Wot I Think: Prototype

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.

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189 Comments »

  1. Hax Medroom says:

    @Mman:
    Outside of that side mission tab will pick something even directly behind me but inside of it, I could not get it to behave the same way. The problem might be that if there are that many valid targets and you’re moving the mouse around already, it starts to pick one and then thinks you want to choose another one, making it difficult to use. From what I’ve read, for the consoles you just hit the button, fire and repeat but in my experience the manual target switching for the PC screws that up and makes it much harder than it needs to be.

  2. Hax Medroom says:

    Too late to edit, sorry. How it works for me is that I hit tab and it finds a target. I fire, hit tab again and it goes out of targeting mode altogether. So instead of giving me a new target it usually forces you to use an awkward tab-fire-tab-tab combo which wastes time and ammo. At least GTA IV, for all it’s lack of optimization, allowed manually targeting. Prototype doesn’t and the system it does have clearly doesn’t work as intended when it’s needed most. That’s been my experience anyway.

  3. Chris R says:

    OHHH Man I’m excited to play this! But first I must finish Assassins Creed, Prince of Persia, and Stalker: Clear Sky. I buy waaaaay too many games and don’t play them at all. This needs to stop!

    Excited for Prototype tho! Sounds like it turned out good afterall, I was getting a little worried about it during the last 6 months.

  4. Mman says:

    @Hex Medroom
    I just retried that mission you’re referencing by holding tab and came within a couple of shots (I had a couple of bad streches of not hitting anything) of gold on my first. I does sound like the console version is a lot easier but it’s still very doable on PC (I can see the platinum being a bit impractical though). There’s three things to keep in mind: 1. Always hold tab so the lock can be shifted smoothly 2. Only shoot off one shot at each helicopter; take the shot and sweep the targetting on to the next one 3. Keep a close eye on the rader so you’re always facing the general direction of a helicopter.

    JKJoker: “making you waste 5 minutes instead of 10 doesnt make it fun”

    The wording of your complaint makes it sound more like you don’t like sandbox games in general, which is fine (I wasn’t particularily keen on them until recently), but it still seems odd to be slamming a game for something it does much better than the majority of its competitors. For that matter, navigation has become no less enjoyable for me.

    Side-note: Posting this comment has shown me the game alt-tabs well, which is always a plus for me.

  5. Guhndahb says:

    @Wulf: I admit, I had no intention of trying keyboard/mouse. Everything I had heard told me that (a) this is a console port through and through and (b) gamepad is much better. Sight unseen, I do believe (a) is the truth, and in my experience console ports play better with gamepad. So even though I’m very pro-PC-controls, I am very glad I own a XBox 360 controller for my PC for those games.

    (b) however was a shock. Several people said they tried key/mouse first and found the controller superior.

    Because of those two combined, I wasn’t even going to try key/mouse. But I’ll give it a shot now before trying the controller. Thanks for the suggestion, Wulf.

  6. Wisq says:

    @Geoffrey: Totally agree re: multiplayer.

    At least RPS doesn’t apply a big number tag to their reviews, but they’re in the minority for that.

    It’s time that games reviews accepted that a lot of games are going to be SP-only, a few are going to be MP-only, and the majority of the rest are going to have wildly different SP and MP experiences and should probably get independent reviews (and scores) for each.

    The current behaviour of “everything must be settled with a single score” just leads to weird things like docking points for lacking MP. Even worse, it leads to the more feeble-minded studios tacking on crap MP (or crap SP with bots) to try to please the reviewers rather than the players.

    As Geoffrey noted, I’d much rather a game honestly declare itself SP-only, than to promise MP but not deliver anything worthwhile.

  7. Eschatos says:

    I very much enjoyed the game, though I doubt I’ll ever play through it more than twice. Good, but shallow.

  8. malkav11 says:

    I’ve played it both on PC and on console (360) – I certainly don’t find the mouse/keyboard controls -bad-, but things like targeting and switching powers felt far more natural with the controller. I’ve certainly switched disguises while gliding and can’t recall having any trouble with it at all, and I am in no way ambidextrous.

