Discussion Review: Prototype

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As the latest sandbox adventure from the skilled developers at Radical Entertainment, Prototype built up quite the following throughout its years in development, especially from fans of Radical’s past open-world games like The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. And to no surprise, that anticipation has led to the game topping sales charts ever since it came out last month. But is Prototype truly worthy of such success or is it just another overrated blockbuster riding high on hype and inflated review scores? Mike and I discuss…

Matt: Prototype has been a very odd experience for me. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there are two conflicting sides to this game that have left me with a cloudy opinion of the game as a whole. At times I’ve had a blast with the game, blitzing through the city streets, mindlessly pounding and slicing soldiers, civilians and infected mutants into bloody chunks, unlocking new abilities, completing side missions and hunting down the different collectibles. But at other times I absolutely loathed the game, mainly for its cumbersome, imprecise controls, dickhead of a “hero,” and infuriatingly cheap difficulty spikes.

I’ll get into more detail on all of these topics in a bit, but first there’s something else I have to settle. Prototype and inFamous have been getting compared to one another a lot since both came out around the same time and have similar open-world superhero vibes about them, but let me set the record straight here, these games are two radically different experiences. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison really. inFamous is a story-driven action/adventure with a comic book style and a far more nimble and acrobatic style of gameplay, whereas Prototype is basically just a glorified beat-’em-up with a throwaway story and loads of over-the-top gore. Both games have their ups and downs, but there’s really no point comparing/contrasting the two because they have very little substantive commonality. I’ve seen so many “Prototype vs. inFamous” forum threads around the Net it’s made me sick. Please stop comparing them!!!

OK, just had to get that off my chest real quick, back on point here…

If there’s any game to compare Prototype to, it’s Radical Entertainment’s own The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction from last generation. This game is essentially a marginally spruced up Ultimate Destruction with a change in scenery and a hooded shape-shifter of a main character (Alex Mercer) taking the place of Hulk. Although Alex appears more fleet of foot, he actually moves around like the Hulk. He runs up the sides of buildings and charges down the streets leaving nothing but crumbled sidewalk and devastation in his wake. Alex does have a bit more agility with the ability to glide through the air, but in general he moves around like a tank.

Sadly, he controls like a tank too. My biggest complaint with this game is its controls. In treating the game like a sandbox beat-’em-up, I didn’t have much of a problem. Mashing buttons and freely exploring the city is easy to pull off and generally a lot of fun. However, whenever I got into the main story missions where I had to be more precise with attacks and deal with evading swarms of enemies — oftentimes soldiers, tanks, attack choppers, turrets and mutants all at once — I found the controls sluggish verging on unplayable. The lock-on system rarely picks up the enemy you want to target and the camera makes it nigh impossible to see everything that’s attacking you, which leads to many cheap deaths from missiles you can’t see coming. Alex has no subtlety of movement either. Every single action he makes is so overly exaggerated that when you just want to jump from one roof to the next or simply move into position to grab an enemy or pick up a weapon/throwable object you have to fight the controls to get Alex into position.

We’ll get into more later, but for now I’d really like to find out how you’ve found the game’s controls on the PC side. Did you struggle with them as much as I have?

Mike: A few quick thoughts I have before I get to controls … I have also seen loads of ‘Prototype vs. inFamous’ threads around and there are always a few folks who try to bring reason to the discussion – but they are countered by those who say ‘yeah, I understand, but which is better and what should I get’? Since inFamous isn’t available on the PC, I can’t make a direct comparison, but everything I have read agrees with your thoughts on that – and sometimes you just have to ignore these things on the forums.

My first thought on Prototype was more along the lines of the recent Transformers film (and also the first one) than the Hulk game (since I never played it). If you are looking for a big, loud, mindless spectacle where you are encouraged not to think too much, then you will be satisfied. If you are concerned about unwrapping the plots and intrigue, you will find the game flimsy and unsatisfying. Many discussions I have had have told me that I need to stop over-analyzing the game, but the whole ‘web of memories’ thing sort of leads me to look into the deeper backstory. However, as those on the forums suggest, perhaps I would have been better served just ignoring the subtleties and focusing more on bashing stuff.

I was also going to check in right away with the controls, because within five minutes I was fully convinced that this was yet another case of a third-person action game designed around a console gamepad that was never properly tested with a typical PC gaming control setup. Then I hooked up my wireless XBOX360 controller and discovered that while that was partially true, the fact is that for such a fast paced action game, the controls are terribly unresponsive. I remember trying to do a simple jump early on and having nothing happen. Then I held down the space bar for a bit longer and ended up high on a building. And while the game gives you loads of attack options, I found that because of the imprecise controls and camera that I was just as often better off jumping around and whaling on the attack keys like a madman … it worked in nearly every case except against bosses, but that is another subject entirely. I cannot fathom why they would set up a game like this and accept such lousy control responsiveness sabotaging the experience.

