The Power of Powers and Purpose
A number of AAA open-world games were released in the last month and, coincidentally, two of these games are based around the concept of the player’s character possessing superhero-like powers amidst a major metropolis. It’s the video game industry’s own Armageddon/Deep Impact, A Bug’s Life/Antz, The Prestige/The Illusionist, etc.. The first of the super-hero games to be released was Infamous (inFAMOUS, technically) and it’s a game by Sly Cooper developer Sucker Punch and it puts players in the electrified body of Cole McGrath in the fictional Empire City. Radical Entertainment’s Prototype casts players as Alex Mercer, a biological experiment gone wrong whose sole goal is determine what happened to him while unraveling a “government conspiracy.” The release of these two games within such a close time frame (mere weeks apart) almost naturally makes for a number of comparisons between the two titles. The two elements I’m interested in are how each title attempts to have its game mechanics and atmosphere inform a player’s sense of purpose and how the two games treat their protagonist’s powers/abilities.
Infamous’ protagonist, Cole McGrath, is boosted to superhero status when an in-game event bestows a host of electricity-based abilities to him. The concept of electricity isn’t just a random power that was assigned to the player, though; smartly, Sucker Punch chose to have electricity inform every aspect of the game. Movement through the city is eased by metal electric lines and the rails that define the elevated train track. Metal objects can be electrified to harm enemies who are overly-reliant on metallic cover (and apparently give no regard to the fact that all of their opponent’s powers revolve around electricity). Any electric object throughout the city can be used by the player to harvest energy and this concept creates a very reliable cause-and-consequence relationship between what a player thinks would conduct or react to electricity and what would not. Even the feeling that an open-world game will eventually rely on cars or guns is discarded in an opening scene between Cole and his best friend as they discuss why Cole can’t drive cars or use guns. What Cole can do, though, is fire controlled bolts of electricity (or a long-range, very precise bolt), “sticky bombs” of electric energy, an electric cannon ball projectile, arc lightning, summon a huge roving thunder bolt capable of destroying everything in its path, and a couple other abilities along those lines. Sucker Punch clearly thought very carefully about their super hero and what he could and could not do and the result is a game that so thoroughly engrosses itself in its premise that, if nothing else, the result is truly impressive.
When a player opens Infamous’ ability sheet for the first time, there is a horizontal list of all abilities along the top of the screen (though most are a mystery, as they get unlocked with progression through the story). There are, maybe, a dozen high-level abilities available to the player throughout the game. About three-fourths of these abilities can “level-up” to become more damaging, be more grandiose to execute, or offer new side-effects entirely. Each ability, though, has an entire section of gameplay designed around it when the player first unlocks it. The ability-unlocked section is a bit formulaic taken within the scope of the entire game (as it is executed in roughly the same fashion a handful of times throughout the game), but the purpose of each segment is to both familiarize the player with the basic operations of the new power along with some “advanced uses” before throwing the player into the game proper with it. This section also, though, allows the player to truly integrate the power into his existing play-style; this quickly breeds both familiarity and character.
Prototype doesn’t have quite the same focus of intent. Alex Mercer is a character that appears to be the result of a biological experiment gone wrong and has the following abilities:
- The ability to run and jump up buildings as if they’re a typical ground plane.
- Automatically-executing parkour when sprinting.
- A gliding ability, charged high jumps, and a limited number of air-dashes.
- An ability to consume people and take their knowledge/skills.
- The ability to take the form of any person that he consumes.
- The ability to transform his arms into claws, whips, huge muscular arms, wrecking ball arms, or a giant blade.
- Access to devastator abilities which, essentially, create a block-wide genocide via sharp thorns.
- A host of melee moves and throws.
- A host of air moves like karate kicks (which can take down helicopters) and elbow drops (which can take out tanks).
- An ability to generate a shield or transform his body into a layer of armor.
- Special vision modes to determining body heat.
- The ability to pilot APCs, tanks, and helicopters.
- The ability to karate kick a pedestrian and use their dying body as a “surf board” for approximately two seconds.
- He can use any weapon — be it an assault rifle, machine gun, grenade launcher, or rocket launcher — that the military uses.
Alex Mercer has just a few abilities. The arsenal of powers and moves gets absurd to the point of the game assigning certain abilities to a simultaneous press of the left and right face buttons at the same time. This is, as far as I can think of, one of the most uncomfortable and error-prone button combinations imaginable for the Xbox 360 controller and, yet, it’s just one of a few dozen combinations that are meant to be employed in the incredibly fast-paced combat environment that Prototype promotes. A combat encounter with a human enemy lasts anywhere from an instantaneous explosion of gore to about one second (the execution of one ability).
