inFamous: Second Son on the Playstation 4 is not quite the same animal as what we're used to on the PS3. Cole's glower has been swapped out for Delsin's laid-back wisecracks. Second Son's Seattle is more high-definition-er than was possible on the PS3, and appealing neon lights fly around the screen instead of the more mundane electricity. Delsin doesn't die when he falls into the water, and he can sprint up a wall so you don't have to press X 16 times to scale a building.
But when I held a DualShock 4 in my hand at a Sony-hosted press event in LA recently and spent a half-hour inside Second Son, I found that experience to be more familiar than new. It began with one of the series' trademark karmic moments, in which Delsin and his brother Reggie are arguing over what to do with a super-powered rabble rouser named Fetch. Reggie wants her dead, and Delsin has to choose whether to "redeem" or "corrupt" her.
Each option leads to a completely different mission. The former has Delsin and Fetch teaming up to blow up some drug dealers' boats and the latter sees them beat the crap out of (or kill) some anti-Conduit protesters. It plays pretty much as it always has, only now I was shooting concentrated neon out of Delsin's hands and beating down cops and villains with a hot pink whip he'd conjured.
The presentation feels fresh, though. Delsin and Fetch have chemistry, aided by their respective voice actors—Troy Baker and Laura Bailey, who are real-life besties—as well as some animated banter as they fight together. Their interactions more flavorful than Cole's more deadpan zingers.
And, yes, it's all very beautiful to look at, even if the portion of Seattle I explored had less personality on display than inFamous 2's faux-New Orleans. The world is as detailed and full of litter as you'd expect on a new-gen game, and of course as covered with puddles of standing water as you'd expect from Seattle. The color of structures and people seemed a bit muted, and so when Delsin unleashes the power of neon or Fetch flies through the scene leaving a bright pink streak in her wake, those colors pop dramatically.
My face was about two or three feet from the large television I played on, and being that close didn't expose any notable graphical cracks in the game. The world seems to look as good as series developer Sucker Punch wants it to.
"We really wanted to deck out and dress an area like we'd like to see it in the game, without thinking about cutting any corners," said Horia Dociu, Second Son's art director, when I spoke to him after my demo session. He told me the team created an early build of a small section of the game world, ignoring tech specs and limitations. Dociu explained that the team initially "decked it out" with details, from cobblestones to graffiti and various "props" like payphones and newspaper stands, coating it all with a sheen of wetness backed by accurate water physics.
Pushing the PS4 to its limit resulted in a sluggish performance, frame-rate issues and lighting settings that the team wasn't satisfied with. Sucker Punch's engineers had to break it down and optimize how the system ran it in order to hit their ideal mark, or come very close, which Dociu said they were able to do with the final product.
"We held that as our high-water mark and said, 'It needs to look this good and it needs to perform and be fun.' We as a company kinda rallied behind that and made that possible," Dociu said.
New powers like neon and smoke (and others that have yet to be revealed) take over for the series' trademark electricity, fire and ice, which is nice, but the most compelling change so far might be the revamped karma systems that let you actually make those powers even stronger. Powers that you can use in Second Son aren't limited to what moral denomination you prescribe to, unlike how fire and ice were attributed to the player when they were introduced in inFamous 2. Any player can hit those base abilities and switch back and forth between them by absorbing neon signs or smoke from chimneys or other ambient sources.
We weren't shown any of the progression of those powers, however, beyond an ionic power-style supermove we were asked not to describe in detail. But Troy Baker promised offhandedly that the escalation of Delsin's powers is quite intense and unpredictable. So, there's that.
But the evolution of Delsin's powers within these categories will be tied to his karma levels, and Sucker Punch co-founder Brian Fleming said that as with previous inFamous titles, taking a grey moral path — an even mix of good and evil choices — isn't something the team is accommodating in that progression.
"There's a certain amount of simplicity and cause-and-effect-ness that people want to see where I push the button and a peanut came out or I shot the target and got a star or whatever it is," Fleming explained, saying without that simplicity a lot of player will become confused. "As soon as you lose contain on people believing that there's meaningful cause and effect, then you have a different problem. We've spent a ton of time on this problem. We've worked hard on it."
Ultimately, Fleming told me, they weren't able to dedicate the time and effort to making it work, because Sucker Punch's player data indicated the number of folks who would want to go grey is not big enough to warrant adding potential trouble for the rest. The absence of a middle path does not necessarily mean that starting down the good or evil path will lock you into it.
"We absolutely enthusiastically support people switching paths in the middle of gameplay," Fleming said, noting they've put some systems into Second Son to aid players in reversing their karma should they want to. In fact, Fleming pointed out they hope to instigate a change of heart in the player through some majorly difficult moral dilemmas.
"Are you sure you really have the rocks to play all of this all the way?" he said. "And, truthfully, when we watch people play it there are a lot of them who are like, 'OK, I was going to be evil but that's messed up.'
That said, inFamous is still a T-rated franchise, and that classification comes with its limits, though it still allows for some hardcore "thematic" content. Sucker Punch sought to hit that potential so as to challenge whether the player is willing to be so depraved or so squeaky clean in pursuit of a power upgrade. Dociu described this test of sorts as "pushing all the way to the limits of good and evil," both in the moment and how what you do "affects the world and the environment and the characters themselves and even the moment-to-moment gameplay stuff."
"That to me is what we're supposed to try and find," Fleming said. "There are places where you're willing to go against maybe even the thing the game is rewarding you for because you want to be you. I think that's really healthy.
"These are all video game people. We all know that it's pretend. But at the same time it has meaning and I think it's important that it has meaning."
Phil Owen is a freelance journo with work at VG247, GameFront, Gameranx and many, many other places over the years. You can follow him on Twitter at @philrowen. Send hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.