Prototype (Xbox 360)
Prototype made me yell at my cat.
I was fighting one of the game's various bosses. It was some kind of mound of goo in Times Square. It had tentacles that smacked me if I got within punching range. Little green energy balls floated around it and homed in on me when I got close. Occasionally, the goo mound would send out a blast wave. All the while, superfast mutants swarmed me and knocked me over. There was a hit-point bar for the mass of goo, and then a series of hit-point hash marks for the goo's armor or support structures or carapace or something. I was just staying alive as long as I could to do damage, hoping I would reach some sort of checkpoint before dying, which was happening with frequency. I'd beaten the boss twice, but each time -- psyche! -- it turned out I was only beating one stage of the boss, at which point it would come back with more hit-point hash marks. Who knew how long this was going to go on?
And there was my cat meowing about something. So I go, "Dude, shut up! You are driving me crazy. Go away!"
I was sick of this game and its terrible boss fights. I was sick of the awkward spammy Devil May Cry/Ninja Gaiden battles. I was sick of the twitchy jumping/flight controls, which made the electric flying in Infamous seem downright sensible (to explain anything in Prototype, just insert the words "a wizard did it" but replace "wizard" with "virus"). I was just sick of it all. I did not want to be playing this stupid thing anymore. I had no idea why I was fighting a mound of goo, though the backstory assured me there was something relevant going on. I felt sorry for Barry Pepper, who provided the voice for Prototype's confused attempt at a mass-murdering antihero. Before the game is over, he will yell and rage like Christian Bale berating a cinematographer. It will sound just as silly. Barry Pepper was good in "Saving Private Ryan." He was really good in "25th Hour," which was about New York City. Prototype thinks it's about New York City. When it ends, which won't be for another five hours or so after this terrible boss fight in which I yell at my cat, there will be a speech about the city surviving the world's first biological terror attack. Yeah, pretty much everyone will be thinking about 9/11 when you say that, Prototype. Then there are the many times we'll see the cut scene of Manhattan getting nuked when we fail the final boss fight. I will see that cut scene 11 times. I know it's 11 times because I will keep count.
These are the things that will wander through my mind as I play Prototype. Right now I'm clutching this controller and spamming various tendril attacks and hammer-slams and throwing cars and generally frowning at the fact that Prototype is terrible. My cat is sulking on the couch across the room from me. I later apologize to him and explain it wasn't him driving me crazy, it was the game. I think he understands. But the point is that Prototype made me a very unpleasant person. It's one of those games I would have stopped playing if I were in it for fun. But I wasn't. I was in it for the review. I was in it so I could come here to tell you people about it.
Something to do
Now I realize that some people will think Prototype is fun. This is their prerogative. For some people, a bunch of punches of varying flavor applied to a bunch of pointless bystanders in a pointless open world is fun. They just want to shoot and punch and break stuff in a middleware world. They'll have a great time with Prototype, which reeks of middleware (seriously, Prototype, that's the effect you're going to use when I destroy one of the buildings scripted to be destroyable?). It takes place in a typically bland Manhattan, as forgettable as the ones in the Spider-Man, Hulk, True Crime and Alone in the Dark games. Manhattan is to open-world games what World War II is to shooters. This one just has more low-polycount pedestrians.
Now there are times when Prototype isn't awful. It does one thing very well: dynamic chaos. It populates its bland quarantined Manhattan with two warring factions. Infected mutants come from hives. The military come from bases. They clash, of course. Tanks prowl around and helicopters patrol the skyline. Crows circle the mysteriously red skies of the infected neighborhoods. The streets are littered with ruined cars and bodies. Civilians panic obligingly. These regions of order and chaos progress as you move through the story missions, although you can take out hives or military bases if you want. It doesn't seem to have any lasting effect, as the hives and bases will just come back. But it's something to do.
That's pretty much the extent of the game design in Prototype: something to do. If you want. Shrug. Peppered among the 31 story missions like garnish are discrete challenges of the usual sorts. Kill so many dudes in so much time. Run between these points in this time limit. Hit these waypoints. Jump on this spot. Something to do. They spring up like mushrooms as you play. By the time you've finished the game, Manhattan will be crowded with about a hundred side activities with virtually no incentive to play any of them.
