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I'm Trying to Stay Excited About Prototype 2...


I'm one of the few that preferred the original Prototype over Infamous. By a lot, actually. In fact, whenever the debate came up, I would begin to feel like a Twilight Zone protagonist: everyone I know, everyone online, and every critic in the industry were all in lockstep agreement, and I was left to run around bug-eyed, muttering, a dissenter gradually becoming unglued in the face of an ironclad majority. Then there would be a brief chase scene, a bad special effect, and it would turn out I was a department store mannequin the whole time.

Sure, Prototype is rough around the edges. It doesn't have the same level of structure, polish or graphical panache as Infamous, and at a glance the gameplay seems woefully unbalanced. The first half takes the whole player empowerment thing a tad overboard, having you bedevil security forces and low-level infected who might mean you harm in some abstract, non-commital way, but have no means of expressing it other than getting horribly mutilated by your mere presence. Gradually, though, the game's merits become apparent as the difficulty ramps up. That laundry list of overpowered abilities that makes the early sections such a cakewalk become essential to beating the laundry list of similarly overpowered enemies that will come swarming into your personal space, eager to separate the contents of your rad hoodie from your bitchin' tribal tat jacket. Sure, there are issues with the lock-on camera whirling around in the middle of a chaotic fight, and times when your insane level of mobility makes for erratic play (ex. the mistimed tap of a button sends you flying three blocks in the wrong direction). But as a whole, I still find the game to be a supremely satisfying marriage of madcap sandbox empowerment and well implemented, unusual, third-person combat mechanics.

It's not that I didn't appreciate Infamous, either. It's a very solid game, though I'll admit, it had a strike against it going in for having its title pointlessly stylized to inFAMOUS. Note to Sucker Punch: It's not "Top of the Muffin TO YOU!"
It has a very different approach to player empowerment, though. Very different. First, there is a shit ton of zapping in this game. And that is the word, zapping. Not blasting, shooting, or decimating, but zapping, in the daintiest, saddest, most pa-kew pa-kew sense of the term. Cole's basic ranged attack has one of the most disparate visual effect-to-actual damage ratios in all of gaming, with sheets of energy crackling across every visible surface regardless of whether you hit anything or not. 75% of playing is watching your raised hand hemorrhage lightning bolt after ineffectual lightning bolt at mobs of shambling hobos who casually juke around your clownishly undersized reticule while every item in the environment sops up electricity like Empire City itself is trying to defibrillate Cole's sense of self-worth. "Look at all this lightnin'!" the dumpster the gang members are using as cover seems to say, "Must be doing something right t'be making so much lightnin'!" Hey, fuck you, dumpster. I don't need your charity.

And while you're trying to deal with the map patronizing the hell out of your bad aim, you then have to juggle the onslaught that is the female characters: the ex-girlfriend that resents the hell out of you and doses you in verbal bile regardless of your actions; the government handler who doesn't care about your well-being insofar as it affects her ability to control you; and the telepathic dominatrix who doses you in literal bile and periodically interrupts gameplay to mentally drunk dial you, her breathless seductions each louder and more obnoxious than the last. And that's pretty much all the women in the game. That's not a cast as much as an unflattering portrait of a smashed male ego set to dialogue. In fact, I was certain the game would end on a big Fight Club-esque reveal, where Cole would turn out to be the idealized self-image of Zeke, in whose emasculated, fat-loser psyche the whole game actually took place. Because that's how Infamous approaches player empowerment. As a gauntlet of thankless, impotent zapping and constant verbal abuse. It's the Portnoy's Complaint of open-world superhero games.

All that said, it is really good. But what makes Prototype better is that at a basic conceptual level, one idea is by far more interesting than the other. Shooting lightning is neat, I guess, but limited in scope, and mechanically identical to shooting anything else, i.e. guns, fire, lasers, etc. This is reflected in the range of Infamous' powers: you get the electricity power that works like grenades, the electricity power that acts like a bazooka, the electricity power that lets you snipe, etc. This is any gangster sandbox with a soft-science makeover and a lack of conveyances.