I ended up playing the majority of the game with the mouse & keyboard, for the sole reason that my hands work best with those controls – even though I still think that the gamepad would provide a better experience for someone who is equally comfortable with both setups. So it seems we are once again having similar thoughts, as I constantly felt like the game was trying to put obstacles to my enjoyment of what should have been a grand open romp.

I alluded to my issues with the plotting – would you rather go there or discuss the mediocre graphics? Or perhaps the wildly uneven difficulty or complete lack of multiplayer? I leave the choice of where to go next to you … but perhaps we should get our litany of complaints finished before getting to why someone might want to endure all of this stuff.

Matt: I do think this is a game that is very easy to over analyze. I’ve had past experience with Radical’s sandbox games and knew coming in not to expect some in-depth storyline, so the thin, clichéd plot — amnesiac badass out for revenge, city infected with a virus and overrun by mutants, military quarantining the city, you get the picture — really didn’t bother me. As you say, the whole “web of intrigue” component where you can track down marked targets and consume them for short vision/flashback scenes filling in untold details about the story does bring the plot to the forefront, but I actually thought the “web” was a cool idea and found piecing together the different nodes kinda fun. I just didn’t like the main part of the story as told through the campaign missions. Alex is an unlikable protagonist and the rest of the cast comes across as filler.

As for the graphics, that’s another area that a lot of folks have bitched about maybe a tad too much, in my opinion. Does the game look dated? Absolutely. But honestly, open-world games like this are always at the low end of the graphical scale, so again, I find it difficult to get myself worked up over the lacking detail. The city is a huge playground, that’s all I cared about. Polygon counts and texture quality are the least of my worries in this type of game.

One thing I do find odd though is how differently I seemed to have enjoyed the game compared to most other players. Scoping out some other reviews and browsing forum topics, it seems like most players have liked the story missions but considered the side missions an afterthought. My view of the game is completely different. I found most of the story missions repetitive and frustrating, and literally had to fight off thoughts of giving up on the story before completing it in full — and just to put that into context, I rarely ever entertain the thought of quitting a game. Not even turds like Damnation and Terminator Salvation scared me away before I finished them!

But on the flip side, I have had a ball just roaming around the cityscape completing the side missions because they put the emphasis on the parts of the game that are actually enjoyable. Missions like killing a certain number of enemies within a time limit let you unleash Alex’s powers on hordes of baddies without having to think about anything else. And there are also some other fun side tasks like gliding challenges where you have to jump off a building and glide as close as possible to a target landing area and timed waypoint races.

Other than the controls, my main beef with Prototype is how it is plagued by so many annoying little gameplay quirks that only seem to impede you from getting to the fun parts of the game (the mindless button mashing). Alex’s main power is the ability to shapeshift and consume enemies. In some ways this is great. Alex has some cool forms he can take — basically, his hands can morph into different weapons like blades, clubs and whips — and a ton of upgradeable powers to unlock. But the shapeshifting mechanic is also used as a means to consume enemies and take their form as a disguise, and this mechanic is constantly used throughout the story missions as a form of stealth. The thing is, stealth in a game like this only bogs the experience down and, as I already said, pulls attention away from the combat.

There are plenty of other subtle annoyances that bugged the shit out of me too. You can hijack military tanks and helicopters, which is cool, but the hijacking animation sequence literally takes like 10-15 seconds from start to finish, and Alex is left vulnerable to attack the entire time. I also found it annoying how “web of intrigue” targets frequently get themselves killed when you’re trying to capture them. There have been numerous times where I was tracking a target only for them to run into traffic or the middle of a firefight between soldiers and infected and get killed right as I was closing in to consume them.

Mike: I completely agree that the whole idea and implementation of the ‘web’ was cool – and I think it was cool enough that I was looking for more, while you knew better. And that gets at a core problem I had with Prototype: there wasn’t a whole lot of substance there to pull me in and keep me interested in playing. Sure it is fun to be a massively powered wrecking machine, leaping through the city destroying stuff in any number of forms, but is it really enough? For me it wasn’t – the fun was there on occasion, but on the whole there wasn’t enough ‘meat’ to the experience to make this something I would ever replay … ever. It isn’t that it is a bad game, but there are other games that satisfy the various desires of either open world or super hero or revenge or whatever that are present here.

As for the graphics, I also agree – it is like the first rule of project management: quality, time and resources … pick two! In other words, if you want an open world game with spectacular vertical scope and special superhero effects that will also run on current consoles and computers, be prepared to give in terms of overall graphics quality. My issue isn’t so much the detail as it is the palette and variation (or lack thereof) of textures and models. Yeah, I know, it is nitpicking, but for a game that I played interspersed with a bunch of other stuff, I was never impressed when I returned – it was never like stepping outdoors in Fallout 3 or entering the asylum in Thief 3 … it was just another bland cityscape the entire time for me.

