. Secondly, and similarly, if you suddenly realize that a power associated with one of the other sources would be better for a new challenge, there is no easy way to attain it. For example, in one sequence, you’re tasked with chasing down an enemy. It might seem that being able to fly is beneficial for that, but in reality, the game only cares if you keep the enemy in sight, so the neon running skill is better. However, you can’t switch to the neon skill easily mid-mission; you either have to get lucky and find a source for neon lying around nearby, or you have to let yourself fail the mission to try it again equipped with the right skill this time.

If you played inFamous 2, you’ll recall that there were the same broad categories of skills: Bolt, Blast, Grenade, Missile, Miscellaneous, and Ionic. Each category had multiple possible abilities that could be assigned to it, and you could switch at any moment. inFamous: Second Son operates in much the same way, with three enormous and annoying constraints. First, there are simply far fewer skills available. In inFamous 2, for example, there were six different kinds of grenade skills. In inFamous: Second Son, there are only three skills for each category. Secondly, as referenced above, while in inFamous 2, you could switch skills at any time, in inFamous: Second Son, you can only switch by finding an alternate power source. Third, and likely most significantly, in inFamous: Second Son you could assign each skill individually. In inFamous: Second Son, you’re forced to use all the neon skills, all the smoke skills, or all the television skills. You can’t, as I would have like to do, use smoke’s Missile skill, Neon’s grenade skill, television’s Bolt skill, etc. It might be acceptable for the new game to restrict skills in one of these ways to differentiate itself from the earlier games, but to constrain it in all three just artificially and unnecessarily limits gameplay options.

And, finally, the icing on the cake here is that some of the skills are not just weaker than others, they are downright annoying to use. The best example of this is the slow-motion power associated with neon: when zooming in, neon has a power that temporarily slows down time. The problem is that this is not optional: it happens whenever you zoom in with neon, and it cannot be disabled. It’s disorienting if you’re trying to do something quickly, it’s frustrating when you feel like you have to wait extra time to get off the charge-up attack, and it is difficult to use tactically because it is automatically used whenever zooming in. This general principle applies across many of the skills: many skills are not just weaker, but they’re downright annoying to use, making it even more frustrating to switch to that skill category. I found the neon slow-motion skill to be so annoying that I rarely used the neon power except to travel around, but that meant whenever I was done traveling I had to find a television or smoke stack before proceeding.

Checklist Gameplay
Sandbox games have a certain structure we have all come to expect. There is a world map, there are icons on the world map indicating different tasks, and your job is to complete the tasks. The problem is that if you just entirely embrace this structure, your game becomes little more than a checklist. You might even go as far as to give the player a checklist of tasks to complete when they pause the game… which is exactly what inFamous: Second Son does. The game relies far too heavily on checklist gameplay, a list of largely decontextualized and poorly justified tasks that you have to complete simply because there is an icon on the minimap telling you that you have to complete them.

This isn’t a criticism of sandbox games in general; it is possible to still use the world map and icons very effectively. The Batman: Arkham series, for example, accomplished this because the tasks on the world map actually had explanations and justifications to why they needed to be completed. Here, it’s police officers being assaulted by escaped prisoners; there, it’s a serial killer threatening his next victim. In inFamous: Second Son, however, the majority of the tasks are given no justification whatsoever. The tasks themselves are sometimes somewhat fun, as referenced above, but they are not explained. You track down spies, but who are they spies for? What do we get by defeating them? You find hidden cameras, but how did you know where there were hidden cameras in the first place? You start off each district by destroying a communications truck, but why don’t the D.U.P. just bring another one in? You end district each by winning a big battle against lots of enemies at once, but why does that kick them out? Why don’t they come back?

Overall, checklist gameplay is just a lazy way to fill a game with content. “Oh, the game is too short? Okay, add some more icons for procedurally-generated missions that require no additional development time but pad out the game some more.” To the game’s credit, it does fill out the game world a lot more; one of my main criticisms of the earlier games in the series is that while they had big, well-designed worlds, the worlds actually felt very hollow. The world in inFamous: Second Son does not feel as hollow, but it is not used nearly as well as the world in the previous games.

Step Backwards
In the above sections, I reference the earlier games in the inFamous series frequently. That’s not to compare inFamous: Second Son to its predecessors, but rather to use those games’ strengths to identify inFamous: Second Son‘s weaknesses. Even if inFamous: Second Son was an original game with no preceding franchise, the weaknesses outlined above would still be just as true. The comparisons to the earlier games are meant just to help explain the weaknesses; the strength of the earlier games does not cause the weaknesses in this one.

