Thursday, May 24, 2012

[Prototype 2] (2012)

I wasn't overly psyched to try out the sequel to Radical Entertainment's 2009 hit [Prototype]. It was a fine game with an interesting premise and some good action. Nonetheless, I was willing to step up and see how the series had grown for the sequel.

The first [Prototype] was an open-world action game centered around a lead character, Alex Mercer, a super-powered amnesiac in a New York City in the middle of a zombie infection brought on by a biological weapon explosion. There was plenty of hacking and slashing, free running, and Stuff Blowing Up around the city. It was all good, mindless fun. Nothing that stuck with you but still a worth twelve to fifteen hours of your time.

On the technical front, [Prototype 2] has all the improvements you'd expect. The visuals are sharper, it looks and sounds great, everything blows up nicely. The lead character switched from Alex Mercer to soldier James Heller, which is not altogether surprising given the revelations of the first game. There's also the usual RPG elements and character building. However, the game industry's habit of streamlining everything to make it easier and more accessible is readily apparent.

The first game gave you an entire city to play around in, but [Prototype 2] takes place in three much smaller zones entirely separate from each other. They jettisoned the first game's "Web Of Intriuge," a non-linear storytelling device revealing plot and character details by "eating" marked passersby, for generic collectibles in the form of black boxes and brief mini-games like Field Ops and underground lairs. The collectibles don't really add a lot of additional playtime and they're gimped by the game providing a GPS ping in your world map and alerts you whenever you get close. Fortunately, [P2] retains the mini-games from the first game and adds a leaderboard to track your friends' progress.

The biggest addition to the sequel are side missions called "//Blacknet Dossiers." They all work roughly the same way: consume a marked target to start a mission with a small, rotating number of objectives. Completing them rewards you with a power boost. They aren't particularly interesting and usually just feature the same tasks: checkpoint runs, destroy this base, consume that person. It extends gameplay by a couple hours but doesn't add much in the way of fun.

If there's an issue with the game, it's not the gameplay. That's rock solid. At no point during playing it did I get frustrated that the game wasn't reacting the way it should or that something was broken. The issues start cropping up whenever someone talks.

Simply put, [Prototype 2] is really dumb. Almost insultingly dumb. Start with our new anti-hero, Heller: He is every video game protagonist cliche imaginable. He's a Big, Hyper-Masculine Soldier Avenging His Family's Murder. He doesn't Play By The Rules. He has his own Code Of Honor. He's On The Edge and Takes No Crap. He's Mean and Cynical but still has a Soft Spot For Kids. He's also Incredibly Boring.

By contrast, Alex Mercer, the anti-hero of the first game, was much more interesting. Co-written by long time comic book writer Paul Jenkins, it borrowed liberally from Alan Moore's re-interpretation of the Swamp Thing origin story.  While Mercer himself was fairly bland, the story around him was surprisingly interesting. It wasn't without it's problems, sure, but it's a narrative issue in both games. You can't expect a gamer to kill hundreds and hundreds of people and then expect them to care about the fate of a stranger. One character even changes allegiances towards the end of the game and it's so ridiculous and nonsensical given your prior relationship that I actually face-palmed when it happened.

There's an acceptable level of stupidity you can expect in an action game. Sometimes it's even endearing. Gears Of War is a good example. It's an incredibly stupid, obvious, lunkheaded, openly manipulative story but it works because the gameplay is so goddamn smooth and the set pieces are so big that it doesn't matter. [P2] isn't as lucky. It lacks the big "Wow!" moments you need to forget how awful the story and the dialogue are.

The opening of the game has Heller talking to his wife in a cut-scene while he's out of the country on a mission. He implores her and their daughter to stay in New York despite the biological weapon outbreak that's happened because he'll be back in just a couple of days. Which is an incredibly stupid move that gets his wife and daughter killed. You might expect the game to even casually address a sense of guilt for his decision but... nope. That would require something beyond a surface level. The character of Kratos worked in God Of War because he was almost a mythological figure, the personification of rage. Heller just comes off like a complete asshole.

This attitude is systemic throughout the game's story and characters. It's aggressively, willfully dumb. Everyone is exactly who you expect them to be and the twists are telegraphed miles in advance. The soldiers, always men, are one-dimensional thugs and killers. The scientists and corporate types, almost entirely men, are completely immoral. Of course the game needs antagonists but there was ample opportunity for any kind of nuance that the game completely ignores. By the end of the game I wanted to start skipping the cut-scenes entirely and only held back because I knew I was going to write about it.

Maybe you don't need a story to like a game. In which case, [Prototype 2] should be right up your alley. However, if you want any entertainment out of your games outside of the gameplay, I just can't recommend it.

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