Prototype, on the other hand, may as well have been called Albert Wesker Takes Manhattan. Veiny, bladed appendages, grappling tentacles, gravity defying movement, shape-shifting, the devouring of the unwary -- it's as though another game's unpleasant boss character has been handed the starring role and plunked down in a genre that best reflects the freedom their abilities grant. The laughable story does its damnedest to equivocate this, trying to paint Alex Mercer as some sort of hero-by-default, but it only causes dissonance between the "I will have justice!" cutscenes and the "I'm going to murder everyone fer LOLZ!" gameplay. Despite all the flailing for moral highground, Mercer's story is tellingly identical to William Birkin's, and that, to me, is what makes Prototype a more exciting and unique experience. It's in playing a walking grotesque that would, in any other game, be something you're trying to kill. And unsurprisingly, playing as an overpowered boss is really damn fun.

Now, with that supremely long diatribe out of the way, it stands to reason I'd be pumped for Prototype 2. "But I detect a note of reticence in your title" you clever beardstrokers out there are saying, performing your namesake, and yes, after all the teasers, trailers, and interviews that came out of E3, I'm a tad skeptical.

First of all, the Inception horn blat running through all the trailers. Someone needs to stop this. It doesn't evoke drama when it's so blatantly aping a prominent pop culture phenomenon, and only invites comparisons that won't flatter a game about killing people with various squiggly monster appendages.

Second, the previews don't show much in the way of gameplay other than abject mayhem, and unfortunately, flashy ways to murder things and copious things to murder were the only two ingredients the original didn't need more of. Other stuff to do once the gleeful evisceration has warmed over -- be it in the form of deeper non-combat mechanics, a more interactive city, a greater variety (and more coherent integration) of side missions, or really anything to elevate the game's sandbox to more than just a very large battle arena -- would go a long way towards fleshing out the sequel's gameplay, and so far, we haven't seen anything of the sort. The map is going to be divided into three distinct sections ala every other open world game ever, and story missions will be acquired through the returning Web of Intrigue mechanic, but whether or not these features will add much needed depth or simply a hoop to jump through remains to be seen.

Thirdly, Alex Mercer got a mixed response from players, and rightfully so: he dresses like he just walked out of a 90s Mountain Dew commercial, has no interesting qualities until the very end of the game, and spends every moment leading up to that hunting down the people responsible for turning him into an indestructible, flying superbeing, because how dare they. But Radical's counter-ploy is novel: make him the villain of the sequel (a somewhat rare instance of a the game developer bandwagoning against themselves) while furnishing us with a shiny new protagonist in the form of James Heller, a grizzled army badass (a dangerously underrepresented population in gaming, I've noticed) sporting the most aggressively popped collar in the history of unfortunate grooming decisions.

Only problem with this little inversion is the developers seem to be walking into the exact same trap that made Mercer such an unlikable chode. Yet again we're on a quest for vengeance, and yet again our lead thinks himself so immensely wronged that the tens of thousands of people he will kill over the course of the game don't bear a second thought. "Mercer killed my family!" the new guy growls in the trailer. But what's actually being said is "How much trite pathos do we need to pile on before glaring hypocrisy gets mistaken for a plausible character motivation?" Radical: stop falling all over yourselves trying to justify your characters' actions. There is no moral justification for what you do in this game. You do not play a good guy. You do not play a good guy in a bad situation. You do not play a good guy pushed over the edge. You do not even play an ambiguous, shade-of-gray antihero. You play a quasi-human, mass-murdering, viral demigod. Stop trying to shoehorn a protagonist into a super villain simulator. Stop trying to make it sympathetic. Stop trying to make it morally correct. Take a stark, honest look at how this game plays, and build the character, his motivation, and his arc from there. I for one would rather play as a malevolent shape-shifting virus with no recognizable human behavior than another deluded, self-righteous jackass on an unthinking killing spree because somebody pissed in his cheerios.

There's still plenty of time for this thing to win me over. We've got at least six more months of full-tilt marketing, and something in that span has got to entice. And hell, it's not that the game doesn't look fun. It already looks like a blast. But is it progressing? Is it innovating? Does it warrant a "2" at the end of the title, or is it just another instance of spit-shine-here-buy-this? Time will tell, but...again, I'm skeptical.
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About Zugzwangone of us since 7:48 PM on 05.09.2011

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