Matt: I’m not sure what your feelings about the original Prototype were, Aaron, but I didn’t much care for the game. Radical Entertainment has had success with previous sandbox-style games like The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and The Simpsons Hit & Run, but for me Prototype crumbled under the weight of sloppy control, too much focus on stealth, and a detestable protagonist.
Prototype 2 is an improvement to a certain extent, yet I somehow liked it even less than the original. One of the things that continues to annoy me is how the game tries WAY too hard to be edgy and mature for no other reason than to be edgy and mature. Every prefix and suffix you can think of to add to the word fuck is used in this game. The sad dialogue and lazy writing are chock full of fucks and un-fucks and fucktons, most spouted out by the even more detestable new protagonist, James Heller. Seriously, he’s a total dick. Mercer wasn’t so cool in the first game, but Heller is probably the least likeable video game character I’ve come across since Layle in Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers. (Emmett from Starhawk is another recent bust of a protagonist and I sure hope he doesn’t steal a spot from another more deserving character in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Like so many other videogame leads these days, Heller is a man on a mission to avenge—gasp—the death of his wife and daughter due to the viral outbreak in the first game. Family deaths are a good way to make main characters human and likeable, but Radical’s writing team dropped the ball big time in Prototype 2. I didn’t care for one second about Heller’s pain because he’s just not a character you ever want to root for. Even a rage-driven character like Kratos has likeable, sympathetic qualities.
Alex Mercer, star of the first game, is Heller’s target for causing the outbreak that destroyed his family. The story attempts to build up to this epic clash of Heller vs. Mercer, but it never satisfies the way you’d think a battle between shapeshifting gods would.
What drives me absolutely bonkers is how, for a game that’s supposed to be making you feel like this almighty superhero mutant, you spend far too much time assuming the identity of a puny scientist or a foot soldier armed with a machine gun or rocket launcher. Sure, you get to hop into tanks and helicopters while in disguise, which makes for moments that satisfy the urges of mindless sandbox destruction, but more often than not you’re sneaking around in human form when you would rather be blitzing through the streets of New York Zero as an unstoppable killing machine. Those moments are here, and splattering enemies into bloody chunks with tendril whips, webs, bio-bombs, hammerfists and other infection-powered mutant weaponry delivers chunks of ultra-violent fun. However, the ratio of the action to the stealth is once again way off balance, unfortunately in favor of the wrong side of that equation.
Heller handles a little bit better than Mercer did, I have to say, but at the same time the game still lacks proper nuance. Heller does big and bold and over the top, which is great when you’re charging up the side of a building with no real destination in mind. But when you want him to jump to a specific spot or target a specific enemy or pick up a specific object, the controls don’t offer enough subtlety or precision to make those actions as effortless as they should be.
Aaron: I always thought Alex Mercer got (appropriately) overshadowed by Cole MacGrath, the star of Sucker Punch’s Infamous series, an open-worlder that got right so much of what the original Prototype got wrong. Beginning, of course, with the whole good-versus-evil choice dynamic, a design choice that really helped give you a stake in the action. By contrast, the Prototype series has always been about the bad, the worse and the absolutely ugly parts of humanity—a playground where moral choices got tossed out with the outdated slides and merry-go-rounds.
You’re right about Heller, who could easily stand in as a modern urban update to Kratos, everyone’s favorite God of War. But here’s the key difference. With Kratos, it’s easier to overlook his irredeemable rage and wanton bloodthirst because you’re bopping around the ruins of Hades’ tomb, sparring with deities and mythological beasties you imagined in sixth grade. That grandeur’s missing from the alleys, labs and streets of Prototype 2’s urban lockdown. What you’re left with is a profane, thoroughly unlikable protagonist who willfully ignores facts in a mindless quest to avenge his daughter. And we’re supposed to get behind that and rip out a few more monster throats with our super-sized claws, apparently.