That said, there are strengths that the earlier games had that inFamous: Second Son lacks. These are not flaws in the game, but rather are steps backwards for the series as a whole, so I’m grouping them together here. First, as briefly referenced above, one of the best features of the earlier games was a game world that actively contextualized and justified the action. There were areas that were always accessible that were designed with particular scenes in mind, and as a result, the world felt realistic. The action did not occur in some set-aside dungeon, but right there on the rooftops that you’ve jumped around for hours. In inFamous: Second Son, however, the game’s intense levels are largely set-apart areas that you could not have accessed earlier. This completely misses the point of the strong world design in the earlier games, and largely counteracts the improvements made in filling out the game world and making it feel more lively.

One of the major positive elements of the earlier games was the ability to smoothly, naturally move around the game world. Traveling on wires was just difficult enough to be engaging, leading to a very natural sense of flow just from navigating the world. The traveling systems in inFamous: Second Son, however, are not engaging at all. Smoke is too short to actually be useful in traveling long distances, television only facilitates climbing large buildings, and neon requires no skill whatsoever: just point the camera at the destination and hold circle until you reach it. In getting rid of a more challenging, engaging way to navigate the city, inFamous: Second Son again largely counteracts any strength derived from the design of the city in the first place.

The remainder of the steps backwards are things I’ve already referenced above in explaining the flaws in inFamous: Second Son. The game’s information visualization is awful, the morality system is as bad as it was in the original game (losing the improvements made in the second one), and the characters and narrative structure are annoying. Adding onto those new flaws, inFamous: Second Son also preserves the flaws of its predecessors: it’s still pretty generic in every way except the visuals, the morality system is still broken, and the story contains no real arc at all. It’s a generic game overall, and easily the worst inFamous game.

Nothing New
But the ultimate problem with inFamous: Second Son is not what it does wrong: it is what it does not try to do at all. inFamous: Second Son is one of the first big-budget next generation-exclusive games to be released. Despite this, there is nothing significant in the game that could not have been done in the previous generation. The city is large and dynamic, but no larger nor more dynamic than New Marais in inFamous 2 (and it pales in comparison to the seventh generation’s Grand Theft Auto V). The gameplay is nearly identical, with the new powers representing merely cosmetic changes. The graphics are improved, but graphics have come to a point where graphical improvements do not automatically mean any changes to gameplay. If games are to separate themselves, they must do so on the strength of something more than their graphics.

inFamous: Second Son does not even try to do that, however. There is nothing outside the particle physics and character models that could not have been released for the PlayStation 3. The sandbox genre has been around for a long time now, and I said in my review for Grand Theft Auto V that for sandbox games to be good, it is no longer sufficient to simply be big and have lots of different activities available; lots of games have done that. Instead, sandbox games need unique gameplay (Batman: Arkham City), a strong story (Red Dead Redemption, an interesting premise (Assassin’s Creed), or something else to differentiate them. inFamous: Second Son does not try to differentiate itself at all. It would have been a mediocre sandbox game in the seventh generation, which means it is a downright disappoint in the eighth generation.

The Verdict
inFamous: Second Son is not a good game. At its best, it is very generic: an open world sandbox game based on a cosmetic makeover of traditional shooter elements. Compared to other games in its genre, it is mediocre and fails to differentiate itself in any way. It commits several fundamental errors in design, and more egregiously, it loses out on what made the franchise appealing in the first place. It is easily the worst game in the inFamous series.

However, more dire than the flaws in the game is the fact that the game really never even tried to be anything unique. This is one of the biggest early releases in the eighth generation, and yet we do not see it trying to do anything even the slightest bit different from either its own games in the previous generation or other games in its genre. Every generation differentiates itself from the previous one with fundamental changes to the types of games and gameplay common across its consoles, but technology has come so far that it is not clear what exactly the eighth generation can facilitate. Future releases for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One need to ask themselves: what can we do now that we could not have done on the PlayStation 3? Every good release for the new consoles must have a good answer to this question. Unfortunately, inFamous: Second Son answers this question with nothing more than, “Uh… pretty neon dots?”

My Recommendation
Skip this game, and maybe this generation unless someone figures out how to use the new hardware.

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