3, 2, 1, killshot! Let's discuss One Punch Man!


May 1, 2014

Let’s discuss inFAMOUS: Second Son (Part 2).

So I guess I lied about the last post being the first and only time I used the proper capitalization.

You know, I think I might have thought of a way to solve Infamous’ recurring problem.  Or “problem”, if you prefer; it’s pretty much built on certain mechanics and conventions, after all, and some people actually like the way it plays out.  Others don’t.  Either way, the key problem is that -- as Second Son shows -- by trying to make Delsin and his game pull triple-duty to accommodate a good path and evil path along with neutral, mission-to-mission characterization, overall he’s weakened as a character.  I’m glad I got to play as a Good Delsin, but the moments where I got to see his heroic persona come to light aren’t nearly frequent enough.  What IS frequent are scenes and dialogue that could have been spoken by Good Delsin, Evil Delsin, Neutral Delsin, or DmC’s Donte if he was actually worth a damn.

Yeah.  I’m still sore that game exists.  Given that Second Son’s story has reopened old wounds, can you blame me?  Even good guys have their limits, you know.

It’s probably worth noting that as I type this, I’m listening to a remix of the Tekken Tag opening.  And since that has the infamous Electric Wind God Fist, that’s a good enough segue for me to declare that there are SPOILERS incoming.

Is it good enough for you?  Okay.  Then let’s go with this one: BRING IT ON, YA ALIENS!


Man, what a cool guy Paul is.  And canonically one of the strongest Tekken characters...but that's a given for anyone who's got what fans call the "death fist".

To me, there’s an obvious solution to the franchise’s problem: just give us multiple playable characters.  One good, one evil, and maybe one neutral.  That way, the characterization can stay consistent from start to finish; those that choose an evil character can see his/her progression into villainy from start to finish, without any dilution from a voice of neutrality.  It may seem like that’s taking away from the spirit of the game, but hear me out on this. 

The assumption is that those moment-to-moment choices are going to matter in the long run, or have some lasting consequence; as far back as the first Infamous, Cole weighed the options of his actions, and whether or not they’d do harm to himself, others, or the city around him.  Those decisions at least threatened to matter, but Second Son feels like a step back.  If you’ve decided to go all in and be 100% good or 100% evil (as you likely should, for the best powers), then why would you bother with the choice to spare or kill Hank?  Why does it matter if you corrupt Fetch or redeem her, considering that the weight of your actions (and hers) is debatable?


SS -- and the Infamous games at large -- have yet to completely justify the karma system they’re built upon.  So why bother with them?  Do it like Sonic Adventure 2.  Give players the choice to play a Hero Story, and a Dark Story, and maybe a Neutral Story (or alternatively, a Last Story where it all comes together for a big finish).  The obvious choice would be to take out the choice element altogether, but there might be a way to work it in.  Picture this: you play as a heroine with power over…oh, let’s say plants and trees, a la Poison Ivy.   Her “angle” is all about using her powers to do the right thing, fight crime, save the people -- typical hero stuff.  But as the game progresses, she finds out the hard way that it’s not as easy as just punching out baddies.

Remember back in the first Spider-Man movie when the Green Goblin made Spidey go through that sadistic choice?  In that case, it wasn’t about whether Spidey wanted to choose between being a hero or a villain; it was about him choosing what kind of hero he wanted to be.  Should he put his desires over others, outweighing the needs of the many?  Should he sacrifice the happiness of even one life and those around her, just to help people he’s never even met?  Now, imagine that sadistic choice in this hypothetical Infamous -- only it happens constantly (to varying degrees, of course).  It would build upon the character because it would really show what kind of person she is when the chips are down.  It would define her in a way a binary good/evil choice can’t.  Or won’t.

And now that I’ve mentioned the first Spider-Man, I feel obligated to bring this up.


Ah, yes.  That never gets old.

I’m probably going to end up getting into this later in the post, but for now I feel like I have to come clean: I really expected more from this game.  I would think that by now, Sucker Punch has to know about the inherent weaknesses of its major franchise (sorry, Sly Cooper).  And with this new console generation -- or just a new game in general -- I would have thought that this would be the company’s big chance to start fresh and make a ton of improvements.  But I guess I was wrong.  There are some improvements, and some tweaks, but not nearly enough.

