29
Sep
09

Brain Freeze: Prototype and Gaming's Guilty Pleasures

I seem to have amassed a large collection of what I’d call ‘guilty pleasure’ gaming. These are the games that will not be remembered in times to come as gaming classics. More often than not they’re flawed, stupid and the embodiment of simple, pointless fun; in many cases deliberately so. For me they generally come in the form of sandbox action titles, a genre which seems to value content over coherence. I bring this up because I’ve finally found an example of the genre that, despite falling squarely into the mould, I don’t consider to be a ‘guilty pleasure’. Prototype, or [PROTOTYPE], is actually quite good.

The difference is that most sandbox games that favour the playground element of design, in which you’re given a tool set and set out to wreak havoc on the world, have one element that seems to detract from that very purpose. Take Saints Row 2, a game I’m about to be very unfair to. Many praised Saints Row 2 for giving the player the ability to enact the hyper-cartoonish destruction and violence that was present in the PS2-era GTA games but very much missing in the fourth. This is a worthy and noble pursuit for a game but the way in which Volition implemented it left me cold. If you’re anything like me there came a moment when playing GTA3, or one of its sequels, in which you stood your character on the roof of a passing car and used it as a mobile base to terrorise the streets. The character would slide backward motionless once the car hit any significant speed, forcing you to course correct every couple of seconds, but that was part of the charm and simply the fact that you could do it, when the developers clearly hadn’t put in any coding to allow you to, was cool. In Saints Row 2 doing the same action triggers a mini-game in which you can pull off a variety of poses and gain a rating for how long you can keep your balance. If I remember correctly, gaining the top rating gives you a traffic cone you can wear on your head. It’s Cool™. This was my problem with Saints Row 2: the developers had a mini game ready for any stupid action you could think to undertake. All very well, but if I’m messing about and avoiding the missions of the game I don’t want to be constantly reminded that the fun I’m making for myself has been authorised by the developers.

This is the vapour that is the apparent result of punching a guy into pieces.

Prototype understands this. Killing civilians draws no reward or penalty, I can’t even remember if you get any experience bonus for killing uninfected civilians, and even the infected ones draw such a small amount of points that they aren’t actually worth bothering about. In fact there’s absolutely no reason why you should be able to unlock a Curb Stomp upgrade that allows you to stomp on dead bodies (or even why this would be an upgrade as opposed to something you can just do) but there is and you can, if you really want to. And I did.

The unlock system is another reason why I warmed to Prototype over other, similar, games. It’s a centralised system which allows you to upgrade your character at any moment once you’ve gained the right amount of experience (something which builds up at a ridiculous rate). It was the lack of a centralised system that proved to be the main flaw in another game, one I enjoyed more than most people. In Mercenaries 2 progression led to the ability to buy more powerful airstrikes which could be used to destroy absolutely any building in a game. However, unlike in Prototype, and, more unforgivably unlike in the first Mercenaries game, these airstrikes could only be bought by visiting specific military bases located across the map. When you start a mission you’re given a list of recommended items and in order to actually obtain that list you’d need to quit the mission, find which bases were selling which items and travel to each individually to buy them. Frequently I’d do none of that, instead turning up to the mission location unprepared and having to wing it based on what I could scavenge. All very well, perhaps, but this meant that there was no sense of an escalating growth of power, a key feature in almost any mission based game. It was also a bizarre move considering the first Mercenaries gave you access to the Russian Mafia through your PDA, allowing you to call in any airstrike or package from any location with a couple of button presses.

For a while I was worried I might start to tire of kicking helicopters to death. Luckily that point never came.

Because Prototype’s progression of power is intrinsically tied to the escalating powers within the character the game is much more accessible in terms of growth. The sheer number of powers means that there is always a reason to complete the high-experience objectives or side quests. As well as the upgrades that are necessary for survival, like the ability to shoot hundreds of tendrils from your body, are a bunch that serve no purpose than to increase your ability to mess around, like the power that allows you to surf a body along the ground while blood smears along behind them.

The game is also geared to reduce the time spent searching for those survival essentials. The consume mechanic means that civilians, and this game is set in New York so there are thousands of them, essentially act as health packs. Guns can also be taken from any member of the large military presence, although I can’t think of a time in which I actually needed to use one, and, eventually, any tank or helicopter can be stolen at any point. It’s one of the few true playgrounds in the sandbox genre, with little of annoyances that so often plague it.

Here are the innards of some guys. Prototype's primary colour is red.

It is, of course, flawed in its own right. Some of the upgrades are so powerful as to render the others useless, the story isn’t in the least bit memorable, any hints at character morality are instantly destroyed when I start punching hundreds of people into bits, a lot of the missions aren’t particularly inventive, the movement system isn’t anywhere near as interesting as Infamous’, and, from a technical standpoint, it looks like a bit of a dog (although this places it as a pretty normal example of an open-world game). That said there are hours of fun to be had kicking helicopters to death, tormenting the local populace and running up the side of a wall in order to chuck cars at water towers. For these reasons Prototype is clearly the best stupid game I’ve played in a long while.

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