‘Infamous: Second Son’ review: Art is a weapon

March 22, 2014 | 7:00 a.m.
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Neon light is one of the slick superpowers in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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Delsin Rowe and Fetch, who can turn neon light into a weapon in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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Delsin Rowe is blessed with superpowers in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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Delsin Rowe confronts his brother in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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A look at Seattle's Space Needle, as depicted in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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Delsin Rowe admires his graffiti art in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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A Japanese garden in the Seattle of "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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Delsin Rowe goes on the attack in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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What's left of a Seattle bridge in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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Delsin Rowe, the artist-turned-superhero of "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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The Seattle of "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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A look at the graffiti art of Delsin Rowe in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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A Seattle market in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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The Department of Unified Protection goes on patrol in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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Delsin Rowe explores Seattle in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

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"Infamous: Second Son" is set in a Seattle of the future. (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

Sony’s new superhero fantasy “Infamous: Second Son” opens not with a bang, but with the hissing sound of a spray paint can. As a work of comic-book-inspired fiction, this PlayStation 4 video game aims high, asking right from the start if art can be weaponized.

If sulfur bombs and pink and blue lasers count as art, then the answer is yes.

Conflicted antihero Delsin Rowe, whom “Infamous” players will control, is a rabble-rousing Banksy wannabe who discovers his hands can conjure smoke and set the world ablaze. His stenciled graffiti art pokes fun at a police state set in a Seattle of the future.

Fear brought on by the emergence of humans with superpowers has crippled a nation, turning the Pacific Northwest into a society where segregation and surveillance have run amok. Rowe is thrust into the role of unlikely liberator.

If that setting sounds more than a little like the world inhabited by X-Men, that’s because it is, and “Infamous: Second Son” likewise has allegorical ambitions — at least partly.

Developed by Sony-owned, Seattle-based Sucker Punch Productions, “Infamous: Second Son” is also designed to be a showcase title for the PlayStation 4, the system’s first major exclusive work that will illustrate the new home console’s graceful slickness.

Delsin Rowe and Fetch, who can turn neon light into a weapon in "Infamous: Second Son."  (Sucker Punk Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

Delsin Rowe and Fetch, who can turn neon light into a weapon in “Infamous: Second Son.” (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

On that level, “Infamous: Second Son” is a success. Praise to the PlayStation’s 4’s handling, as the controller is outfitted with a small touchpad that allows heavy gates to be opened with a swipe of the finger rather than annoying button-mashing of yore. And then there’s the look of the game. One of Delsin’s superpowers permits him the ability to harness neon light, allowing him to zip through an impressively realized Seattle as a blast of fluorescent pink and blue.

It’s hard not to get swept up in a lighthearted game that relies on phosphorescent neon laser-dust as a weapon. Other nice touches abound, whether it’s ungrateful citizens complaining that Delsin should “go back to Portland” or simply the detail devoted to re-creating hipster breweries in Georgetown, which are still packed with selfie-taking drinkers, as this is a dystopian future with a narcissistic bent.

But it’s the game’s highly politicized undercurrent that serves as its most alluring characteristic. Unmanned drones haunt the skies, fingerprint checkpoints protect entry into Seattle, the government is tapping cellphones and Delsin watches the evening news manipulate his own exploits. “Infamous: Second Son,” the third and most topical game in the “Infamous” series, hints at quite a bit yet ultimately backs away from most it, as the game ends up content largely to make allusions rather than stake out a point of view.

The mutants here are called “bio-terrorists,” a word Delsin is careful to remind his thick-headed cop of a brother is a slur. When Seattle protesters holler that “bio-terrorism is un-American,” Delsin attacks their hypocrisy with biblical quotes, and when his sibling tells him he’ll find a cure for his magical abilities, the punk-looking rebel makes like Lady Gaga and hollers that he was “born this way.”

