inFAMOUS/Prototype Double Review

Horrible Gelatinous Blob 8/30/2009 

You'll notice he's not in car-throwing mode.
Our hero of Prototype, conceptually.
Here's the best thing about Prototype: at its heart, it's an awesomely fun game. Sprinting over buildings, gliding over Central Park before dropping down like a hawk onto a guy you then absorb into your own body, running through the streets crushing skulls under your heel, driving a tank down Broadway and laughing as the panic-striken civilians run straight under your treads, jumping 90 feet in the air to grab onto a helicopter, dump out the pilot, and take control, tossing a car a full city block into a helicopter that had made the fatal mistake of pausing to unload the soldiers within, bodysurfing through the crowd as the military chases after you, cutting nine soldiers in half with your whip-tendril in slow motion -- I could go on and on. The game is good. The game is very good, and that makes its flaws that much more pronounced and maddening.

Here's the biggest problem with Prototype: it's not enough like Crackdown. inFAMOUS is closer, and like Crackdown it really doesn't pick up until you're two or three hours into the game and developed your character significantly, but it still finds itself hamstrung by convention and tradition.

I'm speaking strictly in a game design sense here, and I think that this betrays the fundamental mindsets behind the vast majority of developers, including Sucker Punch and Radical Entertainment. To break it down via oversimplified proverb: there are leaders, and then there are followers. Both Sucker Punch and Radical are followers. Both are very good followers, and more than capable of crafting enjoyable games that will fit neatly in pre-established categories and bring nothing new to the table, but they lack that spark of innovation and raw creativity that elevates a game beyond "very good."

Radical Entertainment has been making games for a long, long time now, and it shows in that deathgrip they maintain on the most annoying, frustrating gaming clichés that are either dead or dying in the current generation of games. First off: powering and subsequently depowering the player character.

Mischief Maker on Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner in 2003 wrote:

And so at one point you're fighting the Vic Viper, complete with missiles, lasers, ripple beams, shields, and a steadily increasing number of options. The big bad guy's robot is unstoppable at the beginning because it has the power of Zwee fighting. Now normally a video game would have you procuring some sort of device that would cancel out the bad guy's Zwee ability and force him to fight you on your ground. This game? They have you procuring a device at the end that gives you the power of Zwee fighting! Smacking an enemy up and sending them flying away, then Zweeing behind them and crunching them with a finishing move? Hell yes!

Six full years ago, even Japanese developers notorious for their aversion to innovation and experimentation realized that upping the player's abilities is a far better choice than decreasing the opponent's abilities. Even though ZOE 2 fell into the same pattern of stripping the player character of its hard-won upgrades for a set portion of the game, it did display a bit of forward thinking in its final stages. You would think that in the intervening time, Western developers would cotton on to this paradigm shift and begin integrating it into their play design. And sure enough, some have. Others, however...

Creexul on Contra 4 in 2007 wrote:

Someone should just walk up to the devs of this game, say, YOU DIDN'T ADD AN EXTRA LIVES CODE, then punch them in the face. They made a Contra game incorrectly for like the 5th fucking time now. The ironic t-shirts at my Target(ses) and Hot Topic(s) don't have the Konami code on it because people didn't like using it.

This is exactly how I feel about games that boast about all the novel and exciting powers and abilities your character will be granted, let you spend time and effort honing these abilities, and then force you to play through a non-negotiable chunk of the game without them. People aren't buying these games because they DON'T like those aspects. It comes off as artificially increasing the difficulty and time spent fucking around so that it can be marketed with however many extra hours tacked on to the playtime.