Prototype’s problem isn’t simply a case of “too much.” It’s a case of too much, too unnecessary, and too unfocused. This is a game about what is, essentially, a super hero. Why should a player that can karate-kick a helicopter ever need to actually pilot a helicopter? Every move being a charge-able attack is nice for consistency, but almost always unnecessary and flow-breaking. The need for melee combat is minimal after the first half-hour of the game and, consequently, the introduction of a handful of melee abilities alongside abilities which enhance the player’s new, devastating arm-blade is confusing. This all results in an enormous libraries of special abilities which seem to want to flesh out individual combat scenarios like Bungie’s “30 Seconds of Fun” but, instead, are too scattered and quick to provide players with any real opportunity for the kind of experimentation such an array of abilities and encounters necessitates.
As would be expected, each game handles its approach to civilians/cityscape and a player’s interaction with each game’s primary narrative differently. Prototype’s story is, essentially, about a man who woke up with strange powers one day and is hell-bent on figuring out who was involved, why whatever happened had to happen to him, and what he could do to stop those involved. The story progresses through Alex Mercer’s “consumption” of key figures in the conspiracy — mapped to an interface element called the “Web of Intrigue” — and getting that person’s interpretation or perspective on relevant current events. The player has no agency in the progression of Prototype’s narrative and, on top of that, Radical Entertainment focuses pretty heavily throughout the game on this story. The first hour of the game is constantly interrupted by a series of three-five minute cut scenes which jump back-and-forth between disparate events in the game’s time line. This is all compounded by what seems to be the most angry, humorless, impatient, and generally unlikable protagonist that I’ve seen in a video game in years (but he’s right at home in Prototype’s equally melodramatic, humorless, and angry universe).
The primary theme that runs through Infamous is how the introduction of super-powers into the life of a normal guy, Cole McGrath, affects his outlook on the city and the goals of his future actions. The game is constantly throwing ethical choices at the player that shape the progression of the entire game’s atmosphere and high-and-low level narrative. The ethical choices are often silly in their extreme polarity (“do I make dozens of people suffer or have a bit of tar splash in my face”), but the changes in both atmosphere and game mechanics are fantastic. A good Cole will run through the streets and have people snapping pictures of him with their cell phones and talking on their phones to friends saying how crazy it is to see Cole just walking through the streets. A bad Cole will inspire people to run away, throw rocks at him, and so forth. Players can inform their morality progression by blowing innocent civilians up, using civilians as a source for health/energy, healing the sick that adorn the streets, or other various actions throughout the game. There is no real point to ever going good sometimes and bad other times as the game rewards players who go pure evil or pure good, and each path has a surprisingly different play style as players customize their powers. An evil Cole will have far more explosive, bombastic interpretations of the same powers (save one pair of alignment-exclusive powers) as a Good Cole’s more subtle, stasis-based versions of those powers.
There are never penalties or anything for harming massive amounts of civilians in either Prototype or Infamous (though all actions have a morality impact in Infamous), but Infamous does one thing that Prototype does not: infuse civilians with personality. In my Good Cole play-through of Infamous, I actually started feeling somewhat bad whenever I accidentally killed/hurt a civilian. For reasons I can’t explain, I actually found myself doing penance by running up-and-down streets healing sick people whenever I accidentally killed a group of people with my highly-volatile powers. This is largely due to the effort the game goes through to frame the after-math of the disaster that occurs in the introduction along with the random interactions with civilians that play-out while exploring the city.
In Prototype, there is a mission where you have to drive through the city in a tank. While a player is in this tank, it’s impossible to do anything but run over hundreds (yes, hundreds) of innocent civilians and at no point does the game indicate to players that they may be doing something terrible. And, for the most part, the game rarely makes any effort to frame the struggles of a civilian amidst major government and military intervention into a city where an infected group of monsters are tearing through the streets. A civilian in Prototype is nothing more than a tool for the player to consume for a 2-5% boost in health. Due to Prototype’s focus on narrative over Infamous, the resulting game for me was playing as an angry, unlikable protagonist fighting for himself with little-to-no care for those around him against an enemy whose portrayal seems to want to invoke both the Nazis and Blackwater at once.
Where Prototype missteps, it feels like Infamous succeeds. Infamous is a much more enjoyable than I would have ever imagined going in. It starts off as an exploration-focused open-world game where players are encouraged to experiment and as it gets further along its narrative progression and the player’s ability library expands and his mastery with his powers improves, it smartly becomes more of an action game centered around large encounters. It’s a testament to Sucker Punch that each of the game’s abilities was unique and useful without ever muddying up the game’s central control scheme; every button has a definite and consistent use. Infamous’ greatest quality is the focus of its application of the game’s central premise, an electrically-charged super hero, to every aspect of the gameplay and game world. It’s a pretty stark comparison to the jack-of-all-trades approach that Prototype took, and Infamous is a better game for it.