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April 28, 2014

Let’s discuss inFAMOUS: Second Son (Part 1).

That’s the first and last time I’m going to properly type the name of the franchise.

Recent news has revealed that, as of this post, Sony’s new kid on the block the PS4 has surpassed seven million sales.  Seven million consoles are out there, not just on the shelves, but in the hands of customers all around.  That is a lot of consoles -- given that roughly a month ago that number was at six million, it’s likely that those numbers are going to rise at an incredible rate yet again.  After all, the prevalent theory is that the recent surge is because of Infamous: Second Son.

But with that in mind, I have to ask a question: what?  Or if not that, then…why?

I’m not going to tell anyone that they’re wrong for their opinions, or their purchases by extension.  But I hope you’ll forgive me for being more than a little confused.  The PS4 does NOT have the library right now to justify its purchase.  It just doesn’t.  Okay, sure, it’s got some solid indie games out there, but those aren’t enough.  The selling point should be in the big releases -- and those have yet to cut it.  Knack isn’t doing it.  Killzone: Shadow Fall isn’t doing it.  Battlefield 4, Assassin’s Creed 4, and Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition aren’t doing it -- not to mention that they’re multiplatform titles, and far from revolutionary in their own right.  I can understand the “early adopter” mentality, but right now the only reason why people might be running out to buy the latest console is because of a barrage of commercials…some of which don’t even show any gameplay.  Or games

So.  If you want to know what I think of Second Son without suffering through thousands of words, there you go.  Things aren’t exactly ideal.

SPOILERS!  UNLIMITED SPOILERS!  Ahhhhhhhh…

I would have gone with the lyrics for “Ride the Lightning”, but Palpatine beckoned.


Lest you think that I’m just going to be some next-gen doomsayer, or just play contrarian and claim that a game in the green with the critics is secretly awful (again), let me make a claim from the get-go.  Infamous: Second Son is not the worst game ever.  Not even close.  I’ve long since played the game to completion -- playing solely on the Good Karma path -- and I’ve had my fun with it.  It’s a game that can offer some enjoyment, and it’s a game with some oomph behind it.  Tweaks to the formula have been made, and I can appreciate them.

But here’s the problem -- well, one of them, at least.  SS is not the game that justifies the PS4’s purchase or even presence.  Not even close.  I know that the console’s barely gotten started, and devs have to get used to the hardware all over again, but SS isn’t even CLOSE to being a forward step in any capacity.  I know you could say the same about plenty of Wii U games (Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze isn’t THAT big of a step from DKC Returns), but the difference is that the Wii U up-steps are built on fundamentally-thrilling games.  Mario gets away with it every time because the leap from 64 to Sunshine to Galaxy to 3D World is typically the size of the average crater, at a bare minimum.  The jump from Infamous 2 to SS is more like a pothole.

And then it gets worse.


I had fun with SS.  But I’m of two minds about it; every time I found something I enjoyed -- a design choice, a mechanic, an event, a story beat -- something else happened to jettison me out and remind me that I was playing a stopgap between one generation and the next.  And sometimes not even that; I was about ready to call it a good PS3 game and leave it at that, but setting aside the fact that that’s an apologetic failure state for “the next-gen experience”, there are still problems with this game independent of the console it appears on. 

As is often the case, the story could have been (and should have been) set perfectly in place.  But it isn’t.  I know the excuse is that “It’s a video game, it’s not supposed to have a good story!” but that excuse doesn’t hold forever.  Not when there have already been plenty of games that have put out good stories.  And from what I’ve heard, that includes Infamous 2.


So here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to move from one subject to the next, but I’ll do something I haven’t done in a while.  If there’s a point I can make that’s positive or in the game’s favor, there’ll be some green text.  If there’s a point that’s negative or against the game, look forward to some red text.  I’m not going to try and go by net worth here when all’s said and done, because I expect for it to come out equal -- and thus equaling zero -- by post’s end.  On the other hand, not all points are created equal. Some pros and cons are bigger than others.  So just go ahead and read the post, and decide for yourself how you feel.  Want to add or count the positives and negatives?  Go ahead.  Do what you need to do.

Now then.  Let’s take this step by step.