I could deal with these flaws if it weren't for the fact that Radical intends for you to play Prototype in a very specific way. The missions you're assigned have a clear best-practices method of completion that often depends on seemingly random spawns and/or what powers the game has expected you to unlock at any given point. Although it's an open world game, Prototype doesn't allow the player much freedom in deciding how to accomplish any given goal. For example, let's look at an early-game assignment to destroy a Hive building. You could stand there and shoot rockets from a rocket launcher at it, but they don't do much damage and the supply of launchers is wholly dependent on how many soldiers equipped with rocket launchers spawn. Besides, the building constantly spawns Hunters, and you might not be sufficiently powered up to the point where they're not a challenge. You couldn't beat the building to death with any of your powers, even the ones that otherwise destroy armored tanks EVEN IF those powers were available to you yet (and they're not), and even if you could, there are those pesky Hunters. You could hijack a helicopter and use that, except that the hijack helicopter ability isn't available to you yet, and even if it was, it doesn't always work. You can't crash a vehicle into the building to do any damage, and artillery strikes aren't available to you yet. So you have to either hijack a tank and shoot artillery at it or run around picking up cars and tossing them at the building. Some people look at that and think, "Wow, that's a lot of choice! Thanks, Radical!" We call those people brain-damaged, or faggots for short. Finely cultured sophisticates like you and I psh it while cleaning our monocles and ask why the power progression is artifically limited by story markers, or why the only significant means of earning XP out of story missions are an array of timed events that vary in frustration and glitches.

The depth of conviction that Prototype has to its hackneyed, banal storyline is astonishing. There are cutscenes bookending every story mission, some several minutes in length. The Consume side-missions as well as the Web of Intrigue targets also spark cutscenes, which although significantly shorter, are almost nonsensical half the time. The voice work is stellar; real talent was clearly procured for the project, which makes it even more strange that the character modeling and cutscene animation is so second-rate. It's like the developers all played and loved BioShock, and set about to construct a game that was equally reliant on narrative -- and then forgot to actually write a compelling story.

Our hero of inFAMOUS, sneeringly.
As bad as Prototype's story is, inFAMOUS's is worse. The opening scene portrays the devastation of a thriving city and the brutal deaths of tens of thousands of people -- and you won't care at all. I don't know if Sucker Punch had turnover in its writing department, or whether their writers are incapable of creating compelling characters without the crutch of funny animals, but no one in this game elicits any kind of emotional connection or reaction whatsoever. Alex Mercer may be generic, but he's got nothing on Cole McGrath (I had to look that up and really? Cole McGrath? Jesus Christ), his bitchy character-sketch of a girlfriend Trish, and his fat hick best friend Zeke. The most original character in the game is Trish's dead sister, whose sole defining feature is being dead.

inFAMOUS is a Sucker Punch game, though, with the high level of polish that the studio is known for. That attention to the user experience helps blunt the realization that you're doing the exact same thing that every other sandbox game of the past five years has made you do. You've got your arbitrary OCD collect-em-all section in the satellite dead drops to retrieve. There's the various side missions that require you to escort NPCs, use stealth to follow enemies without being detected (although there is absolutely no legitimate feedback whatsoever in what the player needs to do to avoid being seen [hint: stick to the rooftops] -- I was once spotted somehow around the corner of a building), and locate all of the foozles on a given building. And then there are the timed races. No innovation, no original thought.

Thankfully, the electric powers you're given, once developed a bit, are precisely tuned to liven up things a bit. Your fragility kind of precludes any serious melee combat though; especially later in the game when you have to face packs of medium-to-difficult enemies. You'll spend most of your time utilizing various electric projectiles to kill your enemies while dodging gunfire and taking cover behind lightposts, bus stops, and civilians. Upon further reflection, this is the game The Force Unleashed aspired to be: hurling objects around and electrocuting anyone foolish enough to cross your eyeline while doing crazy flips and jumps from heights.

Again, however, the leash is kept fairly tight when it comes to character development and progression outside of the main storyline. Overall, inFAMOUS's side missions are less arbitrary and depend less on chance than Prototype's, though the timed races are, well, timed races. Still, I'd rather assault/defend a police station and have a visible effect upon the game world than try to figure out exactly how to murder 61+ people in the park within a time limit while praying that the random spawns work in my favor this time.

In the final analysis, I would break it down like this: while Prototype gives the player far better tools, inFAMOUS does a better job in getting out of the way and allowing the player to decide how to best use the tools at his disposal. Both games are positive, but I would qualify Prototype's with the caveat that it's a far more structured, linear, and narrative-driven game than one might be led to believe.

Horrible Gelatinous Blob