Prototype (PlayStation 3) review
"Rarely has a game been so awful in so many ways, yet still proven so awesome at the same time. "
Correct me if I'm wrong, but Prototype may be the first game since Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 where the core mechanic revolves around consuming people. This, in and of itself, makes the game awesome. The question as to how awesome is a bit trickier, as Prototype is one of the most unique and schizophrenic games I've played in recent memory.
The game introduces Alex Mercer, a moody bloke with amnesia and super powers (i.e. the ability to take on others' forms and memories). He's out to get revenge on those who gave him said powers. I'm not sure why, exactly, as having said powers seems kind of awesome. Supposedly he wants his old life back, but if that old photograph of him in the Cosby sweater is anything to go on, his old life was rather dull. There is a virus converting much of the city into mutants, however, and Alex feels like there's got to be some connection between what's happened to him and what's going on in the city. So off he goes to investigate.
On paper, Prototype bears more than a passing resemblance to the recently released inFamous: Both games feature a 20-something male who wakes up with inexplicable super powers. Both games contain viral outbreak and both take place in a city that's been quarantined. They're also both are free-roaming platformer/action games. In practice, however, the two games couldn't be more different. Whereas inFamous focused heavily on its narrative, platforming, and atmosphere, Prototype focuses on combat above all else.
Oddly enough, the elements that Prototype has in common with inFamous are its least successful. In my view, the best thing about games like inFamous and Crackdown was the way that they delicately balanced shooting enemies with collecting power-ups. Prototype has both those elements also, but the draw distance is so terrible that collecting said power-ups feels broken. Furthermore, inFamous had an engrossing story and Prototype does not. None of that means the Prototype is a failure, just that it offers a completely different kind of experience than Sucker Punch's superhero adventure.
Instead, the game that Prototype reminds me of the most, oddly enough, is the highly under-appreciated Earth Defense Force 2017. Much like that game, the graphics are borderline terrible at times, but that only adds to its playground-like B-movie charm. Both games are silly, over-the-top, and are about causing as much cartoon mayhem as possible. They even both have tanks and helicopters that don't control well. Though that's part of the fun. You'll hop in a vehicle, take a few quick pot-shots, then it'll blow up and you'll move on. In one choice mission, you even have to take out an entire series of helicopters. You'll frequently hijack one, it'll blow up, then you'll hijack another before hitting the ground (thanks to your invaluable tentacle). At one point I must have hijacked something like four or five helicopters without once hitting the ground. It's wonderful, daft fun.
One place where EDF succeeded that Prototype does not is in terms of simplicity. That game only used a few buttons for all its actions, whereas Prototype has one of the most convoluted control schemes known to man. Initially it all seems sensible enough, with the lock-on targeting and ability swapping mapped to the shoulder buttons while jumping and various attacks are delegated to the face buttons. Once the powers start piling up, though, it becomes a lot to manage. Especially annoying is that the circle button is used to grab, but in crowded environments it's easy to grab the wrong thing. I can't tell you how many times I tried to grab a person to consume them for a health boost, only to grab a car instead. Even worse, there's no way to simply set an item down, so once you pick up that hulking piece of metal, you're committed to throwing it; something likely to raise an alert. D'oh!
Thankfully, some of the controls work wonders. Prototype has possibly the best parkour of any game I've ever played. The New York City rendered in Prototype is apparently made of Teflon, with every surface flat and smooth; ideal for running. You can automatically run up any surface and soon gain the ability to glide. It's a bit like Assassin's Creed, where you simply hold down R2 and run in any direction and can basically go through the entire map in a straight line unhindered, if you so desire. Unlike Assassin's Creed, the game has no ties to any kind of reality I know, so you needn't wait for Alex to find footholds like a chump. The fact that this works so well is invaluable as you'll spend a lot of time running in Prototype. You'll be under gunfire much of the time, so evading the enemy quickly becomes the name of the game. At times the action can almost be too quick; I know I had trouble landing on rooftops at times as I was accidentally hopping over them, but that's the kind of game Prototype is: the kind where you can accidentally jump over buildings. It feels hectic and out of control at times, but that's only fitting for a game about a man who can turn his arm into a tentacle. Along with missions that never last too long and a generous checkpoint system (with the minor exception of a ridiculously drawn out battle of attrition with a boss in which checkpoints all but disappear), the frantic nature of things is what keeps play exciting.
I can't help but wonder what sort of changes Prototype went through during the course of its development. It's one of the most hilariously over-the-top games out there, but it's marketed as a AAA title with a seemingly serious, ambitious story. This would be okay if the story was anything to write home about, but it's not. It's a fairly typical man vs. corrupt military corporation tale told in disjointed cutscenes with awkward, stilted dialogue. There would have been potential for a such a project- where you play as a super villain or otherworldly evil unleashed upon the populace (maybe a Spider-Man game where you play as Venom, perhaps?), but the ridiculously goofy nature of the game leads me to believe that it would have been more successful had it been conceived as a parody of the action genre.
Imagine if Mercer was an agent who took orders from a corrupt government official who was always getting on his case about how much damage he's caused. Instead, the game seems totally unaware of its own ridiculousness. We're lead to believe that Alex has some portion of humanity left, but the way he recklessly kidnaps pedestrians off the sidewalk, only to take them atop a skyscraper and devour them (which inexplicably rewards you with exp) is both silly and completely at odds with his character. Battles feel almost like a parody of the genre, whereas the cutscenes seem sincere. It's an odd balance. Had the writers gone completely towards this path of reckless abandon, I could see Prototype going down in history as major cult hit (not unlike Crackdown, come to think of it).
I realize I must sound harsh against Prototype in this review and that's because taken individually, there's a lot to dislike about the game: it's tonally inconsistent, the controls are fiddly, and the graphics and draw distance are shoddy. Once you get past all that, the game's silly charm as it relishes in wanton destruction, is infectious. Scrutinized piece by piece, the game can feel broken. It tries to do too much and succeeds in those efforts with varying results. However, the game is more than the sum of its parts. At the end of the day, it's the bits that work that stick with you. Running is fun. Gliding is fun. Absorbing clueless pedestrians is fun. When you're running over countless civilians in a hijacked tank, only to emerge so you can consume a soldier, take his body and weapon, then fight off some ragged mutants while the population of NYC runs around screaming like chickens with their heads cut off... all is forgiven. Rarely has a game been so awful in so many ways, yet still proven so awesome at the same time. The game's sort of a mess, but so was my room as a child and lots of fun was had there. Sometimes a mess represents the best place to have fun. So relax, don't over think it, and go devour some people.
Freelance review by Jeffrey Matulef (June 28, 2009)
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