THE STORY!!
It’s simple enough, and it’s pleasant overall
I’ve heard that SS is the closest we’ve ever gotten (or will ever get) to having a full-on X-Men game, and that’s pretty much true.  You’ve got protesters waving their signs in the streets.  You’ve got down-on-their-luck superhumans using their powers as they see fit, even if it’s well outside the bounds of the law.  You’ve got enemy organizations trying to put them down, and going out of their way to put the squeeze on humans in general “just to be safe”.  The only thing that’s missing is a Sentinel analogue.

What I find surprising about the story -- and more than a little interesting -- is that it works best as, and when it acts as a personal tale.  Delsin is in it to rescue his tribe (at the outset, at least), so there are stakes that few other characters share.  More to the point, he’s followed nearly every step of the way by his older brother Reggie, and the dialogue between them makes for something genuinely entertaining as well as thoughtful.  A lot of effort went into putting these two brothers together, and it shows.  


…But it’s too simple for what it’s trying to say
Here’s the inherent problem with the game.  Seattle has been locked down by the Department of Unified Protection (the DUP), under the pretense that there are three escaped superhumans -- Conduits -- and they have to keep the peace by any means necessary, lest one of them wreak havoc on a massive scale.  If you play as an evil Delsin, you pretty much prove their fears right, and become the monster they were trying to stop -- all while mowing them down in droves.  If you play as a good Delsin, you STILL mow them down in droves -- and while you can (thankfully) use non-lethal tactics against them, you’re not penalized for beating them to death with your chain, smashing all their property, or unleashing your super move to create the disaster zone they wanted to prevent in the first place.  Again, with no penalty.

They didn’t even try to make the DUP more than just goons for you to take down.  These might-as-well-be-Stormtroopers indiscriminately open fire on the populace and leave innocents injured just because you happened to be walking past -- plus they’ll detain people in massive cages because…I don’t know.  They might be Conduits?  I would have guessed they were just hunting for the three escapees, but I suppose not.  (Though to be fair, there’s the chance -- I guess? -- that they could turn others into Conduits…somehow?)  Whatever the case, there was absolutely no attempt to make the organization any more in-depth than a Goomba -- and you can’t do that when the talking point of your reveal presentation was exploring the freedom vs. security issue. 

To be fair, you could argue that the game makes the role of the DUP implicit instead of explicit.  Then again, this is the same game where the majority of the cast calls them “dupes”, so I have my doubts.  


THE MAIN CHARACTER!!
Delsin’s not Donte!
My brother and I have an old joke when it comes to Final Fantasy 10; see, in the first part of the game Tidus and Wakka try and use the excuse of “Sin’s toxin” to pardon some of Tidus’ unusual behavior (being a fish a thousand years out of water, he’s got a good reason to be unusual).  “Sin’s toxin” came up a lot, so the two of us argued that he would use that excuse for every weird or wrong thing he did -- like begging for money because Sin’s toxin took it all away.  Imagine our combined surprise when Delsin -- or at least my bro’s evil Delsin -- used “they started it!” or “I did what I had to do!” over and over again, as if that would get Reggie off his back without another word.  Talk about a slippery slope…

As is usually the case, characters that have to leave wiggle room for the player to decide their alignment have to work a lot harder with diminishing returns.  So basically, Delsin -- and voice actor Troy Baker -- have to pull triple duty as a villain, a hero, and everything in between.  Fortunately, those problems are lessened once you define the Delsin you want; there’s no doubt in my mind that my bro had fun with Evil Delsin, because he’s almost gleefully dedicated to doing whatever the hell he feels like; he’s Chaotic Evil, and loving it -- and drags others down with him. 

By the same token, seeing Good Delsin realize the weight of his powers and responsibility, and trying his best to help emotionally-wounded Conduits, put him in a favorable light for me.  Even beyond that, he’s generally a chipper and borderline-nerdy guy who stops worrying about being a Conduit (or a monster) pretty much before the end of the first act.  Getting a character that willingly smiles and laughs shouldn’t be as hard as it is -- but SS gives us a reprieve.


…But he’s still not all that great
Your decisions shape Delsin into the character you want to play and follow, so if you’re like me and don’t want to play as a designated hero (though that’s debatable even if you go 100% good), then you’ll be satisfied.  But there’s a problem with that approach; as unbelievable as it sounds, I don’t think there’s that big of a divide between Good Delsin and Evil Delsin.  Your choices affect what ending you get and your alignment, sure, but Neutral Delsin is the primary voice/persona in most instances.  You can make good choices early on, but there are literally just a couple of lines that change between alignments.  Some events have more, obviously, but if you’re expecting Good Delsin to gradually become more thoughtful and concerned as the story progresses instead of just having him say good-guy things in certain missions, don’t.