We really should be past this stage, new console generation or not.  Moving from the PS3 to the PS4 shouldn’t automatically drop all the devs’ talent and knowledge to Level 1, and certainly not their common sense.  But here we are, with a next-gen title, and the third installment in a half-decade old franchise, struggling -- struggling to give itself some weight.  Some lasting appeal.  Something for the player to take away when the console’s turned off, and the disc is back in its case.  This shouldn’t be that hard.  It just shouldn’t.

Well, I’m in the perfect mindset to start talking in earnest.  Let’s get to it, yes?


THE POWERS!!
They’re pretty cool!
I’m going to have to mirror Yahtzee’s sentiments and say that at face value, the powers are iffy, lame, make no sense, or any mix of the three.  What IS the difference between power over “smoke” and power over straight-up fire, especially considering that Delsin’s melee attacks turn his chain into a red-hot whip?  What exactly makes “video” even remotely capable of hurting people if it’s just a bunch of data?  And when did “neon” become synonymous with “laser”? 

I guess it’s supposed to be one of those things you’re not supposed to think about, because in all fairness it’s fun to use the powers (though concrete’s kind of a dud, if you ask me).  In an effort to make a game you can play your way, it’s nice to know that you can specialize in -- and become fond of -- certain powers instead of others.  Scientific explanations aside, I’m a fan of neon; it was my go-to power for open-world travel, and it doesn’t take much to upgrade it into THE non-lethal power of choice.  Put in some points and you can enter bullet-time to aim for an enemy’s weak points (one on their legs, one on their head).  Shoot their legs, and you can subdue them from afar without any messy kills or collateral damage…assuming your aim is spot-on, but the intent is there.  And it’s more than appreciable.


…But they’re distressingly similar
The problem I had with the other Infamous games was that instead of giving Cole plenty of insane tools vis a vis his lightning powers, the devs just gave him electric versions of the usual video game armory.  SS tries to fix that…by making it so that each power has access to only one “gun” each.  Smoke = pistol/shotgun.  Neon = rifle.  Video = machine gun.  Concrete = submachine gun.  Plus each power has its own “rocket launcher” via R1 (with a limited stock), and Circle is your dedicated movement ability.  There are differences, of course; instead of L1-mapped grenades available to smoke and neon, L1 + video = temporary invisibility.  And smoke…isn’t nearly as versatile for travel as you’d think.

But what kills me is that even if there are differences, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the four powers are just built around the same basic power: shooting lasers.  The biggest shake-up comes from the fact that each power has different particle effects (I guess that’s where all the effort went into making this a “next-gen experience”…even though different particle effects have been on full blast since Kingdom Hearts 1); in making the powers more versatile, the also made them less distinct.  And the sad thing is that it could have been different, and vastly so.  Why couldn’t video be the dedicated stealth power if it gives you an invisibility cloak?  Why not make neon the speedster’s choice, or something geared solely for sniping fans?  Sure, those options are there, but they’re not pronounced enough. 


You don’t get the concrete power until the last boss (and don’t get to explore it until you clear the game).  I played around with it for a few minutes, but I had no interest in going any further down its empty upgrade tree.  “I’ve got much better options, so why should I bother with this?” I asked myself.  There’s something wrong with the game if it comes to that.

Also, I REALLY have to thank the game for forcing me to use concrete, AKA a completely-underleveled power, for the final boss fight against a giant rock scorpion.  Boy, did my input matter when tailoring my skill set!


THE COMBAT!!
It’s airtight, and might have some hidden depth!
So I think this game might have combos.

Remember earlier when I mentioned the bullet-time you can get with the neon power?  Well, when it’s not upgraded it runs out pretty freaking fast, and activates automatically whenever you’re zoomed in to line up your shot.  But as it turns out, there’s an upgrade that lets you refill your BT meter after you do a light speed dash (i.e. just hit Circle to move, and make Delsin streak over surfaces).  

