Prototype Review: Alex Mercer SMASH!S

Anti-hero Alex Mercer takes more than a few cues from The Incredible Hulk as he stalks the streets of New York City in Activision's free-roaming action adventure, Prototype.

Developed by Radical Entertainment, the team behind The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, Prototype follows much the same formula as that Marvel Comics inspired title. Both feature super-powered characters feared by the public and hunted by the military. Both take place in New York City, where their respective characters can travel from the streets to the rooftops, wrecking havoc as they see fit. The main difference between the two titles is that Prototype's antagonist, Alex Mercer, is a completely original character, unfettered by preconceived notions of what he will and will not do to further his quest for the truth.

The question is, can this sort of game handle an original character, or is ultimate destruction best left in the hands of the more professional superhero?

Loved
Weaving Its Web: The real meat of Prototype's story isn't found in the game's normal cut scenes, but in the minds of specially marked citizens wandering the streets of New York City. Grabbing these marked citizens and absorbing them into you causes a flashback that helps fill in the plot, as you learn what your victim knew about the sinister plot that made Alex the way he is. The flashbacks are a combination of solid voice work, stock photography, and bizarre live-action imagery, pieced together like a mental collage by a Web of Intrigue that urges the player to scour the city, collecting memories like Pokémon. The adds a layer of intrigue to a story that otherwise would have been your average tale of scientific misconduct.

Freedom of Movement: The streets of New York City belong to Alex Mercer, and you can feel it in every movement he makes. Apparently a practitioner of the extreme sport of parkour, Mercer leaps over cars and pushes through crowds of pedestrians as he travels, or simply takes to the rooftops with his ability to run up sheer surfaces. As you upgrade your movement capabilities you'll find yourself gliding long distances across the skies of the city, wind-whipping at your clothing. The controls might feel a little loose, but the feeling of freedom they afford more than compensates.

Drunk With Power: Though he begins his new life as a strong guy who can run up buildings, Prototype's upgrade system soon presents Alex Mercer with an astounding array of powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. There are several core power sets to utilize, each with their own unique moves and uses, generally manifesting about Alex's hands. The blade power turns your arm into a massive edged weapon, perfect for taking out some of the game's more powerful enemies, while the tendril power allows you to attack from afar, proving particularly useful in the area of helicopter hijacking. As impressive as the normal powers are, the Critical Mass moves are even more so. I spent a good couple of hours in the "new game plus mode" once I finished my first play through, seeing how many pedestrians I could take out at once with the devastating tendril burst power. For the record, it was around 108.

I'll Be You: Much more than an unstoppable juggernaut of raw power, Alex Mercer can also take on the appearance of any NPC in the game, allowing him to blend in with the population, losing any pursuit that might be following him at the time. This is a mechanic you'll use quite often throughout the game, sometime merely to make an escape, and other times to infiltrate enemy strongholds. There's nothing quite like having a whole fleet of helicopters on your tail, only to drop off the side of a building, turn into a civilian, and then lose yourself in the crowd. On top of blending in, certain NPCs can be absorbed to learn new skills, such as the ever-handy helicopter piloting proficiency, which leads us neatly to...

Tanks For The Firepower: Charging in with your powers blazing is certainly one way to handle a situation, but there's just something about quietly hijacking a tank or a helicopter, wandering over to your objective inconspicuously, and then opening fire with everything you've got. The initial trailers made vehicle hijacking seem like a gimmick, but it works rather well in the game. Once you've upgraded the appropriate power, taking over helicopters, letting another chopper shoot you down and then leaping through the air to hijack the other is an amazingly cool feeling.

Play It Again, Alex: "New game plus" is always a plus! Once you've finished getting your ass kicked for a good 8-10 hours, you can play through the game again with all of the powers you've already unlocked. For extra added fun, do new game plus on easy mode, to help vent the frustration built up from a certain timed event you may have to do over and over again.

Hated
Throwaway Side Missions: Hmmm. A mutanagenic virus is rapidly infecting the city, I regains memories by absorbing other people into my being, and an elite military force is trying to kill me at every turn. I know! Let's see how fast I can jump from rooftop to rooftop! While some of the side missions in Prototype do fit with the storyline, others just seem completely silly and out of place. Destroying a mutant hive? Yes. Seeing how close you can get to landing in a fountain after jumping from the top of a tall building? Not so much.

Difficulty Spikes: One minute you're cruising around, kicking ass and taking identities; the next you're reloading the last checkpoint for the fourth time, cursing at the television screen. This happens quite a lot in Prototype. Where other games are content to introduce new enemies slowly, letting you get a feel for them, Prototype gives you one, and then while you are catching your breath two more, and then five drop in. There were many situations where I found myself having to jump into a situation, take out a few enemies, and then run away, healing up and coming back for more. I did manage to finish the game, of course, but I had to continue far more than I feel I would have if the difficulty was more ramp than jagged mountain range.

The Other Side of the Story: As intriguing as the memory-siphoning story reveal is, the actual in-game cut scenes are rather bland and boring. The voice acting is so-so, with Alex's sister in particular sounding as if she's bored. It makes it hard to care about the characters in the game. Luckily the flashbacks are more than interesting enough to carry the story.

There's no escaping it; this is an evolved version of Radical Entertainment's Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. Many of the powers and mechanics are exactly the same as they were in the green goliath's title. Movement in particular feels much like it did in Ultimate Destruction, with the smashing through cars replaced with hopping over them, unless you choose the Muscle Mass power set, in which case you're one color-change away from being the green goliath himself. Even the Critical Mass feature from Hulk finds its way into Prototype, giving Alex access to ultra-powerful moves when his meter is either nearly depleted or filled past its saturation point. On top of that, one of the main bad guys bears a striking resemblance to General Thunderbolt Ross. Alex might not be able to level whole buildings, but when you can kill an entire city block worth of civilians with one massive attack, why bother?

It's not a bad thing, really. Radical Entertainment did a spectacular job on the Hulk, and now we get a chance to see what they do when they aren't tied down to a licensed character with an established history - and what they've done is pretty fantastic. Prototype puts an intoxicating amount of power in the player's hands and doesn't let up until the last enemy is torn asunder by your wriggling tentacles.

Prototype was developed by Radical Entertainment and published by Activision for the PlayStation 3, PC, and Xbox 360. Released on June 9th. Retails for $59.99 PS3 and 360, $49.99 PC. Played the Xbox 360 version. Completed game on normal difficulty.

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