For decades, superheroes had the worst luck when it came to video games, the X-Men chief among them. There are a few welcome outliers—Raven Software’s X-Men Legends duology remains a classic, Wolverine’s game adaptation for his first solo movie has its silly charm, and you can still find the classic beat-’em-up cabinet in arcades everywhere—but there are more lows than highs, from Mutant Wars and X2: Wolverine’s Revenge, to the franchise’s last big stab at mainstream gaming respectability, 2011’s X-Men: Destiny. Sluggish and overwrought, the latter seemed to be the kiss of death for Marvel’s mutants, the precursor to their eventual fate years before they were kicked out of Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite. (Getting left out in the cold during Marvel’s big purchase by Disney probably didn’t help.)
Just as in the world of comics and films, hope for the X-Men to do more than tread water in the world of gaming seemed dismal until Disney’s recent acquisition of its wayward toys. Beyond next month’s Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, though, it may be some time before Disney decides to give its mutants the Spider-Man treatment, where a developer gives the brand a much needed restart that drills into the things that make it special. But if you own a PlayStation, you don’t have to look too far to get a glimpse of what that big-budget hypothetical X-Men game might look like: Just play Sucker Punch’s superhero saga Infamous—first released 10 years ago last week—instead.
The elements of what make a good X-Men game seem simple, but have proven tough to nail down. X-Men Legends went for the simple appeal of wielding the power of iconic characters and using that to draw in any type of fan—but the appeal ended there. X-Men: Destiny had the opposite problem: It wanted to make players really think about if they truly would protect or harm humans, but the choices lacked any real impact—in addition to the game itself not being fun to play.
2009’s Infamous and its numerous sequels took the best of both worlds, combining some of the best superpowered game-play around with a story just engaging enough for it to feel like it could be The Gifted—but with a better budget, and slightly higher scope. The original game followed the story of bike messenger Cole MacGrath weeks after an explosion left his New York-like city under quarantine and him with mysterious, lightning-based superpowers. Cel-shaded cutscenes help convey Cole’s inner thoughts and help make him a grounded character, even as the world gets more batshit and X-Men-like around him. (He even becomes a vampire in the 2011 side story Festival Of Blood, just a year after Jubilee had the same transformation in the comics.) In between fighting telekinetic homeless men and invisible cultists, Cole finds time to kill his future self, an evil time traveler who came back to better prepare Cole to save the world—exactly the sort of convoluted troubles Charles Xavier and his students find themselves in on the regular.
2011’s Infamous 2 sees Cole and his buddy Zeke fleeing to the game’s version of New Orleans following a beatdown from a giant flaming Beast, getting stronger as the fiery being makes its way across the East Coast for round two. Even with the Beast making his way downtown, Cole finds his time largely occupied by a charismatic William Stryker-type named Bertrand, convinced he’s destined to lead a Conduit genocide. In the most X-Men-twist possible, the Beast reveals itself to be the game’s equivalent of the Phoenix Force, activating potential Conduits—as the game’s take on hated-and-feared-youths-with-superpowers are dubbed—but killing anyone unlucky enough to be normal in the process. Cue the classic X-Men dilemma: Save humanity, or ensure the survival of a small, possibly more evolved group? It’s treated as a dilemma, but not really: Cole sacrifices himself in that game’s canon ending, saving humanity and helping the future of the franchise become more comfortably seated in X-Men territory, as the Conduit “threat” becomes more widely known and feared.
Picking up seven years later, 2014’s soft reboot Second Son and its DLC side story First Light unpacks the effects of Cole’s sacrifice on the wider world. Conduits are now hunted and dubbed “bio-terrorists,” locked in a prison while their rights are stripped away by an organization called the DUP. Replacing Cole as the protagonist is Seattle graffiti artist Delsin Rowe, given the more versatile (and fun) power of absorbing other Conduit abilities, Rogue-style. Where Cole was sullen and burdened—not unlike Wolverine or Cyclops—Delsin is Second Son’s equivalent to Nightcrawler, a youthful smartass with an accompanying alt-rock soundtrack meant to be played loudly by a teen trying to piss off their parents.
