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Jul172009

The Problem(s) with Prototype



I don't normally write anything about games I genuinely dislike because I either don't get far enough through them as to have a significant amount of authority, or I just don't want to revisit them after such an unpleasant experience. Prototype, made by Radical Entertainment (the same guys who made Scarface, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and Simpsons : Hit & Run among others) will be an exception to this trend because I did finish it and it bothered me enough to actually make me want to write this. Prototype is interesting on some level because I actually beat it out of spite. Even though the game was almost totally unenjoyable to me by the end, I felt that I had to beat it just because I was so angry at it. I can't quite describe it any better than that, nor could I tell you why I felt that way, so let's just get started instead.

I suppose I can start with what I did like about this game. Namely it's an open world city that is full of stuff (people, cars, monsters, uh, I guess that's it) and you are allowed close to total freedom to roam. The player also has a number of super-human abilities. You can run up the side of buildings, jump pretty high, pick up stuff and throw it, punch people into the air, glide, and a variety of other things that are mainly in good but mindless fun. As the game progresses you earn some kind of points that allow you to purchase additional abilities and upgrades so that by the end of the game you're an even more unstoppable killing machine (you start off more powerful than a maxed out player in Crackdown).

The fun of the open world was basically that you could mess around and be a complete jerk. If you messed with enough stuff the military would send out a strike team that you'd have to either evade or destroy. I enjoyed those mini-missions, though after you get a reasonable amount of power the strike teams end up being pushovers. Regardless, fairly enjoyable to fight or attempt to escape from.

That's all I've got. Probably the most disappointing aspect of Prototype was how little the actual missions embraced the open world. Most of the missions boiled down to 'find a guy' or 'blow something up' or 'destroy these X things'. There was little use of the city for anything interesting beyond 'escape from the military' which generally meant you found an alley where no military could see you and changed your disguise.

Prototype sort of presents the major problem open world games seem to have, which is that they simply use the world as a backdrop for telling you a linear story. Basically do exactly what Grand Theft Auto 3 did and leave it at that. Few open world games seem to want to change that formula (Crackdown is the only one that comes to mind) which isn't necessarily bad, but you do need to shake things up if you want to stick to the GTA3 formula. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, one of my favorite games, blended an almost perfect amount of absurdity, tongue-in-cheek humor and mission variety and combined that with potentially the largest open world an action game has ever seen (discounting RPGs or adventure games like the Zelda series) which made the game very enjoyable. Prototype boasts a similarly impressively-sized world (basically the entire island of Manhattan built almost to scale) but fails to deliver on most other aspects.



The world of Prototype is also interesting just due to how empty it feels in spite of being full. At any given moment you will encounter realistically Manhattan-sized crowds of people and cars. However compared to Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto 4 (which is perhaps an unfair bar to hold something up to), Prototype's Manhattan feels very soulless. People walk only on the sidewalks or crosswalks and have virtually no interaction with each other. You never stumble upon a conversation, you never see a car accident, you never see anything even resembling personality. Where in GTA4 the true star of the game was Liberty City, and you felt like you were just one small part of it (if not a very destructive, loud part), Prototype's world is built around you. That's not necessarily a bad thing, however the game often focuses on you blending in and not being noticed, so it's a sort of bizarre choice. Why, for example, would Alex Mercer automatically elbow people in the face as I walk by them?

And this brings me to one of the game's core problems, the player character, Alex Mercer. I'm not quite sure what they were attempting to portray Mercer as but to me he simply came across as a despicable, deplorable asshole. There was almost nothing to like about him at all. The game's story centers around you trying to find out why you are like you are but Mercer seems to be willing to go to any length to find it out. He essentially says he doesn't want to be an unstoppable killing machine, but the game encourages it. You are awarded points for killing, murdering civilians is the easiest way to replenish your health, and at the end of each mission you are presented with a body count broken down to military, civilian and infected kills. The counts are almost always well into the thousands. The game gives you no reason to like Mercer, and by the end you may very well be completely disgusted by him. The game's final spoken lines attempt to shed some sort of human light on him, but they fall entirely flat and actually don't even make any sense.

I could spend entirely too much time on why Prototype's story is poorly written and poorly acted and poorly directed, but I won't because it's not really worth talking about for that long since it's all so bad. Suffice to say it's a video game.

The game's main faults lie in the mechanics. You have the ability to unlock a large number of weapons each with their own unique combos. However many of these weapons and powers totally obsolete the old ones. So basically you're left using the blades (which can destroy pretty much anything) and muscle mass (which makes all your regular attacks even more powerful) and left wondering why you bothered purchasing something called 'hammer fist' aside from the fact that it sounds hilarious.

And to make things even more baffling, many missions later in the game don't even require use of these weapons. You need to fly a helicopter for a number of missions. You need to drive a tank for many missions. Those are two of the least fun aspects of the entire game, and they are required for a number of missions. The mission design in general is hugely uninteresting, as I mentioned. The old video game standby 'escort mission' makes a triumphant return a few times. Also classics such as 'kill this guy in X minutes or you die' and 'survive in this area for X minutes' are there. It's enough to make you think you're back in 2002.



My final qualms with the game are some of the more basic design decisions. Prototype has a tendency to show you lengthy character animations during the game with no way to skip or even speed them up. Whenever you hijack a tank Alex grabs the barrel, does a flip so he's on the top, walks over to the hatch, spends 5 seconds pulling the hatch off, jumps into the hatch and another 5 seconds tick by as you hear the guy inside scream and blood spray everywhere. This always lasts at least 15 seconds (I am trying to be generous) and the only player interaction required is mashing a button to pull off the hatch. During this animation Mercer will sustain damage via the myriad of people shooting at him (who often infinitely respawn, so clearing the area first isn't an option) and can be knocked off by a rocket or shots from another tank.

Late in the game you are presented with a new type of enemy. Previously even the bigger ones have been fairly standard enemies that you can just beat on until they die (with option to absorb them for health once they are hurt enough). As such I'd consider the combat to be fairly button-mashing oriented, which I don't have a problem with. However this new enemy, a super soldier, introduces everyone's favorite buddy quick time events right into Prototype's combat. When fighting one of these fellows you often end up grappling with them, at which point a button flashes up on the screen. Hit it and you push the guy away, miss it and you lose roughly 60% - 75% of your health. That percentage is not an exaggeration. I can't tell you how many times I died or lost almost all my health because one of these guys showed up and I hit the wrong button. At no other point in the game do you face an enemy that requires you to partake in a QTE, and the only way you have of ever escaping it is to either not fight the guys (kind of impossible) or to constantly punch them and run away. Usually ff you land more than two punches in a row on them you are given a QTE. They also have a large amount of health so this method is not exactly enjoyable. I found myself cursing and running away whenever I saw one and just hoping it would lose me. Often times you are faced with two or three of them at a time, which only adds to the frustration. If the game was attempting to up it to the next difficulty level by introducing these guys then it failed utterly and completely. Eventually more game designers will learn that more difficult enemies do not equate to cheap enemies.

So I feel that I've blabbered on about this game enough now. If you were looking for a recommendation, I guess it's pretty obvious that I think you should skip this game. I can see shades of what might be a great game under it, but that tends to be true of most bad games with fairly high production costs. Anyone who tells you the game is good because you can kick a helicopter is only trying to fool themselves. When a game's sole selling point is that you can do ridiculous things, perhaps it's not really a game worth playing. Perhaps some day someone will create a good open world game where you play as a guy who murders thousands upon thousands of people for no real reason, but until then we have Prototype as a pretty good template for what not to do.

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