Sunday, 06 June 2010
Alasdair crosses the moral event horizon and merges with the murder singularity that is Prototype.
After finishing the story campaign for Radical Entertainment's Prototype, it dawned on me on how integral irony is to the sandbox genre. In most of the sandbox games I've fooled around with, there's always been a sense that the developers are always winking at the player, quietly whispering that it's okay to be a mass-murdering psychopath, that's it's just a game and it's all in good fun. In practice, this usually expresses itself in the form of jokey games, of worlds that are clearly intended to be frivolous places. The GTA series has been doing this for years, of course, though Saint's Row 2 probably represents the apogee of this trend. Even the filibuster simulator Just Cause had a helicopter dogfight with a Nazi scientist, for cripes' sake.
By contrast, Prototype takes place in an irony-free zone. Despite the outlandishness of the story and the plethora of abilities the game grants you, there is never a joke, a pun, or even a smirk. It is a game that takes its setting completely seriously, to the point where you feel a vague twinge of unease as the game rolls to its conclusion.
Naturally, I love it to bits.
The story of Prototype focuses on the travails of unlikable pillock/hoodie fancier Alex Mercer, who wakes up one fine evening in a Manhattan morgue with a wicked case of amnesia. After taking eighty bullets to the chest without dying, fleeing the scene in an 80 km/h run, then destroying three helicopters by throwing air conditioners at them, he begins to suspect that there is something wrong with him. In due course, it's revealed that Alex has been infected with something called the "BLACKLIGHT virus," essentially making him an all-powerful shapeshifter. Naturally, this event has the Powers That Be so scared that all of Manhattan is placed under a military quarantine. To make matters worse, in the third mission Alex ends up releasing a woman who's infected with a different virus who's hellbent on unleashing the zombie apocalypse. Alex's goal, naturally, is to find out what happened to him, and to keep the infected and the military from ruining his shine. All very "edgy '90s comic book," true, but there's enough fiddly bits to keep the interest piqued.
In terms of general game structure, Prototype does not quite have the same depth of activity as most other sandbox games. If you've ever played a superhero-based sandbox game like Spiderman: Web of Shadows or The Hulk: Ultimate Destruction (that last one also made by Radical Entertainment as a sort of, ahem, prototype of this game), then you probably have a handle on the basics of this game. The only side missions available are basically little time trial activities like checkpoint races, "kill x number of faction y in zz:zz seconds with blank weapon/power" activities, and mini-battles against one side or another. The game also has a nasty habit of hamstringing you every once and a while, say by turning off most of your shapeshifting powers for about three missions, or by having a boss fight in a 3x3 block area that will automatically fail you if you run outside it.
Thankfully, this is offset by the abilities the game gives you. Oh yes, your abilities. "Embarrassment of riches" does not do them justice. Alex Mercer is essentially a Swiss Army Knife of homicide. If you want to slice your way through a crowd, you can just spontaneously generate a set of Wolverine claws and go to town. If tanks are your bugbear, then you just grow a pair of giant club fists and slam your problems away! If you want to fly an Apache gunship, it's as easy as transforming your hand into a stretchy whip, throwing it out to the chopper, and hoisting yourself up. If worst comes to worst, you can max out your health and fire off a "devastator" attack and obliterate a city block with bony spikes or hundreds of horrible, horrible tentacles. If shapeshifting bores you, you always have the option of grabbing a rifle and tearing up the streets the old-fashioned way. For those really tough encounters, you always have the option of jacking a tank, an APC, or a helicopter and keeping your distance while you pour incendiaries on the target. Hand-to-hand combat can also be upgraded to a ridiculous extent, and while you'll probably never use half the combinations, it's nice to know that you can give a Marine a shoryuken should you so desire. Even basic movement is amped up; because no car has been built that can contain the badassedness that is you, you make your way around the city by running up the sides of skyscrapers and flying.
Of course, force is not the answer to every problem. To this end, Prototype has a rather sizable stealth component. It's not a rigorous stealth component, of course; while Marines do get upset when a guy in a hoodie starts slashing them with his giant sword arm, they have no problem seeing a fellow marine make a forty-meter long jump without breaking a sweat. Still, much of the game does get easier if you disguise yourself as a soldier and putter undetected around military bases, doing terrible things when no one is looking.
