We may be slow to admit but videogames, perhaps more than any other medium, have long been influenced by some of the geekiest hobbies of all time. Take Dungeons and Dragons, for instance – its value was not so much in statistical management and identikit fantasy worlds but how it allowed us to feel like characters larger than life. Likewise, comic books have delivered something greater than slapdash licensed titles – a reassessment of what our teenage power fantasies could be, and the characters that could live them out.
With its gratuitous violence, no-nonsense lead character and sandbox experience, Prototype tries to accomplish this in a way few others have done and at times, its action and thrills are without peer. You can tell Radical Entertainment wanted to keep experimenting with the tropes of their Hulk: Ultimate Destruction game and amp up the mayhem through a larger set of abilities. But while that game was a re-imagining of Nintendo 64’s Blast Corps dressed in light-hearted exposition of a Marvel character, Prototype sheds the gamma-mutated clothing and turns lead character Alex Mercer into a superhero hit parade, his portfolio more than a passing nod to the likes of The Hulk, Wolverine and Spiderman.
But perhaps unintentionally, its name reflects the game – an idea of greater things to come, but that never do.
The first minutes are stunning, with Mercer emerging right in the middle of an apocalyptic NYC where powerful mutants and military forces alternate between predator and prey. You begin to wonder what you can do to survive and quick experimentation reveals the kind of superhuman abilities you’ll have at your disposal. When you start to get comfortable zip-zapping around the war zone, leaping and smashing heads in, believing this to be one of the most vibrant game intros you’ve played in recent years, the game steals your thunder: it begins telling Mercer and the city’s descent into chaos through a series of flashbacks where you were still a neophyte in violent urban planning.
Although in truth, that early taste serves as good enough motivation. Prototype’s powers are the core of the game, awesome and absurd in equal measure. Feral claws eventually turn into bulging muscles and tendrils that lash out and retract. Jumping across traffic at rush hour soon give way to throwing yourself off from skyscrapers only to dive headfirst into the pavement below, somersault while firing rocket launchers and hijacking military hardware. There’s even time to surf corpses and generate a sheet of armored skin that owes as much to The Guyver as it does to Evangelion‘s mecha designs.
With all these powers, combat is often a quick and brutal affair, owning to the kind of impact of two page spreads in comic books where an epic scene is drawn in vivid detail. But Prototype gladly exchanges freeze frames of destruction with a prowess and flow of its own. When you elbow slam into a tank as if you were a mutated Zangief; when you jump kick a helicopter until it becomes a pile of rubble; when you grab a soldier by the neck and start running vertically through a building as the klaxons of a nearby military base go off and machine gun sights are trained on you, only to consume him, take on his appearance and disappear into the crowded streets, you can’t help but feel that all this is breathtaking. Its strength lies in these moments of pure adrenaline, these small personal achievements. Sometimes, it’s just as fun to come out victorious from a well staged battle just as it is to screw things up and see where it all goes.
Though it’s all glorious and bloody enough it does wear on as the game progresses. The steady income of powers and points to upgrade them turns a comic book parade of powerful moves and acrobatic stunts into a button mashing fest where the only distinguishing feature between several powers is the required combo to pull them off. Once you find out which are the most powerful it’s all a matter of sticking to your guns. It does lend itself to providing different styles – Blade does the highest melee damage while Musclemass is better suited at throwing things – but this is ultimately a matter of player preference, as their advantages offer little incentive otherwise.
It’s a case of variety far exceeding creativity. Some powers are redundant while others just bloat your repertoire and are left unused throughout the rest of the game, remnants of a broader vision or design that never came into fruition. Thermal vision, for instance, allows you to see heat signatures across rubble and smoke but never becomes anything other than a good intention. The ability to identify people unaware of the infection they carry, on the other hand, is absolutely mandatory to progress yet is only used for a single mission. The tools on display are fun but blunt, always shy of potential – abilities like Whipfist almost channel Doctor Octopus, leaving you to imagine how it would be to snag a helicopter by its tail and force it into the ground, its Black Op pilots screaming in a great ball of fire. It ends up being a neat but simple melee attack. Climbing buildings evokes King Kong’s passing through the Empire State Building, metal and glass crushed by terrible hands. Prototype’s buildings remain unaffected by this kind of destruction.
