Critical Showdown: Electric Jesus vs. Super-Cannibal (Infamous vs. Prototype)
First, people joked about not being able to tell them apart. Then there was the fact that their release dates were separated by mere weeks. But even though most were comparing them, there seemed to be a sense that people didn't want to declare one game better than the other.
Let's get the similarities out of the way, then. Both Cole McGrath's and Alex Mercer's stories riff on the tried-and-true superhero model, where they grapple with powers they didn't ask for. Their respective cities face an epic threat that's connected to how they got their abilities, and they feel a need to eliminate the threat. They're both gruff-voiced everymen guided through their quests by a variety of voices in their ears, facing off against ordinary folk transformed by calamity and military forces.
But, despite those similarities, both games elicited very different reactions from me.
In Prototype, there's a bio-weapon deployed in New York City, and as Alex Mercer you essentially play as patient zero. Mercer doesn't seem to care much about the chaos happening around him. Infamous made a point of explicitly saying Cole was afraid of and confused by his powers. And he had to reorient himself to life in a destroyed city.
The first time you get to control Cole McGrath in Infamous, you're just trying to steer his blast-addled self to safety. Compare that to Prototype, which starts you off with powers you'll only have later in the game, where your first objective is to kill the military personnel. From there, the two games' paths diverge only further.
Revenge is the main motivation in Prototype, and the whole game evinces an attitude that the rest of the world can go to hell. That doesn't change, no matter how you play it. The main story elements don't change that much in Infamous, whether you play as altruist or asshole, but non-player character reactions and gameplay experiences differ strongly if you're good or evil.
Both titles treat the game world as a resource. You're not going to find crates with power-ups and health-replenishers in either game. Rather, the worlds themselves are populated with things that do that. In the case of Prototype, the lead's a shape-changing super-cannibal, and Mercer walks amongst people whom he can eat. This works two ways: First, if you're low on health, you can snack on enemy NPC or random citizens; and second, you can skulk around unnoticed wearing the appearance of someone on whom you've dined.
Don't worry about those innocent bystanders. Cole can heal anybody who gets hurt. Let's see Alex Mercer do that.
The Web of Intrigue in Prototype -- knotted threads of people responsible for the experimentation that turned Alex into what he is -- creates a symbiotic relationship between the Mercer and the world. The Web gives him a reason to eat certain people and access their memories. Still, the first time I accidentally consumed an innocent bystander, I felt a level of repulsion that no other game's managed to evoke. If Alex is going to survive and uncover his past by gorging on other human beings, he has to be made to feel like a jerk.
With Prototype, the thrill comes from unfettered movement and power. But, ultimately those things are in service of nothing greater than one man's vengeance. The game fails miserably to engage players beyond its game mechanics and dynamically generated chaos. Alex himself wasn't enough to hook me.
The way I played Prototype, I felt like I was consigning Manhattan to death. The way I played Infamous, I felt like I was essentially resuscitating Empire City. Everywhere I traveled, there was some bit of hissing, spitting tech calling out to feed me energy, or begging for a recharge. Cole grows stronger as he revives the city's electrical infrastructure. I felt like I owned Empire City. I took care of its problems, gave it hope again. I felt like an electric Jesus, making the lame walk and punishing the wicked with the force of Empire City's power grid.
I don't feel the same way about Prototype's Manhattan -- but maybe that's because it's a real city, not a fictional construct. The part of my brain that's still moored to the real world while I play Prototype knows that I can't own the landscape. But then again, Radical's destruct-o-thon doesn't want me to; that's not germane to the way Alex's story plays out.
The thing that kept me playing Infamous was the same thing that made my interest in Prototype wane: The relationship between the world and the character develops through gameplay, and this makes me experience the character of Cole McGrath in a unique way. It's a more subtle, more layered way to connect things that are commonly thought of as separate parts of game design.
It's going to be interesting to see how other third-person action titles will pick up on these threads. The structure's fairly plain to see: open worlds seeded with elements that grow or maintain your character, along with delivering story. I'd argue that the next big test won't be how much you like a given lead character, but rather, how connected you feel to their world.