So in theory, it’s possible to shoot guys until your meter runs out, dash t refill, shoot, and repeat to build up a solid rhythm mid-battle.  Attacking and dodging, mixed into one.  I didn’t have the dexterity to pull it off -- there might be a delay that keeps you from linking them together instantly -- but it may be possible.  If it is, then this might be one of the few games to include “shootcombos”.  That’s a word, and I’m sticking to it.


What’s really interesting is that the game actually works the karma system into your combat.  If you’re hitting weak points with neon, then blasting legs from afar to subdue will give you points toward good karma -- and more importantly, gives you fuel for your Karma Bomb super attack.  Sounds simple enough, yes?

However, if you screw up and shoot someone in the head, or kick someone while they’re down, then you’ll lose that stocked karma and your Karma Bomb in one fell swoop -- not to mention tarnishing your record and progress toward the next karmic level.  The game gives you a reason to play your best, whether you play a hero or a villain; there are benefits for doing well, and consequences for messing up.  You never know when you might need to trigger your Limit Break.


…But there’s absolutely no reason to explore it
Except you don’t really need to trigger your Limit Break unless A) you’re totally overwhelmed, or B) you don’t feel like dealing with DUP goons.  And you probably won’t in some cases, because you’re just trying to get from one mission to the next, and you’ll draw aggro over a two-mile radius if you even tap Circle.

I don’t have a count on the number of times I died in my playthrough, but it’s a lot less than it should be.  This game is a long way from difficult; things can get hairy at times, but it never reached a point where it felt like there was a genuine challenge from the enemies -- even with the occasional damage sponge of an elite.  I would leave it at that, but again, the design choices get in the way; it’s possible to get into a good rhythm with the combat and get in some good shots, but that rhythm is constantly getting disrupted because you have to run and hide while you wait for your health to regenerate. 


And with this game distinctly lacking in chest-high walls, you’ll usually have to go well out of your way to find a safe spot to regenerate.  Sure, you can restore health by sucking up energy in the field (smoke from a vent, or neon from a sign), but I never felt like that was the best option.  Not when you have to find it out there, get in position, come to a stop, and let enemies open fire on you.

Thankfully (or not), Delsin’s a damage sponge in his own right, so you can reliably take plenty of hits even when you’re in a danger state.  But worse yet (and what’s distressingly become par for the course), Delsin’s arsenal stacks the deck incredibly far in your favor.  If you upgrade smoke, you can throw smoke grenades that leave enemies stunned and vulnerable to a close-range subduing -- which may as well be an instant-kill.  

So what’s the point of shooting if I can tap a button to stun droves of enemies at once, then run up and mash Triangle to take them out without a fight, and gain points for my alignment, AND fuel a Karma Bomb?  Sure, you have to aim, and some enemies are resistant to smoke grenades, but you have to aim less once you drastically upgrade the radius, and the enemies that are immune don’t show up nearly as much as those that aren’t.  And that’s setting aside the fact that if you’re playing the way you like, you’ve got the ultimate deterrent in a Karma Bomb.

*sigh* So much for shootcombos.


THE EXPLORATION!!
You can speed through Seattle!
I can’t say I feel any envy for devs and programmers working on games with parkour in them.  Making a game world is probably hard enough, but they want to compound that by making sure there are billions of ledges and surfaces to climb onto?  Those people must sleep for five minutes a day.

Parkour is one of the central conceits of the Infamous games (and Assassin’s Creed, and Remember Me, and Brink, and Prince of Persia, and Mirror’s Edge, and…), so it’s only natural that it shows up here again.  Each power gives you access to a different type of movement ability; smoke gives you dashes and air dashes, and lets you travel through vents to reach rooftops.  Neon -- as stated -- is probably the most useful, since it lets you dash along the ground and up buildings almost without stopping.  Video gives you wings so you can boost up buildings in an instant, glide briefly through the air, and launch yourself via satellite dishes.  Concrete lets a rock-armored Delsin run along the ground, and summon platforms to let him levitate…and probably sucks the most out of the four, given that you lose all momentum if you run into anything while armored.  And you don’t even have a Karma Bomb.