So.  What is Delsin like, if not good or evil?

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: Delsin comes dangerously close to being 90’s Kid in a 2014 game.  I’m thankful he’s got some energy (and he’s actually got a build that’s humanly possible -- go diversity!), but he’s got layer after layer of smugness to him.  He’s relentlessly chatty and always making jokes -- some good, others…there.  And much like DmC’s Donte, he feels the need to try and reinforce how cool the action I’m doing is by going “Whoa-ho!” or “Awesome!” or “Hell yeah!” or something like that.  Thank you, Delsin, but I can decide for myself if what I’m doing is cool.  I don’t need your positive reinforcement when I effectively nuke a city block. 


That was with the non-lethal power, by the way.


THE SIDE CHARACTERS!!
Reggie’s the best character!
I’m not sold on Delsin, but I’ll willingly admit that Reggie’s a pretty cool character, and easily my favorite in the game (though as usual, it means that one of the side characters is better than the leading man).  It’s probably because as a static character, Reggie’s allowed to be fully defined without having to worry about giving VA Travis Willingsham triple-duty; he’s a cop by definition, and does his best to do the right thing -- both in terms of the law, and keeping his little brother safe.  He’s the voice of reason, but he’s far from just being a nag; he’s given complexity thanks to largely -- and rightfully -- buying into the belief that Conduits are monsters.  There’s underlying tension between him and his brother, but he’ll be outright aggressive to anyone that’s outside his comfort zone.  Or blood ties, while we’re at it.

I could see myself playing and enjoying a game where you control Reggie, or a Reggie-like character.  Just think about it: a normal, well-meaning (if regimented, put-upon, and occasionally goofy) guy who has to try and solve Conduit mysteries or crimes by way of whatever wit and ammo he’s got on hand.  And if it comes down to it -- and it would -- he’d come face-to-face with the Conduit and try to talk them down; he can’t diffuse a threat with raw violence, but his words (as his character develops over the game’s run) could be enough to stop them from doing something disastrous.  That’s actually pretty feasible, considering that that’s mostly his role in the game AND the role he’ll make Delsin play by proxy.  There’s some juice behind that, I think.

It’s just too bad Reggie gets killed off to fuel a revenge spree for Delsin.  Smooth moves, Sucker Punch.


…But he’s pretty much all the game’s got
There are three Conduits in the game that can give Delsin powers: escaped convict Hank (smoke), homeless ex-addict Fetch (neon), and nerdy gamer Eugene (video).  One of the big bullet points of the game was supposed to be the ability to alter their alignments by having Delsin redeem or corrupt them, but nothing really comes from it -- probably because those characters are barely in the game.  Okay, sure, they each get story arcs devoted to them -- though Hank, not as much -- but nothing really comes from them. 

You find out that Fetch has been playing vigilante against drug dealers, and you spend a couple of missions trying to deal with her.  And whether you redeem or corrupt, you do a mission or two with her to 1) upgrade your new neon powers, and 2) go after drug dealers.  And…that’s pretty much it.  She pops in to talk to you from time to time, there might be one more mission with her later on, you have to rescue her and Eugene later (and neither of them get to say/do much there besides be trapped), and then she lends you a hand in the game’s last mission.  That’s about it.  The final mission shows a glimpse of a Marvel team-up, but that’s all it is.  A glimpse.


The consequence, of course, is that there really isn’t much to these characters.  Their backstories are pretty much projectile-vomited at you when you copy their powers, and they get no time to develop outside of the redemption/corruption missions.  And Hank doesn’t even get that.  Worse yet, outside of the capture and final mission, these characters are all pretty much separated by steel walls; they interact with Delsin, sure, but Fetch and Eugene?  Eugene and Reggie?  Fetch and Hank?  Eugene and Hank?  Fetch and Reggie?  Relationships that could have had some oomph to them, but go pretty much unexplored. 

X-Men, they are not.


THE VILLAIN!!
The villain’s a lady!
You know, one of these days I need to run a Google search for the best villainesses of all time or something.  I’ve always felt like there aren’t enough of them out there in fiction-world. 

