Prototype isn’t so much the Hulk with enhanced, genetic powers, or Crackdown with another superhero, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons.
Radical Entertainment, the developers of The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, have leveraged their skills in city-building and super powered mayhem into an entirely new third-person adventure with Prototype. While it does several things within each dismembered piece to keep players focused on shaping the ultimate biological weapon of mass destruction, there’s quite a bit that fans may find recycled from their previous work, as well as others’, with the Mean Green Gamma Machine.
Prototype casts the player into the hooded, black jacketed, jean wearing shoes of Alex Mercer, a man whose memory loss has forced him down a broken road filled with the memories of others that he must now consume as a living weapon. He has no idea what has happened to him, or why the Big Apple is teetering on the edge of a biological pandemic, but he’s determined to find out why no matter who might be in his way. The problem is, he might have had something to do with what is happening to New York.
As the opening monologue by Alex tells us, he is now seen as something of a terrorist and freely admits he’s that and more, although there is no moral compass that the player can shift in the game. Arrayed against him are the military who have quarantined Manhattan and maintain an occupation of its streets while taking aim at his hooded head. Then there are the Infected, those that have been hit by the mysterious viral outbreak spreading through the city turning the victims into shambling, bloodstained, citizens intent on pounding to death anyone that happens by. And the rest of the city is filled with people simply trying to get by without getting run over by tanks, torn apart by mutants, or fleeing for their lives before being gunned down at military controlled checkpoints at each of the bridges leading out from Manhattan.
The best thing about a hero with no memory is that they can get away with teaching the player the ropes of the game without having to consult the manual which it might as well have been an insert card displaying all of the instructions on one side. Thankfully, Prototype does a great job in showing the player just how deadly Alex Mercer can be on his own two legs.
Alex is something of a parkour pro and when he finds himself returning from the dead for reasons he can’t yet fathom, he is now able to run up buildings, leap from rooftop to rooftop, and drop several stories without breaking a sweat…or anything else…leaving out the need to grab a taxi. Some of these basic moves feel as if Alex were a human-sized Hulk, especially when it comes to leaping vast distances across the city.
He can also regenerate health, although only to a point depending on how much damage he is hit with, and he can also take on the form of whoever he can absorb. Consuming people also restores some of his health bar’s status and eventually, once the bar has been upgraded, a full one will allow him to unleash Devastator moves that can dramatically demolish most every enemy around him. Those left standing are ones that you will need to worry about, but most story missions have checkpoints that allow you to pick the action back up at certain points within them.
Alex’s powers are developed over the course of the game as he takes on missions that further the story and earn him evolution points, or EP, that can be used to purchase an extensive number of skill upgrades. Not every power is available at the start for purchase, though, so players thinking of grinding their way through early on will still have to go through most of the game first to unlock everything. You can also use weapons in the game like automatic rifles, but I usually tossed many of these aside. For most everything else, and with enough fodder to keep his health fueled, Alex Mercer was enough.
Optional side-activities are made available during the course of the game to challenge Alex’s abilities in a variety of ways earning him even more EP. Certain activities, like the ones marked “War”, will put Alex on either the side of the still-human Marines or the feral Infected and then time you on how quickly you can use his abilities to dispatch their foes. Another called “Kill” will challenge him to kill as many targets as possible before time runs out with an assigned weapon. Most of these activities have three grades of performance, silver, bronze, and gold, with platinum as an extra unlockable level, with deeper buckets of points for each one. If you simply want to take a break from the story by testing your skills, there are plenty of these to keep you busy.
As the infection spreads during the course of the game filling the streets of New York with infected hordes and the hysterical survivors running for their lives, more opportunities will show up such as viral Hives that can be destroyed for bonus points. Or, if Alex wants to get the military off of his back for awhile within a certain area, he can opt to take out the makeshift military bases that slowly begin cropping up around Manhattan. The military ones, in particular, will prove to be some of the self-made challenges that players can try at any time, especially when they start using UAVs and ground based detectors to see through Alex’s disguises. And the good news is that both Hives and bases always come back after a little time, giving you another chance to farm them for even more points or simply scratch your destructive tendencies as these are the only buildings that you can actually destroy.
Other activities, such as “Consume” events, may unlock pieces of the Web of Intrigue, Prototype’s way of expanding the storytelling experience with a scavenger hunt. Although the main arc of the story is captured in between each primary mission, most of the juicy details are hidden away in the Web of Intrigue which may not make some players happy. Aside from the overwrought F-bomb overdose at the start and the shallow dialogue, the story is really the only thing that kept me from ignoring the characters.
The WOI is made up nodes that represent specific people that Alex can consume in the world, people that all have pieces of the conspiracy inside of their heads but thanks to Alex, he can figure out the big picture within his own by sopping them up like a sponge. These occasionally appear on the mini-map and while it can seem like a unique storytelling twist at first, hunting down each randomly appearing node can also feel as if they were used to simply extend the life of the game in free roaming for the answers.
They can also die, mostly through no fault of your own. But despite accidents such as when the military decides to unload cannon shot at an infected citizen hiding out in a crowd turning everyone into an organic spray including the one guy that you needed alive, they will reappear after a little bit of time to give the player another chance. I never felt locked out of an opportunity to learn more about the story. Each harvested memory is shown off as a series of flashing images, many of which might make you wish you hadn’t eaten lunch only minutes before, which are a mix of live action shots, photographs, and clever effects with voice overs lasting only a minute or so.
