Come flay with me, let’s flay, let’s flay away…
I went out and bought Prototype 2 as soon as I could on launch day on the way home from work. I’ve played every open-world action adventure game like this that I can think of, and from Grand Theft Auto 3 to the present day I’ve never failed to be astounded at the worlds that we’re allowed to go play in. Admittedly that world is nearly always New York, but still, it’s exciting. I’ve sunk just over eleven hours into this game and completed it on normal, and here’s what I think.
Prototype 2, for the uninitiated, is the sequel to Prototype, where you filled the hoodie of Alex Mercer, an unfortunate individual infected with a disease that enables his DNA to mutate and evolve into freakish and mostly violent appendages. Through this he set out to right the wrongs in a city that had cursed him. At least that’s what I think was going on, I mostly remember a mass of blood and tentacles, and an uneasy feeling that I was murdering far more people than I was saving. In Prototype 2 you play as a new protagonist, and although Mercer does return as a major character, you’re very similar to him in terms of moves and abilities. You’re also eerily similar to the Hulk in Ultimate Destruction. You can glide, you can turn your hands into blades and spikes and chains and erm… bigger hands. You can even call upon some monsters to do your bidding and occasionally explode in a spikey way to damage your opponents. In the game you are faced with using these skills in a series of fairly simple missions on a quest to finally put things right in New York City.
But the first problem I was faced with in the game was that none of this was clear. I mean the abilities were, they’re fairly similar to those of the first game, but the plot is a difficult mess. You’re in control of the main character for all of five minutes before you become infected, which apparently completely rearranges his motivations. I got the sense that he had lost his family in the infections, and he blamed Mercer for this, but beyond that I didn’t really get a sense of who he was. A grunt, spec-ops, was he part of the conspiracies that seem to surround the outbreaks? You’re thrown into the story too far in, and it never really develops. Characters appear who you are expected to know, people die who are supposed to matter, but I found it very hard to care about any of them. Open-world games like Grand Theft Auto used to be about mindless action, and we’ll get to that later; but nowadays these titles have to compete with the links of Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto IV, Infamous, Mafia II. Some of those games were masterpieces of storytelling, yes they had issues, but the world was more than just a playground, people had motivations and things were happening that really mattered. In Prototype 2 there is a significant story, and it feels like it should be at the forefront of your attention, but it’s largely incomprehensible, poorly paced, or just nonsensical.
All of this story is told through stylish cut scenes. It uses the (quickly becoming overused) technique of presenting everything in black and white with only red standing out. These scenes are odd as they don’t fit in with the visual style of the main game at all, and they’re used to display the most boring of interactions. CGI is rarely used in well produced games of the last few years, but when it is it shows off spectacular battles and events that simply wouldn’t work in the game engine. Prototype 2, a game about epic confrontations on a city-wide scale, uses them to show you conversations. Occasionally Heller (the protagonist) get his blades out in them, but he rarely uses them. It seems like a missed opportunity, and an odd design choice.
The graphics in general are a mixed bunch. At times the city looks spectacular, as a self-professed shallow gamer I regularly found myself stopping to look over a vista. By the time you get to the third zone, you really start to see New York in a way you probably haven’t before. Unfortunately this is marred by around 90% of the playable world looking bland and forgettable. The art assets have none of the charm of something from Rockstar. There are posters dotted around that tell you about the infection but there’s nothing noteworthy about them, unlike the way they reflects your choices in Infamous. The character models themselves are functional but, again, bland, and from the civilians on the street to the largest monsters there’s a distinctly last-decade feel to all of them. Animation is recycled from the last game and there are frequent clipping and pop-in issues, plus the frame-rate is wildly inconsistent from scene to scene. At times the game ran fine outdoors with tens of monsters on screen, then when I was alone in a small lair it would slow to a crawl.
All of this is very negative but the game is fun, and that might be what’s most important. I played the game over a couple of evenings, and played for a long time, not wanting to put the controller down. I didn’t just plough through the main story, waiting for it to tend, but I completed every collectable in the first two zones, only rushing through the third because I wanted to complete the game.
The controls are simple enough and once you’ve got a few upgrades under your belt you really do feel powerful. Within an hour I was running up the side of buildings, diving into the air and gliding to another, only to land in the center of a bass and start tearing people up. Or at times you can find yourself stealthily absorbing people to take on their appearance, like playing as ‘The Thing’ in John Carpenter’s film. Moments like this are plenty in the game and they are a blast to play through. The last boss fight really feels like a challenge, and the rest of the game doesn’t, so you get a sense that you are this unstoppable killing machine until you face your nemesis. People who are just looking for those short bursts of feeling like an unstoppable badass will have a great time with Prototype, it gets that right.
Unfortunately that’s nearly all it does well and I think that is the fundamental problem that underpins the whole experience. The developers have come up with a fantastic premise – you are a morally ambiguous superhuman let loose in a violent city on a mission of vengeance – and they’ve only got part of it right. The abilities feel good but get slightly repetitive. The city can look great but is often bland because the interesting parts are just too spread out. The story is a jumbled mess that leaves you despising the main character because he is painfully shallow and there’s never a good explanation for why he’s so willing to kill so many people. At one point about ten hours in, he finally mentions trying to save the city. That was a tough pill to swallow when I had just run through a crowd wildly firing a grenade launcher trying to get an achievement.
It’s hard to tell whether the game succeeds because it gets one important thing very right, or if it fails because it set itself a lofty ambition and just failed to reach it. The game is flawed, but it is fun. I can hardly recommend paying £40 for it but after a month or two when the price starts to drop, it’s well worth a look if ridiculously violent playgrounds are your thing.
+It is fun
+The controls are responsive
+Some of the abilities are ridiculous (in a good way)
+The collectables and side missions are addictive
-So much swearing that I think swearing has lost all meaning now