Infamous: Second Son is just about ready to hit store shelves, and we couldn’t be more excited. Not only is it shaping up to be the first real big Playstation 4 exclusive, a game that captures that undefinable “next gen” quality, but it’s the next installment in one of the best franchises from last generation. Infamous and Infamous 2 weren’t the most significant PS3 exclusives, with things like the God of War and Uncharted series being the real heavy hitters, but they were two of the most enjoyable open world games available on any console. I could just say both games are outstanding and leave it there, but where’s the fun in that? Let’s examine every aspect and see which game will hopefully be dethroned as the best Infamous game next week when Second Son is released.
You can watch the video version of this showdown here or continue down for the written version)
Full Spoilers Beyond This Point!
Infamous tells the story of Cole McGrath, a bike messenger that gains superpowers after delivering a package that explodes in his hands, killing thousands and creating a deadly plague. Despite being at the center of the explosion, Cole survived and gained the ability to wield a variety of electricity based powers. The presentation of the story in Infamous is very minimalist, with the majority of the dialogue being radio chatter and the primary exposition coming in the form of comic book style cutscenes narrated by Cole. The in-engine presentation, what little there is of it, leaves much to be desired, and is quite frankly on early PS2 levels of production. Despite the lackluster presentation, the story serves as a solid origin story for both Cole and the world and lore of Infamous.
The plot itself is quite interesting, with the main thread involving Cole’s investigation into the group responsible for the attack, with the help of his best friend Zeke, FBI agent Moya, his girlfriend Trish, and later NSA agent John White. The characters are decently developed, though the fact that you don’t see much of them face to face certainly hurts. The overarching plot about the Ray Sphere, Kessler, and the First Sons is interesting, but the game does get bogged down a bit in the middle. Much of the middle chapters is devoted to dealing with the gangs that have taken control of the city in the wake of the quarantine, and this isn’t quite as interesting as the hunt for the Ray Sphere. A standout of Infamous is the relationship between Cole and Zeke, which portrays a tragically believable falling out between two best friends after one finds himself a superhero and the other is left a sidekick. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic twist ending, which is adequately foreshadowed, but just enough so that most players will never see it coming.
Infamous 2 begins with Kessler’s foretelling of the beast’s arrival in Empire City coming to pass, forcing Cole and Zeke to flee with John’s former partner, Lucy Kuo, to New Marais. Right off the bat, it’s immediately apparent that Infamous 2 features drastically better presentation than its predecessor. The game still has comic style cutscenes, but the in-engine presentation has become the primary means of telling the story, and it’s of the quality you’d expect of a AAA story driven game on the Playstation 3. The bump in production quality really improves the entire experience, and the increased focus on character development really benefits the overall story. With Cole, Zeke, Nix, and Kuo all sharing a lot screen time together, Infamous 2 feels much more like a team effort than Cole’s largely solely missions in the first game, and it fits much better with the grand threat the beast poses.
The impending threat of The Beast’s arrival in New Marais creates an air of urgency to the entire game that really enhances the tone, even if in reality you can mess about as long you want and The Beast still won’t show up until the end of the game. Whereas the side plots about the gangs and other conduits in the first game weren’t as interesting as the main plot, all the various sub-plots and side stories in Infamous 2 are just as compelling as the threat of The Beast. Things like Bertrand and his militia, Kuo’s conduit abilities being activated (and fueling an army of super-powered mercenaries), the struggles of the resistance, and the ongoing feud between Nix and Kuo are all much more interesting than the battle against the Reapers and Dustmen in the first game. The finale is also a much more visually impressive sequence than the end of the first game, even if it doesn’t have the punch of the Kessler reveal. Both games have engaging main plots with comic book sensibilities, but the vastly improved presentation and better side plots give Infamous 2 a slight edge.
Infamous 2 has the better story
Infamous 2: 1
One of the defining elements of the Infamous series has always been the moral choice system, and it’s one that I’ve never really been all that fond of. Each of these games shares nearly all of the common issues present in most games that feature moral choices. These include things like karma points which preclude you from making choices against your alignment, binary pure good or pure evil choices, and a shocking lack of variation between the outcomes of choices, though that final one is more an issue with the first game than the second.
