Tuesday, July 14, 2009

FEATURE: inFamous Vs. Prototype.



Why compare inFamous and Prototype? Well first off, everyone else is doing it. Granted, nobody's quite done it better than Yahtzee, but as I peruse the comparisons, I notice some pretty apparent flaws in the arguments, and the conclusions don't seem to hold much water. Some sites (perhaps to dodge accusations of console favoritism) are leaving it up to a vote - the coward's way out, says I!

Discussions of the games invariably lead to some level-headed individual pointing out that "they're nothing alike!" - which is true and false. Superficially, they're almost identical. They're both open-world games which take place in dense urban jungles featuring gruff, go-it-alone protagonists who slowly learn to master their abilities over the course of the story while taking on insurmountable odds in the quest to discover the origin of their mysterious superpowers - and the games came out within two weeks of each other. They're begging to be compared.



But the real reason to compare the two is that forums net-wide have been teeming with vitriol on both sides since well before the games launched. Fanboys and fangirls spat venom at each other, attributing values to games they'd never played - and these arguments are still going on. Well, I've played the holy hell out of these titles, and I'm here to take on both sides of the debate. If you have a question about Prototype, I can answer it. If you're missing a blast shard in inFamous, I have found it.

It seems to me that in order to measure these games against each other, a unit of measurement is required. I'm not much for arbitrary number scores - they're mostly helpful for sniffing out the games with the highest production values, and a game boasting 9.4 on Metacritic doesn't necessarily mean you'll have any fun with it - but for our purpose today, I'm afraid that arbitrary scores will serve us well. Instead of stars or numbers (which I'm a little tired of), we'll keep track of each game's scores with the decapitated, chilled monkey heads from Temple of Doom.


A delicacy.

Because if one is going to be arbitrary, one should go all the way.

Prototype and inFamous shall be weighed in seven categories, wholly covering the games in icy sheets of the cruelest judgment. Each nook shall be investigated, each cranny probed. A grand total of seventy chilled monkey brains are up for grabs! Let us begin where most high-profile games end:

Round 1:

These days, sandbox games are a dime a dozen. If you're going to make an open-world title, you'd better be prepared to run with the big dogs - nobody wants to play True Crime again.

Prototype has three unique niceties. This certainly doesn't include the combat - which was done better in Radical's last-gen Incredible Hulk: Ultimate destruction - but it is perhaps the first open-world game with a stealth system. It has paper-thin believability, but its binary success/failure system is reliable - it works. That's new.

Also new is the Web of Intrigue (find a pedestrian or military target, consume them, and view their memories). I don't think it was exploited to its full storytelling potential, but it's certainly unique.

What is really remarkable about Prototype is the aptly-named 'adaptive parkour'. It just seems like a pretty way to auto-vault cars until you find yourself running up the smoking chassis of a helicopter as it careens through the air. Alex can and will run on anything, no matter where it is or what's happening to it - and that's pretty damn spectacular.



inFamous as well doesn't bring much to the open-world genre. Closed-off areas that are dangerous to enter? GTA. Pedestrians with funny reactions and peals of self-pity? GTA. Responsive, satisfying platforming? Hm. That is actually kind of refreshing, if you don't count Assassin's Creed's autopilot-parkour (which I don't).

What's more impressive are the changes in the city, the sky, the pedestrians and the music that directly reflect your actions by way of the karma meter. Bully had a sandbox that dramatically changed over the course of the game (it was gorgeous), but inFamous really does something unique with Empire City. The changes aren't as immediately striking as Bully's dramatic seasonal shifts, but they have a direct impact on gameplay and are a direct result of your choices. That's new.

Originality:

Prototype, by a lobe.

I'm tempted to give Prototype a half-head each for stealth and the web, but let's face it - even if it's not particularly well-realized, it's new, so it edges out inFamous's more ambitious achievements.

Round 2:


Both games are very clear in what they're trying to achieve in this regard, and Prototype falls behind simply because it doesn't aspire to any great heights of visual design. This could easily become an argument about the games' engines - Prototype's is impressive for the sheer amount of civilians, soldiers, mutants, tanks, helicopters, infected, explosions, debris and blood it can throw around at any given time. But we're not talking tech, here - we're talking about how that technology is used to create a style that sparks our imagination, sticks with us, and invests us in the world.

One aspect of Prototype really stands out, visually. The Web of Intrigue looks like nothing else - a rapid-fire barrage of live video and art - but beyond that it's not particularly good-looking. When viewing the horizon, distant buildings all wear the same ugly gray color. The gameplay does have striking moments, but nearly all these come from the player character, Alex Mercer. Watching him unleash a hundred-foot, undulating whip of black flesh is beautiful and grotesque (in a strangely pleasing way). His cruel claw-hands, mighty blade arm and ground smashes all sell Alex, they sell his powers, but the world he inhabits is significantly less interesting - and so using his powers to destroy it simply doesn't feel as important as it could.



inFamous takes a very different approach. Perhaps it's a result of viewing all the action through a more intimate lens (it's not), but every building, every enemy, every pedestrian, every monster are stylized just enough to make them pop, and become real. A train is still a train, but even such a simple object seems to have vitality in inFamous's world. The Reaper gang, faces dark behind blood-red hoods. Gaunt Reaper conduits, unleashing shockwaves of light to be dodged at the last moment (creating a split-second, gorgeous tableau of action and special effects).

