Prototype 2 Review
You’ve seen the live ad by now. You must have done. You’re on Youtube, you’ve typed in ‘dubstep cat’ or whatever, you’ve clicked on the thumbnail and before that cat in glasses starts wobbling about to wubwubwub bass, you’re hit with the Prototype 2 live ad. The Johnny Cash music. The sullen face of main character James Heller. The smoking wreckage of a city. You might only catch five seconds of it before SKIP AD lets you get on with your life but those five seconds are long enough to get the point. This is a serious game. With serious themes. Because it’s serious. Seriously.
The truth? Prototype 2 is a game where you run around streets stabbing at the triangle button, stitching torn civilians into the skyline with their own stretched limbs, as dialogue like “fuck your fucking fuckhole you fuck!” competes with gunfire and explosions to be heard and the tagline is ‘Murder Your Maker’. It’s a cool ad and all, that live action one, but it’s about as representative of the final game as those pictures in McDonalds are of the soggy Big Mac meal that flops onto your tray.
Stuff It Gets Right
It’s not like any of us truly believed that Prototype 2 would be the game to tug at our heartstrings, matching its lust for ultraviolence with an emotional kick. Prototype 2 does best what we always knew it would do best – city-stomping, destruction and chaos. That Prototype 2 dodges violence-for-violence sake tedium from quickly setting in comes down to two reasons. The first is the combat is actually enjoyable. You don’t just get visual feedback from seeing your carnage splattered onto the walls around you but every hit feels solid, chunky and perversely right. The special powers you unlock further this feeling and Radical Entertainment has paid attention to ensuring everything around you is feels the power of Heller’s actions – glass shatters, cars explode, people flee, radio chatter comes alive with panicked soldiers.
The second reason is that Prototype 2 makes gliding around the city fun. It sounds like a minor point but much like gliding around with the caped crusader in Batman: Arkham City was still hugely enjoyable after 40 hours, the same thing applies here. The city is broken up with the usual distractions – things to collect, side-missions to find, people to kill, landmarks to explore and so on. Yet the only reason you’ll let those things distract you is that you’ll have fun drifting around the sky, running up walls and looking out over the city before you. Everything in Prototype 2 is scattered far and wide, stretched across the huge landscape, so you’ll have to drift a lot. If this fails, the game fails. It doesn’t, so Prototype 2 remains enjoyable even when you’re not slicing and dicing your way through New York City’s citizens.
The problem with stomping around at free will in open-world games is you can quickly tire of becoming a one-man tornado of destruction. There needs to be restrictions in place, obstacles to slow the player down, so those moments when you do tear the city up remain fresh and exciting.
This is what Prototype 2 does brilliantly. Enemies are little more than walking bags of blood, ready to explode into a crimson waterfall at the slightest prompt, so there’s not much challenge to be found from them. Instead, it’s the helicopters and tanks which knock huge chunks off your health – the former often hovering just out of Heller’s reach and offering no easy solution when you want to get rid of them, the latter hiding behind a long health bar which requires persistence to take down. While you’re distracted with those, the ordinary grunts with their machine guns and rocket launchers remain unchecked and alive long enough to do actual damage.
To get your health back, you have to grab an enemy and consume them to restore a slither of your life bar. It’s unique, it fits with the lore and it’s just about cumbersome enough that you feel threatened when your health dips to critical levels. When combined with the danger from helicopters and tanks, this means Radical Entertainment can slow you down with threats when necessary, which also means they can add in restricted areas, pacing and some degree of challenge. Radical Entertainment understands the first kill is always more exciting than the tenth or hundreth, so there’s care here to ensure that groups of enemies are separated and broken up, to stop Prototype 2 becoming an endless carnival of carnage and ensure you always have fresh opportunities to charge into an unsuspecting patrol and get the thrill of the first kill again.. It works in the game’s favour surprisingly well. You often find new battles just as the bloodlust from your last encounter has worn off, so you rarely tire of the act.
There’s also an attempt at add stealth, by allowing you to shapeshift into different forms to gain access to different areas. Despite the wealth of NPCs in the game, your disguises almost always fall into three flavours – James Heller (soldiers hate you!), soldiers (soldiers like you!) and civilians (erm, sort of depends, a bit! Just shut up and turn into soldiers!). Some bases have restricted access with unbreakable doors, which means you have to take over the body of the guard with the right fingerprint to gain entry. This involves an element of stealth, as you skulk around waiting to pick off and take over the right guard.
