Longtime fans of inFAMOUS know what scary change feels like. The controversy that erupted when Cole MacGrath’s character model from the original game was overhauled in preparation for the sequel was perhaps the first sign that inFAMOUS fans know exactly what they want and just want more of it. In most respects, inFAMOUS 2 nailed those beats, delivering the same fluid platforming, chaotic combat, and inventive superpowers that made the first game such an uncompromised joy to play.
But in my glimpses of inFAMOUS: Second Son in the months before this week’s hands-on session, something seemed different. When I played Second Son in November, it was the gulf in playstyle and ability set between smoke and neon powers. Rather than having access to Delsin’s entire toolkit at once, you’re tasked with separately absorbing smoke and neon elements from the environment as context demands, with "explosive" and "precise" playstyles vying for attention. Ultimately, I felt this didn’t change the inFAMOUS experience I know and love. After all, Delsin still has a wealth of combat options–it’s just easier to remember the buttons for them. Yet some part of Second Son still felt different to me, like a parameter fundamental to the game’s "feel" has been tweaked to unleash a cascade of rippling aftereffects.
Turns out, it’s speed. The breakneck pace of two story missions made 40 minutes of demo time disappear in an instant, with only Delsin’s cheeky Orbital Drop grin to accompany my bewilderment. What just happened? Did I kill those DUP soldiers? Running up walls, absorbing smoke from wrecked cars, a mass of pedestrians I couldn’t be bothered to avoid hitting–was that all really me?
When I think about how this exhilarating sensation of forward momentum, destruction, decision, and action is built, I can point to three pillars that are making Second Son the most fun inFAMOUS game yet.
The first is Delsin’s traversal, fueled in particular by his powers, not his Sucker Punch-gifted parkour athleticism. Neon, in particular, takes center-stage as the single best way to get around the game’s positively massive Seattle. With the Circle button held, Delsin streaks across flat land like Flash and up buildings in seconds, leaving streaks of vivid light behind him. It’s not unlimited–you only get about five or six seconds of burst speed before needing a quick recharge–but it puts Cole’s Firebird Strike to shame and gives Lightning Tether a run for its building-hopping money. The equivalent movement power in Delsin’s smoke form is a lot closer to the classic Firebird Strike, at least visually. In smoke form, pressing Circle causes Delsin to dematerialize into fiery smoke that jettisons forward–across alleys, through metal walls, and as a gap-closer for buildings and enemies alike.
As with neon’s sprint, this smoke rush is a one-off burst of speed, but with only a second or two before Delsin materializes again, raring to go, chaining these bursts is instant gratification–and necessary for survival. Judging by the preposterous number of bullets Delsin endured before the screen began to grey, my demo was probably set to a very easy difficulty, but there was no mistaking the sheer number of enemies acting in concert with relentless gunfire and powers. I might be an inFAMOUS vet, but when it comes to how crucial Delsin’s mobility is to combat, I’m a rookie, and I’m confident the final game will offer a refreshing, challenging step up in difficulty as a result.
More hands-on impressions and gameplay details after the break.
The second thing that contributes to Second Son’s thrilling pace is something I touched on in my November hands-on preview: your ease of access to Delsin’s full set of powers. Separating powers as elements of the environment pays off in a big way for making sure that powers don’t go unused behind button combos you can’t be bothered to look up. Here, you need only remember what the face buttons and triggers do while holding a given element, and absorb from the environment accordingly. Of course, you might not have immediate access to the full suite of neon powers in a smoke-heavy environment, but not having that luxury breeds surprising intensity. You’re no longer concerned just with finding nodes to draw from. Now, you need the right nodes, and when nothing’s around, the cadence of combat shifts dramatically. Suddenly, you’re the dominant superhero turned scrappy defender, and enemy grunts become a threat by sheer numbers and tactics focused on overwhelming you.
Stunning animation and cinematic flair bring this breakneck gameplay train home by way of sheer immersion. Expressive detail on the faces of three characters in my demo–Delsin, brother Reggie, and Fetch, another Conduit–conveys thoughts, feelings, and the nature of relationships without need for superfluous dialogue and exposition. When Delsin vows to give Fetch an Uncle Ben lesson in responsibility, his furrowed brow, shaky cheeks, and mask of confidence show me he’s failed brother Reggie’s expectations in the past. When Reggie, a Seattle police officer, departs the scene of Fetch’s capture, her gratitude to Delsin is shown, not spoken, in the hopeful way her eyes lift to meet his gaze. Paired with film noir atmosphere (this particular scene was positively drenched in red neon light), this cinematic treatment pushes story beats without giving you reason to stop and note that, for all its tricks, this is still a game. I never had that moment of disillusionment. I was enveloped in the demo’s story as it unfolded by my hand–specifically, the finger that pulled L2 and chose to teach Fetch about responsible use of her neon powers.
The R2 alternative was to encourage her crusade of killing drug dealers by any means necessary, and in the branching narrative that follows, it’s clear that Second Son’s version of the Karma system is ambitious. After choosing to steer Fetch toward more conservative killing, the demo jumped ahead an unknown amount of time to a section of the game dramatically affected by my earlier decision. Delsin and Fetch had tracked drug dealers to a gaggle of houseboats, and I was tasked with searching for boats with the drugs themselves. Fending off legions of gang members the whole way through, I found the first supply, torched it, and tagged the boat for Fetch to destroy later. At later boats, I free prostitutes trapped inside before marking the boats for Fetch’s destruction. As the two trade dialogue about Delsin’s patience and the morality of sparing people unrelated to the drug trade, I realize these conversations are natural developments given Delsin’s vow to help Fetch control her impulses. We’ve come a long way from decimating Flood Town by overloading a generator because, well, it’s there.
Karma isn’t just generating unlocks and side missions anymore; it’s being archived as important information that the game’s very narrative sprouts from. Too good to be true? Choosing the R2 option in that pivotal cutscene and joining Fetch in her drug dealer killing spree brings me somewhere else entirely with the time jump forward. No drug dealers, no problems–this time, we’re slaying anti-Conduit activists. Presumably, Delsin and Fetch, without a moral impetus to use powers responsibly, steamrolled the dealers in a fraction of the time it took me to weed out their operations on the straight and narrow. Bad guys have more time for more fun, so gameplay "palette swaps" are no more. These are different missions, with different stories, branching from the story you write as you play.
Other notes about my hands-on time with Second Son: the interface isn’t finished, but what I saw looked like a promising start. My objective was always displayed below a mini-map in the bottom-right corner of the screen, and just having that point of reference was a blessing in the game’s chaos. The section I played was early in the story, which makes sense, given that Delsin didn’t seem to have many advanced powers beyond smoke and neon’s variation of the main shot, charged shot, and neon grenades. Just as Karma fuels an emergent story molded by your actions, your combat choices–exploding headshots with neon versus non-lethal takedowns, for example–will continue to factor into Delsin’s karmic standing. And don’t expect Karma rewards to lock your decisions into being one-sidedly good or evil. Addressing common criticism of how moral dilemmas in the first two games weren’t actually about morals at all, Sucker Punch co-founder Brian Fleming assures me that, unlike inFAMOUS’ binary development and inFAMOUS 2’s locked power sets, you’ll get a taste of everything by simply playing through the game–your smoke and neon powers will manifest and take on new forms that reflect your Karma decisions.
So maybe inFAMOUS: Second Son isn’t just faster than its predecessors. Controls, cinematics, and the very essence of Delsin’s superpowers are removing barriers between you and the experience of being something more than human in a world without easy choices. In this way, Second Son isn’t a reboot or a fresh start for the franchise. It’s the purest, most faithful inFAMOUS yet.