I don’t really see what we’re prototyping here

Originally Published 9 June 2010

Late on Monday, I finished up Prototype. The game itself is an open-world platformer similar in style to Infamous. The player takes on the role of Alex Mercer–an amnesiac who wakes up in a morgue–trying to figure out what happened to him and why nearly everyone in Manhattan is trying to kill him.

The game makes use of a relatively standard platformer upgrade system. Completing sidequests, killing enemies, and finding various collectables earn you EP which can be used to buy new powers. Completing main quest missions unlocks new powers for purchase in addition to the standard EP rewards.

Mercer’s powers proper are based entirely on him manipulating his body in strange ways–growing claws, turning his fists into giant mauls, etc. To that end, the standard way of regaining health is to grab a person and “consume” them. Doing so involves Mercer character physically absorbing (and thereby killing) the person absorbed. This consumption mechanic ends up being key to gameplay in several forms. Firstly, Mercer can switch between two disguises: his standard “Mercer” form and the form of the last person that he consumed. Since Mercer is often pitted against military personnel, consuming a military person and using their form provides substantial benefit.

Further, the consume mechanic also has an influence on the plot due to its non-gameplay powers. Most notably, Mercer gains the knowledge and memories of the people he consumes. Due to this, the main plot of the game is often concerned with finding people who know Mercer’s history and essentially eating them. This mechanic also drives the major subquest called the “Web of Intrigue” which is concerned with finding random people on the streets of Manhattan and eating them so as to find out more information about the game’s backstory and the ongoing operations of the military in the city.

The consume mechanic also bends back yet again into the upgrade system. Most powers can simply be purchased using EP, but some can only be obtained by consuming people with certain knowledge. All of the skills of this form are related to using things other than the powers inherent to Mercer–driving military vehicles, being more efficient with guns, etc. In addition, all of the people with the requisite knowledge are military personnel sequestered inside of the various bases constructed around Manhattan. This leads to a sort of minigame wherein you must find the base commander, consume him, sneak into the base under a false identity, and then find and consume the person (or people) inside with the appropriate knowledge. This is honestly one of the most interesting parts of the game because it pulls together many of the game’s more novel elements.

Gameplay wise, Mercer moves about the city mostly by running up buildings and then gliding around. Unfortunately, the building climbing is infuriatingly impercise at low speeds or over narrow objects. There are several collectables situated at the top of antennas atop tall buildings that I collected before I obtained the ability to fly helicopters. Had I known about this, I would have simply waited rather than becoming frustrated. This poor control also becomes troublesome in the various “movement” sidequests. One in particular (Point to Point) took me hours to do successfully.

The combat is also rather weak. Mercer is somewhat fragile and prone to be knocked over. Additionally, he has little in the way on inherent ranged attacks. This led to me using combat vehicles whenever possible due to the fact that they have seperate health bars and have damage output well in excess of what the player can nominally do with weapons. For instance, the tank can take down a helicopter in a single show whereas Mercer on foot only has a shot if there is something large nearby that can be thrown at the heli.

Overall, I found the game fun despite its weaknesses. I also enjoyed the story enough to keep moving through it without feeling compelled to simply get it beaten. I wish that I, as a player, had more impact on the outcome of the game. Given the open world nature of it, such things seem almost the norm, but Prototype gives a fixed plot influenced only by the player’s progress.

Prototype: 1

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