It’s the sort of setup for an interesting modern superhero origin story that Second Son isn’t entirely interested in telling, even as its world more closely resembles the one in which the Marvel heroes operate. Any thoughts the game has on surveillance state and freedom over security exists largely to help service a more simplistic gameplay loop, of taking down The Man by blasting security cameras and DUP outposts to pieces, while trolling Conduit alert hotlines set up to allow scared citizens to narc on your fellow superpowered folk. One mission sees Delsin climb the Space Needle to take down the DUP’s surveillance over part of the city, spray painting a flag on the monument in defiance. But it comes way too early in the story, feeling less like an earned victory, and more a way to get Delsin to fill out his roster of powers. The game’s attitude toward authority feels dated instead of potent, reminiscent of a time when games were clumsily stabbing at trying to be political in the ways that comics had been (in their own clumsy style) for years.
Since their debut in 1963, the X-Men have always zeroed in on becoming a metaphor for the oppressed and minorities. In recent years, that substitution for actual representation has led to recent PR blow ups. Infamous thankfully doesn’t front-load its cast with superpowered white people and call it a day, but it follows the X-Men playbook too closely in some aspects, in ways that are both interesting and frustrating. Infamous 2 features two women of color, Kuo and Nix, who both acquired their powers following torture from one of the villains. Second Son’s chief villain, meanwhile, is a white woman named Augustine, who leads the DUP with her concrete powers. Surprisingly, it’s Second Son that doesn’t “go there” in terms of embracing the political aspect of its metaphor, despite the fact that Delsin is Native American, and that Augustine tortures the members of his (fictional) tribe with her powers. Contrasted with Infamous 2—where there’s a visceral sense of validation in seeing Nix spit on her tormentor following his death—Second Son diminishes its impact by using a fake tribe as a stand-in, making Delsin’s win less of a metaphorical triumph over the forces of oppression.
The political themes are shaky in context of the larger world, but it’s in the personal stories where the franchise fares better. The plights of Cole and Delsin’s respective entourage of Conduits help make the Good/Evil Karma system—one of the games’ key selling points when they were early bestsellers on the PS3—work, despite its flawed, binary outlook. (Game-play wise, Delsin’s non-Conduit brother, Reggie, largely exists to force players to choose between redeeming or corrupting Conduits he gets new powers from.) Infamous 2 features a mission path for Good players where Cole teams up with one of the game’s many evil ice mercenaries, only for Cole to have to put him down as he becomes more monstrous. In its early moments, Second Son hits a similar feeling of fear and freedom that comes from the strongest X-Men moments, with Delsin’s newly discovered powers nearly getting him killed as he uses his new Smoke powers to crosses a destroyed bridge, emphasizing the way mutant and Conduit powers can be a double-edged sword for the scared kids who suddenly unlock them.
Meanwhile, the villain Augustine—in true X-Men villain fashion—was actually one of the many Conduits activated during the Beast’s coastal rampage in Infamous 2, and only founded the DUP to lock up Conduits so they could avoid persecution from humans. (The bus crash that begins the game’s story was orchestrated by her to continue stoking Conduit fear among the public.) When the games get into the micro stories of its cast of characters, the writing shines brighter than Delsin’s neon blasts—but those moments can still be a bit too infrequent.
Superhero stories have taught us there is no true end, no moment of peace that can’t be shaken up after a matter of months. Second Son’s ending sees Delsin and his friends redeem Conduits in the eyes of Seattle and kick off an apparent era of peace—the sort of happy ending that Logan, Scott, Jean, Hank, and the rest of the team, trapped in their serialized world, can only dream of. Which might be the least X-Men thing about the entire Infamous franchise, offering a vision of a world in which the Other is ultimately accepted and loved, instead of hated and feared. But if this is indeed the end of Infamous—and Sucker Punch doesn’t continue the series after its new samurai game—then I’m glad the Conduits got to go out on a clear win, despite the series’ stumbles. Like the comic books it draws influence from, should the series ever decide to reboot itself, here’s hoping that it does so in an all-new and uncanny way.