But I guess you can add Brooke Augustine to the list.  As the DUP’s leader, she’s got full control of the organization, the lockdown, and power over concrete -- just what Delsin needs to save his tribe from impending death.  She focused, she’s dedicated, and she’s unbelievably ruthless, even if she acts with an air of smug satisfaction and politeness (think Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter universe, and you’re pretty much there).  And as long as she’s in control, she’ll do what she can to zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…


…But she’s as deep as a paper clip
I’m sorry, but Augustine is just a terrible villain. 

You’d think that there would be a lot more to this character and that she’d leave much more of an impact, but I’ve already forgotten huge swaths of her presence in the game.  If she shows up in a scene it’s usually got the same general progression: show up, be smug, use concrete, prattle about DA CAUSE, snide comment, leave.  If that.  She doesn’t get anything more to her than the other characters, and you don’t even begin to learn anything about her or why she does what she does until…I don’t know, maybe the last half-hour of the game, if that, when she projectile-vomits her memories into Delsin’s brain.

I get the sense that she was supposed to be a powerful and chilling enemy, but my takeaway from all of this is that she’s remarkably dumb as well as a shallow villain.  So Augustine, you’re telling me that the best way to find three convicts is to completely lock down Seattle with occupying soldiers?  Okay, but why did you feel the need to randomly destroy buildings and bridges, and set up needlessly-massive towers, and turn a part of the Seattle skyline into a tower straight outta Castlevania?

Oh God.  It looks like it’s that time again…with the proper music, of course.


In the seven years since the events of Infamous 2, are you telling me that the government is still so befuddled by Conduits that they have to put people in cages and fire indiscriminately on the grounds that there might be a Conduit among them?  How did they get away with all of this?  Are they seriously expecting me to believe that they’ve got the media in their pocket and can keep everything going on in Seattle under wraps?  Even if they have jamming signals up, there’s nothing stopping Delsin from getting calls from an old lady in his tribe.  Nothing.  So wouldn’t that mean that everyone in the entire world knows about the clusterfuck you’ve made out of one of America’s most notable cities? 

Even beyond that, Good Delsin declares that he’s going to expose Augustine and the DUP for what they really are…but why does he even need to do that if there’s evidence of DUPidity everywhere?  Am I seriously supposed to believe that the government wouldn’t step in to do something about an entirely-avoidable quagmire?  And it WAS avoidable, retroactively speaking, because why would the DUP transport three Conduits by truck for any reason?  Why not a plane or a helicopter, so that if they try to escape, it’s a long way down to whatever city they try to escape to -- or just make things even easier and fly their asses over the ocean?


And Augustine, if your plan (by way of your backstory) was to separate the humans and Conduits, why did you even need a personal army?  Why didn’t you just…I don’t know, ask the Conduits if they wanted to leave?  Just go on the air and announce that you’re making a reserve for them so they can live in peace -- or just use those concrete powers of yours to make an island for them, since you’ve clearly shown you can manage on that scale.  And on that note, why is it that you tried to make soldiers out of Conduits (like Fetch) if the intention was to remove them from society?  Wouldn’t they be getting back into society as soldiers?  Why would you teach them to use their powers better than ever before? Why do you even need Conduits with different powers if you can bestow gimped versions of your concrete powers on the rank-and-file soldiers?  Why are you in charge when everything you do makes no sense?

Then again, maybe it’s a little unreasonable for me to expect intelligence from a woman who decides the best way to beat one guy is to turn into a giant scorpion made of rock.  I’m surprised she didn’t shout “AUGUSTINE SMASH!”     

Oh, you think I’m joking about the scorpion?  Trust me, I wish I was.


I thought we were past this shit.  I thought that by now, we would have collectively reached a point where we can’t accept such shallow depictions of real-world issues and controversies, let alone create them.  But here we are.  Here we are again, with SS using those issues as nothing more than a backdrop to make the game look more important and weighty than it actually is, and having nothing to say as a result.  This shouldn’t be that hard; Captain America: The Winter Soldier showed us that it’s plenty possible to take those issues and weave them into a story alongside action, humor, and characters worth caring about.  Medium aside, it shouldn’t be that hard with any story.  It takes a steady hand and an open mind, not a willingness to turn a story into a stupid power fantasy, or turn opponents with viable opinions into Dr. Eggman.

