Here's an idea: Take a pretty well-liked superhero game, keep the premise and the beautiful setting, and refocus the story on a more immediately appealing character. Sounds like a sure-fire winner, right? Well…
Things aren't so clear-cut with Infamous: First Light, the new standalone add-on to March's superhuman Seattle shootfest Infamous: Second Son. Where Second Son made up for its generally shallow storytelling and design by offering players a varied set of superpowers to play with, First Light pares back the powers without offering much in return.
First Light tells the story of Abigail "Fetch" Walker, the young woman we first met in Infamous: Second Son. Fetch is a conduit, the Infamous world's version of an X-Men mutant—blessed with a superhuman ability and persecuted by the government and the civilian population alike. Fetch has the power to control neon, which means she can move as a super-fast blur and fire explosive neon bolts from her hands. Nifty.
Fetch hasn't had an easy life. She's been homeless for the last few years and, along with her mohawked brother Brent, has been surviving for a time in Seattle by doing crimes. Brent is a hapless dude whose face somehow seems to be missing some of the parts that make up a human face:
The siblings have been keeping under the radar because they've made a collective rule that Fetch won't attract attention by using her powers. One night, she decides to break those rules in service of One Last Score before they leave town for Canada. It goes about as well as all One Last Scores go, and soon Brent has been kidnapped and Fetch is doing his boss Shane's dirty work in order to get Shane to rescue Brent.
Shane is another dude whose face is somehow less than a whole face:
Shane is also the worst. He's the most irritating quest-giver I've encountered in a while, and is a complete creep, to boot. Every other line is some manner of sleazy come-on to Fetch, and his master plans don't make much sense. I couldn't fathom why anyone would trust a word out of this guy's mouth, let alone kill dozens of people on his say-so, as Fetch does.
The rest of the narrative is forgettable, predictable, and ridden with clichés. First Light's writers commit the common video-game misstep of depicting awful violence against women—including implied sex slavery—for no reason other than to add "grittiness" to their story and make some of the bad guys seem real bad. It's forced, awkward, and unnecessary. Fetch is ostensibly on a reverse-damsel-in-distress quest as she attempts to save her captured brother. But even that bit of subversion is undercut by the script, as Fetch is repeatedly shown to be weak and susceptible to mental breakdowns without her brother around to help keep her steady.
At first blush, Fetch is a pretty cool protagonist. She's had a rough life, fought off drug addiction, and notably looks like an ordinary person, not a supermodel—a rarity both for superhero fiction and for video games. She has some endearing personality quirks, like how she'll snort-laugh after getting off a particularly good attack. Laura Bailey's vocal performance is winning, though sometimes limited by the material she's given, and I generally found myself liking Fetch more than I ever liked Second Son's whiny protagonist Delsin Rowe.
Unfortunately—and there's no delicate way to put this—Fetch is kind of a moron. Time and again she makes classic action-movie mistakes, misjudges situations, wanders into life-or-death situations half-cocked, and generally blows it. When I'm controlling her, Fetch is the picture of confident execution, wiping out armies of bad guys and speedily achieving her goals. When it's time for a cutscene, she becomes hapless and thick, lingering when she should run, trusting villains, and walking into obvious traps without a lick of caution.
Flawed characters are fine, even welcome, but after a certain point, Fetch's mistakes stop feeling human and start feeling contrived. The writers need to get her from point A to point B, and the route they chart inevitably involves her screwing up and exhibiting unbelievably poor judgement.
First Light plays much the same as Second Son… well, much the same as the second act of Second Son, where that game's protagonist Delsin met Fetch and obtained her neon powers. In Second Son, Delsin had the ability to absorb other characters' powers. It was convenient for a video game, because by the final act, he'd obtained the powers of stone, smoke, neon, and…uh… (checks to see what the heck the blue laser power was called)…oh, video...which wasn't an element but was pretty damned fun to use, so whatever, we went with it.
By contrast, Fetch only has the one power, and it's a power we already used a bunch in Second Son. That leaves First Light's gameplay feeling like a rehash—I've already done the thing where I run up a wall, jump off, and ground-pound some dudes. I've already leveled up my neon powers so that I can have extra slow-mo time to aim. I've already stood atop a neon sign and spectacularly drained its energy. There is one neat new idea—Fetch can blast through strategically placed clouds of neon gas to get an extreme speed boost, which turns city navigation into a sort of waypoint race. But for the most part, if you've played Second Son, you've been here before.
For the majority of its 4-ish hour runtime, First Light feels like a step down from Second Son, which already felt in a lot of ways like a step down from its PS3 predecessor Infamous 2. By removing the variety that helped Second Son stand apart from its predecessors, First Light is even simpler and less interesting.
The majority of the missions are a bummer, too, and mostly echo the same annoyances—spammy enemies, disorienting camera, bullets that peg you from every angle—that could make Second Son frustrating. I've long disliked the Infamous series' penchant for putting you into a stationary shooting gallery and tasking you with protecting someone. Far too many of the missions in First Light do exactly that. Here, get on this truck. Stand on it while it drives around, and shoot at the guys following you. If the truck blows up, you lose.
A few missions later: Here, get on this truck again.
First Light mostly takes place on the main "island" of Seattle from Second Son. The story is told in flashback, recounted by Fetch in the time after the events of First Light and before Second Son, after she had been captured by the D.U.P. Every so often, we'll snap back to the present, where Brooke Augustine, the evil conduit in charge of the D.U.P., is interrogating and training Fetch in an attempt to convince her to come over to The Dark Side. (Actual line: "Channel your hatred and become strong." Okay, Darth.)
Each time Fetch unlocks a new power, Augustine puts her through a lengthy training routine where players must fight off waves of simulated enemies. The fights take place in closed arenas that aren't nearly as fun to navigate as the open city streets of the main game, and mostly feel like needless padding. I'd much rather have had a half-dozen more missions in Seattle.
Infamous: First Light is a slight slice of entertainment, and a disappointment. It introduces fewer new gameplay ideas than it removes. It allows some insight into the backstory of an initially interesting character, but spends too much time painting her as a thoughtless twit who makes her own trouble. It pads its runtime with inessential challenge-room missions and offers little of the sort of high-flying derring-do that the Infamous series usually does so well. For each endearing one-liner or intriguing character note, it includes a shovelful of troubling tropes and superhero cliché. It's a shame; this could have been something special.