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Gaming: Prototype

Alex punching.

Wikipedia fact: "In his sarcastic Zero Punctuation review of Prototype, Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw compared" Prototype and Infamous "point for point, and determined that he could not tell which was the better game" ... "and challenged the respective studios to "produce the best image of the rival game's main character wearing women's lingerie" as a tiebreaker. To his surprise, both development teams rose to the challenge".

Year of release: 2009

Developed by: Radical Entertainment

Available for: PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 (version played)

Demo available: No.

Summary: Alex Mercer wakes up in the morgue to discover he has been infected by some sort of virus that gives him all kinds of extraordinary powers, and is caught up in a battle for Manhattan between other infected humans and the military forces trying to contain the outbreak.

Thoughts: Ever since open world games have started to embrace the vertical and let you scale buildings there have been a variety of different ways developers have found to make climbing possible and fun. In 2007’s Crackdown you scaled buildings through a series of mighty jumps from ledge to ledge, while later that year (and in its 2009 sequel) Assassin’s Creed used a system of hand and footholds to ascend, all excellently animated. 2009’s Infamous uses a cross between the two, with Cole able to climb and do small leaps from ledge to ledge, as well as gliding when necessary. In Prototype, you simply hold one button and Mercer runs straight up even the tallest buildings in seconds.

You can fathom something from that about Radical’s intent with Prototype, to give the player incredible abilities early on and make them simple to use. In addition to the wall running Mercer can perform huge leaps like a Crackdown agent and glide like Infamous’ Cole, which altogether give him an incredible amount of agility and aerial movement. For combat Mercer can shift his form (primarily his arms) into a variety of different weapons. Giant claws for fast slashing, a whip tentacle for ranged attacks, giant fists for pounding, a giant blade for slicing or he can simply boost his muscle mass to make his regular attacks more powerful. They’re all either upgrades you have to buy or are introduced at key points in the game, so it’s never overwhelming.

A significant problem with the upgrade system is that it’s rather bloated. You have abilities that render others obsolete (including amongst the core powers listed above), some that serve no purpose at all, and some that are just so powerful that it makes no sense to use others. At times it feels like Radical just threw in every power they could come up with without thinking about purpose or necessity, and as some require pressing multiple buttons at once you can end up performing the wrong action (for example, on the 360 pad Y is strong attack and B is grab, but you can also press Y and B together for a knockback blast or hold both buttons down for a powerful tentacle spike attack).

Alex in the morgue.

The Alex in the cutscenes can take a lot of punishment and live through it, but the Alex you play as in the game is much less resilient.

The story and characters aren’t particularly interesting. After a brief opening with a powerful Mercer the game flashes back to the early days (stripping you of most of the fun powers you’d been playing with, a trick the game pulls more than once), starting from when he first wakes up in the morgue and tries to piece together what happened. Mercer starts off moody and angry about what has happened to him, and while later revelations do alter the character he never progresses into being likeable (practically the opposite, in fact), while the infected faction remain a generic zombie/virus threat and the Blackwatch are an equally generic military cover-up group. You’re essentially a bad guy fighting two factions of bad guys. It does have the advantage of making civilians nothing more than fodder for all three side so there are no penalties for civilian deaths (beyond the military noticing you and starting a fight) and you’re free to wreak as much havoc as you wish. In fact, upon completion each mission delights in telling you how many civilians died (as well as military and infected), and consuming civilians is a simple and safe way to regain health.

Aside from the main missions, the story is furthered by consuming Web of Intrigue targets, who are people in Manhattan involved in the conspiracy and trigger a brief cutscene upon consumption that tells you a little bit more about the how the infection came about and what the military is doing to try to stop it. There are many other side missions as well which can be completed for experience points, but no attempt is made to logically integrate them into the experience. You’ll be trying to kill infected or soldiers within strict time limits or only using specific upgrades, or doing checkpoint races or gliding challenges, all without any explanation for why the rather serious Mercer would be spending time doing them.

Helicopter approaching.

When near the military you can hear what they're saying on the radio, mostly a wide variety of military jargon.

At its best, the war between the military and the infected makes for some great battles. The infected ‘zombies’ will be swarming around the soldiers while the larger hunter creatures are leaping around and throwing cars at the tanks and helicopters that are raining missiles down upon the area, and you’re in the middle of it all trying to complete objectives or just revelling in the chaos. When it works it really is a lot of fun, but the trouble is that it often doesn’t work. Hunters will catch you in multi-hit combos that you can’t escape from, missiles from soldiers, tanks or helicopters will repeatedly knock you down or prevent you scaling buildings, and eventually you’re forced to leave and regain health, fleeing in a way that is at odds with the powerful killing machine Mercer generally is. Most of the boss fights in the game go the same way, with explosions and hunters swarming around while you’re trying to defeat them, which isn’t helped by all the bosses being of the high health, high damage and fast attacks variety, where your health can be drained in seconds before you’ve inflicted any worthwhile damage and you’re forced to retreat again. It’s something that is compounded by the often unpredictable lock-on system, which seems to vary between choosing the enemy closest to you, choosing the highest threat, or occasionally locking on to a passing helicopter or a random object.

It’s a shame, because at times Prototype’s Manhattan is a great playground where you’re never punished for rampaging through the city and are constantly rewarded with points to spend on the wealth of upgrades available. Too often though the chaos works against you and crosses that thin line between fun and frustrating, and when combined with the uninteresting story it all keeps Prototype from truly attaining the greatness it sometimes comes close to reaching.


Game of the Year Status: For my ongoing Game of the Year 2009 post, Prototype displaces WET in the number 10 spot, putting it just below Red Faction Guerilla, a fellow open world game which nails its core design (the spectacular physics) better than Prototype manages to with its chaotic combat.

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  1. February 6, 2010 at 02:13

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