Saturday, March 29, 2014

Comparing inFamous : Second Son.

So good-looking.

I'm a gamer.  I've played a lot of games.  I'm an encyclopedia of them.  It's a condition which offers insight and history and context, but it can also... hobble one's perspective, as much as a solid blow to the ankle.

Imagine, for example, if you were never to have tasted chocolate in your life.  Never, ever, ever.  Then, one day - after fasting for four-and-twenty hours, you were led into a room with ten different slices of beautiful, sumptuous, velvety chocolate cake.

You taste the first cake.  It is, bar none, the most sublimely delicious thing that has ever slid past your palette. You eat the whole thing!  You love that chocolate cake.

Then, you try the next one.  It's delicious too!  Different, but no less delicious.

By the time you get to the fifth piece of cake, you're comparing and contrasting.  By the time you're at ten, you fear you may have had your fill of cake.  This tenth piece is delicious, certainly, but it lacks the comforting, comfortable texture of piece #8.  Piece #6's chocolate was richer, and the cognac-laced mousse from cake #3 is missed.

inFamous : Second Son is the tenth piece of cake.  It is beautiful and delicious, but in comparing it to the history of inFamous games, it's not quite there.  Other cakes offered greater comfort, richer pleasures, deeper affection.  It's lacking.

Try to take it from me, and you'll find you've been stabbed with a dinner fork.

It is only in this comparison that Second Son suffers.  Comparing it to the landscape of titles on the PS4, it comes off quite well.  It's the best-looking game on the system.  Period.  Full stop.  It may not have the best story, but it definitely has the best story presentation, with exceptional performance capture in its cutscenes and exceptional work from the exceptional Troy Baker in particular.

Its world is not as staggeringly gigantic as Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, but it more than makes up for this with its standard-setting production values and generally more-interesting platforming, but when you compare it to another inFamous game, and it feels like we got all of the cake and none of the icing.

For example, this is a list of every enemy in the game (excluding bosses):

  • DUP trooper (cement power),
  • DUP trooper elite-ish (cement power - jumps),
  • DUP trooper commander (cement power - makes shields and can teleport),
  • big DUP trooper (cement power, miniboss),
  • an automated turret, if you'd prepared to count that, and
  • some vaguely eastern-European dudes with pistols, some cops with pistols, some drug dealers with pistols. 
Are you staggered by the variety?  Neither am I - particularly given the wonderful, creative rogues' gallery we saw in the past two inFamous games.  Remember doing a backflip dodge out of the way of a Reaper conduit's energy blast?  Remember fighting dudes on top of a moving fucking train?

inFamous (2009)

There were shooter Reapers and conduit Reapers and Reaper Terror Trucks - all kinds of Reapers!

Once you clear out the Reapers in the first inFamous game, you get to the second island - which has been taken over by the Dustmen - a bunch of homeless dudes who developed telekinetic powers, and have turned themselves into hulking golems of destruction.

inFamous (2009)

There were little Dust-dudes and bigger Dust-dudes and huge Dust-dudes that filled the screen and peppered you a telekinetically-driven trash machinegun!  And when you got to the third island, there was a whole new enemy type to overcome.

Same deal in inFamous 2, but things got even cooler there, by way of these awesome, huge biological horrors you were obliged to take down.

inFamous 2 (2011)

There were still different factions with vastly different abilities to contend with, but there were also terrible monsters thrown into the mix.  Gigantic, burrowing ravagers that tossed cars around like toys, the colossal devourers - taking these things down made you feel really, seriously badass.

In inFamous: Second Son, you don't get that variety.  You don't get the pleasure or confidence of taking down the type of monsters superheroes take down.  You take out a lot of DUP soliders and drug dealers.

That's it.

When it comes to the game's ultimate confrontation, it's not a spectacular, intimate one-on-one brawl in the middle of a blast crater (inFamous), it's not a city-spanning war of epic proportions (inFamous 2) or anything that'll show up on my Best Moments of 2014 list.

inFamous: Second Son's final boss fight is a throwdown with a large enemy in a small room.  It feels... so constrained.  So small - emotionally and mechanically - compared to what the series has given us before.

And now I'm gonna' discuss powers - I feel having two of the power spoiled for me by Eurogamer's review really hurt my enjoyment of Second Son - and things are gonna' get spoilery, so, pagebreak.

There are three ways Second Son disappoints, in terms of its superpowers, when compared to its predecessors - all of them impact your play experience and the games' central goal of making you feel like a super-powered badass.

1 - there's nothing elemental about video.

The game's third power is the power of video.  You read that right.  Video.

-Critical Miss-

By draining the awesome power of video from television screens, Delsin can shoot rapid-fire, chunky pixels from his hands.  He can summon angels or demons from a generic religion-based video game from inFamous's world, can fly short distances on pixel wings and summon a pixel sword.  His heavy ranged attack with video power is summoned homing swords, similar to that thing in Devil May Cry.

It's so massively disappointing.

Seriously, Sucker Punch.  Consider what actually makes you feel powerful in inFamous.  It's this:

The Ion Storm in inFamous

It's this:

The Ionic Vortex in inFamous 2.

Cole's powers in inFamous and inFamous 2 had something in common - beyond the electricity.  Electricity, fire and ice - they were elemental.  They gave the player the real sense of having something primal and un-tameable rippling beneath the surface of their onscreen avatar - something that had existed since the dawn of time and was here, in our hero, bent to the will of a mortal man.

Leaping from a rooftop and smacking into the pavement in front of a convoy of enemies in inFamous and letting loose with a series of devastating lightning strikes that carved their way up the hill is spectacular. Letting Cole's incredible Ionic Vortex off the chain and watching it scoop up a dozen cars and enemies, throwing them around like tissue paper?

