By Alec Meer on June 16th, 2009 at 3:45 pm.
On sale now is the oft-delayed open-world anti-hero killathon by Radical Entertainment, they of the hugely enjoyable console romp The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. Prototype’s concept is similar, but it now stars a surly guy in a hoodie rather than the unjolly green giant. Promising an absurd level of mayhem and violence, can this possibly achieve the omnipotence it promises? Here’s my take on it. I even wore a hoodie while I wrote it.
“Do whatever you want” says the cackling devil on my shoulder, as I impale 40 people with bio-spikes then throw a lorry at a helicopter. “Anything“, it whispers, as I cleave a tank in half with my bare hands.
“No, you’re enjoying this too much” says the frowning angel on the other shoulder, as I’m knocked on my arse before I can reach my target again. “Do what you’re told”, it orders, as the game announces it’s turning off my superpowers for a while.
Angel? Devil? I’m not even sure which is which. Morality is non-existent in this game of mass, consequence-free killing, after all. All I know: half of Prototype wants me to have sustained, undiluted fun. The other half wants to keep that fun from me at all costs. This is a game that regularly strikes close an unprecedented degree of fantastical wish-fulfilment, but similarly seems determined to punish anyone with the temerity to play it.
It grants a slew of incredible powers, a sort of superhero greatest hits, then elects to remove most of them for an infuriating two hour stretch. It grants absurd amounts of health, and the ability to recharge it anywhere and anywhen, and then besieges you with so many knock-back attacks that you can barely hit half the stuff you’re supposed to. Prototype offers a sense of locomotion and destruction that gamers have bayed for for years (Crackdown and City of Heroes are the best touchstones here), then puts you in the shoes of a characterless, unsmiling goon based on some half-formed (prototype, even) idea of urban cool. It’s the game with two brains – and if only they’d been fused, this could have been one of gaming’s highest-ever watermarks.
We want the game that lets us do anything: it’s why GTA is so big. Against that is the problem of challenge: when there’s no serious obstacle to your crazed orgy of destruction, all that unbridled fun soon collapses into tedium. Prototype gives you the tools to pull a helicopter from the sky with a tentacle shot from your shoulder. Prototype gives you the tools to devour ten-foot monsters or to dropkick men into the horizon. Prototype gives you the tools to power-jump and glide across the length and breadth of New York in minutes. Prototype gives you the tools to assume the form of anyone you encounter. In free-roam mode, you can clock up jawdropping kill counts within moments, and become an unstoppable engine of carnage. But what then? How many tanks can you trash with a single elbow-drop from the top of a skyscraper before your interest wanes?
And so, Prototype understandably builds in purpose – a central campaign, telling the tale of the curiously unlikeable Alex Mercer and his similarly characterless comrades and enemies. There are bosses, there are daring chases and escapes, there are twists… It’s paperthin, but bar the relentlessly grim tone and Mercer’s disappasionate actor, it’s a workable enough loose structure for a game that’s only really about splatting people. He’s been infected with something dark and sinister, the military wants to kill him because of it, and meanwhile an even more ‘orrible strain of the malady is gradually spreading across the populace of New York, creating zombie-like creatures who also want to kill him.
Where this really works is in the effect of the tale upon the city – it begins as a crude Liberty City, wherein box-faced civilians bimble around doing nothing important and failing to react to anything, but as the infection spreads, turns into hell on earth. As Mercer glides across the skyline, screams echo up the concrete valleys, explosions and unearthly gas clouds flicker in the distance, while helicopters or hulking fleshbeasts will occasionally attempt to pull him to Earth. Many games – especially of late – have shown us the post-apocalypse. Prototype shows us the apocalypse itself, as it happens – this is an Armageddon simulator.
Perhaps that’s why its characters are so cold – this isn’t a game interested in hope or humanity. It’s only interested in decay and destruction. And punching a man clear through the chest then absorbing the bloody remnants of his body into yours, of course. This is a remarkably brutal game, though I didn’t realise quite how gruesome it was until I saw the screenshots – freeze-framed moments of the horror I was causing. At the time – well, I was just doing it. It’s why I’m here. I didn’t notice, didn’t even think that I was killing. I’m not sure I ever do, really – I’m either removing an obstacle or pressing a button to watch a man-shaped collection of pixels dance spectacularly.
Anyway, that’s another, well-trodden argument – the point is that Prototype takes its carnage very seriously indeed. To that end, there is very little colour and zero humour. The end of the world is hardly a happy place, but the dispassionate bleakness becomes wearying. As soon as you drop down from that birds-eye view of the end of the world, New York becomes an unwaveringly dreary city. Its cheek is entirely without tongue – which seems a terrible shame, given the open insanity of what you get up to in the game. The billboards advertising medicines in a time of bio-horror, the pedestrians failing to even blink at a man with a sword for an arm plunging towards them from the skies, that the areas of the city still free from infection seem oblivious to the fact there’s a zombie outbreak a block away, the fact Mercer is dressed like middle-class Britain’s bogeyman of the hour…
It all goes unremarked on, and even just a touch of GTA-esque satire would have made it an infinitely more characterful game. Its mechanics of movement and violence are glorious, but stylistically it’s hard to call it anything other than a failure. Additionally, jittery controls and and a cavalcade of pointless “are you sure?” pop-ups in the menus will do little to endear it to PC gamers convinced consoles are a halfwit blight upon the gaming landscape. It’s true this isn’t the most loving port, but really, on a technical level it’s all fine, and the controls eventually feel more natural.
Just as well, as there’s a lot of controls. As it wears on, your powers will escalate to godlike levels – able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, roundhouse kick a helicopter out of the skies, take down entire armies in a single move… The unbridled power is glorious, ludicrous and, much of the time, an entirely adequate substitute for the game’s absent charm. Follow the core missions, however, and it’ll do everything it can to undermine this omnipotence. In the late game, you’re knocked infuriatingly off your feet every other second, while there’s a clutch of bosses so punishing and grindy they prevented me from having a single good thing to say about the game when I first attempted this write-up yesterday.
One, a mammoth slug/anus creature who takes over Times Square, seems to have been designed by a guy thinking “oh, there’s still a chance the player might be having even a tiny bit of fun here. Let’s add an insta-kill attack. Nope, he’s still smiling. How about infinitely respawning henchmen? Hmm. Let’s throw in homing rockets. Huh. Alright, make most of Mercer’s hard-earned powers useless against the boss. And then make him repeat the fight three times. There! That’s it! There is absolutely no chance whatsoever that he’ll enjoy even a millisecond of this encounter. My work here is done.”
The angel and the devil. That a game can be so much fun and yet so jawdroppingly cruel makes little sense – I would guess it was the problems inherent in finding a compromise between omnipotence and true challenge. Prototype is one of gaming’s all-time greatest playgrounds for sure, a veritable ode to obliteration. A more individual art approach and an acceptance that most people who play it want to mash buttons and watch amazing things happen would have elevated it to one of the best experiences of the year.
As it is, I can gladly recommend it to anyone curious to see what action games are like when they do earnestly try to grant their players’ every wish. You’ll have fun. You probably won’t remember it a year hence, for better or for worse. You may walk away from it after one too many frustrated goes at one of the vertical-learning-curve bosses. But, God help you, when you make Mercer erupt into a hundred 50-foot spikes that instantly dismember anyone within range, you’ll have fun.
Oh yeah – the lack of multiplayer of any kind is absolutely criminal.