Of the many choices you’re given throughout these two games, very few of them actually make you think too hard, and many of the evil options fail to present any compelling reason for you to choose them other than because you’re doing an evil playthrough. Binary moral choice systems are common, but my biggest issue is the total lack of impact the major story decisions have in the first game. When Kessler kidnaps Trish and gives Cole a very comic book inspired ultimatum, the decision seems incredibly important. However, the game changes the nature of events depending on which choice you make to suit the same outcome. If you save the many and let Trish die, that’s exactly what happens, but if you try to save Trish it turns out it was a trick and she dies anyway. By changing the circumstances of the situation based on your choice, it just feels like the game is cheating, and it nullifies any agency you thought you might have over events.
Infamous 2 handles choice much better, but it still suffers from the issues of binary moral choice. The biggest improvement in Infamous 2 is the addition of branching story points. Your two conduit allies each represent an alignment, and several times throughout the game you have the option to side with one of them, resulting in completely different missions. The final decision in the game is a huge one, and has a major impact on the conclusion. Each ending has an entirely different final mission, and unlike the first game it feels like your choices in Infamous 2 actually have meaning, even if they’re still clear cut good or evil with very little gray.
Before we move on, I feel like I have to address the ending and how it will be handled in Second Son. Sucker Punch has declared the good ending canon, and aside from marginalizing players that went the evil route, it also presents continuity problems. The good ending implies that every conduit or potential conduit on the planet is died when Cole activated the RFI, but that obviously isn’t the case. Official promotional materials for Second Son state the following:
“Approximately 90% of conduits all over the world died when The Beast was destroyed in New Marais” and “To this day, we do not know why some perished and others survived, but we suspect some kind of Ray Field Radiation event occurred.”
Now, there’s no question this is a retcon, but with the lack of definite confirmation during the end of Infamous 2 that every single conduit died, I can accept this explanation. Regardless, this doesn’t really have any bearing on the decision as it’s presented in Infamous 2, and overall it has better implementation of choice than the original.
Choice is better in Infamous 2.
Infamous 2: 2
When it comes to open world games, most of the best fall into two very distinct categories. On the one hand you’ve got games that aim to make the world itself the star of the show. These are the types of game where that old tired game reviewer cliché “a living, breathing world” really applies. Examples of these types of games are Skyrim and GTA V, games where the world is incredibly detailed and comes to life in an impressive way. The other main type of open world game are the ones that aim to make the world a sandbox within which the player can make use of interesting gameplay systems. These type of games are usually characterized by deep mechanics and a lot of freedom in the way you can traverse the world and engage with enemies. Examples of these types of games are things like Just Cause 2 and Crackdown. Obviously, the Infamous games fall into the second category, and as such the actual design of the world in each of these games isn’t quite as impressive as some other open world games.
Empire City is a pretty basic New York City substitute that doesn’t do a whole lot to set itself apart from the dozens of iterations of New York or New York-like cities across gaming. Empire City lacks any sort of personality, it’s pretty much just a very standard array of streets and buildings. Across the three islands, there is very little that is all that memorable, aside from a giant tower made of garbage that serves as one of the more enjoyable sequences of platforming. Each of the islands looks quite similar, and across the entire city you’re going to notice quite a bit of repeating assets. Visually, Empire City isn’t at all engaging, with a very unappealing color palette of grey and brown that pervades the entire game. Infamous has a lot about it that’s great, but Empire City doesn’t stack up against most other urban open world games.
New Marais serves as a stand-in for New Orleans, and like Empire City, it isn’t able to compare against other open world games, but it does come closer than its predecessor. The very fact that a New Orleans type location is one that we haven’t really seen in gaming is a big point in this game’s favor. New Marias has a much more tangible personality than Empire City, which is definitely helped by the much wider and more appealing color palette. Each of the districts is quite distinct, from the partly submerged flood town, to the swamps of the bayou, to the industrialized gas works, there is a much greater feeling of variety. Though New Marais is better presented than Empire City, neither is that great. The games lack that feeling of life present in something like GTA V, with streets that feel empty and very sparse sound design that is somehow dead silent in the middle of what is supposed to be a major metropolis.
Though neither is great, Infamous 2 has a better city.
Infamous 2: 3
We’ve established that the design and realization of the open world in both these games is by no means the star of the show, but the games aren’t hurt much by that fact because they are just so damn fun to play. Many of the most popular open world games aren’t typically known for having the best gameplay mechanics, but I contend the Infamous games are among the best third person action games, open world or otherwise, when it comes to pure gameplay. Both games share many of the same strengths, though there are a handful of differences between them.