It’s almost as if the devs ran out of time and gimped concrete just to push the game on schedule. 


Joking (but not really) aside, it is nice to be able to move around the city in style.  As a neon user, it’s easy to chain dashes and long-jumps together to clear huge amounts of distance in a matter of seconds.  And since neon lets you run up walls, it just gets that much easier to make it up to some towering rooftop and see what’s up.  Maybe check out the sun on the horizon, and the waters splashing in the distance.  Or maybe just jet around and see the sights of a Seattle brought to (virtual) life.  Not having been there, I can’t say if it’s a faithful recreation or not, but I’m willing to believe that some hours have been put in to make it happen. 

Even if it’s not a complete one-to-one comparison, I’d have to assume that if I were to play SS again, it would be for the sake of zooming around Seattle.  I’ve pretty much gotten my fill on the story (and I’m tempted to add quotation marks to that), but I wouldn’t mind doing a little sightseeing on my way to the next round of assholes on rooftops shooting at me.

Yeah.  That’s still in this game.  Don’t ever change, Infamous.
 

…But it’s not as satisfying as it should be
I’m starting to think that we’ve reached parkour critical mass.  When a game or two does it, then it still manages to keep that air of excitement and wonder -- that feeling of being able to go anywhere, and do anything.  When every game does it -- and I’m pretty sure there are a lot more that have done/will do more of it besides those listed above -- then parkour ceases to be something special.  And SS, despite adding superpowers to the mix, doesn’t fill me with confidence.  When you can zip up buildings effortlessly in a matter of seconds, what’s the payoff?  Where’s the sense of accomplishment when you’re climbing EVERY building just to get from A to B?  What’s the point of appreciating the sights when the sights could just as easily be spotted in a Google image search?

Believe it or not, I can’t help but find myself thinking back to Grand Theft Auto V -- a game with NO parkour, but paradoxically walks away stronger because of it.  Yes, there have been times where I wish I could jump just a little bit higher and a little bit farther with Franklin so I can reach some right-there ledge.  But here’s the thing: if you climb up on something you shouldn’t in GTA, it’s because you earned it


In most cases, getting any sense of verticality is a struggle (stealing a helicopter opens up its own set of problems).  More to the point, you’re actually in danger if you screw up and fall.  You could die from a steep enough drop, or take a tumble down a mountain if you misstep.  That vulnerability is important…and it’s completely missing from Infamous, because you can fall from any height without a second thought, and make it back up in the same amount of time.  Unless your name is Kirby’s Epic Yarn, you can’t draw much satisfaction from a game when there’s no challenge to put victory out of your reach.  Danger brings opportunity.  Opportunity shouldn’t bring more opportunity.

Even Spider-Man 2 got that right, in spite of also featuring a playable superhero.    Mess up one of your web swings or send Spidey off a building, and he’ll take a big hit to his health, or even drop dead.  But I can’t think of anything quite as thrilling as leaping off a skyscraper, falling so fast that the wind and buildings blur around the web-head, and then sending out a line at the last possible second to swing just inches above the streets of the Big Apple.  Conversely, once you get the video power and start gliding around (and even upgrading that glide), things never mix up again.  You can pretty much fly, and that’s pretty much it.

Why does it feel like I’ve got more ammo in these negative points than the positive ones?


THE AESTHETICS!!
It looks pretty cool!
I guess I should pay at least a little lip service to the visuals in Particle Effects Demo SS.  Fair warning, though: scrutinizing graphics isn’t my forte, so I’m going to keep this brief.

It’s not just a bunch of brown and gray, that’s for sure -- and there are some varied enough areas littered through the city, so that’s a plus.  There are more lighting effects, too, and I guess more textures?

Some of the music is good, too.

There.  Brief.


…So, uh, why is it that in the backstory spews, everything switches to a different and significantly-more interesting art style?  Why can’t the game at least try to look like that?  Wouldn’t that be much truer to the comic book roots?  Wouldn’t that set the game apart from competitors? 

Also, why is it that when Reggie dies and Delsin goes into rage mode against Augustine, it doesn’t feel nearly as powerful as it should because it’s extremely likely that whether you play Good or Evil the scene and the boss fight likely plays out exactly the same way?  Do you have any idea how jarring it is to put effort into building a good character, only for the game to require you to punt Augustine like a football at least three times?