It’s freeform enough that you’ll happily co-operate as stealth opportunities arise when Prototype 2 begins eagerly nodding at them, desperate not to seem overeager but equally hoping you’ll notice the chance to engage in something other than wanton carnage. “Oh, go on then!” you say, silently taking out the first guard, then the second, then being spotted and carving the entire platoon up in a whirlwind of blades and body parts because ultimately, it’s easier to do that than it is to fanny around with stealth. Still, it’s nice it’s in there and while Prototype 2 doesn’t hugely benefit from its inclusion, stealth doesn’t harm the game either. In any case it seems picky to moan about an optional game mechanic, particularly one that at least has the decency to work the majority of the time anyway.
Stuff It Gets Wrong
Because hey – there are plenty of things that don’t quite work out as planned. Boss battles for one, as they force the game mechanics where they don’t want to go. Indoor areas for another, as they restrict the game’s true highlight of flying about freely to waddling down tight brown and grey corridors. At least they haven’t combined the two!
Oh no. Wait. They have.
It’s not that boss battles are particularly hard (they’re not) or particularly annoying (they’re not) but they force Prototype 2 to be much clumsier than it should be. The controls work well when you have the wide open city giving you a huge margin of error when things go wrong. If you fall off buildings by mistake, or accidentally screw up the optimal drift – air dash – drift way of flying around, whatever you do wrong, there’s no punishment for it. You run off, you try again. When stuck with indoor battles against bosses, when you have to lock onto the boss and not the exploding barrel 10 metres behind him or the cowering civilian in the corner, and there’s no room to run away to reset the situation and start again… it’s needlessly clumsy. Boss battles are never difficult enough that this becomes a huge issue for Prototype 2 but boss battles never really engage you either. They’re just an awkward sideshow that pop up every now and then.
Radical Entertainment also makes the mistake of 1) presuming you care about Prototype’s story and 2) presuming you’ll care about Prototype 2’s story. No and no. The emotional angle of Heller chasing Prototype’s protagonist, Alex Mercer, because he blames Mercer for the death of his family is fine in theory but too much here relies on assumed knowledge, awkward cutscenes and the one-dimensional gurning of Heller himself. You learn nothing new about Heller that you can’t guess when his anger bubbles up during the “push left stick to move” ritual that kicks off the opening tutorial. There are twists and turns but you’ll feel strangely disconnected from the plot and Heller, so you’ll find little reason to keep up with either. It’s not a fatal blow to Prototype 2 because no-one is really here for the story, but it’s either a wasted opportunity or a persistent annoyance, depending on your point of view.
While we’re here, Prototype 2 is full of swearing, to the point where it’s distracting from whatever it intended to achieve. Grittiness? B-movie parody? It’s hard to say, harder still to take lines like the previously mentioned “fuck your fucking fuckhole you fuck!” seriously. That’s genuinely a line in the game. Word for word. Is there any phrase that could have contained more swear words crammed in than that? Maybe “fickity fuckity fucking fuck fuckalucka ding dong.” We haven’t heard that one yet.
The Bit Where We Summarise Why It Got 75%
The biggest problem Prototype 2 has is that while it remains fun, it quickly becomes predictable too. It establishes its template early on – go here, get this mission, consume that soldier, shapeshift, enter area, complete mission, exit area – and rarely deviates. The fun comes from the drifting, the chance to indulge in violence and the destruction but the missions themselves and what’s asked of you quickly becomes repetitive. The only real progression in the gameplay comes from unlocking further powers, experimenting with them, and trickier creatures and enemies. And even then you’re still going there, doing that mission, consuming this soldier, and so on. It’s to Radical’s credit that it wards off repetition for so long – see the point at the start of this review about how Prototype 2 avoids violence-for-violence sake tedium – but alas, the samey mission structure gives repetition just enough daylight to creep in and take over as the hours start racking up.
Prototype 2 is a weird game in that the few things that make it unique – the excessive violence, the excessive profanity, the general level of excess – are destined to appeal most to those locked out by the 18 age rating. It has some great design clouded by its own immature attempts at maturity and ends up being worn down by eventual repetition. It’s thoroughly enjoyable without ever providing a single memory that will be found on various ‘OMG WOW TOP 10 PLAYSTATION 3 MOMENTS!’ lists from this day on, a great example to other developers on both how to make characters feel powerful and how not to handle story.
That the live ad had to step so far away from Prototype 2 to stand out highlights the problem. It’s simply not a remarkable game. Prototype 2 is good fun – nothing more, nothing less and certainly nothing memorable.