    As for it looking kind of shabby – I turned the settings up as high as they would go and it’s just kind of drab. Look at GTA IV or Saints Row 2 for a sharp contrast. It’s not gamebreaking to me or anything, but I wish it looked nicer.

  9. owned. says:

    the reviewer forgot to unlock adrenaline rush, no wonder he had so much trouble on the “slug-boss”…

  10. DK says:

    Yes, whenever someone mentions an “instant kill attack” in a prototype story/review, you know they didn’t check their upgrades. It’s literally impossible to be instakilled.

  11. Howard says:

    @DK
    No it isn’t impossible to be insta-killed. Far from it.

    Each time I have played through the game I have bought every upgrade as soon as its available and make good use of them. There are however situations you can be squished.

    Most obvious is (MINOR SPOILER!!!) when fighting Greene, the huge slug thing in Times Square. After you “kill” her the first time and she re-emerges from the ground if you are ANYWHERE near here the huge rippling explosion thingie she sets of will utterly destroy you, armour or no, and given that control gets taken away from you for an ” in game cut scene” type affair this is not wholly unlikely.

  12. diziet sma says:

    Having played it a lot more I’m warming to the gleeful morality free destruction of it all when compared to the driven home with a sledgehammer morality of inFamous. Both good games, similar settings aiming for different things. Enjoy them both I say now for what they are! *Jump, glide, zoom, glide, kick, slice, dice, slice, dice, hijack tank, laugh manically*

  13. Eschatos says:

    @Howard
    As long as you have adrenaline rush whenever you would die from an attack the screen turns grey and you get about 10 extra seconds to escape. That’s more than enough time to get away and find somewhere to heal.

  14. Elyscape says:

    All I know is that I’m never going to grow tired of getting a strike team after me, killing one helicopter with an air conditioning unit, and killing the other helicopter with the first one.

  15. Osbob says:

    I’m very surprised that the sheer awesomeness of the SHIELD power hasn’t been mentioned much. Simply deploy the shield and charge down a crowded footpath like a rhino… THWACKTHWACKTHWACK CRUNCH! That and things like body surfing and the splendidly gory street sweeper 360 whip make for some fun times killing things.

    I’ve just got the blade and armor power and the game is starting to get a little grindy with the same kind of objectives and challenges and stuff over and over. The only thing now that’s really making me play it is the promise of more ridiculous carnage moves and upgrades to unlock as soon as I get enough points.

    Also: why the hell do the foward and reverse controls in a tank magically switch around when you aim the turret to the back?? I want my tank to control like one please.

  16. Hax Medroom says:

    @Wulf:
    “Try the keyboard & mouse controls and turn targeting toggle on.”

    This sounded like it might be the solution to my main frustration with the game, but no matter what I do the game will not allow me to enable that setting. I’ve searched several times on the steam forums, official forums, etc. and nobody has mentioned how to do this. Did anyone else have this issue?

  17. your mum says:

    [I am incredibly unpleasant]

  18. Jeremy says:

    Actually, “your mum”, the game’s supposed to be enjoyable. We’re paying for entertainment, not annoyance. If the only way a developer can manage “challenge” is via “frustration”, then they need to employ smarter designers.

  19. Vexor says:

    The knockbacks really aren’t that bad. Yeah you’re going to get owned late game if you’re not using the defensive powers (ala shield/armor).

    Overall I think the game balance is nearly spot on (normal diff). You’re certainly never overpowered. Challenging but never frustrating.

    As for the Greene boss fight, devestator attacks take her apart in 1-2 hits…..

    I also think the voice acting was perfectly fine. The story, although slightly predictable, was actually pretty good. I’m sure I’m the minority but I for one, look forward to Prototype 2 which will undoubtedly be made.

  20. Nick says:

    I really hate the use of the word toon to describe an ingame character..

  21. joe says:

    I just wonder if it’s necessary (as seen in the trailer) to be able to “skateboard” another human being along the ground with realistic grisly results?