Essentially, these games are third person shooters, but there is so much more to the gameplay than you’d find in a typical shooter. Cole gains access to a variety of powers, some of which are electrified versions of a standard shooter arsenal while others are a bit more unique. You’re basic attack is a standard semi auto electric shock, but you also gain access to electric grenades, electric rockets, and a sniper bolt, among others. Unlike most third person shooters, cover is available but not essential, with your biggest tool in combat being your mobility. The strength of the combat lies in its fast and frantic action and tight controls, and every second of it is immensely enjoyable.
In terms of combat Infamous 2 has a slight edge over the original. The biggest improvement is the melee combat, with Cole now having a weapon with which to engage in close quarters fighting. Mechanically, the melee combat isn’t much different than the fisticuffs of the first game, but the more impactful amp combined with the finishing moves makes it a bit better. Another advantage the sequel has is the greater control you have over your power choices. One of the key strengths of the first game was that every power was accessible on the controller in real time, never taking you out of the game to equip powers. This is changed somewhat in the sequel, but it’s done quite well. Rather than have powers that simply improve as you upgrade them, you gain access to variations on your abilities which you can change on the fly. As an example, you can choose to go with the powerful but slow magnum bolt or opt for the rapid fire bolt stream. These variations on your basic powers give you a lot more freedom to tailor Cole to your preferences or alter your approach based on the situation.
The other main element of gameplay is the traversal, and it is just as good, if not better than the combat. The world of these games may not be super interesting, but moving through them certainly is. Cole is a skilled climber and parkour expert, and that was before he got super powers. Because all conduits have rapid healing and vastly enhanced physical resistance, regardless of their powers, the game has no fall damage, meaning you’re free to move about rooftops and jump off buildings with no repercussions. The jumping controls are fairly forgiving, with Cole gravitating towards handholds as you simply point him toward them, but the assistance is just enough to make it feel fluid without being cheap. Early in the first game you can only jump and climb, but once you start unlocking Cole’s movement abilities, things get really fun.
Eventually Cole is able to grind across wires and on train tracks at rapid speeds and glide through the air. Once you get a hang of these abilities, moving through the city is extremely fast and incredibly fun, though once again it’s better in Infamous 2. It takes a decent amount of time to really get all your movement abilities in the first game, so the early traversal isn’t as good. You start with your baseline movement abilities in the second game, and they only get better. Your static thrusters get added speed and lift, you can pull yourself to rooftops in a flash with the electric tether, and regardless of which ally character you side with you’re going to get an awesome new movement ability, though I personally prefer the more versatile ice launch over the firebird strike. Whether you’re fighting enemies or simply moving through the city, both Infamous games are amazingly fun to play, but some key improvements and refinements give Infamous 2 a slight advantage.
Infamous 2 has better gameplay.
Infamous 2: 4
Mission design is always an important aspect of open world games, and the missions in the Infamous games get the job done just fine. Both games have very similar types of missions, and the way they impact the world is identical. Each game has about 40 story missions to go along with 75 or so side missions. The side missions are all quick and uncomplicated, but they serve their purpose of giving you reasons to engage in the outstanding gameplay. Interestingly, when you complete a side mission it clears that area of the world of enemy activity, so by the end of the game you can move freely about the world without having to worry deal with enemies. Many open world games suffer from tedious or repetitive side missions, but aside from a handful of repeating objectives and even fewer annoying missions, most missions across both games have merit.
The main missions are far longer and more complex than the side missions, with a decent amount of variety and a consistency of interesting opportunities to use your powers. With as good as the gameplay is, the game really doesn’t need much more than enemies to fight and space to traverse, but the interesting missions do add quite a bit to the game. While both games have standout missions, neither really has a clear advantage over the other, and overall the missions are similarly enjoyable in each game.
Both games have solid missions.
Infamous 2: 4
Winner: Infamous 2
Infamous and Infamous 2 are among the best playing open world games in existence, but also prime examples of how a game with rock solid framework and some rough edges can be improved upon in a sequel. Infamous was a great game when it came out in 2009 and remains very enjoyable to this day, but nearly everything it does well Infamous 2 does better. There are very few superhero franchises that aren’t tied to comic book properties, but with its interesting mythology and lore, I look forward to seeing the Infamous universe continue into Second Son and beyond, and hopefully Infamous 2 doesn’t remain the best game in the series for much longer.