Something else to do
The game progression in Prototype, based on a whole mess of sloppy superpowers, is as aimless as the game world. As you play, you earn experience points which you then spend on a sprawling set of powers and abilities and upgrades and combat moves. Very few of them matter. This is just a fighting game with a hundred different punches, and you'll only ever need 10, so the upgrades quickly turn superfluous. In a good game, you should look forward to earning and then spending your collectibles: the diamonds in Far Cry 2, the salvage in Red Faction: Guerrilla, the orbs in Crackdown. Every new power should matter. The gameplay should progress, develop, evolve, change. Your interaction with the world should grow with your powers. Infamous, drawing from its developer's experience with platformers, did this very well. But in Prototype, I routinely amassed hundreds of thousands of points before remembering to spend them. Most of the time, I didn't bother to use what I'd bought. By the time the game was over, I was sitting on three million "evolution points" and more moves than I could remember how to use. Some things I never even figured out.
All these potentially nifty abilities just get dumped into your lap with the game design's characteristic shrug. "Here's some stuff we thought of," Prototype says. "You can use it if you want to. You don't have to. Something to do." I imagine Prototype looks like Eeyore when it says this. It has very little energy or enthusiasm as a game design. Sure, there's lot of stuff happening randomly on-screen. Civilians run pell-mell. A car bangs plastically into another car. Some dudes shoot at other dudes. A rocket knocks me over. I buy a hammer-punch upgrade in which I fling myself for a city block and smack into something. Yeah, cool, whatever. I just walloped a soldier. I could have just as well stuck him with my giant unlikely tendril or hijacked a tank to drive over him or shot him with a gun or just glided over him with my silly flying ability, ignoring him altogether. I run up a wall and jump over a street and I don't care at all. It's just something to do. Or not. If you don't want to. Whatever. The problem isn't the variety. The problem is that it leads nowhere. Prototype is smothered by its own existentialism. I toggle my vision mode. Some people glow. Others don't. Whatever.
Then there are the story missions, full of rigidly scripted stuff you have to do -- like fighting a goo monster come to Times Square straight out of a Metroid game. There are plenty of terrible gimmicks involving some one-off system of staying near a helicopter, or keeping the attention of a monster, or scanning water towers. Prototype goes from strangely passive and uncaring to demanding and linear. One moment it's a sad little Eeyore of a game, and the next it's the girlfriend from hell expecting you to read her mind and know exactly what to do. Until then: You. Shall. Not. Pass. That's when you'll yell at your cat.
Another thing to do
There's shapeshifting, which a better design would have harnessed to give the game a touch of John Carpenter's "The Thing." That's obviously what the developers intended. Instead, it's just a way to drop some forced stealth missionry into the game. The stealth kills look absolutely absurd. You walk around military bases, swallowing soldiers in plain sight to unlock pointless weapon upgrades. Four levels of upgrade for an assault rifle I never needed and only used a couple of times out of idle curiosity? Something to do. You can eat people to steal their memories. In reality, this is just a pointless collectible system that doles out bits of the story. It has no gameplay implications. Something to do.
All the while, Prototype is tracking the amount of money I've cost the military, and the number and types of casualties I've inflicted, as if I should care, as if it has an effect on gameplay. It doesn't. But there it is anyway, in my face after every single mission and every single shoot-out, keeping count as if it mattered. Prototype is full of things that don't matter. In fact, I'd say it consists almost entirely of things that don't matter. It's a worst-case example of how to do an open-world action game: Create an uninspired Devil May Cry fighting system with a dozen different types of punches, create a set of linear scripted missions, and then build around them a lot of pointless filler. Open-world shouldn't mean inconsequential. Freedom shouldn't mean aimless. And variety is never a stand-in for game design. Ultimately, these are the things that made me yell at my cat. Twenty hours with a game this poorly made will put anyone in a bad mood.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game purchased by the reviewer.