Army, mutant, hero, person.
Back in 2001, Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto III, a game which single-handedly redefined the expectations of what an open-world game could achieve. Incredible scale, unprecedented freedom, and unpredictable gameplay catapulted GTA III to greatness. We were finally free from the shackles of linearity, the never-ending corridors and invisible walls which housed our polygon-based illusion. But that new found freedom led to a designer headache. Developers had to find an effective way of structuring the game, without restricting the player.
The solution? Maps, waypoints, varied missions and unlockables formed the essential foundations of every sandbox game. Without these key elements, the player would have just ended up roaming around a city without any real purpose. Imagine if Red Dead Redemption contained none of the staples above? It would basically be a cowboy simulator game. And let’s be honest, no one would want to play that.
Of course, one of the main selling points of an open-world game is the ability to step aside from the designated path to cause unadulterated havoc at any given opportunity, and this is something Prototype 2 does well. But, without an underlying and satisfying structure holding it all together, and by that I mean enjoyable gameplay and varied missions, its easy for the player to become bored. And sadly, bored is a word that perfectly describes my experience when playing Prototype 2. Prototype 2’s poor design decisions, and repetitive, dull gameplay left me exhausted and perplexed by its sheer monotony.
Who The Heller You?
Prototype 2 makes the bold move of replacing the first game’s protagonist, Alex Mercer, with a new character in Sergeant James Heller. James has lost his wife and daughter to the mutated hands of Alex Mercer and his rampant virus, coyly named the “Mercer Virus.” After seeking bloody revenge, Heller is infected after a confrontation with Mercer. James miraculously survives Mercer’s apparent attempt on his life thanks to Gentek’s doctors; a company who in-turn with Blackwatch are attempting to control and neutralise the virus outbreak plaguing New York.
Heller’s awakening is met with horror as he soon realises that he is infected with the Mercer virus. Gentek quickly determine that James is just as dangerous as Mercer – the man who they are determined to destroy – and decide to incinerate Heller before he causes mayhem. Naturally, that plan fails as you help Heller escape the laboratory in the most violent way possible.
After leaving the lab, Heller bumps into the man who he has longed to kill for so long – Alex Mercer. Mercer informs him that Gentek started the virus and their experiments are being controlled by Blackwatch. If Heller really wants his revenge and to save the city, then it is Gentek and Blackwatch who he must destroy and not Mercer.
What proceeds from that point is a story which has enough twists and turns to keep you interested, but nothing that will leave a lasting memory. It’s one which isn’t particularly believable and lacks conviction not to mention the fact it features more uses of the “F word” then I’ve ever heard in a video game to date. There’s some very strange moments in the story which leave you thinking, why the hell would Heller do that? For the majority of the game he’s a murdering, hate fuelled monster, the next, a pun dropping anti-hero and then, just when you think you’ve got Heller figured out, he performs a dramatic personality U-turn which is simply baffling and dumb. And don’t get me started on the ending.
James Heller isn’t a likeable individual either, nor are the surrounding cast, so its very difficult to care about his plight. That being said, Prototype 2’s story may not be particularly compelling, but it’s satisfactory for the most part. However, the way the story is drip fed to the player using the most repetitive game mechanics I’ve witnessed in a long time, makes the delivery an absolute slog to sit through.
The Memory Remains
Before we get onto Prototype 2’s more enjoyable aspects, let’s talk about the mechanic you’ll be following throughout the majority of the game, so much so you’ll be bored to tears by the end of it.
Heller will communicate with an individual at a set location. From there, you’ll run up buildings (which looks and feels horribly awkward) and fly/glide your way to another set location in the city. Once you arrive, Heller will overlook a nearby base, make a snide remark, and be told to assume the shape of a particular generic looking guard or soldier – though most of the time, you’ll already have the shape stored in your shapeshifter slot from the previous mission.
