Release Date: 06/09/2009
Wow, the past month has been a smorgasbord for fans of the Sandbox genre of games. With inFamous, Red Faction: Guerrilla and now Prototype all being released within a few weeks of each other, there is plenty of mayhem and chaos to be had if that be your thing. Let us now turn our gaze on Prototype.
Developed by Radical, the people who gave the world Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, Prototype is the sequel to that game in all but name. As HUD is considered to be, at the very worst, the greatest super-hero game of all time by many people, Prototype has a lot to live up to.
Alex Mercer wakes up one night to find two people standing over him wearing HAZMAT suits with scalpels in their hands. He’s in a morgue, and up until a few moments ago, had shown all the signs of being a corpse. Somehow he has been revived. He has no memory, and after escaping he is shot repeatedly. Strangely this does not kill him either. He also has super speed and strength. Alex is determined to find out who he is and what happened to his memory. The story follows the life of Alex Mercer over the next 16 days as he attempts to do just that.
Prototype takes place on the island of Manhattan. It seems that setting your sandbox game on an island, specifically the island of Manhattan (or Algonquin as it’s known in GTA IV) has become something of a trope for the genre. Not every game does it. Neither of the Mercenaries games did it, nor does Red Faction: Guerrilla, but aside from those few examples I’m hard pressed to thing of a game that doesn’t stick you on an island somewhere and shoot at you for trying to leave the quarantine zone.
Anyway, whatever the reasoning, you’re a New Yorker and very amoral New Yorker at that. Throughout the game you are given more powers and abilities, and thus far more lethal than any human in history. Not once in the game are you asked to play the role of hero. Throughout the entire game, you do nothing that is not in your own best interests. No saving kittens stuck in trees, no catching wayward balloons for young children, and no putting out fires or delivering patients to the hospital.
The story progresses in two ways. Firstly you have the regular story as told when you complete missions. Secondly there is the Web of Intrigue. This is a skill Alex has which allows him to sense when a person knows something about what happened to him. There are approximately 170 people in the city who know something. You must “consume” these people to get their memories. The more of them you consume the more fleshed out the story is. As you get deeper into the Web of Intrigue, the more discomforting the story becomes. I found the more I played the game, the less I wanted to know about the story. Not in the sense that it was insulting my intelligence, but because I just found it to be distasteful. You are essentially encouraged to kill and murder as much of the population of New York as possible, and the longer the story goes the less you like the main character. Your main character has to have some likable qualities, and nothing about Alex Mercer appeals.
To start with, I have to say up front that this is a very VERY bloody game. You are given sharp weapons and are encouraged to use them. It’s almost as though Radical got so annoyed about making Ultimate Destruction a relatively G rated game that they went completely the opposite way with Prototype. You could say the same about the constant swearing by game characters, but that’s not a graphical issue.
Getting on with it, Grand Theft Auto IV really put the bar pretty high when it comes to graphics in these sandbox games, so every other game is going to be compared to it whenever somebody else dares to release a game that exists in the same genre. So here it is. GTA IV blows Prototype out of the water when it comes to graphics if you’re looking for a close to lifelike representation of New York. When you compare Prototype to every other sandbox game however, you start to see that very few others have achieved what has been done here. There are at times where literally hundreds of cars, people, mutants and whatever are on the screen at any given time while you are playing, with little to zero slowdown. At all. The island is huge. Liberty City’s Algonquin isn’t as big as this, Spider-Man 2‘s Manhattan doesn’t feel as big as this, though admittedly that might have more to do with how fast you get as Spider-Man when he’s swinging. Even the recently released inFamous feels more like a town compared to the size of this one island. While draw in/pop in occurs, it varies depending on how high up you get. Standing on a building you can see for miles.
Flying the helicopter you will probably notice some pop in. As the game evolves the city does too, with buildings burning or infested, army bases established at various points, and even the traffic changes as the game moves on. You start to see more and more Army trucks on the roads instead of cars for example. Character models are sadly lacking. While there are a number of civilian models in the game, the military gets the shaft. You will see perhaps six types of soldiers, ranging from foot soldier to commander. Each army base looks the same too, with the exact same layout whenever you have to infiltrate one. The mutants don’t fair any better. The only difference is how big they come; otherwise they all look pretty much the same.
Alex himself does much better, naturally, as he’s on screen the whole time. He can evolve his DNA to match that of any person he consumes, and on top of that he can adapt his body to perform many different acts. The best way I can describe it is to tell you to imagine Carnage from Spider-Man. He can use his symbiote to form a blade, or anything else he can imagine. Alex is the same way. In fact he imitates many of Marvel‘s comic superheroes. He has Wolverine’s claws, Thing’s rocklike exterior, Hulk’s power moves, and a symbiote’s elasticity for an arm. All of these give Alex a different look, but throughout the entire game his basic outfit never changes.
