Last-Gen Morality And Next-Gen Gameplay in inFamous: Second Son

For my review of inFamous: Second Son, I took the light path and finished the story choosing the righteous “blue” option at all junction points. As you progress, you have opportunities to turn your fellow super-powered conduits into good or evil members of your cohort. There’s an entire subplot where the government controls powerful individuals and instills fear in society by labeling them “bio-terrorists.” Even our hero Delsin’s own brother starts the game with a natural fear of the powers you get in the game’s tutorial.

“I can’t let you on the bus,” Reggie tells Delsin. The people Delsin just rescued with his new smoke abilities don’t want him to join them on the way to Seattle. They've seen what he can do and they think he's dangerous. This is tutorial dressed in dramatic exposition, a platforming sequence that would occur whether people were frightened by Delsin’s abilities or not. You have to learn how to jump and climb no matter what as that’s like 75% of inFamous: Second Son.

Still, after finishing the game I started a new file to check out how evil “red” choices change the story and gameplay, but ultimately I was disappointed. Sucker Punch got morality wrong on a number of different points:

  1. There are lots of powers that you can’t get in a single play through. One early example of this is an added vertical boost from smoke vents when playing with evil karma. Even playing with good karma, you get to launch from ground-level to rooftop through vents, but evil karma gives you a massive boost that makes traversal and gliding to other rooftops much more engaging and fluid. You can even smoke dash from vent to vent, never drifting down to ground level if you time it right. Another evil karma neon upgrade gives your blasts of energy rapid-fire capabilities. This would make lassoing enemies up by their legs quick and easy, so it’s understandable why Sucker Punch would want to lock it to evil karma, but even after the end of the game there’s no way to use this ability in mopping up the Department of Unified Protection grunts that litter the streets.
  2. Evil karma dialog doens't mesh with everything else. There are many points in the game when playing as an anti-hero that feel out of place possibly because the "good" path was written first while evil options were added later. Fetch, the conduit you receive neon powers from, shines a bright purple light on this. She's been killing drug dealers in order to exact vengeance for someone she's lost, but once Delsin enters her life, he can either encourage to continue mopping up the streets (albeit subduing drug dealers as opposed to killing them) or he can redirect her anger to the protestors who chant for bio-terrorist containment. One of these options makes narrative sense while the other feels strange and out of place.
  3. Narrative plot points that feel like they should have heavier splits between good and evil don’t really amount to much more than “kill these guys instead of subdue them.” You might pacify a bunch of drug dealers or you might wipe out an entire column of DUP soldiers. inFamous: Second Son lets you make karmic decisions on the fly, but if you’re constantly switching back and forth between good and evil in combat, you’ll never level up enough to unlock all the abilities (or trophies).

These issues split inFamous: Second Son into two games. You can play as good or evil, but not both. Many of the best power upgrades will remain hidden if you don’t pursue one path or the other meaning you could end up having to play through the story three times to experience everything Seattle has to offer. That becomes really boring. The boss encounters and missions aren't as fun as the emergent gameplay found in running around the city.

Normally, I’d excuse this as a facet of game design that’s tried and true, one that allows the publisher and developer to encourage replays in a relatively entertaining open-world. I really like inFamous: Second Son, especially as the controls feel responsive and the action on-screen looks gorgeous as you get more and more adept at navigation and combat.

But the relatively cardboard city can’t hide behind drug busts and street musicians forever. In my review, I wrote that “Locomotion in an open-world game is oftentimes the most enjoyable part of the experience, but don’t expect Second Son to totally revolutionize the brand or the genre.” Once you’ve smoked from roof to roof, dashed alongside a monorail, or launched from a satellite receiver high into the air, you’ve met Second Son’s best gameplay loops and conquered them.

Take the very first karma decision you make in the game, for example. When big DUP boss Augustine appears to round-up an escaped prisoner, Delsin has a choice to make. He can either turn himself in and admit to having powers in order to save his tribe or let them all suffer Augustine’s painful concrete abilities in interrogation.

No matter which side you choose, the result is the same. Only Delsin’s reaction after the fact changes. Betty, a tribal elder, supports Delsin no matter his decision; she just wants him to be happy and healthy, to stay safe because she cares about him. Delsin either shows his remorse or acts like a snot-nosed punk and shrugs off the tribe’s sacrifice by asking Betty to thank everyone for taking one for the team. Later, he lambasts himself with guilt.

Then things proceed normally. You continue the tutorial and there’s really no motivation to continue with evil karma over good. You head into Seattle and dismantle your first DUP communication array, but the moment to moment choices you make (between killing or subduing enemies) stack up little by little until you’ve already committed to one set of powers or the other. This is only furthered by the fact that there are gobs and gobs of things to collect or activities to complete.

Even as you meet and corupt or proselytize other conduits, you'll find that making choices rarely feels satisfying in that Delsin might undermine your own values in order to turn a character into a destructive menace. You might find that Delsin's dialog unravels the dedication to responsibilty he displays in mopping up DUP and liberating Seattle.

It’s almost impossible not to play inFamous: Second Son in a compulsive way, especially as clearing districts of enemies proves really entertaining. This naturally extends to the karma system and eventually you need to restart the story all over again in order to enjoy the full range of abilities in all four power sets. One thing’s for sure, as pretty as Sucker Punch’s next-gen open-world is, this dichotomous use of morality to pad out gameplay feels decidedly last-gen.