Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Prototype (PS3)

I have five missions left in Prototype, and I'm not going to finish them. Probably not ever. But certainly not soon.

Prototype is the perfect example of a modern game not living up to its hype. I was pretty sure I'd like it, and yet each of my hopes and aspirations evaporated more with each elapsed minute of game play.

First, much hype was made about the shape-shifting system. I had imagine that you'd need to shape shift into specific people to access different areas; that to lift a particular door, you'd need to assume the shape of a body builder; that you'd need to navigate conversation and infiltration as a different person. Silly me for thinking the game would have any subtlety.

Shapeshifting is constrained to switching between your main clothes and the last human you consumed with your slurpy Carnage-knockoff tentacles. While the game takes place in Manhattan with its population of millions of unique souls, there are essentially only a handful of people you can become: regular army, different army, army commander, random civilian. Absorb somebody army, and you can stroll onto their base without alerting them; an army commander can walk into the base. A random civilian can do nothing in particular except reset your wanted level.

You not only absorb people to gain new disguises, but certain people are marked with special icons. Eating the people with these icons grants you new abilities--for instance, eating a pilot gives hijacked helicopters more missiles.

One icon represents clues to the backstory of the game. Essentially, you comb NYC for employees of the company that infected you with shapeshifting. When you find them, you eat them. As you "absorb their memories", a short trippy cutscene plays exposing some detail of the plot. There are like 200 of them.

This struck me as basically fine at first, but soon became creepy. The character models are invariably male, but some of the scientists' names were female. In addition, some of the memories were about the person I'd just eaten planning to blow the whistle or protesting unethical activities. So, here are the whistleblowers, and I reward their conscience by absorbing them for their biomass and a trivial fragment of plot?

The other well-hyped point was how powerful you'd feel in Prototype, how much freedom to navigate.

The free navigation thing is true. You can run anywhere, and jump hundreds of feet. Except, you literally just run up walls. And you can literally jump hundreds of feet. So, running the rooftops of NYC feels exactly like running anywhere.

And the powers are lame. They're all variations on either hands-as-blades or spikes-impaling-people. And you unlock them excruciatingly, with a grindy XP system. Oh, and you'll unlock your combos--it literally won't let you put two moves in a row if you haven't bought the combo. Joy.

But I'd forgive all that if the characters, story, or setting had even minor redeeming features.

The main character is a sociopath. He kills just about everybody he meets. But he's not an interesting sociopath, like Hannibal Lecter, rife with nuance, charm, and complexity. Rather the main character is a sociopath mainly because the writing staff consisted of death-metal, slasher-flick fans.

The two female characters you're constantly saving and retrieving are totally uncharacterized. Like, I'm supposed to want to go get that bitch just because somebody once mentioned that she's my sister?

The story is so fucking goddamn trite. Here we go: NYC (or knockoff), big (quasi-)governmental agency develops and releases bioweapon, you have to stop them and save the city. Oh, I mean, you do that on accident, since you're such a badass you only care about your revenge. FUCK! Stop it! Just stop it!

The setting is just garbage. They did a very nice model of NYC (although I don't think it's street-by-street). Full of pedestrians whose sole purpose is to be ignored. And which doesn't feel, in even the most trivial way, alive.

But the biggest problem with the setting is that you can't affect it. Nothing you do is permanent. Kill a hive of infected? It'll be back in a few minutes, one block over. Destroy an army base? Only until the next cut scene. You can't save people, and you can't kill enough of them that anybody's scared of you. At most they're funny ragdolls when you run them over in your tank.

The missions are equally shitty. They alternate between killing a specific baddie down to 2% health then eating him and collecting arbitrary bullshit while simultaneously defending some hopelessly weak structure from onslaught. Oh, and chasing things. Constantly chasing things while being chased by other things. That sounds exhilarating, but really it's just frustrating. It's like being told to rollerblade and shoot skeet at the same time.

So, overall, Prototype is the prototypical current-gen game: expensive, expansive, and extensive. And really pretty shitty.

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