Developer: Radical Entertainment
Was Alex Mercer the Most Boring Protagonist? Probably, but that didn't stop Prototype being an enjoyable, murderous romp - a sandbox filled with biomechanical toys, all the better for impaling, strangling, slicing, dicing, smashing, and bashing people around you, and enjoying their genetic code for breakfast, lunch, and dinner . You could scale skyscrapers in a few leaps and bounds, you could lasso tanks with tentacular appendages, you could karate kick helicopters out of the sky!
The fact that Alex Mercer had about as much personality as a soggy water biscuit really didn't matter. It was what he could do, not who he was that made Radical's original so enjoyable...in short bursts. It was a flawed title in a number of ways, glorious empowering but fiddly in execution, and repetitive to the extreme. There was a constant sense of chaos but you never quite had the right tools to master said madness, and combat could be just as frustrating as it could be exhilarating - the defensive options poorly designed in comparison to their offensive counterpart.
Prototype 2 doesn't quite fix everything, and it still might not be a terrific prospect for extended play, but just like Square did with Final Fantasy XIII-2 earlier this year, it's clear that Radical have listened carefully to fan feedback. Make no mistake, this is the game that Prototype really ought to have been.
With that in mind, Prototype 2 actually provides an excellent jumping in point. There's a video to explain what happened in the first game, and set the scene for what is to come. Months after the events of the original game, New York has again been overrun with a particularly nasty virus that turns anyone who comes into contact with it into slavering mutants. A number of these infected citizens disrupt the family of one James Heller, ripping his wife and daughter to shreds whilst Mr. Heller is away on military duty. He gets a little angry after that and swears vengeance on those responsible - a blacklist that contains one name at first: Alex Mercer - and thus the scene is set.
Heller is a Kratos-esque character: a one-dimensional manifestation of rage and vengeance, and to be honest he's not exactly more engaging than Mercer was in the first game. But the deaths of your family provide slightly better revenge-fodder than amnesia, if just as clichéd.
Not that any of that really matters. You didn't come here for a gripping, well-worked narrative, and if you did, well, you're in the wrong place. That said, the narrative breadcrumbs that the original game introduced - gleaning snippets of the wider story, dialogues between Gentek and Blackwatch personnel, from assimilating specific NPCs - is still a well-worked device, even if you'll be having too much fun to really care about the context.
And so, onto gameplay matters. Sprinting up buildings, cartwheeling over apartment blocks, and soaring above the city like a demonic flying squirrel is still the order of the day. The disease-ridden metropolis - now termed New York Zero - has been split into three distinct districts by the shady Blackwatch forces who've supposedly been deployed for containment purposes. We've already spouted a great deal of invective regarding the persistent use of New York as a gaming environment, but here the changing variety of enemies, dilapidations, and environmental hazards provides slightly new flavours. It won't blow your mind, but it works fairly well.
The action is just as chaotic as it used to be, but slightly more controlled this time. Indeed, it's still possible to feel overwhelmed by enemies surrounding you, but this time you absolutely have the tools to evade your adversaries. A slo-mo tactical dodge allows for slick evasion, the lock-on system is a little more robust, and the power wheel has been updated too. Instead of having to open the wheel every time you want to flick between Hammerfist and Claws, you can now map two different powers to the face buttons. It's a little change, but a hugely welcome one that makes the experience a lot smoother.
Although the game begins with Heller's transformation, making you start from the ground upwards once again, it's not long before he's packing a serious punch. Taking down soldiers, military vehicles, ransacking bases, completing missions, and devouring DNA-rich NPCs will all add to Heller's RPG-lite experience bar. Move up a level and you'll unlock new mutations and genetic boosts for your existing abilities. Being able to cross a city district in just a handful of jumps, after ramping up your leaping ability by 300% and gifting yourself an extra air dash, is a wonderful feeling.
The new powers are rather satisfying too. Early on you'll gain the ability to get stuck in with your Tendrils. A mid-range ability, you'll now be able to immobilise foes with...erm...tendrils, ripe for slicing and dicing. Better yet, you can charge up a "black hole" attack that sends tendrils spraying forth from your target, grabbing objects, debris, and even NPCs in the near vicinity, bringing them crashing in on the target in a delightfully violent, gory mess. Later in the game, you'll be able to wrench rocket launchers from choppers, and pull turrets from tanks, to use them against their former owners. You'll be able to transform bystanders into walking bio-bombs that unexpectedly explode, spewing tentacles of death in all directions. It's all terribly good fun...in a gleefully blood-splattered way.