After spending several hours with Heller and his seemingly endless stream of F-bombs, I’m more than ready to call bullshit on this whole hardass-anti-hero thing. A few years ago, the rage in game development was coming up with game experiences that would evoke an emotional resonance the effortless way so many movies often do. And no, simply saddling the hero with the loss of a child/wife/pet/ doesn’t qualify as character development. These guys can be angry and anguished without having to be assholes.
Setting the game’s tone aside for a moment, I’ll note that parts of Prototype 2 are simply amazing: Zipping around by sprinting up the sides of whatever building you choose and sprouting your fiery mutant wings to glide across the skyscape to the next mission start are the moments where it’s easy to feel absolutely super, like the amped-up king of an expansive urban sandbox.
Other parts of getting around work less well. Maybe it’s just that I was clearly not designed to succeed in life as a bat, but I also found the game’s hunting mechanic, where you’re sending out radar pulses to track down those puny scientists and soldiers you’ll be killing and impersonating, one of the most ponderous and frustrating features of the game. It’s supposed to be a superpower that makes your life easier, and instead I found it nothing but frustrating. At least there’s plenty to do while you’re trying to figure out which scientist/soldier to impersonate next: Hunting for collectibles and black boxes is a good diversion.
Matt, you referenced the fact that Prototype 2 is a dark game, but it’s more than just the relentlessly nihilistic tone that does everything in its power to repel you. The technical details are dark, too: The difficult-to-read menus and murky cutscenes that give Heller clues about BlackWatch’s sinister plans and motives every time he kills/possesses a target. I found myself wishing for a text magnifier and a rewind button
The combat, at least, remains satisfying, especially after you’ve leveled up your powers enough to score some king-sized claws and a stockpile of bio-bombs. If the storyline and characters had matched the combat, we could have had a winner on our mutated hands.
Matt: What did you make of the mission design? Is it just me, or did every mission feel exactly the same? After about an hour, the game bogged down into another five or so hours of jumping through the same hoops to advance the plot. Consume BlackWatch dude, sneak into base, consume scientist, access a terminal, destroy something or cause some sort of problem, escape without setting off the alarm; I followed this objective pattern so many times it felt like I was experiencing déjà vu over and over again.
It’s not like you ever have a choice either. Missions can’t be approached without following the rigid set of objectives laid out by the developers. Want to charge in head first? Too bad, doing so will only raise the alarm and you won’t be able to go any further until the coast is clear and you’ve picked up a human-skin disguise. This is an open-world game, yet within the confines of the narrative you have virtually no freedom to play how you want to play. Shoot, you can’t even stealth-impersonate an enemy if another soldier can see you; the game literally blocks you from doing so until you nudge the guy back enough to break line of sight. (Yep, the AI can be incredibly stupid in this game, too.)
As you say, though, the game does show signs of life when you break away from the lousy narrative and snooze-inducing campaign layout. There is something oh so satisfyingly savage and primal about ripping enemies a new one with claws and giant armblades and tendril whips, and Heller’s ability to sprint up the side of any building in his path and proceed to bound/glide across the city is deeply empowering. But doing these actions generally requires you to forget about mission objectives. This is fun in spurts, but without a destination or goal the action–and entertainment value–peters out quickly.
Evolving Heller’s skills through experience gain, mutators and other ability boosters also formulates what is a surprisingly robust character upgrade system. Each weapon is capable of four levels of evolution, while Heller is capable of modifying his DNA with health boosters, regeneration, finishing moves, jump/sprint enhancements as well as human skills such as proficiency with certain guns and vehicles by consuming designated enemies or completing certain missions. Heller may be a douchebag when he opens his mouth, but his god-like super powers are pretty bad ass.
