Tuesday, April 8, 2014

REVIEW - inFamous : Second Son.

Foreword: This review largely compares inFamous: Second Son to inFamous and inFamous 2.  I simply can't perceive it outside of its context, and I apologize for that.  If you've not played either of those games, I would suggest you read no further than the next two sentences: 

inFamous: Second Son is a regularly very fun, unbelievably good-looking game. Check it out.

inFamous: Second Son is a third-person open-world shooter/platformer, with superpowers.  The third game in the inFamous franchise, it's the first major exclusive for Sony's PS4 since the console's launch, and one of my personal most-anticipated games of the year.

Since the Sly trilogy on PS2, developer Sucker Punch have long been, in my opinion, the modern masters of the 3D platformer - eclipsing even Mario in smooth, fun, gleeful jumps and dashes - and the inFamous titles were absolute favorites of mine on the PS3.

Delsin Rowe is a smart-alecky millennial with skinny jeans and a penchant for the terribly trendy art of spray-paint stenciling. One gets the sense he was born of a focus group.

I love the Sly games.  I love inFamous and inFamous 2.  I don't love inFamous: Second Son.

My affection for the developer's past and the developer themselves leads me to try to make excuses for this - I don't want to tell you how I feel about the game, because I don't want to say something that may hurt my old friends at Sucker Punch.

No, there must be a good reason for my disagreeable reaction.  Did I hype myself too much for Second Son?  Could nothing live up to my expectations?

I don't believe that's true.  I expected Second Son to be as fun as inFamous or its sequel, and it's not.  That's always the yardstick I've used for these games.

It gets there, sometimes.  Sometimes, when you de-materialize into a swoop of smoke, whoosh into an air vent, explode out of a fan on a building's roof, soaring through the air holding down R2 to charge up a shotgun-like Cinder Blast while sweeping your aiming reticle around to a flying surveillance drone, lining things up just as the blast explodes off your fist.  You and the busted drone fall from the sky and smack into the pavement below, and you drain its blast shard to upgrade your abilities.

Moments like that are sweet, and they absolutely happen - but it's... too rare.

One will almost-exclusively use the vents to scale buildings, as climbing them is tedious and frustratingly tricky.

The inFamous franchise evolved out of the smooth, comfortable platforming Sucker Punch refined with the Sly titles - games in which a tap of the circle button would latch your anthropomorphic raccoon thief onto the nearest climbable object within ten yards - they were very easy.  In inFamous, they removed the circle button to stick to things, and simply made the player-character very "sticky" - automatically grabbing anything within a few feet - too sticky, argued some.

In inFamous 2, the stickiness was toned down, making the platforming a touch more involving but no less fun as you scaled broken buildings, pranced along poles and leapt from rooftops to touch down on a tiny power line and swoop away, grinding across them like an electric surfer.  It was a great balance - requiring a modicum of skill, but still allowing for a great deal of freedom and expression on the part of the player.  It was an excellent example of a game that effortlessly translated player intention to onscreen action.

In Second Son, you have all the "stickiness" of a Post-It Note.

I wouldn't mind if scaling the buildings were challenging instead of frustrating, and the controls didn't often ignore what's asked of them.  Even when climbing, say, a street lamp, getting Delsin to reliably hop on to the top of the thing is an exercise in frustration, as he'll pull himself up only to fall back the way he came on nine out of ten attempts, refusing to just get up there - and sometimes, when he does hop up, he'll immediately slip over the other side of the thing and it's like auuugh.  Landing on a chosen object is often more reliable, but it's a far cry from the smooth, intuitive fun Sucker Punch have offered in the past.

In contrast to previous inFamous titles, there are few platforming sequences that stand out, few landmarks that are particularly memorable to navigate.  Remember the prison or junk tower in inFamous, or the flooded section of town in inFamous 2?  Yeah, no.  There's nothing nearly as fun to clamber around, here.

Buildings are generally nondescript, perhaps as a result of being based on real-life Seattle - but I have to think Sucker Punch, of all people, could have made even a real-life city a pleasure to navigate.

It's often like a different team made this game.

Again, there are moments, and these are nearly all tied to smoke, the first power arsenal anti/hero Delsin Rowe gets access to - moments of swooping into an air vent to launch into the sky, tapping circle to dash and blast ahead twenty yards and using his smoke thrusters to glide to the next vantage - but it's a more... constrained fun than in previous titles.

