Ah, Seattle, home of a thousand coffee shops, almost as many tech startups and the loudest fans in the NFL. Also, gangs of armed drug dealers, an oppressive paramilitary presence and a handful of superpowered rabble-rousers.
Deslin Rowe, the star of “infamous: Second Son” (Sony, for the PlayStation 4, $59.99), is one of those malcontents. He’s on the run from the Department of Unified Protection, a government agency that’s understandably twitchy around mutants, given the apocalyptic meltdown unleashed in 2011’s “inFamous 2.” Deslin has his own score to settle with the DUP, so Seattleites had better hold onto their lattes.
Deslin isn’t your ordinary comic-book hero/villain. For starters, he’s a graffiti artist who wears a wool cap and a denim jacket rather than a mask and tights. More important, like Rogue in Marvel’s X-Men comics, he can absorb the powers of other so-called “conduits.”
Those powers are fueled by ambient elements of Seattle’s neighborhoods. If Deslin inhales smoke, he can shoot it back out as fireballs. If he drains a neon sign, he can slow down time and shoot precise laser beams. Scattered all over town are glowing shards he can use to upgrade skills or unlock new ones, which get more weird and flamboyant as the game proceeds.
Happily, Deslin acquires his two most useful skills right from the start: superspeed and flight. Even when you’re not battling DUP troops, it’s thrilling to race up the side of a skyscraper, leap off the roof and fly to the next building. Since shards and side missions can be found on almost every block, you’ll want to explore every inch of the lively, three-dimensional Seattle – including landmarks like the Space Needle and the monorail – recreated by Bellevue, Wash.-based Sucker Punch Productions.
Most of the missions in “Second Son” involve destroying DUP facilities, although you can also get under the government’s skin by disrupting its surveillance cameras or defacing its billboards. There are also high-speed chases, Earthbound and airborne. And when you meet your fellow conduits (the DUP calls them “bio-terrorists”) head-to-head, you’re treated to cleverly designed boss battles that require a balanced menu of superpowers to conquer.
“Second Son” continues the series’ “karma” system, which forces you to decide whether you want to be a hero or a villain. Rescuing civilians earns you good karma; slaughtering them earns you evil karma. You can redeem or corrupt other conduits. And you can try to take enemies alive or just blow off their heads. Some superpowers are available only to good or evil characters, and your ending will vary depending on whether you’re naughty or nice. It’s a bit simplistic, but provides ample reason to replay the game and check out the paths not taken.
I took the virtuous route and was rewarded with a solid superhero origin story that touches on some timely issues of government surveillance and control. Deslin himself borders on annoying, a near-parody of a certain brand of West Coast hipster who really needs to have that stupid wool cap slapped off his head. Fortunately, he is voiced by Troy Baker, who delivers a performance that’s radically different from his award-winning work in 2013’s “The Last of Us” and “BioShock Infinite.” In particular, Deslin’s relationship with his law-abiding brother Reggie (voiced by Travis Willingham) is acutely realistic, a mix of mutual affection and trash talk that will sound familiar to anyone with siblings.
Still, the real star is Seattle. “Second Son” makes me want to take a vacation in the Emerald City, even though, unlike Deslin, I’ll need an elevator to get to the top of the Space Needle. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lkesten