Side activities are another bright point. Collectibles aren’t as abundant as they typically are in open-world games, but nabbing black box audio recordings and destroying infested lairs scratches the OCD itch fairly well. And the most fun to be had in the entire game, I found, is in the optional Radnet events. These play out like detached arcade mini-games in which you compete at various challenges for medals (and in turn ability upgrades) and high score bragging rights with other players on your friends list. It’s hard not to crack a smile while going on Rampage runs of slaughtering swarms of enemies for points against a clock or playing games of human darts that have you throwing Heller off a building and shockwave-slamming him into BlackWatch soldiers grouped up in different formations on the ground. Helicopter checkpoint races, barrel disposal challenges, and rounds of human/infected shotput certainly keep things light as well. And for those who happen to dig this game, there is a New Game+ option should you actually want to replay the campaign a second time.
I hate speaking so harshly about Prototype 2 considering it has turned out to be Radical Entertainment’s final original game production–the studio hasn’t closed completely, but supposedly has incurred major job cuts and is now some type of small support team for Activision’s other studios. It’s not what I would call a poorly made game from the standpoint of broken mechanics and buggy design, but for me it was just uninteresting, unlikable and completely forgettable, doing very little to push forward from the first game and just plain phoning it in as another sandbox action game with little to offer but brainless destruction. Mindless action in an open-world setting can be loads of stress-relieving fun, but not when you have to endure a bunch of tedious crap or go out of your way to find it, which is what you too often have to do in Prototype 2. As hard as it is to say, it’s no surprise that this game’s failures brought Radical’s long and mostly hit-filled run to a painful end.
If you can never get enough open-world action, you’ll probably love Prototype 2 and think I’ve been sucking back crazy pills for ripping on it so hard. But sorry, even though it has redeeming qualities, I was ready for the game to end long before it did, and once the credits finally rolled I was all too eager to eject it from my PS3 for good.
+ Gruesome combat is savagely satisfying in spurts
+ Fairly robust character upgrade system
+ Running up buildings and flying around the open city is empowering
+ Radnet challenges and collectibles offer interesting side diversions
– New protagonist Heller is an even more unlikable prick than Mercer
– Gameplay noticeably imbalanced in favor of dull, rigid stealth/disguise
– Lazy mission design has you repeating the same objective pattern time and again
– Finicky movement and targeting fail when precision is needed most
– Barely evolves from the first game, if at all
Aaron: To me, Prototype 2 represents an interesting and frustrating conundrum. Think back to the things that held the first game back. Did Radical address the issues with the muddy graphics and repetitious citizen models? Yes. Is the combat more fluid? Yeah, it is—nobody’s missing the clunky weapons wheel, that’s for sure. Are you given the freedom to do whatever the hell you want? More or less. So if everything’s “better,” why does the final experience leave me so cold?
Maybe it has something to do with the two things that aren’t better. The first is the overarching directive, probably tossed out by someone in corporate, to make the game as dark and edgy as possible, ‘cause, you know, that’s what the cool kids like these days. We’ve already established that there’s a thin line between edgy and icky, and Prototype 2’s hero obliterates it with the same ease at which he snaps a civilian’s neck and turns him into health-meter fodder. The other one is the tedious mission structure, which, unlike Alex Mercer and James Heller, really hasn’t evolved at all. I recall my eyes glazing over at the umpteenth consume-and-sneak mission in the first Prototype, and we’re served several courses of the same stale gameplay here.
The adrenaline thrill of the action sequences won’t allow me to completely dismiss it, but the inescapable truth is that, for all of Radical’s spit and polish, there are better open worlds to trash than this one.
+ Playground freedom is great–running up buildings, gliding around and smashing things
+ Combat sequences pack a mutant-enhanced punch
– Gritty “antihero” Heller is an F-bomb dropping turnoff
– Hunting radar mechanic is iffy
– Everything’s too dark
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 and Xbox 360, also available for PC
Developer: Radical Entertainment
Release Date: PS3/Xbox 360 – 4/24/2012, PC – 7/24/2012
ESRB Rating: Mature
Source: Review copies provided by publisher