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The scenes come quick, all within the first hour or so of the game. While one will have to forgive some clunky Rosa Parks dialogue when Delsin is refused passage on a bus, they make for an exciting entryway, as “Infamous: Second Son” delivers a series of not-so-subtle hints on racism and gay rights. Add in the fact that Delsin hails from a Native American tribe, and “Infamous: Second Son” is overflowing in themes of oppression.

While the Native American back story serves as the revenge-inspired springboard for the action — when it’s discovered the Delsin has powers, a corrupt government agency, the Department of Unified Protection (DUP), leaves the tribe for dead — the culture is left unexplored. Likewise, as Delsin meets other “conduits,” the politically correct term for those with hidden powers, the subplots of “Infamous: Second Son” obscure its main one.

The supporting cast exists in part to gift Delsin new abilities, as the protagonist has the power to siphon other’s traits. A neon-spraying young woman, Fetch, is on her own personal war on drugs, and Eugene, a video-game-obsessed homebody, is tormented by bullies. Weighty subjects both, but what impresses most is their special effects rather than their characterization.

Delsin Rowe is blessed with superpowers in "Infamous: Second Son." (Sucker Punk Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

Delsin Rowe is blessed with superpowers in “Infamous: Second Son.” (Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Computer Entertainment)

That’s likely due to the inherent design of the “Infamous” series, in which players can choose between one of two options at pivotal plot points. One path is good, the other is evil. You can, for instance, “redeem” Fetch, or “corrupt” her. Don’t necessarily think of it as a moral decision, as Delsin’s very desire to save his tribe would simply make it out of character for him to wreak havoc on the lives of those who are similarly shunned by society.

Instead, it’s often a choice between doing right by the plot or making a decision based on what may look neater in the game’s action scenes. The main story won’t vary too greatly depending on one’s choices, but one’s special powers will. And as the game gets deeper, the talking points raised at the start stay just that. There’s a sense that everything has to stay just vague enough to account for those who play it nice (blasting foes in the feet to stun them) versus those who play it maniacally (destroy it all, civilians included).

While humans are complex, the result is that Delsin is a contradiction. In a sleeveless jean jacket and beanie, he looks the part of the most pretty and generic of grunge-era rockers (think Gavin Rossdale, not the Seattle area’s Kurt Cobain), and his dialogue veers from do-gooder excitement to sarcastic one-liners in seconds.

The argument is that players can take away what they want — latch onto whatever aspect best suits their own personalities. That may have worked in prior game generations, but the PlayStation 4 allows for a more vivid rendering of Seattle and its residents, and “Infamous: Second Son” appears eager to be the rare mainstream game that goes to bat with hot-button issues. As it veers more into old-fashioned action-game tactics (cue the machine-gunning turrets), some of the initial excitement present in the game’s opening hours can’t help but be lost.

Applaud “Infamous: Second Son” for offering so many complexities to play with, but in the end, the extremities presented to the main character make a personal connection difficult and an artistic statement hard to find. But heck if it isn’t thrilling to watch Delsin paint Seattle neon pink.

– Todd Martens | @toddmartens | @LATHeroComplex

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Comments


4 Responses to ‘Infamous: Second Son’ review: Art is a weapon

  1. Steve mullins says:

    Great game the collectors edition has some pretty awesome stuff included with it –  http://youtu.be/7ByocGIwCSw

  2. Good thing the native american culture is left unexplored. I'm native american by genetics and I'm sick of everyone assuming that I should give a crap about my loincloth-wearing ancestors. I don't, I never knew them. Just because a video game character is native american doesn't mean the story needs to be about that failed society.

  3. Henock Z. says:

    I love this game!

  4. Caleb Johnson says:

    Great points from the author. In terms of the gay rights comment, it definitely is not subtle as you can find several gay pride flags throughout the city (three I’ve seen) and a gay pride colored image of Seattle which reads “unity” within. It also says “All are welcome to Seattle, land of goodwill”.

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