Another thing we completely agree upon is the idea of Alex as an unlikable character. Most people I’ve talked to didn’t really register him one way or another, and I can understand that. Recently there was an article I read that talked about the tendency of all beginner tabletop role-players to create a character who is dark and brooding, a strong loner who saw his family murdered, was raised in the wild by elves of some sort and has gone on to become a ‘I don’t need anyone’ sword for hire mercenary. That is why, regardless of older and more experienced gamers complaining, we constantly see a stream of dark brooding teen angst style heroes emerging at the center of games, as we do again here. The difficulty for developers is making that character likable, or at least over-the-top enough that a broader set of folks would enjoy playing as him.

In the case of Alex, I couldn’t stand him, and had been interested to see what you thought, as you fit the demographic I see this game targeted for – single young and male. In fact, to a person everyone I have talked to who liked Alex fell into that category … whereas anyone outside of that detested him … and women, forget it; every woman I’ve talked to hates the whole thing.

I was never ready to toss it in with this game, it never really got under my skin either positively or negatively – but I completely agree that the main story was something you just had to endure between the times you got to roam around having fun in the open world. Sadly some of the things got messed up for me because I found the controls rather sloppy, but on whole, the non-story game was much more enjoyable for me.

It seems that we both have loads of negative things to say about Prototype, and I will be interested to hear how you feel, but I don’t hate the game. In fact, I thought it was fairly decent, alternatively between loads of fun and bland and frustrating. Yet it isn’t a game I would recommend to anyone – especially for a full-price buy. This is one of those ‘when you can get it for $20, grab it for a fun romp’ sorts of games for me. What do you think?

Matt: Sounds like we’re both on the same page here, which surprises me quite a bit. I figured this game would be more my speed as a console-centric gamer with past experience with other Radical Entertainment open-world titles, but strangely we have pretty much the exact same likes and dislikes with Prototype.

As for Alex, it’s interesting to hear what your other friends and stuff had to say about him. Personally, I don’t dislike him because of the whole “dark and edgy” thing. I don’t like him because he’s just a dull, generic character. He has no personality, no depth of character, and honestly, I never for one second felt like he worked as the superhero-type character he was made to be. I knew not to expect some complex character here, but even in mindless games like this I still want to play as a character that has some interesting quality to his/her personality that makes him/her fun to play as.

Overall, I’m struggling just a bit to come up with a recommendation here. A small part of me wants to say “give it a try,” but then I think of all my frustrations with the controls and all thoughts about some of the game’s few bright spots vanish. I had to force myself to get through the game, which as I said earlier is a very rare occurrence, and now that I’m done with it I know I’ll never play it again, not even to pick up some extra trophies. There is a reasonably fun game buried deep within Prototype, but you have to dig through so much frustration to find it. So the question then becomes: is enduring the frustration worth it? And to that my answer is no…no it’s not.

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Mike: Last thoughts on Alex – when I look at the whole archetype discussion, it isn’t so much that he is dull and shallow BECAUSE he is ‘dark & edgy’, but rather that the developers made a sketch of a character who happens to fall into the very typical teen male fantasy character type, but then never went in and filled in any of the blanks.

It is that sort of stylized emptiness and feeling of incomplete-ness that bothers me about Prototype. It is interesting that you end up with much stronger feelings about it, but then as you say it seemed like the sort of game that would be right up your alley. I had rather low expectations for myself and this game, being that my earliest impressions pegged it as a third-person action-game console port. But I was quickly disappointed by both the controls and the way the game seemed to tease me by looking like there would be depth and then not having anything behind the curtain.

Like you, this is a difficult game to recommend – yet it has enough over-the-top fun that it is hard to just banish to the void. I emailed back and forth with an old PC gaming buddy of mine about the game, which he enjoyed much more than me. But when pressed, he said that he would attribute much of his enjoyment to his low expectations – he looked at it as a console port of an action game and was playing it as a distraction along with other stuff. He also got it on a big sale and said he would never pay full price … in other words, it was good for what it was, based on what he expected, and only because of the low price he was able to get. OK, I can deal with that – though it is a pretty hurdle for what is supposed to be a ‘AAA’ game!

So here are my closing thoughts: Prototype is an open-world game centered around a character with massive powers to wreak destruction. It is sort of a GTA meets Hulk Smash game, where you have a mix of required missions, optional missions, and free-roaming destruction. It is best when you are not thinking, just roaming around killing everything in your path. Even then, it feels like the game conspires to put obstacles in your way to keep you from really getting the most enjoyment from it. With a lousy hero, mediocre story, frustrating controls and camera, and some side-story elements that are irritating because they hint at a depth that is never delivered and are often unobtainable because their carriers have a death-wish … Prototype feels like a ‘prototype’, a first model of something that will be refined and fleshed out prior to full-scale production. Sadly, it feels like they replicated the prototype itself rather than the polished and corrected production master.

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Pros:
+ Some fun mindless beat-’em-up action and side missions
+ Web of Intrigue is a neat idea
+ Deep upgrade system and lots of cool powers

Cons:
– Unforgivably sloppy controls and camera
– Weak plot and dull story missions
– Bland graphics
– Inconsistent difficulty

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC and PS3, also on Xbox 360
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Radical Entertainment
Release Date: 6/9/09
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!