For once I'm feeling inspired to write a long-form review... something I haven't done since the days of LiveJournal. I wonder how many people will see it here? Let's find out...
I have been reticent about the first few games on the new-generation consoles. I've got some really good games on the PS3 & XBox360, and you know how it is... it's a while before something comes out that stretches the new hardware; they stick with upgraded versions of previous-gen titles for a while, and although they can be good, they're often only ... "okay". This is how I felt about Dead Rising 3 and Killzone: Shadow Fall - both fine, but not amazing. Ditto for "Thief", which I hoped would be the ice-breaker, but it was another average title.
Fortunately, we're now six months into the new generation, and some new titles are appearing that have had a decent amount of time spent on polishing for the new consoles. I spent most of the last weekend player InFAMOUS: Second Son (henceforth ISS - I refuse to count Famous as a separate word, despite the capitalisation). I had the first InFAMOUS title on PS3, and enjoyed it but found it hard - I game quite a bit, but I'm 42, and I'm no longer playing every night, or even every week, my reflexes aren't as fast as they used to be, and it's getting a bit harder to remember every button-mashing combo on top of the day-to-day concerns of life. Fortunately, ISS is designed to give a real feeling of what it's like to have superpowers... to be faster, stronger and tougher than everyone else, to be able to move like lightning, slip through the tiniest hole, and blast explosives, and rays from every finger. To achieve that feeling, it's set up so that the difficulty level, while challenging, is just a tad easier than some other games I could mention (Dark Souls, I'm looking at you - you may look very appealing, but the very ethos of punishing the player isn't what I'm after at all. Pity!). So you get to charge through the city, feeling like a million dollars and royally kicking arse with a vengeance. It's a great feeling.
I can't really comment on the re-creation of downtown Seattle that the game uses as its setting... I've never been to the real place. However, wherever it is, it's beautiful, extremely detailed, and the draw distance is far enough that I can't see it. Climb to the top of a high building (and some are really dizzyingly high, and yes you do need to climb them!) and you can see for miles in every direction, with moving traffic, and the city's monorail still running even in the far distance. It's highly detailed, too - I'm genuinely surprised and impressed at the depth and detail of facial expressions, even down to moving wrinkles around an old lady's eyes and mouth as she speaks, and folds of cloth flexing as people move. It's still quite clearly CGI rather than looking real, but it's well past the point at which we accept a character as being an individual rather than just another computer-operated drone. Even the non-entity passers-by in the street have at least basic expressions, although they show a limited repertoire of speech - you can still tell a key location by the fact that people have a conversation rather than general inane mutterings. Speaking of which, the sound: If you have a decent home cinema setup, like me, I heartily recommend checking out the sound options, which allow you to specify that you have such a system, and alter the sound mix appropriately from its pedestrian default. Precisely what's changed is difficult to identify - it was already 5.1 dolby digital - but the richness and fullness of the surround sound has improved, while the speech is clearer and the sound effects are generally more... soundy? It's as if they've been brought closer to your ears. I hate to use the over-applied term, but it's appropriate: the sound is more immersive. I find this game suits that term in many ways - I haven't found myself immersed in a game for 8-hour stretches since the Mass Effect trilogy, but it's still a joy to find something that draws me in so.
The plot is thin and simplistic, but decent voice acting bolsters it into adequacy. I've heard numerous reviewers describing the main character as unlikeable, and I expected this to be a problem - I don't tend to like cocky, arrogant characters. This kid, though, has his heart in the right place (at least, if you follow the paragon path) and I can only assume that the reason teenagers and impatient caffeine-fuelled twitch-gaming reviewers don't like him is that he develops a conscience and sense of moral responsibility as the game progresses, and while he remains cocky, he takes important things seriously too. I find this a reasonable character arc, given that we all have to grow up sometime... perhaps that's what some people haven't liked.
The game has been fairly criticised for old-school gameplay and scripting, with black-and-white options rather than shades of grey, but actually I find this to be a positive thing (as long as not every game does the same thing, anyway). It's a superhero world, and most superhero comics live in worlds of good and evil. While I'm glad that there are shades of grey in real life, people simplify things into their own personal blacks and whites when making judgements. We all do it to some extent - our brains simply aren't wired to handle a scalar certainty value of every possible variable, because the knock-on effects are incalculable. It's actually liberating to know that there's one right and one wrong, and to have a simple path with a binary choice. There's plenty of choice and variability elsewhere in the game, in that you have freedom to decide how you achieve your goals. It's enough... the game feels limiting only occasionally. There are sometimes surprises... as a long-term gamer, I'm used to spotting how a puzzle is meant to be solved, but occasionally the game needs a bit of lateral thinking, and is solved by an indirect or non-obvious means. Nothing that I couldn't figure out in time, though... and again, the difficulty level is bang-on perfect. It's a pleasure not to have to resort to 'easy' mode for boss battles. I'm not ashamed of playing on 'easy' - I play for the story and the experience, not the challenge (I have more than enough of those in real life, I play for escapism!) but it's a pleasant change not to be labelled as inadequate. As the gaming market ages and matures, I suspect the proportion of players who feel like me will increase, but even if not, ISS can appeal to multiple levels of challenger competence with its difficulty settings. I've already seen one reviewer who insisted that all players should forego the normal difficulty and play on "hard" as the game's too easy, but I disagree, because I'm seeking pleasure, not pain. Still, if it's pain you want, it is but a click away in the game options.
The main mission can probably be completed in ten hours or less for a goal-focussed teenager, but for a completist like me who wants to clean up the city, take every side mission, and take over every district so that I get a nice clean map and a really huge list of powers, it's going to last considerably longer - especially with the (>200MB) Day One patch which adds around 40%-50% more in extra side missions. It's the first game in which I've ever bothered to collect every power shard (the game widgets which, when collected, let you "purchase" and unlock new powers) or equivalent.
All in all, I'm having a whale of a time, and I'd recommend ISS to any PS4-owning middle-aged gamer who likes power fantasies and third-person open-world gaming with a mild sci-fi twist.