In terms of atmosphere, the lighting changes in a way that is interesting at first but eventually becomes annoying. The lighting varies depending on who controls the part of town you’re in. Only areas where the city has yet to be affected look normal. As the city evolves over the 16 days in the game, the city will begin to look worse and worse, with more smoke filling the sky and more garbage and even corpses filling the streets.
Alex Mercer sounds like a douche bag. Actually since this guy IS a douche bag perhaps they intentionally got him to sound like this. I don’t know. I do think they saw Dark Knight while recording the lines though, as Mercer has the Batman voice down pat. In fact there is one scene where he might as well have yelled “RACHEL!!”, because he sounded exactly like Christian Bale. I didn’t notice a whole lot of music, to be honest. I think they made it that way so you could hear the screaming. No seriously. Music would probably take away from the atmosphere created by hordes of civilians running away screaming for their lives, and from the constant crashing explosions. So even though there is little to zero music in the game, the sound design is actually quite good.
If there was ever a game that needed more buttons, this is it. The sheer amount of moves that you can purchase and then exploit throughout the game is quite staggering. There were a lot in UD, a lot in the various Spider-Man games, and maybe I’m just overwhelmed by this one because of how fresh it is in my mind, but when a game has two separate versions of what amounts to the same move, you can imagine what it might be like trying to command young Alex in his quest for knowledge and vengeance.
Controlling Alex will feel very familiar to anyone who put any time at all into Ultimate Destruction. For the first few hours of gameplay you’ll be wondering if you used the Savage Banner code, as you are running up buildings and bounding across the city jump by jump. Combat is achieved by pressing attack buttons in varying sequences, as is the standard. You lack the ability to block for some reason. You do get a shield, and later on full body armor, but you are expected to try and jump out of an attacker’s way and then counter rather than block them with your shield and then counter.
Mercer controls like six separate characters, because he IS six separate characters. His ability to morph his body into different weapons means that you can be slicing and dicing one moment and then casually walking down the street in a disguise the next. You control this by pressing the L1 button and using the right analogue stick to choose which move set/weapon you want to be. This can be pretty difficult during the excitement of combat, so Radical wisely chose to use slow motion time so that you can pick how you want to smite your enemies. You have other options open to you as well, like calling in artillery strikes and convincing people around you that someone else (a “patsy”) is really you. These options are selected by pressing R1 and pressing the proper button accordingly. I found that this set of options wasn’t implemented as well as it could have been. You can only use the patsy option if nobody else can see you, but you have no way of knowing if anyone can see you that I could see until the game tells you.
Same with the stealth consume option; you have no idea if anyone can see you. This can make for a comical yet frustrating stalking of the person you are trying to stealth consume every few seconds, waiting for the animation to play of Alex looking around trying to see who sees him, then doing it again until finally succeeding. Something like Thief‘s darkness meter would have been much appreciated. There is a meter in the game which shows you the alert status of your enemies, but it does nothing if you’re in disguise trying to consume someone.
Speaking of consuming, I suppose I should explain what I mean there when I say it. Mercer can ingest any living creature if the conditions are right. For humans that basically means grabbing them and feasting. For infected mutants it means beating them senseless until they can no longer defend themselves. You earn the ability later on in the game to consume humans in a stealthier, less “obvious” manner. This amounts to you sneaking up being people and becoming that person. The process happens by having Mercer’s entire body essentially inhale the unfortunate soul. Doing this gives you more life, and can if done often enough, grant you access to your Devastator moves.
Another carry over from Ultimate Destruction, Devastator moves are done when you have enough health energy and when you have purchased the moves. You generally press two buttons together, such as Triangle and Circle, or Square and Triangle, long enough for Alex to power up his move and unleash it. These moves can be anything from shooting hundreds of spines out in every direction to going all Zerg on your enemy by burrowing your arms underneath the ground and your opponents and then launching them up, thus impaling anyone standing over them. I actually found it difficult to get enough health to use these very effectively in the game, as many of your opponents seem to sense when you’re about to reach the magic amount. Just when you’re almost there, a barrage of something will land on you. The inability to block really hurts you here. What also hurts here is how opposed you are to consuming civilians and soldiers for health. The more willing you are to ingest innocents the more Devastators you’ll be able to unleash.
As Alex is a lot smaller than The Hulk, he can fit into places where Big Green can’t. This includes things like phone booths and subway cars, but it also includes places like tanks and helicopters. When you combine that with his ability to learn things by ingesting other people, you can see how ingesting a pilot might give you the ability to fly an Apache attack helicopter. Thankfully Radical thought that one through also, and so you can over time gain the ability to fly helicopters and drive tanks. Strangely you can’t drive a car. Alex’s hands are also more on the scale of a non gamma radiated being, and so he can operate any weapon he might find on the battle field. These range from rifles to machine guns to rocket launchers and grenade launchers. All of these skills can be upgraded by consuming more people who know what to do with them, and trust me all of them will be put to use before the end of your time with this game.