With all these abilities, it would appear that Alex Mercer is a creature of nightmare, a sort of post-human abomination of science that can treat the rest of our species as prey or, even worse, obstacles. Oddly enough, that is exactly how Mercer is portrayed. While his character arc does subtly chronicle the development of his sense of empathy, he spends most of the game as an embittered sociopath. This point is driven home in an early cutscene where he is described as " a classic low-affect personality" exhibiting "[a] psychopathic disregard for others, [and a] narcissistic worldview punctuated by self-obsessive disorders." While this is, of course, ideal for a sandbox game protagonist, it is still somewhat disquieting to have this personality type we're all familiar with stated in such a barefaced fashion.
It also doesn't help that this is a quite brutal game. Along with his shapeshifting abilities, Alex's new biology also allows him to regain health and acquire new information by "consuming" NPCs, a polite euphemism for the fact that you will be eating people. Lots of people. In very horrible ways. Collateral damage is unavoidable; sometimes you'll eat civilians just to keep your health up, get in pointless battles with random soldiers just to boost your XP so you can buy a new ability, or you'll accidentally plow through crowds during your various missions. Course, the game does offer many opportunities for you to indulge your sadistic streak; about halfway through the game, you gain the ability to "patsy" soldiers, in practice meaning that you accuse them of being you, then walk away laughing as the unlucky soul is shot to death by his squadmates while he begs for mercy. The impact of all this carnage is lessened by the fact that the game doesn't dwell much on the misery you cause (fitting, considering the self-absorbed nature of Mercer himself), but it does sneak up on you, particularly when you look at the personal statistics screen and discover that you've managed to kill more American soldiers in three weeks than have died in the entire Iraq war.
(This also brings up a rhetorical question that's been puzzling me for some time: why is it that games like GTA or Bully or Mass Effect get the parental watchgroups all in a tizzy, but Prototype, a game where tearing American servicemen in half with your bare hands is a key gameplay mechanic, is barely acknowledged?)
The brutality is appropriate, given how the game is essentially chronicling of the death of a great American city. Most of the worldbuilding of the game is done through the level-by-level changes in the city and through the "Web of Intrigue," a network of NPCs you consume to get very nice stylized little videos that deliver backstory, foreshadowing, and local color. While at times crude, it does a fairly good job of depicting the decay of the city and the quarantine operation. When the game starts, everything is blue and peaceful, with only a few civilian NPCs walking around coughing. As the game progresses, infected districts start to pop up, populated by moaning hordes of the infected and dominated by hazy red skies and former warehouses-turned-living meat-encrusted hives. In response, more bits of the city are cordoned off and made into makeshift military bases, guarded by soldiers, then tanks, then gun turrets and helicopters. By the end of the game, the whole city has become a vast archipelago of bases and hives in a roiling sea of combat, with tanks firing wildly into crowds of the infected and large gorilla-like infected "hunters" pounding soldiers to pieces. As the pressure mounts, the quarantine grows even more grotesque, with fault lines developing between the Marines, who do most of the dying, and Blackwatch, the specialized antibiowarfare branch of the military that relishes its role as overseer of the quarantine with a psychotic glee and which, of course, knows far more about the current crisis than they let on.
Still, despite all this darkness and misery, Prototype is, at heart, a very fun game. You get to run around, shoot stuff, stab stuff, and generally blow the living crap out of everything. While it does like to ramp up the difficulty at random points, and the later stages of the game can be a pain (particularly the aforementioned 3x3 block boss fight in Times Square against what I can only describe as a giant angry tumor), the learning curve is fairly short, and the visuals are quite impressive, if a little dated. There's even an interesting thematic component, as the game can be read as a bitter critique of the "knight templar" complex in post-9/11 America (and, by extension, a implication of the negative desires that dwell at the heart of a lot of superhero and zombie apocalypse stories), of showing what happens when a group of people decide to put aside their conventional morality in the name of a state of emergency that never ends, and of what happens when people who take that outlook and twist it to solipsistic ends.
Imagine. A thought-provoking comment on modern American society, complete with flying grenade launcher battles against zombies. If that's not perfection, I don't know what is.
Bonus Content: Cool shapeshifters-disguised-as-Marines don't look at explosions.