I started playing InFamous a while back, inching my way through the engaging world of Empire City, its recent problems (crime, quarantine, destruction), and its newfound hero/villain (whichever the player chooses), Cole McGrath. Scaling the sides of buildings, gliding from rooftop to rooftop using Static Thrusters, skating around the city via Induction Grinds on power lines and third rails — it was a liberating and exhilarating superhero experience.
Then about a week ago I dropped Prototype into my PS3 to see how it fared against the competition. It's a wholly different experience controlling the monstrous Alex Mercer, despite the common "superhero in an open world" theme. I've since been asked which is better, and that's a very hard question to answer. Moreover, despite the freedom I initially felt in InFamous, going back to it post-Prototype, it felt strangely confined and limited.
Interestingly, the plots in these games work in opposite directions. In InFamous, a large eruption of energy destroys a significant part of the city, with you at the center of it. The first several minutes involve navigating Cole thorough the wreckage to safety without the benefit of any powers, and from there you generally work to repair the damage and flush out the ne'er-do-wells in Empire City, restoring it to its former glory and getting the quarantine lifted. In Prototype, the true start of the game (the intro is a flash-forward, then jumps backward in time to Day 1) is when you wake up in the morgue about to be cut open, escape the facility, and disappear into everyday Manhattan. From there, events unfold that lead to the progressive destruction of the city as a whole, a scenario where implementing quarantine is actually pretty ideal.
There are some more touching moments in InFamous, like your reunion with Trish or helping Zeke cope with his mistake that cost the lives of dozens of police officers. Prototype's protagonist is out for revenge and answers, and heaven help anyone who gets in his way. Alex's sister Dana drops the f-bomb like it's going out of style, and while there are areas of desperation — like trying to stop several strike forces coming from different directions at once from locating your hideout and your friends — it never feels like letting these people down will ultimately affect the outcome of the story the way it does in InFamous.
This brings up the other key element of InFamous — the moral dilemmas. Frequently throughout the storyline, you're given choices about how to handle different situations, with your actions determining not only your character's progression in terms of abilities and how he treats and is treated by his associates, but also how the citizens of the city react to him as a whole. While one bad choice amidst a sea of good ones won't rock the boat too much, once you start on a given path, it's easy to feel responsible to continue acting in the same manner. While it might not be crucial to the mission at hand, freeing a guy strung up from a lamp post by his leg above a lynch mob feels almost required for those on the goody-two-shoes path.
A conscience is neither provided nor required for Prototype. Alex is a beast, through and through, who learns to wield his powers solely to his own ends, with the occasional benefit to the citizenry of Manhattan being an afterthought. While you can try to use your Claw, Musclemass, and Whipfist powers surgically and spare civilians, it's often too much of a hassle. Besides, mowing down innocent bystanders or "consuming" them to gain health, morph your identity, and escape into a crowd never gets old.
For its morality, depth, and intimacy, InFamous takes the trophy for story.
The size and scope of each title is really different and well suited to how they play. There aren't many buildings taller than four or five stories in InFamous, and to scale them, handholds are required. The tallest of buildings can be a real chore to ascend as a result, requiring solid platform hopping skills and the game's sometimes too sensitive "grab what's in front of you" mechanism. Cole is not Spider-man, and can't just stick to the concrete; he needs something to lever himself up with.
Prototype's Alex Mercer is the exact opposite. There are many fifty-plus story skyscrapers in NYC, many with sheer glass exteriors. Fortunately, Alex's powers can defy gravity and physics, sprinting right up the side of buildings and quickly changing direction mid-jump, very much like The Hulk in Radical Entertainment's previous effort, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. Even the tallest buildings are no match for his ridiculously good speed and agility, his vertical mastery easily trumping Cole's. Similarly, Cole's Static Thruster gliding doesn't hold a candle to the glide ability granted to Alex in Prototype, which allows him to sail across half the city if executed properly.