    I didn’t watch the trailer before playing, and during my play around with the controls/moves at the start of the game, this is the one move that stood out from the rest, for it’s utter brutality. I was pretty shocked and awed. I think my reaction was “whoa”. I can’t say I feel strongly about it one way or the other though. It’s got shock value, that’s about it.

  22. joe says:

    Also, the controls are shit with kb-mouse. Port better pls devs.

  23. Zyrxil says:

    HOLD the targeting key down. Hold->time slows down->Point at target->Let go. It’s in the tutorial hints.

  24. Adrian says:

    I thougth the game was one of the best i ever played. I would have agreed that some of the missions are very hard to complete but at one point i realized that the Armor, Vehicle and Weapon skills are actually pretty important. I always just increased my virus skills like the claws etc. but that way i could hardly complete half the side missions and i had a lot of troubles completing some of the main missions. then i started infiltrating all the bases cranking all my weapon and vehicle skills up to max. after that i could hijack vehicles in no time and could really use them as effective weapons (without the skills it was really hard to hijack a tank because a lot of times i would get shot off and same with the helicopters because by the time u opened up the cockpit the heli would be pretty damaged). With the high vehicle skills you can hijack within seconds and with the high weapon skills you can easily complete all of the side missions!. Great game but i wish i would have had an early hint that these skills are actually very important!

  25. pzykozis says:

    Whilst not entirely fitting with the pc theme of RPS, I own this on the PS3 and I have to say I really enjoyed it.

    I think it somehow fails at its sandbox description though, there’s not a whole lot to do other than the main story (though I am still hunting for those damned web of intrigue targets three more to go!) sure there’s the side quests but they’re not exactly masses of content in there. Maybe I’m just spoiled with other sandbox games like morrowind etc (though yes they are of a different breed being RPGs and all).

    Alex Mercer is pretty much an empty vessel though like some others say but I thought his sister was pretty good overall and besides I really enjoy the web of intrigue cut scenes, It’s something that I haven’t seen before (maybe it has been done before I don’t really know) but getting broken pieces of story and piecing them all together really satisfies something in me.

    Overall It’s probably my most enjoyed game this year and I eagerly away the inevitable Prototype 2 announcement.

  26. Chis says:

    Lots of somewhat pointless sandbox elements, set to a beyond cliche’d plot, with unremittingly unlikeable characters engaging in the usual “post-modern” melodramatic non-acting that’s become the norm for a lot of today’s cinema and games.

    So pretty pathetic then? Well, it’s a little addictive, I’ll admit, but the control system is somewhat wayward and doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “precision”. Fights are usually little more than button-mashing with a reasonable targeting system in the middle of confusing mayhem.

    6/10 from me. But a very close 7. It’s just a little on the wrong side of unlikeable for me. Will see it through to completion and sell promptly. Parkour aint half fun though.

  27. Wulf says:

    1. Anyone who doesn’t love the dark humour in Prototype is just dead inside, in my opinion. Whipfisting is funny on so many levels, I still giggle over the name.

    2. Are we really complaining about gore? Did any of us turn into grannies? Something to consider; humans are predators, it’s healthy for us to have an outlet for hunting, and I love Prototype for being a pretty damned nice and clear definition of predatorial behaviour. Thanks to that, it’s therapeutic. It’s not real, no matter how real it looks. That person you rode on like a skateboard has no family, no kids, no little dog, and most importantly isn’t real at all, and is no different than a pawn on a chessboard.

    3. The keyboard & mouse controls are amazing, I tend to smile often at how much thought went into them. Like scrolling the mousewheel for altitude with a helicopter… that’s stunning in its elegance and simplicity, if only GTA had thought of that, any GTA. But yes, Prototype has wonderful keyboard & mouse control… and earlier I beat that times square boss very easily and quickly by throwing a lot, consuming a lot of infected, and doing a hell of a lot of critical-mass strike attack thingies (wait for the military to give you cover and it’s easy). I think that anyone who has trouble with them might just be a bit crap at games, or at least, games which aren’t typically mainstream PC-ish.