It's realistic(ish), but it's realism informed by the style of a graphic novel. Bright, sharp colors. Iconic, jazzy enemy designs that stand out against the world. And then, of course, there's the electric superpowers.

The shimmering glow of electricity crackling about Cole's arms is, at times, his only light source as he navigates subterranean obstacle courses. Your lightning bolts leap across conductive materials, arcing wildly (but believably) - and if you pay attention, you'll notice these dances of light don't appear to be canned animations. It seems organic, it looks gorgeous, and it really sells the game's central feature.

Art Direction:

inFamous.

Prototype just can't compete with inFamous here. Alex may not look as good as Cole up close, but once he unleashes his powers he's visually spectacular. It's too bad the same can't be said for the rest of the game. inFamous, on the other hand, is just damned good-looking thanks to an engine that isn't required to throw around so much geometry and a lively, cohesive visual design - and that's before you count Cole and his stunning light shows.

Round 3:

Neither game is polished to a mirror shine, but Prototype's issues are pretty damn awful - even if there's only three of them.

Occasionally, Alex won't be able to switch his mutation. Flip open your menu, select the blade arm and nothing happens - you won't be able to use your selected ability until you manually turn off your previous mutation, and then turn the new one on with the d-pad. With combat as fast-paced as Prototype's, this is a huge flaw.

The second bug is specific to a mission. While piloting a helicopter, you must destroy a certain building for the military - but around 40% of the time, attacking the building will cause the military to become hostile towards you, and there's no way to complete the mission. Ouch.

The third is even more damning. Prototype has some pretty significant difficulty spikes - particularly on your first playthrough - and when, after an especially frustrating mission a load screen appears, you feel a wave of relief. Until, that is, you notice that the load screen isn't loading anything - it doesn't hard freeze, it just tells you that it's loading. Forever. You have to exit the game, reload your save, and do that same godawful mission again.



inFamous has two issues (if you don't count the occasional texture pop). Cole won't walk off the edge of a building - he'll run right to the edge and stop. This is a good idea for a game where you spend most of your time on rooftops, but once in a blue moon you'll find yourself stuck at an invisible line - as if Cole is prancing along the edge of a rooftop - when you're walking on pavement. It's very rare, but it can cost you during heated combat.

The second is a little more significant. I've played through inFamous around five times, and on three occasions I've managed to fall through the world. This may sound egregious, but when it happens you instantly die in the water below the city and respawn. It's certainly not a positive, but it interrupts action for all of four seconds.

Bugs:

inFamous.

Both games have bugs, and all of them have an impact on gameplay - but where inFamous's rare issues are only issues for a second or six, Prototype's handicaps your ability to play the game at best, or forces a reload at worst. Prototype loses because its bugs make for a huge degree of frustration.

Round 4:

Both titles try to tap into what it may feel like to be a meta-human - how well do they succeed?

inFamous never quite lets you feel over-powered. The abilities are mostly analogs for standard shooter weapons, and you never feel precisely super until around halfway through the game - even then, you won't feel like a force of nature until you're nearly at the end. Once you do, it's a beautiful, satisfying combination of the glorious art direction and the well-realized potential of electrical superpowers. Extra mileage comes from the customization of the karma system, which is definitely a plus. inFamous gets the job done and looks great doing it, but all of Cole's powers are so damn functional, so required, that they don't measure up to Prototype's gargantuan roster of superfluous techniques and gory whimsy.

As for Prototype, while a stronger art direction and narrative would have further invested you in Alex's world and suspended disbelief at his abilities, it doesn't stop Alex's powers from being absolutely spectacular from beginning to end. The tutorial has you catching a car out of the air and hurling it into a helicopter. I could list countless feats of power and imagination here, but instead I'll just say that in terms of making you feel like an unstoppable embodiment of power, Prototype is unmatched on the current gen. Again - spectacular.

Super Powers:

Prototype.

By making the otherworldly abilities of its protagonist the main focus, Prototype easily pulls ahead of inFamous here. The entire experience is about the phenomenal crap Alex is capable of, and aside from that other game Radical put out in 2005, no superhero title has ever done it better.

Round 5:
Here's an example of a game trying, but not quite getting there. Radical went so far as to actually hype Prototype's story - and given the unique mechanic of the Web of Intrigue, they at least had something original. The problem is, aside from Alex's personal journey being a relatively interesting sci-fi story, Prototype's narrative sucks.