Using vents to provide a vertical boost is functionally similar to the Ice Launch ability in inFamous 2 - ignoring that you could send yourself mightily skyward anywhere, at any time, with Ice Launch.

inFamous 2 (2011) 

Second Son ties such gleeful fun to vents or car rooftops, which makes looking for a vent or car to boost from a mechanic in and of itself - but it feels counter to the game's motto of "enjoy your power."  After the studio successfully let us feel so powerful and so free to express it in previous games, it feels a bit arbitrarily stifling here.

Powers subsequent to smoke remove all semblance of platforming from the game, as all but the final power palette permit you to whoosh up the side of any building in the blink of an eye, or zip across the entire map in a blur of neon light.

It is, often, like they forgot what made these games so fun.

Y'know how you can hold down R1, press forward on the analog stick and Assassin's Creed platforming kinda' runs on autopilot?  Neon power is like that, cranked to 11, with all the pretty animations removed.  You swoop across city blocks, flow up towers - it's something that, I think, would be beautiful and interesting when viewed from afar.  In practice it's very boring.

None of the powers beyond smoke feel particularly powerful or vital (not to mention being more than a bit silly), and all have a glaring weakness - the lack of a powerful mid-range ability - that smoke does not.  There are subtle tweaks to how your standard projectile or powerful "missile" attacks behave with each new power, but no power palette beyond smoke feels like a complete and functional compliment of abilities - after testing and trying them out, I would always return to smoke for the remainder of my adventuring (until the game forces you to use one of them.)

Unlike the massive rogues galleries of previous games, inFamous: Second Son has a very sparse assortment.
There's DUP soldier (gun)
DUP soldier (concrete barricade and gun)
Elite DUP soldier (concrete barricade, projectiles and gun)
DUP commander (concrete shield and snare)
DUP heavy (concrete projectiles and minigun)
DUP miniboss (use rockets).

With the (counter-intuitive) exception of smoke, none of Delsin's powers feel really weighty, or powerful.  One of inFamous's classic tenets is that your abilities in the game felt primal and elemental - unleashing the Ion Storm in inFamous or the Ionic Vortex in inFamous 2 really felt like letting something obscenely powerful off the chain - and the powers and abilities in Second Son just don't.  Instead, they feel like minor mechanical and visual palette-swaps, with their impact on the game world never quite achieving the grandeur of Cole McGrath's more impressive abilities back on the PS3.

It's worth noting that transitioning between powers is a hassle-by design - rather akin to the difference between the total freedom of Prototype and the combat-halting power selections of Prototype 2.  In Second Son, the only way to swap out your power set is by going to a source of that power - say, a neon sign - and draining it.  I like to think this is because it looks totally awesome when you drain a neon sign.

This, again, feels like a step back for the series.  While you had to open a menu to manually select different powers (standard versus "magnum" shot, for example) in inFamous 2, this allowed the player to fine-tune their complement of powers, and granted a bit of agency over what kind of arsenal they took into battle.  Here, it's more like the combat-halting, necessary-evil choice between smoke and a few other power selections that never really feel like complete sets of abilities.

Want to snipe some foes or run to the other side of the city?  Go find a neon sign.  Want to fire heavier rockets or have a viable close-combat repertoire?  Go find some smoke.  It's a real blow to the combat's flow.

Oh, also, the fact that you can't shoot while enemies are shooting you?  Like when a guy in front of you is machinegunning you, and you keep on jamming R1 to rocket his ass but nothing comes out, so you poof into a smoke-dash, re-materialize a few feet away, but he's still shooting you as you keep mashing the shoot button, but - again - nothing comes out and then you die?

That sucks.  That's pretty frustrating.

One thing Sucker Punch have never quite nailed is side-activities - the greatest pleasure here, as in all their games, is found in navigating the environment in search of collectibles - and other types are hit-or-miss.  Wiping out gangs of drug dealers is always a bit of messy fun, and the "find the hidden camera" side-mission in Second Son may be a bit boring, but it's the best iteration of the mission type they've ever come up with.

The activities that directly reflects Delsin's personality - spraypainting stencil art on public structures - are... not fun.  At all.