In terms of moment to moment excitement, InFamous has a fair bit of downtime while you're hopping from place to place, mission to mission. Grinding subway rails and power lines help make the commute go faster, but it can still be a little tedious after a while. On the other hand, after finishing Prototype twice, I have yet to tire of Alex's navigational antics, offering you zones controlled entirely by the military or Infected where you can stop off on your way through and fight and destroy as much as you like for as long as you like. Prototype is as busy and action-packed as you want it to be. InFamous' high points are fewer and further between, offering lulls in the action without much to do. In a way, this is a byproduct of the reverse storylines, where in InFamous, you're gradually clearing the scum out of the city, but in Prototype, the longer you play, the more Manhattan becomes overrun by monsters and military goons, all just itching to take a whack at you.
Simply getting around the city is more exhilarating and entertaining in Prototype, and the impact of unleashing your abilities on the world around you (more on that in a minute) is more pronounced. As such, despite the polish of InFamous, I have to say that between the two, Prototype appeals to me more for its quick fix of wanton destruction without the consequences you may have to face in InFamous.
Cole's abilities all revolve around controlling electricity, much the way Alex's are linked to directing and controlling the malevolent genetic material inside him which allows his body to extend and morph into different melee weapons (Claws, Hammerfists, the Whipfist, the Blade). Cole's typically rely on precision more than area of effect, in part because if you're playing a good guy, zapping civilians is frowned upon (Evil path powers are a bit less careful, but not drastically different). Alex sees no such constraints.
Cole's first few active abilities — Lightning Bolt, Shockwave, Thunder Drop, Shock Grenade, healing victims, slow-mo zoomed-in Precision Shot — are more about controlling and subduing chaotic situations. Alex's, on the other hand — Groundspikes, Tendril Barrage, Claws, super charged jumping, throwing enemies and vehicles, area-of-effect ground slams — are more about quickly creating as much mayhem as possible, then making a swift getaway if need be; consuming a person then shapeshifting to conceal your identity makes it possible to play stealthily as well, something InFamous never really attempts. Honestly, I've died more times than I care to remember in InFamous trying to keep Cole in the game. However, I have yet to drop much below half health with Alex because he's able to destroy, heal, flee the scene, and disappear into the crowd very nimbly.
You might also notice that Cole's powers are limited by the environment. He can't fall into water without taking damage and can't shoot through or sometimes even near metal objects without his attack missing the mark. Alex suffers no such limitations. If he falls in the ocean, he bounds back out onto dry land. If there are a couple of cars between you and your target, you can unleash a Groundspike — channelling your infected body mass underground, erupting ebony spikes beneath the victim and impaling him — or simply Whipfist them right through cars, APCs, or other people. I've skewered three or four Infected on one Whipfist. Of course, Alex could also simply pick up the obstacle in question and crush the target with it.
Cole heals by consuming and absorbing electricity from any available source — cars, televisions, third rails, generators, lamp posts, and so on. Alex heals by consuming and absorbing people, turning them into a bloody puddle. You can probably guess which of these two got a Mature rating from the ESRB. This also affects gameplay in that there are areas of Empire City without power, making them risky for Cole to enter and clear of bad guys. Granted, you acquire the Bio Leech ability to suck life energy out of enemies (grants one evil experience point per victim), but it's nowhere near as grisly as the bloody mess of absorbing a human being as a whole.
And the Winner Is…
We could get into the minutiae of comparing slight details and occasional missteps in each game, but in the end, they are both exceptional, only in different ways. If precision, moral conundrums, twisty storylines, and social acknowledgement for your efforts are your thing, play the good guy in InFamous. If you want to destroy and create chaos quickly in a very satisfying way, and zip around with masterfully implemented controls, Prototype is the way to go. While I enjoyed the storyline and characters in InFamous, I feel much more compelled to replay Prototype.
Tomonobu Itagaki once said the allure of games is that you do a simple thing, like pressing a button, and something exponentially more amazing happens. This is what Prototype is all about, and takes the trophy in this contest for me, though both titles are well worth playing for their own reasons.