In fact, while this facsimile of Manhattan has its share of recognizable elements, like Times Square and the Chrysler Building, the facade is quite clear from the start. Sprawling and bubbling with movement but never a playground of invested exploration. Barring the peripheral curiosities of high-score minigames and collectible tokens that unlock hints and tips, the city is mostly a dull playground with simplistic toys scattered about and shambling gore bags for you to rip apart and occasionally feed on. As you suddenly gobble down a civilian, everyone around you reacts their own way – some scream, some stand terrified, and others flee for their virtual lives. But a quick glance at the other side of the street sees other people passing by unaware of your cannibalistic orgy. Stopping vehicles dead in their tracks and pounding on them elicits no response from their drivers, who faithfully stay inside until the chassis until the inevitable explosion. You’ll sorely miss the far more reactive caricatures of Liberty City.
All of its people, vehicles and buildings are only there to validate your ultraviolence. The structure of side missions is an example. Army bases and infected hives come off as two extremes of the same blight, growing in number as the game progresses. As expected, the military try to fight off the infection while the mutants lay waste to everything in their path. You can attack these places but eradicating one will have no effect on the presence of the other, their timely respawning making sure they never feel more than point dispensers and pyrotechnic displays. Consequences are fleeting in Prototype – this is a game that encourages you to feed on innocent civilians without any repercussions, after all – but the chance to influence the city according to your whims, by siding with either faction or even ruin both, is a missed opportunity.
The only reason to explore the city comes from the Web of Intrigue, a promising yet haphazard method of character exposition. As you pounce around NYC, random targets will pop up on your radar indicating the presence of someone linked to Alex’s past. You need to hunt down and assimilate the target to retrieve its memories. But this places trivial back-story elements alongside meaningful events in a maze of disorganized cutscenes. It alleviates the tedium of placing every single detail of the story into the main narrative arc yet obscures the meatier portions by relying on the player to perform a collect-a-thon across the city. You might find a handful of tidbits linking to a shadowy military project in Idaho – already exposed throughout the game – but end up missing scenes such as a psychiatric evaluation detailing Alex’s state of mind. Anyone who doesn’t collect all of the nodes, or skips them entirely, may find little understanding of everything that led to this point.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are times when the game decides to turn you from hero to zero in a matter of seconds. As you move through the paper thin story you’ll encounter enemies, like a super soldier – best described as a Quick Time Event on legs – that can kill you in less than a minute if it corners you, and needs to be avoided or dispatched by tapping the button combinations highlighted on the screen. Bosses are quite vexing in this regard, openly mocking all of the powers you’ve accumulated in the last hours, tirelessly spamming missile attacks, infinitely respawning infected mutants or launching instant kill attacks. The game never seems to settle for a clear identity – it gives you tremendous power and sets you loose on a large playground but then takes it upon itself the responsibility to challenge your skills with frustrating difficulty spikes. It makes us gods and then arrogantly questions if we’re worthy of holding that power.
Yet, even with all the superfluous powers, the predictable storyline, frivolous cityscape and another lead character that joins this generations’ crop of hooded twats, it manages to be a source of mindless fun – from its earnest beginnings as a super powered juvenile delinquent to the endgame, an unlikely mash-up of Resident Evil‘s Tyrant and Parasite Eve‘s final scene in the aircraft carrier (sans demonic babies). It’s often crude, shallow and unimaginative but when you glide over Manhattan; when you jump down from a rooftop just in time to dodge a missile headed your way; erupt into a mass of giant spikes that shreds civilians, mutants and soldiers alike… Your brain shuts off. You only care about unearthing the next thrill, like tuning into a glorious pop song after long minutes of nothing but white noise.
But once the novelty wears off, you’ll see it for what it is – the videogame equivalent of Baysplosions. And whether that’s good or bad is entirely up to what you expect out of the game.