There is one mission where one character suddenly becomes of paramount importance - you frantically dash through New York as they cry your name, begging for help. It's very affecting - which makes it all the more inexcusable when that character is simply swept aside, and we never learn what happens to them. The Web of Intrigue doesn't help things much either - beyond being an interesting way to deploy a narrative, for the most part all it does is offer tiny (often repetitive, often inconsequential) snippets of a sprawling, uninteresting tale.

inFamous, on the other hand, gets things pretty darn right. Cole's world is painted in rich strokes, with power plays and powerful personalities throughout. Characters are - for the most part - more than two-dimensional archetypes. Voice work is above-par and story and character is often revealed through or during gameplay. Add in the striking comic-style cutscenes, and inFamous's story does a great job of sucking you into Cole's world, and making you care.

Story:

inFamous.

The novelty of the Web of Intrigue doesn't begin to elevate Prototype's narrative. Even with over a hundred WoI targets to consume, the story lacks depth, and Alex aside there isn't a single interesting or endearing character to be found. inFamous, on the other hand, is like a good sci-fi, comic-book read. The characters have a measure of complexity, the story is tight, and it's told through stunning cutscenes and solid voice work.

Round 6:

The competition gets pretty tight here. inFamous is solid front-to-back, with slick, comfortable platforming elements that just feel right, which dovetails perfectly with the shooting component. The traversal is satisfying, and the combat is a great mix of frantic action, flashy style and clever strategy. inFamous delivers where it counts, and there's really no complaints to be made. Excellent mission design further elevate the game above standard action fare.

Likewise, Prototype has its eyes squarely on the prize. There are certainly severe difficulty spikes to be found on your first trip through the campaign (and the missions aren't particularly well designed), but it shines on subsequent playthroughs. The whole point of the game is wrecking everything and everyone in epic, gory fashion - and it succeeds brilliantly. Tight controls and a modicum of depth to the combat and zippy movement system ensure that like inFamous, when it comes to simply playing the game, Prototype delivers.

More than that, it goes above and beyond with the incredible variety of powers and options available to the player. Drive tanks, hijack helicopters, pick up fallen soldiers' weapons and blast away. Prototype houses a frightening array of methods for killing - it's a blast.

Round 6:

Tie.

Both games play beautifully, with rock-solid mechanics. Full marks are denied because most of it has been done before - and while Prototype's exceptional variety of mayhem should earn it an extra lobe, its crushing difficulty spikes and questionable mission design can be pretty frustrating.

Round 7:
Again, this is a tight one. inFamous is like slipping into a warm gamer bath - the story is rich, the characters are affecting and the gameplay is tight and satisfying. Not only does the platforming element allow a great sense of grounded freedom, but the lively city means all your actions feel more important. Helping pedestrians is meaningful because you're able to believe that you're actually having an impact on someone's day. Putting a lightning bolt into an enemy's face is much more significant when you are able to suspend disbelief and accept that the enemy is real - and in this, inFamous exceeds Prototype.

inFamous really sells its world - the chatty people, the bright neon lights, the looming architecture. It's a place I enjoy spending time in. A world and a fiction I like slipping back into, from time to time - and thanks to the comfortable, solid gameplay it's a simple, wholesome pleasure. It fits easy, like a well-worn pair of jeans, and this quality is uniform throughout.



Prototype's ridiculous superpowers and lightning-fast free-running, on the other hand, offer so many moments of bombastic action and childlike glee that it's really an apples-and-oranges situation. I'm unable to suspend disbelief - I don't care much about Alex and his world, so it's not particularly important when I do a thousand-foot faceplant into a military base and destroy it - but on the other hand, I can do a thousand-foot faceplant into a military base to destroy it.

Few games offer as many moments of sheer, unadulterated action-bliss as Prototype. Blasting into the sky and destroying a flight of helicopters before you hit the ground, flying through the air and launching a minivan into a pursuing mutant, breaking out the Muscle Mass mutation and just wrecking the place. Woo!

Of course, there's still godawful mission design and cruel difficulty spikes to contend with. Prototype's highs are dizzying - unlike, perhaps, anything you've ever played - but it also has more than its share of lows.

Fun Factor:

Tie (sorry).

I thought long and hard on this one. Is inFamous really one chilled monkey brain shy of being perfectly fun? Well, yeah, I'm afraid it is. And even though Prototype's most thrilling moments are magnificent, the whole suffers from crumby mission design. Fun you have in Prototype is fun you make for yourself - and it is remarkable fun - but fun in inFamous is just par for the course.



I've tried to illustrate that these games are entirely separate, in everything they do. Their similarities are only skin-deep, but their many significant differences result in two very unique games that can quite comfortably occupy the same shelf. If you want my advice, I suggest both.

If you want to count monkey heads with me, that is - of course - alright too. As I said earlier, arbitrary scores tend to favor games with higher production values - and my monkey head tally seems to be no different.



But again, I beg for peace among the teeming fanchild masses. Both games are sound investments of your entertainment dollar, both games are great fun. And at the very least, both feature the voice work of Phil LaMarr - an excellent indicator of quality, if ever there were.

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