Thursday, 19 January 2012

Prototype: Crisis of identity

The gameplay is simply wonderful. It's a joy to get around the environment. Gliding from roof to roof, climbing building with ease or just running at parkhor style over cars and pedestrians. Various tools at your disposal allow you to cause seven times of mayhem. Not the least of them are the abilities to disguise yourself as enemy soldiers or hijack helicopters off the skies.
Like many other sand-box games, the city design is not distinctive enough. This is what Rockstar does well and all other developers seem to struggle with, designing a city that feels distinct. Like the cities in the first Assassin' Creed, the city feels very uniform and few buildings stand out from the others. The game does a good job, however, of showing the city succumbing to the infection. With the zombie-like infected praying on civilians and a red hue distinguishing the plagued areas of the city.
Playing it with a gamepad is almost a must since many of the more impressive maneuvers depend on holding three buttons at once, which is about as much as my keyboard could handle. Pulling these moves mid movement was almost impossible, leaving me stuck at one of the late levels of the game. A few months later with an X-box controller in hand, and maneuvers I previously had trouble to execute, were now done with relative ease. Thus, allowing me to pass the more troublesome spots in the storyline missions. And eventually finish the game.
The plot of Prototype is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand it has a unique way of giving you the back-story. Alex Mercer, the game's protagonist absorbs the memories of people he kills. And so much of the back-story is told through these short condensed flashes of foreign memories. And as his own memory of the events leading up to the game's start are missing, he relays heavily on information he abducts from his enemies. The slow process of piecing together Alex's identity and the origin of the virus attacking the city manage to drive the plot more than the cutcscenes do.
But the plot is also the weakest part of Prototype. It focuses almost exclusively on Mercer's quest for identity. But Mercer, is not exactly very endearing with his mindless vendetta, amnesia and lack of regret over the atrocities he must cause as he absorbs innocent people. And worse, learning about that his actions led to the disaster that now threatens the lives of millions and that he is essentially an intelligent virus, further paints him in an unsympathetic light. In a way it is similar to Alan Moore's run of Swamp-Thing. Swamp Thing thought he was Alec Holland, a victim of a lab accident. When he discovers that he was never the human he thought he was, it's devastating because it comes with the realization that he can never become human again. This revelation forces the creature to come to term with what he is and has been all along and to reexamine his connections to other characters around him. Mercer on the other hand, is untouched by the revelation. He remains as emotionally detached, brooding character on the path of revenge who seeks to stop the virus infecting the city to ensure his own survival more than anything else.
The supporting cast could have been a good way to explore Mercer without imposing on the player too strong a characterization of the protagonist, but they serve very instrumental roles in the overall plot. Both enemies and allies have goals that are either vague or morally unclear and you find yourself following mission objectives without any conviction. Mercer himself seems just as indifferent to anything not directly related to his personal vendetta and consequently it's almost impossible to care for the people and events around you. The characters learned about through flashes of absorbed memories manage to strike an emotional cord from time to time when the characters we actually see on the screen fail. Every interaction carries the hint of a personal story that could be told about Mercer's relationships and the hints that he was more of a monster as a human being, but such moments never come. Too many times does Mercer is called to hinder his enemies' sincere attempts to purge the city of the plague but no one addresses the strong moral dilemmas these situations create. Indeed, many a time it feels as though the game is about to engage in relevant political and moral issues in the real world, only to veer away at the last minute.
A sequel to Prototype is on the horizon and while I'm confident that the gameplay will be at least as fun as the first, I'm hoping a lot was done to improve the story and character aspects of the game as well.

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