That's awesome.  There's something meaningful in it - something that taps in to our respect for fire, fear of loose electrical wiring, understanding of ice's unstoppable strength.  There's something primal and innately understandable - innately awesome about it.

You can feel it in your gut.

I feel nothing when you press down on the d-pad and Delsin explodes in a shockwave of neon light, levitates the enemies around him and obliterates them with a rapid-fire strafe of neon bolts.

I feel nothing when Delsin raises his hands to the sky and calls down a flight of angels. It looks pretty (sort of), and that's it.

It's phenomenally disappointing.

While we're on the subject, is neon actually a power?  I was willing to let that one pass because, let's be honest, it is one of the noble gasses - but concrete power?  I'm not sure man-made rock scares anyone. That doesn't tap into anyone's gut.  Why couldn't you have just said stone?  Stone's a thing.  The power of concrete is like having the power of plastic.

It makes no fucking sense, particularly in the world you established for inFamous with the original game and its sequel.  If the player can't buy in to the fantasy you're selling - because that fantasy is just too ludicrous for disbelief to be suspended - it's hard them to "enjoy their power."

2 - the power of smoke is fun.  The end.

One gets the sense that, originally, inFamous: Second Son was about a dude with smoke powers, and then someone at Sucker Punch sold the rest of the staff on the variety the game tries to pull off.  I say this because smoke is, by far, the funnest of Delsin's powers - the most balanced, the answer to every situation - unless you want to run across half the map.

It's the power that lets the platforming continue to feel platformy, and combat visceral.  The power of neon is basically an off switch for the game's platforming, as all you need to do is hold down the circle button and Delsin will run at top speed, straight up walls and across the city without stopping.  No need to climb anything, ever again.  Similarly, the video power requires about two taps of circle - your wings - to scale any building in the game, or travel between any two rooftops.

Neon and video just kill the platforming.

As a result, one imagines, rare is the building in Second Son that's actually any fun to climb - unlike those found in the first two entries.  Grand was the pleasure in inFamous and inFamous 2 of launching yourself from a rooftop to touch down lightly on a power line and grind that into a flying leap, soaring across gaps and coming to a rolling stop on a far rooftop.

Such joys are entirely absent, here.  There are no power lines to grind, no train tracks to zip down.  You can jump on top of a monorail track and hold down the circle button with neon power to run across it, but that's about it.

I stuck to smoke power unless the game forced me to change it. And it does that, regularly.  Like during boss fights, for example.

The absence of the electric man's power line and train-track zipping is lamentable, but Sucker Punch attempt to make getting around as Delsin just as exciting via the use of air vents.  By dashing (circle button) into a ground-based air vent with smoke power, Delsin will shoot through a building's ventilation system and come whooshing out at the roof - a stylish variation on the "vertical launch poles" of electric power lines you'd find in inFamous 2 - and here, as there, it's only a shame you can't find them at the mid-point of every side of every building you come across.

They add a cool new dimension to combat as you throw down with troops, zip away into an air vent for an instant, re-materialize in the air high above your enemies and pull back one flaming fist to plummet from the sky and land in a devastating ground smash.  It's awesome.

The limitations of smoke also lend it more... license than the other powers.  Blasting up a building with neon or video power is a one-button affair.  Heck, getting from one side of the city to the other is a one-button affair with neon - but with smoke, the player still needs to pay attention to exactly what they're doing.  You need to judge distance, you need to strategize your leaps and landings.  While his other powers feel very akin to pressing and holding R1 to go across anything and everything in Assassin's Creed, Delsin's smoke power remains fun and vital throughout the game.

Finally - and this is a small thing...

3 - switching powers on the fly would make me feel... y'know... powerful. 

...but Second Son doesn't let you.  It reminds me of the difference between Prototype and Prototype 2. In Prototype, you had a vast array of powers at your disposal - dozens of them - all constantly accessible via a canny control scheme.  In Prototype 2 you had a few different power types that you were obligated to switch through via a selection wheel.  At least, in Prototype 2, it was quick - but it still broke up the action, broke up the flow of the game, and was a disappointment.

Second Son goes so far in that direction it's downright silly.  Despite having smoke, neon, (sigh) video and concrete powers at his disposal, Delsin cannot zip into a vent as smoke, pop out of a rooftop, slam in to the ground to unleash an explosion of neon and sprout wings to take to the sky.

If he wanted to, he'd have to zip into a vent as smoke, pop out at the rooftop and look around for some neon to drain.  Then, after hitting the ground, he'd need to go find a TV in order to switch to video powers.

What's awful is this is actually the aspect of Delsin's powers that makes the most sense, if one wants to apply sense to it, and simultaneously kills any real expression in terms of the player's desire to mix up things on the fly.

Honestly, Sucker Punch, if you wanted to be stupid enough to include something as ludicrous as video power, you could have gone full monty and let us enjoy our powers as we see fit, without tethering their use to objects we have to suss out in the environment.

* * * 

In comparing inFamous: Second Son to its forebears, it's hard not to be disappointed.  This is still a delicious piece, and I want to spend more time with it - I want to check out the harder difficulty - but there's no denying it's not as thoughtful and aware of its own pleasures as the inFamous games that came before.

It's wonderful, in its own way, but it's only wonderful-without-caveats in a world that hasn't already tasted the last ten slices of cake.


  1. There's nothing like that rush of a new game slowly turning into bitter disappointment a couple days after you finish it.

    I thought I was going to run through GTA V at least a couple of times. But after getting 10 golds, I was done. I'm not sure if someone could pay me to go back there.

    At least we'll always have infamous 2. Eric Laden needs more work.

    1. In Second Son's case, it wasn't after - it was during. What's weird is, I still love the game - I just find myself wishing it were more like 1 and 2.

  2. I kinda have that feeling with Dark Souls 2 right now...