While the camera is handled pretty well, it is awful when it comes to climbing buildings. Once you get to the top you may have zero clue what is going on for a few seconds as you try to orient yourself. Lastly, nothing beats the feeling of hijacking an attacking helicopter for the first time, then bailing out of it and hijacking a second one before you hit the ground.
At one point Prototype was going to include online co-op, but they removed it because the game wasn’t going to be completed on time. At any rate there is still a very large amount of replay included in this game. You have the various mini-games, including using your glide ability to land on precise points on the map (basically lawn darts with yourself as the dart), web of intrigue missions where you must find and ingest two or three scientists before they can escape. The more standard rampage missions where you must use whatever weapon they hand you to kill X number of whatever enemy they choose. There are also missions where you must infiltrate a military outpost as well as destroying outposts or hives. All of these types of mini-games start off on easy and then make their way up to hard, and then when you earn gold on all of the hard missions another difficulty is waiting in the wings.
Other than these mini-games you have the entire island of Manhattan as your playground, and if you just don’t care about New Yorkers, or if perhaps you are from Boston, you can just go to town with your various abilities. One could, if one were so inclined, head to Times Square and drop into the teaming masses below as if you were the New Years Ball gone horribly wrong. Once you complete the game you have the option of restarting it from the beginning with everything you have unlocked up until that point. You can also increase the difficulty, but I don’t see the point in doing that honestly. Normal was hard enough as it was. Of course, since this is a sandbox game you also have the fetch quest stuff, like finding 50 hints or 200 land marks. It must be pretty hard making up new land mark locations for Manhattan after Spider-Man 2 did it so well.
I found that Prototype was more difficult than it needed to be. For every ability you earn which should make you a god amongst men, you suddenly are faced with stronger faster and better armed opponents. Then once you defeat them you are faced with legions of them. Unless you are prepared to spend much of your super hero game inside a tank or gunship, you should expect to die a lot towards the end of the game. There is just so much being fired at you, it’s almost impossible to avoid. I spent one mission dive bombing an enemy from the top of skyscrapers because it was the only way I could think of to survive and win the battle. Then for the finale, Radical once again forces you to face an opponent who is better than you in every way, just like in Ultimate Destruction.
Perhaps, like The Force Unleashed, this game is more enjoyable once you’ve gone through it once and have ranked up your abilities. After one play through though, it’s not really the experience I was hoping for difficulty wise. Fortunately, there are a lot of checkpoints.
As I’ve mentioned already, much of the game feels like they reskinned Hulk Ultimate Destruction. The graphics have improved, and the character has changed, but otherwise you could be forgiven for making the judgment that reskinning the game is all they did. However, you would be wrong.
The Web of Intrigue, disturbing though the story is, actually tells the tale in a very interesting way. The addition of tanks and helicopters, while certainly not new in games generally, is new for super hero games. I can’t recall ever seeing Spider-Man pilot a helicopter, nor the Hulk driving a tank. On the other hand, each of the weapon modes that Alex has seems to have been inspired by other superheroes. The most blatant one is clearly the Wolverine claws. I’m honestly amazed Mercer doesn’t say “Bub” at some point while wearing them.
Where Radical takes these inspirations is certainly new though, as I don’t recall ever seeing Wolverine thrust his claws under ground to attack an opponent across the screen. That is clearly an Omega Red strategy.
How addicted you’ll get to this game depends on how willing you are to look at the characters actions as being justifiable or even if you care. I’ve played games where the whole point was to kill as much of the enemy as possible, but there is always a reason given, something which justifies the actions of the hero. Here there is nothing. It left me feeling cold and not very interested in returning to the gameplay, honestly, but you may find it to your liking. If so please inform me should you move in next to me, as I will promptly find new lodgings.
If sandbox games are your thing and you’re tired of always being the good guy, always doing the right thing, this is probably the game for you. If you prefer your hero games to actually have people you might consider to be heroes on the other hand, this is probably the game to avoid. Try inFamous or Red Faction: Guerrilla instead.
The population reacts to what’s happening. When they see you coming they scream and run. Cars will skid and crash, I even saw a city bus wipe out and do a cartwheel. That might have been because I was chasing an armored column at the time, but even so, that’s impressive stuff.
Story: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Good
Balance: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Above Average
FINAL SCORE: Good Game
Short Attention Span Summary:
Prototype is a game that is hindered not in its technical make up, but in its morals. Radical succeeded in making me feel more for the polygons I’m “killing” than for their main character.