I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here, especially with SS.  Again, you can’t bank on the “It’s a video game, so it’s okay if it doesn’t have a good story” excuse forever, and certainly not here because A) video games have had good stories before, B) SS and plenty of games before it have had a narrative, so I EXPECT them, the result of multi-million dollar ventures, to be airtight under penalty of criticism, and C) you can’t fucking pare down real-world issues into material that’s more vacuous than a Saturday morning cartoon.  Not when the entire premise of the game is exploring personal freedom versus the price of security.


But you know what?  You know what the sad thing is?  SS didn’t have to do that at all.  It works best when it keeps things personal.  Delsin started his mission to take Augustine’s powers so he can save the concrete-addled people of his tribe.  That’s fine.  I like that, actually -- and I like the bond between him and Reggie (the best character) as they continue their super-adventures through Seattle.  They didn’t need to bring in real-world issues just to try and take on a sense of legitimacy; if they wanted to be legitimate, all they had to do was tell a well-executed story.  And if they had done that -- if they had stuck to their guns instead of trying to take a slice of a pie the size of an RV -- they would have made a much better name for themselves.

But it goes beyond that.   The DUP’s just a bunch of faceless goons -- guys for you to mow down, one laser blast after another, and I suppose they’re people you’re supposed to hate automatically because they’re part of THE ESTABLISHMENT.  But you know what?  Mowing down faceless goons isn’t automatically a game-breaker.  If they wanted to do that -- if they wanted to embrace the power of comic books -- then they could have thrown in whatever the hell they wanted.  Well, almost.  


And it would be fine, because comics can be silly as well as serious.  Intelligent as well as insane, no matter what content they have.  Aliens, killer robots, demons, mutants, amazons, ninjas, wizards, gangsters -- those could have gone in.  Anything could have gone in.  Anything, with the tone to match; they could have gone dark and explored some unique ideas (the robots are tired of serving stinking humans), or they could have gone goofy and rolled with it (evil robot invasion because robots!  Bust ‘em up!).  That’s basically what SS boils down to, only it has the gall to take itself seriously.

Its only saving grace is that (outside of Reggie trying to play the voice of reason) it doesn’t have anything truly definitive or thoughtful to say on the subject.  But if that’s the case -- if it’s going to sidestep confronting the issues that the game is built on -- then why are they even in there?

…Suddenly, I’m not feeling too confident about Watch Dogs.  Or The Division.  Or whatever game tries to push some shallow, non-committal RoboCop bullshit next.


Welp.  I just mentioned RoboCop.  I think that’s a sign to cut this post short.

Just as well.  Setting the length aside, it’d probably be for the best if I tackle the gameplay in a separate post.  And with this being, you know, a video game (attempts to ape Hollywood conventions aside), you would think that that’s where this latest installment will shine brightest.  That…remains to be seen.  We’ll see how it goes next time, I guess.  I can tell you right now that I’m not in a very charitable mood.

A giant rock scorpion will do that to a guy.

1 comment:

  1. I like how the first comment for the Breath of Fire mobile game is a short and sweet "Oh, fuck off" with almost 250 upvotes. Man, I've barely even touched BoF, and even I can feel the sting. I guess this is what they call empathy. Can't say I'm a fan.

    But anyway. An age for non-gamers, huh? Damn it, I don't want to admit it, but you're probably spot-on. (Even if that sounds like the dumbest reality ever, but whatever.) That would probably help explain why games and their devs are more concerned with making their games into movies while missing the mark on both fronts -- they forget to add the game to their game, and the movie parts don't have the strength to stand up to scrutiny, as shown by...well, if I start listing now, I'll be here for the next 13 hours. And then there's the whole "games as a service" mindset that's seeping its way into every level of the industry, and all this "Social media integration" and "dual-screen experience" gobbledy-gook...

    Cripes. You know, MovieBob put up his review of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and it was apparently so soul-crushingly bad for him that it made him want to quit Spidey, comics, movies, and nerd culture in general in one fell swoop. And as much as I hate to admit it, some days I can't help but feel the same way about games. I don't understand this industry anymore -- and I'm starting to get tired of trying. Tired of trying, tired of waiting, and tired of getting slapped in the face.

    But then I end up trying a game like Tokyo Jungle, and then all of a sudden I'm back in. Yikesy mikesy, Tokyo Jungle. Where have you been all my life?

    "Rename the DUP the Department of Unified RESIDENTIAL Protection."



    So you would have the DUP become the DURP.


    Huh.


    *shoots finger guns* Aha, I see what you did there.

    ReplyDelete