When it was released in 2009, Radical Entertainment’s Prototype seemed, superficially, to be a pretty generic “man wronged by shady government entities turns their weapons against them” action title. That’s how the game was sold, that’s what all the marketing materials seemed to think it was, and that’s how most reviewers glibly described the game’s plot. That wasn’t entirely incorrect, but it missed the game’s true strength: Prototype was, for all intents and purposes, a superhero video game that just happened to lack any recognizable superheroes.
This was a game whose open-world sandbox setting and protagonist’s building-climbing, helicopter-destroying special powers would make him right at home in a Marvel or DC comic book. Forgetting the game’s stereotypical plot and rather typical missions — kill X amount of bad guys, defend Y structure, etcetera — the true joy of Prototype was in simply traversing its world as a guy who could rend tanks in half with his bare hands, run faster than a speeding locomotive, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and … well, you know the rest.
Coming into Prototype 2, that’s really all I was looking for. I knew the development team at Radical had given the game’s plot a shiny new coat of paint, and opted to take the story in an even darker direction with its new protagonist, but in the end, I couldn’t care less as long as the new guy was just as capable at letting me live out the teenage power fantasies instilled in me by years of reading X-Men comics.
Before we get to that though, let’s discuss the game’s new leading man. His name is James Heller, and he’s your prototypical (pun fully intended) soldier sent into a situation way above his pay grade, then betrayed by the command structure he had trusted to lead him to glory. More crucially though, Heller is a family man; a facet of his personality that is established literally seconds into the game’s opening cinematic. Heller’s world revolves around his young daughter, and his motivating rage at the situation he finds himself in stems largely from the fact that he was supposed to return home to her after a short tour of duty, cleaning up after Alex Mercer (hero of the original Prototype).
That plot twist is kind of a neat element as it pits fans of the series against the character they spent dozens of hours with in the first game. For the majority of Prototype 2, Mercer is the key antagonist — though it doesn’t take a psychic to guess that the real foe here is the shady government-types.
The other big change brought about by this dramatic shift is that Heller is, canonically, a far more competent warrior than Alex Mercer was at the start of his adventure. Mercer was essentially just some generic hoodie-wearing twentysomething at the outset of Prototype. He grows into a competent fighter over the course of the game, but that’s more the result of his new-found superpowers than any actual talent he may have had for punching people in the face. Heller, on the other hand, is a trained soldier, and a pretty good one at that. Within the first few moments we witness a completely mortal, non-powered Heller slaughter a giant mutant creature that looks like a cross between a skinless bear and one of the Lickers from Capcom’s Resident Evil series. Whereas Mercer killed dozens of these things with his oversized bone claws and super strength, Heller is armed with only a combat knife, yet he walks away from the beast’s lifeless corpse totally unscathed — assuming you’re able to follow the Quick Time Event’s on-screen prompts. As a result of this inherent ferocity, Heller makes for a far more powerful (and believable) protagonist than Mercer ever was. Granted, the game doesn’t really pick up steam until Heller is infected by Mercer’s post-human powers, but that’s only a few minutes in and once he’s fully charged, Heller is a one-man wrecking crew capable of bringing down military hardware with a few strong kicks.
Of course, this being a triple-A action title from mega-publisher Activision, the game wouldn’t be complete without custom aesthetics to amply complement the destruction Heller creates. The original Prototype did a pretty solid job of lending a cinematic experience to your battles, but Prototype 2 expands on the original in almost every way. Even the simplest attacks are given fancy visual enhancements; kick an enemy and the air around the point of impact will shimmer, as if your foot were colliding with rib cages so hard as to create a localized shockwave. Likewise, Heller heals himself during combat by draining vital life force from foes, and while Mercer did the same, Prototype 2’s graphics engine almost revels in portraying every minute iota of bloody fluid transfer. Props to the development team for not resting on their laurels in this department as the number of unique animations for Heller’s draining attacks has been massively expanded since the first game, making it unlikely that you’ll see the same attack too often — a great boon given how frequently you’ll need to suck the life from an enemy.
That sort of massive expansion seems to be a theme for Prototype 2. Again, I have to award points to the development team for taking the lessons learned in creating the first game (and, most likely, that title’s immense profits), and pumping them right back into the creation of Prototype 2. The original was a full game in its own right, but the second just offers so much more to see and do. Prototype 2 makes its predecessor completely obsolete, which is exactly what one would hope for in a quality sequel.
Remember at the beginning when I mentioned that all my affection for the original Prototype stemmed from all of the ancillary parts of the game? The bits that had nothing to do with Prototype’s plot, but did an excellent job of giving players a consistently cool gaming experience? This is yet another area where Radical has massively expanded the scope of everything for the sequel. Like the original, Prototype 2 has a relatively stereotypical plot that, while serviceable, won’t impress anyone over the age of 15, but the game’s real strength is in all of the extraneous fun one can have. The game world is still chock full of chances to throw cars around or run up the sides of skyscrapers, but moreso than the original, Prototype 2 comes packed with a host of secondary gameplay objectives. Races to be run, areas to explore and unlockable extras to discover. While each of these diversions is relatively short, Radical had the foresight to add a system called Radnet to the game that tracks your best times and scores and compares them against those of your friends. Offering a short rooftop race is a neat idea, but it becomes positively addictive when you’re constantly battling against your pals to shave seconds off your best time.
I realize, having re-read what I just wrote, that I haven’t offered much attention to the game’s driving storyline. I won’t apologize for this, as in truth, the game’s plot just isn’t anything special. It’s a bit better than that of the original Prototype, but as far as entertainment media goes, Prototype 2’s story is weak. The parts that aren’t swiped from the world’s oldest action clichés are almost embarrassingly juvenile. Not that the game is flashing biologically improbable breasts at you every few moments, but when listening to the game’s dialogue one gets the feeling that the writers were snickering aloud every time they managed to work the f-word into the game’s script. This is a game that aims for “dark and mature” but has no idea how to accomplish either, so instead just packs in as many swears and disemboweled corpses as possible, hoping that the target demographic won’t know the difference either.
Sadly, they’re probably right, so while I was utterly unimpressed with the script, I doubt many pubescent boys will be able to stop raving about how “f*@king awesome” the game’s storyline is, while giggling to themselves at the f-bomb they just dropped on a no-doubt annoyed listener.
As much as I’d like to slam Radical for pandering, I can’t really fault the company too much here. Yes, it blatantly attempted to court the lowest common denominator, but at the same time, Protoype 2 also includes a ton of cleverly implemented, endlessly entertaining gameplay options that will appeal to more cerebral players. Alright, maybe not “more cerebral,” but it’s certain that these instances of open-world, sandbox fun in which Radical has created a simple set of rules that lend themselves to wildly replayable emergent gameplay options will appeal to anyone who has been gaming for years and appreciates clever design more than any tired, Hollywood-rejected action game plotting. In effect, Radical has guaranteed the game’s fiscal success by tapping the dumb youth demographic, but also ensured that critics will enjoy the game. That’s a clever trick, and not one many developers can manage.
Prototype 2 is not perfect. It’s got rough edges and it’s often childish, but it improves on its predecessor in almost every way, and manages to offer something for everyone. It won’t win any awards at the next Game Developers Conference, nor will it lend itself to long, overwrought editorials on the nature of gaming, but that’s also not what this game should aspire toward. Prototype 2 is a kick-ass, low-brow action game that allows players to enjoy the freedom that comes with being an unstoppable, near-immortal superhero, and taken in that light, it’s nearly perfect.
Score: 8.5 out of10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Activision)