    I love Protoype, I want more. Gods, I hope Radical does Prototype II.

  28. Chis says:

    The “humour” has been done before, and it’s wrapped in a delightful shell of self-hatred emo melodramaticism that’s truly abhorrent.

    I ‘aint complaining about the gore Wulf, but despite your little orgasm over the ‘copter controls (a silver lining at best), this game commits a cardinal sin / dick move (thanks Yahtzee): enemies can leave you stunned as you get pummelled and you’ve no way out of it. And it happens with those tank-types all too often.

  29. PHeMoX says:

    Nice game, enjoying it so far, but it’s really quite arcadey. Not in a negative sense per say, but it did severely reminded me of The Hulk when it comes to actual gameplay.

    Apart from that it’s a killer game compared to the still quite weak Hulk games. The premise is awesome.

  30. Aubrey says:

    There is a way out of every attack, save the throw. Use RT to dash/roll.

    The homing missles can get a little annoying, but again, you can unlock a break-fall move to snap you out, of the fall, and then dash to different wall, rather than sticking to one, expecting not to get hit.

    It’s punishing, but I’m really pleased with the fact that there are a lot of ways around the game, and you may even get punished by some missions (later on, anyway) for sticking to what you know.

  31. Aubrey says:

    As far as the story goes, I actually started out thinking “blah, this character makes no sense”, but as things are revealed, and you lose a sense of self in the character, it starts to reveal this super-meta-ego, and its relationship to just one of its consciousnesses. Without giving anything away, there’s a real tragedy to the character which only starts to make sense toward the end.

  32. Chis says:

    This thread has died – blogs suck for a reason – but for what it’s worth I’d like to echo the Eurogamer review sentiments: the Times Square boss is the definition of unreasonable. Impossible to get near without losing massive amounts of heath, and the wayward targetting and control system makes it difficult just to hit the damn thing.

    Unless you were luck enough to get a tank or a ‘copter, which I wasn’t. And there aren’t any about. Time to sell this game, methinks.

  33. -Spooky- says:

    I playing a GTA IV MP session with friends (after “few” hours PT). Damn.. the GTA gameplay feel like a damn boring childbirthday.. *lol*

  34. Mman says:

    “This thread has died – blogs suck for a reason – but for what it’s worth I’d like to echo the Eurogamer review sentiments: the Times Square boss is the definition of unreasonable. Impossible to get near without losing massive amounts of heath, and the wayward targetting and control system makes it difficult just to hit the damn thing.”

    Use the bullet-dive or hammerfist elbow drop from a building nearby, cannonball+musclemass also seems to work based on a video I saw (although that might need you to get close too much).

  35. DK says:

    “No it isn’t impossible to be insta-killed. Far from it.”
    Not it literally is impossible. The Adrenaline rush gives you several seconds of invulnerability after getting hit with an attack that would kill you – irregardless of how much damage that attack would have done.

    So yeah, it is literally impossible to be instakilled.

  36. Chis says:

    Too late Mman, I sold the game (good riddance). Thankyou for the suggestion though.

  37. Dan says:

    I started this game almost immediately after finishing infamous, and by comparison, I could hardly spend 30 minutes with it before putting it away.

  38. Dworgi says:

    The single worst part about Prototype was the Elizabeth Green boss fight. I spent an hour and a half wearing her down with the Critical Pain Devastator, which I must have used a hundred times and still only got her to about 60% health.

    Then, I gave up, got in a tank, shot her 15 times and she died. It was the biggest “fuck you” to my hard-earned powers I’ve seen in ages. There was no reason why a tank should be more powerful than the best single-target Devastator. Also, the endless stream of Hunters was stupid.

    No boss-fight should take 2 hours to complete. I should note that I didn’t die a single time during that time, I just couldn’t put out enough damage. Vehicles died in seconds and though I could dispatch Hunters in 30-odd seconds, wave after wave kept coming…

    I did complete it, mind, but the game structure was flawed at best.

  39. -Spooky- says:

    2 h Bossfight? Remember me on a Final Fantasy Ubr Epic Endboss.. *g*