Review: Prototype (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Prototype
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Radical Entertainment
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: 06/09/09

Grand Theft Auto 3 really changed the way developers looked at superhero games. Prior to that point, superhero games were mostly linear, stage-based affairs that featured boss battles at the end of most of said stages. After the revelation that making a game in a sandbox city environment was not only possible, but pretty awesome, we began to see developers latch onto this idea, with mostly positive results. Activision has more or less been the driving force behind this concept, thanks to its numerous Spider-Man titles, but developer Radical Entertainment managed to give this concept a go with admirable results with The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. This game essentially gave you a large green engine of destruction to play with and several large environments, including a fairly large city, to play in. Apparently Activision was paying attention to this game, because they opted to let Radical Entertainment give the free-roaming super-powered being game another go with Prototype. The good news is that the results are about what you’d expect, as Prototype is generally a fantastic example of how to do this sort of game properly in terms of presentation and gameplay, and offers fans of these sorts of games everything they’d want and more. That said, the game has some issues that might put off some players, both in its presentation and its design.

So Prototype tells the story of Alex Mercer, a young man who has been infected with a virus of some sort that has given him superhuman powers in exchange for his memories. Mercer is a bit put off by all of this. He intends to figure out who caused the act that infected him in the first place (releasing this virus in Penn Station) and what exactly, is going on with his old employer, GENTEK, who caused this in the first place. You learn about the story both by following the storyline events as they progress and by collecting Web of Intrigue story bits from various people who are associated with this conspiracy in some form or fashion. The story of Prototype is quite well put together and is paced well, but make no mistake: Alex is not a nice character and he does not do nice things. Alex Mercer is very self-motivated and amoral in most respects. Though he feels remorse and regret for the things he must do and he does care about people to whatever extent he can, he’s a very, “the ends justify the means” sort of character. As such, he has no real qualms against murdering a sizable amount of people if, again, it means he can save the few people he cares about and discover the truth about what happened. As you learn more about Alex you come to empathize with him less and less, and while his intentions always seem to be in the right place, the things he does are almost always the worst things he could possibly do. Alex Mercer is something of a pathetic character in a lot of respects, and it’s interesting to see a game focus on a character of this sort.

On the other hand, a sizable chunk of the story concept seems to have been lifted wholesale from Spider-Man: Web of Shadows. While that game had a fine story, we just saw that game eight months ago, so it’s a little early to be borrowing from it already. Don’t believe me? Okay, fine, here’s a test. “Our main character is infected with a living organism that increases his abilities. He uses said organism to his advantage to fight off the residents of New York City who have also been infected with some variant of this organism while also trying to protect those he cares about. This variant is carried by a rival of our protagonist, and ironically, it’s our protagonist’s fault said carrier is running amok in the first place. Eventually, the organism gains a strong foothold in the city and begins mass-producing the organisms from hives, and the government deploys the military and a mysterious special forces organization to combat the menace. Our character must then face down the Typhoid Mary carrier who has been spreading the infection across the city in a climactic battle where said carrier becomes absolutely massive, as this is the only real hope for the city to survive.” This description I just wrote out? It successfully describes both games. Now, don’t get me wrong. Both games do their own thing with the concept, and I’d dare say Prototype does more with its story than Web of Shadows does. This is mostly due to the fact that Alex Mercer is not the sort of existing property Spider-Man is and does not have to have any continuity taken into consideration beyond what the developers give him. However, it does bears noting that if you’ve played Web of Shadows, you’re going to be feeling a little bit of déjà vu playing this, and not JUST because of the story.

Prototype looks pretty good, though its visual appeal is more technical than aesthetic. The city of New York looks as good as it did in Web of Shadows, and is just as lively with people, vehicles, and monstrosities trying to obliterate everything in sight. The textures are generally nice looking, though not impressive, and the draw distance is acceptable, if not amazing. What makes Prototype a good-looking game is pretty much its ability to handle a whole mess of different things being on-screen at once. Alex himself is spectacularly animated, and he features numerous different animations for everything he can do. The various enemies/civilians you’ll see around town are diverse enough to be interesting, if nothing else. It’s also impressive to note that there’s little to no slowdown in the game, which is impressive considering how many open-world games have an issue with this. The audio presentation is also solid. The music is mostly the standard swelling score we’ve come to expect from such games, and it fits the game nicely. The voice acting is mostly very strong, and while Alex sounds he’s trying to be a bit too intense at times, in most cases the performances from everyone involved are solid. The sound effects are also well done and sound quite nice, and the city sounds very alive when you’re not busy ending the inhabitants of it, though if you prefer the noises of the demise of others, you’ll be pleased to know that the various “rending things asunder” sounds are quite nice as well.

