Gaming Today Impression: This Prototype Might Need Some Tweaking

prototypes2.jpgHave you ever really felt bad about the way you feel after playing a game you were looking forward to?

Of course you have, I think it might be one of the few constants of the gamer experience – disappointment when a game fails to live up to its potential and promise. Well, Prototype is one of those experiences for me.

It has all the ingredients of a smashing good time – a super powered hero, a sandbox city, even a conspiracy relating to the military industrial complex manipulating people for their own nefarious ends only to have it go wrong somehow.

Well, despite the mix of interesting pieces, the sum of Prototype just ends up coming out as a fairly bland experience. Maybe my expectation was improperly set by the history of the developer. These same talented folks turned out one of the best super hero games ever developed – Incredible Hulk Ultimate Destruction. That title featured a super powered hero running around in a sandbox New York city setting solving missions and running side missions just like Prototype but somehow the fun factor seemed to be higher in that title.

Prototype is the story of Alex Mercer, a military man whose dealing with a nefarious genetics corporation leave him altered and amnesiac in  New York City. A city which is about to come under siege by a sentient virus and its offspring. Players start the game in full possession of Alex’s unique super powers under full assault in Times Square by a military task force. This method of dropping the players immediately into the action – a cinema term called in media res – might work normally in a game played in flashback but something about the technique feels jarring. The juxtaposition  is odd primarily because the “present time” sections of the game often feature a much more powered up version of Alex and then the next flashback segment removes all those neat abilities from you leaving you as weak as a super powered cannibalistic kitten.

prototype-3.jpgThe time jumping aside,  Prototype relies a bit too heavily upon the most popular of gaming cliche – a hero with amnesia. Now that said, the amnesia in this case makes some story sense. Players discover that Alex is effectively dead before he wakes up leaving him running around seeking to discover how he returned from the dead. Alex uncovers that his condition is directly related to exposure to the same virulent contagion that will soon be destroying New York City.

Along with discovering his new powers, Alex seems driven by a need to revenge himself upon those who left him this way and his super senses enable him to detect folks involved in the process merely by coming into proximity of them. Conveniently, a DNA helix symbol appears above those citizens who store a clue to Alex’s condition and he can use his powers to extract this information forcibly.

Extracting information here presents another issue – for a game where I imagine the creators intended the players to identify with Alex and want to help unlock his mysterious origins, I think they forgot a key piece of information: You have to make the character likable. Alex comes off in the game’s story scenes as a reasonably nice guy but exhibits absolutely no problems using the random bystander of New York City as popcorn to fuel his powers.

I can somewhat understand if he executed his revenge only on those who wronged him but come on! What did that tank commander ever do to Alex except get stationed in New York during this crisis? I mean he probably has a family and fiends who will miss him since Alex just eats anyone who has a skill he needs or frankly will get in his way. This sort of lack of moral impact left me feeling less than sympathetic to Alex’s plight and I wonder if it wasn’t just a shortcut to play up the coolness of a guy who absorbs foes like John Carpenter’s The Thing without doing the work of injecting any repercussions to that choice.

Couldn’t Alex just simply incapacitate someone, snake his fleshy tendrils into their brains and take what he needed without completely consuming them, leaving the full on absorption/consumption for his revenge motivated justice against the real bad people? Or is that just not “awesomer” enough to make an impact on today’s gamer?

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Story considerations aside, Prototype is a fun sandbox super hero title. The powers Alex gains through the title do evoke a sense of strength and speed. Alex  reminds me far more of Carnage, one of Spider-man’s more dastardly symbiont foes, than he does Superman or the Hulk. His gory flesh spikes and tendrils as well as ability to create blades from his flesh also mirror the Marvel villain. Alex gains experience in the game by completing missions and can power up his abilities in increments, adding new power stunts and developing some completely off the wall abilities like his gliding power which is apparently powered by spraying his blood from his hands and feet. The concept itself of using blood spray as propulsion is laughable, but the effect comes off as cool on screen.

The key to any open world game is how the environment augments the character’s powers. In Crackdown, inFAMOUS or any of the better Spider-man games (i.e. not Web of Shadows) the city always seemed to complement the player with tall buildings and elevated rail. Prototype has some element of this but the setting feels a bit more bland than expected. There is not as much variety in the game’s setting and sometimes that made it difficult to immediately grasp my location on the mini-map without resorting to using the games full map which broke my immersion completely. The best open world design features distinct visual landmarks and clues to help the player navigate the playground, Prototype has a few of these but most of the landscape just doesn’t cut it.

You might likely think I was not a fan of Prototype. While its not going to remain on my must play list too long, I have to say I did have fun playing Alex Mercer in short bursts but it just didn’t grab me. The fighting can be frenetic at times, which is good. The story misses a few beats overall but is well scripted and its nice to have the choice on how to power Alex up.

Ultimately, Prototype suffers somewhat in comparison to the recently released inFAMOUS in that the games both feature similar protagonists, settings and core concepts. Both titles offer open world super hero fun but one thing missing from here, which makes inFAMOUS that much more fun, is the moral path in the story. Cole McGrath, the character in Sony’s game, is presented with a decision to be a hero or the ultimate destroyer. Alex however mopes a bit about how bad things are but ultimately still eats the granny walking down the street if he’s low on health and doesn’t bat a tendril over it. One advantage Prototype has however is its platform independent nature, meaning for 360 or PC owners who can’t choose inFAMOUS over Prototype the game really will provide some good open world fun, but for those with a ability to choose between the two titles I feel Sucker Punch got it more right.

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