Heller's been beefed up defensively too. The shield, accessible via the right bumper, won't break - with well timed bashes breaking up enemy attacks and deflecting projectiles back upon those who fired them. Stun an enemy with a well-timed shield bash and you'll get the chance to eviscerate them in disgustingly cinematic fashion. Upgrade options allow for health regeneration in and out of combat, meaning you don't have to run away from firefights as much as you might have to have done in the original game. You can still consume enemies for a quick health boost in the fray, with options for bumping up just how much juice a Blackwatch soldier yields in the upgrade menus too.
In terms of the missions, things haven't really changed a huge deal. You'll still be tracking subjects across the city, using your ability to change appearance to assimilate military folk and sneak into secret bases and lairs, eliminating Hunters, and larger beasts, rescuing the odd batch of civilians, and generally screwing things up for Gentek and Blackwatch. Now, though, instead of pursuing killing spree targets, or racing between checkpoints in your downtime, there are Blacknet side-missions that see you hacking into Blackwatch terminals to find further information. These side-missions typically involve wrecking a military base or murdering a bunch of scientists, and give you the opportunity to further enhance your performance. Niftily, when it comes to tracking down key personnel, Heller has some biological sonar at his disposal. At the push of a button, a wave is sent out, with the focal point of the echo determining the target's position. It's a neat little effect, if a little underused perhaps.
There are other diversions to be had as well, with three different kinds of collectibles up for grabs. Unlike the swathes of orbs that littered New York in the last game, locating hidden items is much more fun. You can find hints towards the general positions in-game, and then a distance meter will let you know how close you are when you're a couple of hundred yards away. More than once I found myself veering off from the beaten track mid-mission, to go gallivanting off after a shiny thing that had just popped up on my screen.
So there's lots to be done in Prototype 2, and its execution surpasses that of its parent in more ways than one. It's heartening to see feedback and criticism used to fuel a better gameplay experience that still retains the cathartic appeal of the original, with double the satisfaction. It's just a shame that feeling doesn't really last, with the game still proving rather better in the short term than for extended periods.
The tone is also a little unbalanced. Heller, being the poorly-contained bundle of fury that he is, isn't afraid to tell everyone just how pissed off he's feeling. Sadly, though, this is done by turning the profanity up to 11, and creating a cross between a teen movie jock and the Incredible Hulk. Expect F-bombs aplenty from Heller and, indeed, nearly every military douchebag you encounter. Whilst I'm not adverse to a little swearing, the persistent use of "motherfucker" every other sentence borders either on parody, or something far, far worse.
In fact, it would be easy to take much of Prototype 2 as a big, dumb parody, of big, dumb, action games. But it's not clever enough for that, and it never really tries to be. It never particularly strives to be anything more than the sum of its parts, except when trying to hammer home the idea that Heller is somehow more of a character than Mercer was. This is done in awfully clunky fashion by referring back to Heller's family, culminating in a truly cringeworthy moment when Heller spares someone's life because they have a daughter. Having slaughtered several thousand NPCs - most of them just for the fun of it - up to that point, it's hard not to laugh in disbelief.
As it is, Prototype 2 improves on its predecessor where it counts, even if it does conjure up the same sense of listlessness and a lack of engagement beyond relatively pure catharsis by virtual violence. It's a far better entry point to the series than the first game, and will delight those who enjoyed Whipfisting helicopters out of the clouds the first time around.
- Well tuned combat mechanics
- Splendid powers and progression system
- Incredibly cathartic
- Action can, and will, get repetitive
- Greater mission variety would have been nice
- Heller just as dislikeable as Mercer, if not more so
The Short Version: Prototype 2 might be a hideously shallow and meaningless experience, but as an over-the-top, superpowered violence simulator, it ticks the boxes far better than its predecessor. It's silly, stupid, and yet it takes itself far too seriously at times, but it's also quite a lot of puerile, gory fun. And cathartic. Incredibly cathartic.