Once you’ve entered the base, usually without any suspicious or notice from the ridiculously and incredibly dumb AI, Heller is tasked with effortlessly consuming the required individual then using a hand scanner to get inside. When inside, Heller seeks his next victim to consume but, before he can, there’s the matter of taking care of a short battle. With Heller’s enemies vanquished, you’re free to consume your target, witnessing their delicious memories as you absorb them: giving you your next lead. Then, Heller must run away (yes, run away) and shapeshift to escape the alert.
Now, it may not sound too bad on the face of it. But be prepared to do this particular procedure over, and over, and over again. The same pre-set animation, the same sound effect as Heller groans as he receives a memory. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you’ll consume over 50 people on your way to the boss. And no prizes for guessing what you do to him.
Sure, there’s slight variation here and there: you may have to hunt the person you’re assigned with consuming by performing a sonar scan, which highlights where the individual may be lurking in the city (then follow the above), or defeat a particular individual (then follow the above), or even fly in a helicopter to a new location (then follow the above) but essentially, variety isn’t a word you can use in Prototype 2. Luckily, the combat elements of Prototype 2 save it from the depths of utter hell, but even then, the results are mixed.
The combat in Prototype 2 is bloody, gruesome and at times, excellent. Heller is definitely badass and the mutations and evolutions that Heller slowly acquires as you progress are devastating and spectacular. There’s plenty of fun to be had when you’re smashing up helicopters, blowing up tanks and murdering armies with sadistic ease, and Prototype 2 is definitely at its best when you’re involved in an all out war. Fighting a behemoth is a visual delight and there’s some truly awesome moments to be had at Gentek and Blackwatch’s expense.
Unfortunately, the combat can feel clunky, marred by an indecisive camera lock-on system and stiff animations. Also, there simply isn’t enough of these grand battles throughout the game’s campaign to really get you excited. Prototype 2 is at its best when you feel indestructible instead of a sneaky shapeshifter. Instead, you’ll frequently find yourself smashing up the gaming cliche’ of red fuel tanks, fighting cheap mini-bosses and partaking in horrible vehicle missions. Why would you want to ride around in a vehicle when you’re a mutant massacre machine? And the worst part is, that all the fun you do have eventually leads to the tedious torture that I outlined in detail above.
Fighting enemies also slowly becomes a set of predictable do’s and don’ts. Enemies will destroy you if you attack non-stop, so blocking, then countering until you eventually wear your enemy down enough to consume them tends to encompass every fight. And once again, after a while, continual repetition leads to boredom.
Not A Bad Watch
Prototype 2 does offer impressive longevity to those who seek it, with plenty of collectibles, side-missions and enhancements to gain. There’s blackboxes to collect, lairs to raid, collective missions to complete and a clever online mode called Radnet. Radnet offers a competitive element by allowing you to participate in online challenges, earning rewards such as XBLA avatars or PS3 themes.
An area where Prototype 2 clearly shines is in the visual department. The world that Radical Entertainment has created is daunting in size, with bustling city streets and skylines littered with buildings. NPCs react realistically to the carnage, and environments are pleasing. Even when things get hectic, the frame rate holds up well, however the game does suffer from persistent screen tear on the Xbox 360 version. With the PC release arriving in three months time, fans can hopefully look forward to an excellent looking game.
There’s not too much to complain about with the audio either. The soundtrack appropriately fits the destruction on hand, reacting to the on-screen action, and the voice acting is generally solid, although James Heller incessant, unnecessary swearing quickly begins to grate.
A review copy of Prototype 2 was provided courtesy of Activision. The game was reviewed on Xbox 360.
Not Going Viral
Prototype 2 fails to mutate past its rudimentary design decisions which override the potential fun on offer. When designing an open-world game it’s important to leave room for experimentation, offer the player freedom but ultimately, make sure you have a plan, a purpose and a focus. Sadly, Prototype 2 briefly offers an enjoyable spectacle, but ultimately suffers from mundane repetition and tedious gameplay mechanics of which there is no antidote. Unless you have a guilty pleasure for mindless killing, try to avoid catching this infection.