In between each major mission, the player is also free to explore the quarantined island of Manhattan to their heart’s content and watch in wonder that while parts of the city burn, the rest just wants to get on with their lives. While most of the visual flair is pretty bland stuff to look at with flat textures plastered on every building along with quite a bit of pop-in, its shortcomings are made up by the variety of things that there are to see. Later in the game, New York City can appear to be a madhouse on the verge of collapse with infected in the streets and tanks battling their way through the human waves surging around them.
Major landmarks, like the Empire State Building, are set up everywhere and running through the streets or jumping from rooftop to rooftop while watching traffic flow all around help add in the missing details even if none of the buildings can be entered. There are also in-game ads and for awhile, I was staring at Gamestop ads on most every billboard which was pretty jarring since it felt as if the game were reminding me of where I should have bought my copy. Or perhaps it was just telling me where I should trade it in? After awhile, the ads gave way to propaganda which fit in more with the atmosphere of the title making them a welcome relief.
And no one gets out of their cars. Not one person. Kicking or punching a car won’t piss off the person behind the wheel making everyone in a vehicle look like a mannequin glued to the steering wheel. With city sandbox titles such as Saint’s Row, Crackdown, and GTA already having spoiled most of us, these particular shortcomings are just that much more obvious.
The character models (with the exception of the cloned citizenry), on the other hand, look good and Alex’s powers churn and morph with every button push as he changes form, flings fleshy tentacles in a frenzy of violence around him, or covers his body with an armored carapace. The gory results of whipping an organic blade through the midsection of any “human” sized opponent or in watching a soldier literally liquify from a machine gun blast a la Rambo are also part of the ichor stained eye candy.
Prototype has plenty of addicting action despite the occasionally cheap boss monster and quirky camera, but while it does a great job with what it starts off with, it can also feel as if there isn’t that much left beneath its shifting surface. A typical run through of the game, without even doing every activity, can net up to sixteen to twenty playing hours, but it can also feel as if you’ve seen everything in the first few making some of it feel repetitive. For example, the much touted disguise ability isn’t as innovative as it sounds and even if Alex runs around as his infamous self, no one will really point at him unless he does something obvious in the open like turn his hands into giant wrecking balls.
Although Alex can don the face of the last person he’s absorbed and gain some advantages from it, such as being able to steal a tank as a soldier without arousing suspicion, there’s not much else of a reason to use it aside from avoiding military strike teams sent in pursuit. It feels like a wasted opportunity to add in a few more activities centered around the disguises that he can use, but there isn’t much else that players can explore with this ability.
And then there are the missions that provided interesting options to explore, but never follow up on their ideas. In one mission, Alex could sabotage special detectors that can reveal his disguise if he can get to them in time. Yet, afterwards, he loses that ability for some mysterious reason. If the military had improved their scanners, can’t you absorb the nearest specialist to safely infiltrate a base as you had done before?
In another mission, he can use a special ability to detect people that are carriers for the infection but haven’t yet shown any symptoms in order to “hack” into the hive mind among the infected, but it’s only used for that one mission despite the possibilities that it could have opened up. Using the “patsy” power to point suspicion at someone else, which is fun the first few times, is also ultimately useless since most problems within the game are solved with either plenty of firepower or by bursting the guts of someone with a giant blade.
Crackdown’s orbs had a direct impact on how a player’s character could evolve adding an extra incentive to finding each one and Prototype does a similar thing, but only takes it so far. The landmark orbs that provide extra evolution points are nice extras until you max your skills, but the advice that the “hint” orbs offer up are almost as useless as the patsy power and might as well have been made the same as the landmark ones. It would have been nice if they did something else, or have allowed the player to improve their skills above a certain level, but the only function they seem to serve is as yet another category of free roaming extras to go after.
The last boss battle is also something of an irritating trip into pain. For one, if you save the game and expect to hop back into the fight, you’ll need to first skip through five…that’s FIVE…separate loading screens just to get back down to business after you find yourself back in the city. And part of the battle is timed. I thought Rise to Honor’s end boss would remain my personal benchmark for that kind of garbage, but to see it again at the end was something that I had to live with if I wanted the ending.
Prototype is also strictly a single player trip into the city and there aren’t a lot of extras that are unlocked at the end of this adventure aside from being able to replay the game with all of your purchased powers and statistics such as discovered WOI nodes. Or, you can instead choose to simply free roam afterwards to try out missed activities or complete the Web. Once you’ve topped out all of your powers, there’s not much of a point to earning EP or in participating in the extra activities unless you’re after Live Achievements. In this, as much fun as the title was to play through, it also felt as if it had just stopped short.
Perhaps there will be more to look forward to in the sequel since the conspiracy ridden story leaves quite a few doors open for one to happen, but on the whole, Prototype manages to come off as a solid, if not all too familiar, start for a new superhero despite where it falls short. I can’t shake the feeling that Alex Mercer still needs more of his own style aside from what he’s wearing to help him stand alone wherever he may find himself next, but his conspiratorial debut has managed to succeed in making me a cautious believer.
Activision / Radical Entertainment
Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC (Xbox 360 version reviewed)
Rated M for Mature