If you’ve played Hulk Ultimate Destruction, you’ll have a pretty solid idea of how Prototype plays, but if not, in the beginning, the game is quite easy to adjust to and understand. You’re given a light and heavy strike, a jump and a grab mapped to the face buttons for combat and general maneuverability, and the left trigger locks onto targets for easy tracking of your enemies. The right trigger allows Alex to free run around the island, and by simply holding it down Alex will tear around the environment, hopping over cars, pushing aside people, and running up buildings without stopping until you make him stop. These default controls are simple to pick up and will serve you well throughout the game, and you’ll pick up how all of this works in no time flat.

Of course, Alex is a super-powered being, and as such, has a long list of weird powers available to him. Alex’s powers are divided into four categories: Offensive powers for fighting enemies, defensive powers for resisting damage, disguise powers for sneaking around, and sensory powers for changing his view of the world. These powers are micromanaged through the D-pad and the left bumper. Holding the left bumper down allows you to choose which powers you want mapped to the D-pad by default, while pressing the direction on the D-pad enables or disables that power as needed. Offensive powers work as you’d expect. Alex changes his body configuration to make him more combat-capable, by making his fists into claws, rock-like hands, a whip, increased strength and a blade, each of which has its own unique positives and negatives. Defensive powers allow Alex to shield himself from damage, depending on the power chosen. Sensory powers allow Alex to see enemies more clearly in the world, depending on the power chosen. Disguise powers allow Alex to transform into other people, which he can use to sneak covertly around the city and avoid trouble, or to exploit the military by sneaking into their bases or calling down airstrikes from their forces.

These aren’t the only abilities Alex has at his disposal, of course. Alex can also absorb more health than he needs, which allows him to use Devastator attacks, which, as the name implies, inflict devastating damage on anything targeted by these abilities. They drain from those extra health reserves, of course, so they can’t be abused, but they’re absolutely vital in some sections, and quite impressive to behold regardless. Alex can also consume civilians, military personnel, and infected monsters to regain health as needed, meaning that every moving target in the game is, in essence, a health power-up, though you can be interrupted while doing this so it’s not a fool-proof health boosting action. Absorbing people also has the potential to learn Alex new and improved tricks, as he retains the memories and abilities of the people he “eats”, meaning you can learn how to wield military weaponry, drive tanks and fly helicopters to further advance your campaign against everyone. Alex also needs to consume specific targets to advance the Web of Intrigue, which adds bits and pieces of backstory to the game world and helps to further explain what’s going on and why. On top of all of this, Alex will earn experience from completing missions, finding hidden icons around the environment, and slaughtering anything he sees, which he can use to upgrade his abilities, allowing you to glide around, dash in the air, shoot out spikes through the ground, and other awesome tactics.

You’ll need all of the help you can get, of course, because the enemy is seriously interested in ending your life from the word go. As the game begins, the infected and the military are not to particularly advanced in their abilities, but as Alex upgrades, so too do the opposing forces. The infected begin spawning massive monstrosities for you to face that can laugh off your most powerful attacks and knock you aside like nothing, and the military will develop virus tracking devices, Black Ops strike forces to take you out, super-soldiers to face you down, and other neat tricks. Prototype is quite well balanced from beginning to end, and you’ll always have a challenge waiting for you in each and every mission if that’s what you’re looking for. There are also more than a few impressive boss battles to rip through as you go through the story, and the bosses you face are often quite challenging in their execution and satisfying when completed, which, again, keeps things moving along nicely and keeps the pace brisk and the challenge high, even on the lowest difficulty setting.

