Infamous: Second Son review: Thank you for smoking

There's a stark duality at the heart of the Infamous series. The original Infamous was built on a solid foundation, putting players in the role of a modern-day superhero with a repertoire that expanded gameplay in satisfying, meaningful ways throughout its campaign. Its sequel boasted a number of improvements, but its mechanics weren't always explored to their fullest potential.

Playing through InFamous 2 recently reminded me of the series' darker half. Though its upgradable superpowers were impressive and its parkour mechanics were fun, its story missions frequently came up short. Throughout the campaign, protagonist Cole MacGrath was too often saddled with repetitive arena fights and escort missions -- a poor fit for a man who can shoot lightning from his fingertips.

Infamous: Second Son emphasizes the series' strengths in its debut appearance on the PlayStation 4, easily trumping previous Infamous games while showcasing the power of Sony's latest console. In the process, it drastically overhauls the series' defining elements, stripping away the weaker parts and focusing on what works best. If you found previous Infamous games more frustrating than fun, Second Son's gleefully destructive superheroics will win you over as a fan.
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Infamous: Second Son (February Showcase)

Infamous: Second Son stars Delsin, a young man who struggles with authority as he attempts to establish his own identity through street art. Delsin gets an ample shot at infamy when he encounters an overturned truck transporting superpower-wielding Conduits between prison facilities. In the aftermath, Delsin absorbs one of the escapees' smoke-manipulating abilities, becoming a Conduit and a pariah in one fell swoop.

Public opinion of Conduits has dimmed since Cole MacGrath's superheroic adventures in Empire City and New Marais. The U.S. government has since reclassified surviving Conduits as "Bio-Terrorists," establishing the Department of Unified Protection in a bid to round up those afflicted with superpowers and keep them locked away from their fellow humans. After the prison break, the DUP invokes martial law over Seattle as it searches for the escaped Conduits and Delsin himself.

Infamous: Second Son has an oppressive vibe to it as a result. As you complete side missions and stake your superpowered claim in Seattle, you'll gradually chip away at the DUP's presence by destroying their surveillance equipment, freeing suspected Conduits, and stripping away roadblocks and checkpoints, delivering a satisfying sense of vigilante justice.

The game's map-clearing structure recalls the "City Takeover" mechanic in Volition's later Saints Row games, but in Second Son, it carries added weight and incentive. By the time you've fully freed a district from the DUP's control, you'll feel like your actions have had a noticeable impact on the game's world.

Throughout the course of Second Son, Delsin will inherit new superpowers from fellow Conduits, equipping him with abilities beyond his initial smoke-based repertoire. These powers are limited-use and require frequent recharging, however. Delsin can only wield one type of power at a time, and you'll need to switch between them frequently -- often, you'll have to charge up with whatever form of matter is nearby as enemy swarms approach. You might start a battle with powers sapped from a rooftop smokestack, but once you've taken the fight to ground level, you'll have to seek out storefronts for neon signs to absorb, dodging enemy fire as you swap out your smoke attacks for DUP-detaining lasers.

Second Son boasts an expansive skill tree, which grows as Delsin collects Power Shards scattered throughout Seattle. Whereas the overwhelming number of Power Shards in earlier Infamous games derailed gameplay into rooftop-hopping scavenger hunts, Power Shards are harder to find but more effective in Second Son. Players will only need a handful of Shards in order to progress through Delsin's skill tree, which grants attack upgrades and expanded traversal abilities much more frequently than the experienced-based upgrade systems in previous games.

Second Son's skill tree also allows players to define their playstyle to a much greater extent than in Infamous or its sequel. If you want to overwhelm your enemies with firepower, you might opt to arm yourself with a greater supply of explosive weaponry. If you'd prefer to keep a low profile, however, you'll want to invest Power Shards in abilities that award Karma bonuses for stealthy takedowns.

Specializing in one particular branch of your arsenal is a mistake, as story missions often demand the use of one particular suite of powers. In general, Delsin is a more fragile character than Cole was in previous Infamous games, encouraging players to mix up their attacks with hasty retreats -- a strategy that offers plenty of tactical options, thanks to a varied city layout that pairs well with Delsin's short-distance teleportation ability.

Karma plays a key role throughout the game's storyline, and has a noticeable effect on combat. When Delsin absorbs his neon-based powers several hours into the campaign, he gains the ability to take down enemies quickly by striking their weak points. If you're going for Good Karma, you'll need to shoot both of an enemy's legs out from under him to earn a non-lethal takedown. An Evil Karma kill, on the other hand, simply requires a quick headshot.

Your Karma alignment additionally unlocks exclusive abilities within Delsin's skill tree. Good Karma-exclusive abilities generally focus on enhanced traversal and subduing enemies rather than killing them outright, forcing players to adapt their playstyle accordingly. Both Good and Evil Karmas offer their own unique benefits that balance out their drawbacks, and both are viable paths to explore during a first-time playthrough...even if watching Delsin devolve into a murderous, misanthropic jerk during the Evil Karma cutscenes is kind of heartbreaking.

Second Son also refines its traversal mechanics, removing much of the tedious climbing that defined the early hours of previous infamous games. Delsin is immediately equipped with a power that allows him to travel through vents, teleporting him from ground level to rooftops in an instant. Further upgrades increase his ability to hover and travel long distances, making it a breeze to fly between waypoints. One particular mission late in the game highlights these expanded abilities by challenging Delsin to land on large crates in mid-air as they're being carried off by helicopters. This would likely be a frustrating challenge in earlier Infamous games, but in Second Son, it's immensely satisfying to clear expansive chasms through a skilled combination of leaping, hovering, and air-dashing.

The refined traversal also means that there's less of an emphasis on parkour than in earlier Infamous games. While few will miss the endless windowsill-skimming from the series' PlayStation 3 days, missions that rely exclusively on parkour are now few and far between. An early mission that involves scaling the Seattle Space Needle is a standout, but climbing doesn't become a central mechanic again until much later in the game. These segments are so enjoyable that I wished there were more of them sprinkled throughout Second Son's campaign; the few that exist feel more like a tease than anything.

Other mechanics don't work quite as well as intended. Second Son showcases the DualShock 4 controller's capabilities to an unnecessary extreme. Players need to frequently swipe the DualShock 4's touchpad in response to on-screen prompts in order to perform scripted actions like opening doors, disabling turrets, and other situations where a button press would suffice. The result reminds me of tacked-on motion controls in early Wii games. It's not a deal-breaker, but touchpad inputs are frequent and cumbersome enough to stand out, and they don't gel at all with Second Son's otherwise refined gameplay mechanics.

While previous Infamous games were often frustrating during their later campaign missions, Second Son maintains a steady growth in difficulty throughout, allowing players to rise to the challenge by progressing through its skill tree at their own pace. Enemy encounters are frequent but deftly paced, and give players plenty of strategic options. Even the boss battles -- a low point in earlier Infamous games -- are enjoyable and memorable in Second Son.

Second Son is polished and refined enough to make previous series entries feel dated in comparison. It represents a great leap forward both in terms of gameplay and in graphical fidelity, and establishes a high standard for what players can expect from the PlayStation 4.

This review is based on a retail copy of Infamous: Second Son, provided by Sony.

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