Use the motion controls of the dualshock to spraypaint a stencil!
Isn't that awesome?

Like swiping the screen in Uncharted: Golden Abyss to show off the Vita's touch screen, or tilting the controller in Ratchet & Clank to "hack" an object, the spraypainting "minigame," if you want to be generous enough to call it that, is boring and tedious.

Afterward, we're rewarded with what is often very cool, entertaining art,

but tagging Seattle would be far more involving and enjoyable if the challenge were - as in collecting blast shards or taking out enemies - actually tied to the game's more pleasurable mechanics, instead of feeling like interminable busywork whose real purpose is to show off Sony's newest controller.  If, for example, the fun of tagging were about getting to the place you want to tag - and once there, with the tap of a single button, Delsin will somehow leverage his awesome superpowers to festoon the world with his subversive art with a dazzling visual flourish - that'd be pretty cool!

But no.  Tilt controller to aim, hold down R2 to spray.  Keep it held down!  Tilt the controller around!

Here comes stencil number two!  Ready for more?  Tilt the controller around!

Now do it another fifty times.  It's worth noting that the stencil sprays are the exception to the general rule of pleasures that Second Son's other side activities enjoy, but they are indeed a dark mark against the game's fun factor.

The game's central missions are often much better.  Regularly leaning on set pieces like the Space Needle, the docks on the bay or a looming underground tunnel, they're a pleasant spike in challenge and involved design, ensuring the player's mastered their abilities and understands how and when to lay the hurt down on your lethal foes - which is why it's a bit disappointing that there are so few of them.

Twenty-one.  There are twenty-one story missions in inFamous: Second Son - a pittance, by any open-world game standard.  Good thing clambering after blast shards and taking down DUP bunkers remains entertaining throughout.

The story is driven by the best-looking cutscenes you'll find on the new generation of gaming consoles, and anchored by the once again stellar work of Troy Baker as Delsin, who can't seem to turn in a bad performance (in 2013 he was Joel in The Last of Us, Booker in BioShock Infinite, and the Joker in Arkham Origins).

He's far and away the best thing in the cast, seriously outshining every other actor (save, perhaps, for Laura Bailey, who holds her own as Fetch).

Travis Willingham goes a bit too hammy as Delsin's straight-laced older brother, Reggie.

An actor of Baker's caliber is more than capable of taking a subtle, simple story and making it sing with resonance - but the story on offer here simply isn't as high-quality as his acting - another departure for the series.  Where inFamous offered us a mind-bending time travel plot and origin story, and inFamous 2 saw the fate of all of humanity in the balance, Second Son tries to pass itself off as a reflection on the price America paid for its freedom in the years after the 9/11 attacks, but - with so little time spent exploring its characters and world through its brief narrative - it never comes across as particularly meaningful.

As in inFamous 2, the game's most poignant moment will come if you choose the "evil" karma rout.  While here, it feels a bit ham-handed and out of the blue (as Delsin's evil actions are all but ignored and never really denounced or reflected on throughout the campaign), but the final fifteen seconds are... beautiful and sad and affecting.

Shame about everything else.  inFamous built its name on wonderful, bigger-than-life superhero comic-book stories, and Second Son feels like someone's fumbling attempt at a subversive, serious graphic novel that happens to contain superpowers.

Ah well.  At least it's really, really, ridiculously good-looking.

It's like, crazy good-looking.  The particle effects, water reflections, atmospheric effects and character models are all incredibly well-realized and detailed, and, yes, Second Son is the single best-looking open world game I've ever seen.  Easily.

This review has been largely negative, I know - but in this case, it's the other side of a coin of love.  I'm disappointed in Second Son because I love its predecessors so much, and I feel it's let me down in many of the things I look to an inFamous game to provide.

At the same time, I'm not blind to its pleasures.  Zipping around a modern cityscape on smoke-powered hand-thrusters, leaping from rooftops and raining fire on jackbooted thugs?  That's fun.  It's still fun, and inFamous: Second Son provides this, for a good fifteen or twenty hours.

When the best things you can say about a game are that it's beautiful and it's regularly very fun, you're not talking about a bad game - and Second Son is a beautiful, regularly very fun game.  It's just not as fun or smart or entertaining or well-designed as the last two.

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