Wasn’t this point supposed to stay positive?


…But it doesn’t look cool enough
I don’t think the technology is there on the faces just yet. 

I know I’ve said this before, but again, another game that opts for photorealism ends up missing the mark and plunges into the uncanny valley.  Delsin looks all right, but my brother and I agree that Reggie looks kind of off -- like a decade-younger Brad Garrett with a slightly-inflated head.  Augustine did a kamikaze dive into the valley, though; I couldn’t tell if she was showing a creepy lack of emotion because she was supposed to be that kind of villain, or because her model bugged out.  I would say more about Eugene, Fetch, and Hank, but they don’t show up enough for me to have a clear memory of them.  Though as long as I’m talking about them, it’s worth noting that Delsin, Reggie, and Fetch are Vincent, Johnny, and Catherine, respectively.  Reunion show!

Also, I love how there are about ten times more references to Sly Cooper when the most recent game -- one that Sucker Punch didn’t even make -- didn’t even break the 500k mark in sales, and couldn’t even pass up Sonic Unleashed.  Or the rerelease of the original Sonic the Hedgehog.  Probably should have used more than PlayStation All-stars to advertise your franchise instead of just sending it out to pasture, eh Sony?


THE END (BUT NOT THE ENDING)!!
 You’re gonna have fun with it!
So this is what it comes down to.

I know I’ve said this already, but I’m going to go ahead and say it once more: the PS4 isn’t going to be just a spiffy electric-powered brick forever.  Eventually, it’s going to get a library that proves its worth, and games that prove that, yes, games have taken that next step into being something great.  It’s inevitable.  Compare what was done at the start of each generation with what’s been put out at the end, and the difference is staggering.

So while SS is not that revolutionary step forward, it’s still competent.  Pop it in, and you’ll be able to enjoy sending the Delsin of your divine (or dark) designs out to do battle with enemy soldiers and vault across the Seattle sky.  If that’s all you want out of the game, then you’ll be happy.  And you’ll be even happier when you see the personal struggles and triumphs of these characters.  In spite of all my complaints, the ending -- the Good Ending that I earned -- gave me just what I wanted to see.  And the moments that led up to it as a result of my chosen path were plenty rewarding as well.  Those glimpses and those rewards for the player make the game worthwhile.

Are there flaws?  Sure.  But name me a game that doesn’t have flaws.  Any given game out there, even the best of the best, is “good enough” in some capacity.  SS is no different.  For the moment, maybe those glimmers of potential are all I really need. 


…But you’re gonna be disappointed
And yet, this is what it REALLY comes down to.

SS is good enough.  But it could have been so much better.  So much better.  What could have been -- what SHOULD have been a bold step forward, and a confident announcement of the superiority of the company and the console, isn’t much more than the fanfare of a handful of kazoos.  I can’t think of a single thing in this game that couldn’t have been improved.  The gameplay needs work, the core mechanics are still flawed, only two characters get the time they deserve, and the only reason the story doesn’t have me foaming at the mouth is because I’ve already seen the worst via DmC.

I cannot accept that I should excuse the game’s problems just because it’s in the early stages of the PS4’s lifetime.  And why the hell should I?  What’s going to improve most five years from now is likely going to be the graphical quality -- and that’s likely to take the focus away from the game, AKA where the work NEEDS to be applied.  And it needed to be applied here, but for reasons I’ll never know, they weren’t.  Or is this just a sign that development is making them buckle under the pressure already?  How am I supposed to look forward to Infamous 4 when the latest and “greatest” game is so full of holes?  When the fundamentals threaten to take a step backwards?  When my goodwill is getting close to its limit, because I'm getting forced to deal with crap like this on a regular basis?


I don’t know.  And right now, I can’t bring myself to care.  If good enough is all we’re going to get from droves of devs, then I guess I’ll have to look to those who aren’t satisfied with “good enough”.  The way it should be.

See you guys around.  I’m gonna go play Spider-Man 2.


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