The core game takes roughly eight to ten hours to blow through, depending on how much time you devote to anything outside of the core missions, but there’s a whole lot to do with the game aside from the main story. There are a ton of side missions to play around with, which can see you racing around locations, wiping out or absorbing people/things on a time limit, fighting in wars between the military and the infected, and other things. All of these missions pay out nice experience rewards when completed, as well as unlock additional difficulties of these missions when you complete them all. You can also fill in the Web of Intrigue by searching for random targets in the city streets, hunt for hidden bonuses that increase your experience points, blow up infected hives, raid military bases, and other fun and random things. The game also allows you to run around the environment once you’ve completed the game, as well as start a new game with all of your earned abilities available to you from the get-go if you’re so inclined, and with multiple difficulties to plow through, you’ll have plenty to do with Prototype if you like the game enough to get through it once.

As one might expect, it’s not perfect, unfortunately. For one thing, Prototype feels more than a little similar to Web of Shadows, what with the whole “infected New York City” backdrop and the fact that this is the second such game in less than a year from Activision. But, fine, maybe you like this concept enough to see it through again or you didn’t play Web of Shadows, you heathen, you. Let’s also assume the questionable morality of the main character and the copious amounts of blood don’t bother you in the least. Well, the camera isn’t all it should be, as seems to happen with most of these games. It seems to have a problem keeping itself in a good position when you’re indoors, and it can get knocked out of whack when Alex is running up buildings or when he gets knocked back by an enemy. Locking on alleviates this problem in battle a bit, but the lock-on mechanic doesn’t work as well as you’d want, either. When fighting bosses, the lock-on tends to lock onto said boss, which is fine if that’s what you’re targeting, but if you’re trying to grab a snack or a tank to wreck said boss with, the game often refuses to lock on to these things unless the boss is not in your field of vision, which is annoying. Also, while Alex will often attempt to home in on whatever he’s locked on to while fighting, shooting, or throwing something, he fails to do this when trying to grab something, especially while running. This is kind of annoying when you’re trying to grab a Web of Intrigue target for the tenth time only to grab a random civilian because the target dodged. There are also a WHOLE LOT of controls to learn to use effectively across each of Alex’s combat forms, meaning you’ll either have to learn how everything works effectively. More likely, you’ll find one power you like and stick with it until the game forces you to do otherwise. Oh, and as a side note to Radical Entertainment: I’m certain that making the player run through a series of missions without their powers seemed like a great idea to you guys at the time, but let’s not do that again. The whole point of being a super-powered monstrosity is to HAVE super powers, and removing them from the game essentially makes it, well, boring. This might have been dramatic in a movie, but in a game, it’s just annoying.

Prototype, its few flaws aside, is a fantastic game from start to finish. Its strong presentation and interesting, if unpleasant, story carry the experience along well, the gameplay is exciting and well implemented for the most part, the game world is expansive and fun to traverse, and the combat is hectic and gripping. There’s lots to see and do on the island of Manhattan, whether you only play the game once or several times, and the experience is well worth running through a second time with your powers maxed out if you’re even a little interested in doing so, on the same or higher difficulty levels. The game is either reminiscent of or borrows heavily from Spider-Man: Web of Shadows in more than a few respects, and the main character is unpleasant at times, which might put off some players, and even for those who are okay with this, the camera issues, overall gameplay complexity later in the game, and odd gameplay hindering design choices might annoy players who would otherwise love the game to death, but in the end, these are small complaints against what is essentially a fun, fast-paced and fabulous title.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: GOOD
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: GREAT
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Prototype is mostly a successful product in all respects, and while it might not be for everyone, it’s definitely a game that will appeal to plenty of players. The storyline is complex and interesting, the presentation is solid and in most cases pleasant to the eyes and ears, and the game is simple enough to pick up, if not to master. Alex Mercer has a lot of nasty tools at his disposal to rend his foes asunder, there’s plenty to see and do in the game, and there’s plenty to bring you back even once you’ve completed it. The game feels a bit too similar to Spider-Man: Web of Shadows in concept and structure at times, and the main character comes off as a bit unpleasant at times, which might put off some players, and the odd camera issues, overly complex gameplay elements, and some occasional sacrificing gameplay for the sake of the storyline may well annoy some players a bit more than they should. The good elements in Prototype far outweigh the bad, honestly, and in the end it’s a worthwhile purchase for anyone who likes super-powered main characters, free-roaming games, or lots of violent carnage with plenty of variety.

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