Friday, June 19, 2009

Prototype - Sandbox Carnage

A few weeks ago I played Infamous on the PS3. The game's premise was that there's this character who wants to figure out why he has certain superhuman abilities. At the same time, supposedly his actions in the world determine how his powers develop, and also steer the course of the storyline.

Within nearly the same release period as Infamous, Activision's Prototype gets released for multiple platforms. This sparked a lot of debate on the Internet because both Infamous and Prototype have practically the same premise. Much like Infamous, Prototype has you starting out as a superhuman character who is hell-bent on finding out how exactly he became the way he is. In both games, both characters start out losing their memory [a staple theme in most video games to give the storyline something to talk about....], and completing missions in the game lets you find out more about your past and how you obtained your powers.

I suppose one major difference between Infamous and Prototype is that there is no 'moral compass' in Prototype. As you go through the game you realize that your character is literally a monster, in every sense of the word, and everywhere you go there is guaranteed to be a lot of carnage and destruction left in your wake. That's because the military is after you, and this military group has marching orders to take you down, with whatever means necessary. If it takes blowing up civilian vehicles or buildings to kill you, they'll do it. The military in the game seems to be portrayed as some kind of amoral PMC (private military corporation) tasked to clean up any mess the current government may have been involved in.

With this in mind, it's very hard (no, actually impossible) to avoid civilian casualties in any mission or free-roam situation that you get into. There's a lot going on in practically every action packed moment of the game. As Alex Mercer, you just can't help but get a lot of collateral damage when you strike back at the enemy. Alex's powers are incredible. Alex Mercer makes Cole seem like a Marvel Superhero from way back when the 'Comics Code Authority' was still in vogue. Most of Alex's attacks leave a wave of utter chaos and destruction; he can disembowel any human within range of his attacks. He wields all sorts of 'weapons' which morph from his flesh: claws, blades, whips, name it, he has it. And the game doesn't shy away from brutal violence, with bloody gore and decapitation happening in practically every battle scenario you may get yourself into.

Infamous's Cole, even with the moral compass aspect of the gameplay, still exercises some degree of restraint with the violence. With Alex Mercer, there is no limit to what he'll do to find out the truth behind what has happened to him.

I haven't finished Prototype yet so I wonder how exactly this game will end. Infamous's storyline left me completely disappointed, with....

*spoiler warning for Infamous*

Time Travel

*spoiler warning for Infamous*

...being brought up for no apparent reason other than to hint at a sequel and your 'possible' superpowers in a future version of the game. With Prototype, I hope there's no nasty twist like that that can ruin an otherwise straightforward and dark storyline. Originally I thought Infamous was already a pretty dark tale, but Prototype is a whole lot darker, and a whole lot edgier. Granted, Infamous had some sense of humor about it in some moments. Prototype doesn't have any of that at all. The game takes itself really seriously. That may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you like your games.

In terms of sheer action and carnage, Prototype delivers.

Now for a discussion of its more techincal aspects:

Graphics-wise, in Prototype it seems they used less detailed textures compared to Infamous. When you're in a situation where there isn't much going on, the low detail textures really stand out. At the same time, everything that's going on around you (even if you're not in a fight yet) is pretty amazing. Cars going through traffic, a lot of civilians walking about....the world 'feels' very alive to some degree. Most things in the world are interactive, and with your superpowers you can easily take down trees, fences, and some structures when you're traveling around.

While the game engine in Prototype may not be spectacular when it's standing still, it does show off its mettle when the action starts. Once a fight breaks out between Alex, the military, or 'the infected', this is when the game engine starts to show its best form. There is NO slowdown even with all that stuff onscreen at once. Civilans start running all over the place, cars start getting into vehicular mishaps, tanks start rolling on top of hundreds of cars piled up in crowded intersections, all this while Alex is throwing around his super-powered abilities. The military throws practically everything they've got at you, with mortar shells, missiles, machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades....everything short of a nuclear warhead is hurled at Alex Mercer to stop his rampage through the city. And while Alex is not invincible [in fact, he can die quite easily if you aren't careful], his superhuman abilities can get him out of a lot of situations even with all kinds of opposition bearing down on him.

Because of all the chaos and carnage that takes place in every scenario of Prototype, civilian casualties mount at an incredible rate in this game, and at some point you're going to see streets literally littered with destroyed cars and dead bodies. And, it seems those dead bodies don't magically 'disappear' after ten seconds. They just sit there, making the environment of the game feel really macabre and ominous. The soundtrack compliments this theme very effectively; obviously inspired by the musical themes in most horror films. There's never a dull moment thanks to the audio, which seems to dynamically adjust to what's taking place onscreen. When Alex gets detected by the military, a more upbeat 'chase' theme plays back, and this really adds to the intensity. When you're on the verge of dying, it seems the music also adjusts and this really adds to the sense of urgency in the game.

Control-wise, Alex can move and adjust to any situation very quickly. The developers seem to have made a conscious decision to slow down the action when you have to switch between abilities or when you're targeting enemies. At the rate all the action is going onscreen, their decision to put that in is very welcome....there's just so much coming at you that you do need that bit of 'bullet-time' to make split-second decisions on what to do. I like how they implemented action slow-down in the game to actually help the player and lessen the frustration when a really difficult situation arises.

Alex can also travel around the city at an incredible rate, thanks to his ability to run on building walls (instead of jumping over and over, like in other superhero games like Crackdown and Infamous). He can also upgrade his running speed so he never needs to hijack a car. He can also glide through the air, which is useful after jumping from a particularly tall building.

Alex can also fight the military by using their own weapons against them. He can get their guns, rocket launchers or vehicles and fight back with relative ease. The controls for this aspect of the game were well thought out and quite intuitive. Combined with the ability to fight on the ground with his numerous biological powers, Alex can be quite unstoppable if he is controlled right by the player.

Much like many discussions in forums online, I can't help but compare this to Infamous. They've got the same premise; they're in the same genre (sandbox). So which is the better game? From a technical standpoint, I'd say Prototype beats out Infamous because it manages to keep a consistent framerate even while all that stuff is going on on-screen. Storyline-wise, I'll have to withhold judgment until I finish the game. Their stories are really so close in terms of overall themes and ideas. Prototype is much, much darker, and leans more towards making it feel like you're a 'monster' in the game.

In terms of overall enjoyment, the framerate drops in Infamous really deterred the experience for me, and the excessive use of blur effect on distant objects made me question if I was experiencing loss of eyesight. This problem never occurs for me with Prototype. The draw distance is quite far in this game, and while there is a small degree of pop-in, it never deters from its immersiveness. Prototype also has much less aliasing issues compared to Infamous, where the jaggies where just everywhere. I'm not sure if this is a benefit of the fact that I'm playing this on the Xbox 360, given that I haven't tried the PS3 version. [Most 360 versions of multiplatform games have always had the benefit of better anti-aliasing]. Graphics matter to me as much as other aspects of a game, so to some degree I'm enjoying Prototype a lot more than Infamous right now.

I guess it all depends on how the game ends...whether or not this will be the 'best' sandbox game I've played so far, or just on par with Infamous. I'll post impressions again once I've finished the game.

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