In very few games have I truly inhabited the persona of a goddam-right-I-am badass, whose demonstrations of power were as personal as Prototype 2's. And it's not because I've imagined any of the superpowers you wield in this game, or how I'd perform with them. It's because of the very normal, very pissed-off man in charge of them.
He's a husband and a father and a black man. I'm an unmarried white dude with no kids. He can make physics-defying leaps from rooftops, transform his right arm into an enormous blade, or shapeshift into the image of his adversaries. I can drive a riding lawnmower and scoop the cat box. But James Heller's frustration in managing what has been imposed upon him—the mind-boggling destruction of a city, the death of loved ones, and even the bestowing of weird superpowers—is probably how I'd react to it, too.
Like Heller, I wouldn't give a damn who concocted what or why or spread it how—I'd want to put a stop to it all as simply as possible. And if the story of Prototype 2 is as frustrating to me as it is to Heller, then its all-out action is also just as satisfying. If you take the time to think about your foes, and especially your defenses, you can put together some truly eye-popping action sequences. There are far weaker selling points for a video game, of course.
WHY: More than just demonstrating some truly spectacular superpowers in an open world, you're doing them with a great character, James Heller, even if the game's story doesn't take any risks.
Developer: Radical Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (Version played)
Released: April 24.
Type of game: Open-world third-person action-adventure science-fiction. That enough hyphens?
What I played: Completed the main story and several side missions; gave the "Radnet" DLC challenges a whirl on the day of release.
Two Things I Loved
- Some of the most visually—and physically—satisfying action a video game could offer.
- A sincere and strong acting performance behind the main character means spending 12 hours with James Heller is a delight, despite a tendentious plot.
Two Things I Hated
- An overall lack of difficulty walks the line of handholding as much as some fighting sequences walk the line of Quicktime-event direction.
- The muddy story really requires you to pay attention, but even then, the character motivations and plot threads are head scratchers
Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes
- "As bad-assed as you could be in a video game."—Owen Good, Kotaku.com
- "Delivers on the promise of an insane world gone straight to Heller." -Owen Good Kotaku.com
The problem, though, is that Prototype 2 isn't that hard. Perfect example is the "bio-bomb," in which you inject some helpless stooge with time-bomb virus and then hurl him at whatever's bothering you. It's very entertaining but a little too powerful. Some long engagements and boss battles may not transition completely to rigid quicktime events—others will, no doubt—but they do carry a here-do-this-now style of direction that some may find off-putting. Especially in the mayhem of the Red Zone, shoved up against tall buildings and under their awnings, you will need the onscreen hints to keep track of what to do in this biological battle royale, as the camera always feels poorly positioned and a step behind the breakneck pacing.
Prototype 2 is a single-player only, open-world third-person action game, same as its predecessor. There isn't as much to do in its environment as I would prefer for the open-world genre, but what you do in it is comprehensively destructive. It's befitting of the work of a studio that used to make games about The Incredible Hulk (and whose history in so doing forms some of the intrigue behind Prototype's making, as well as the characters' abilities within it.) Sure, you can pick up a rocket launcher and bazooka a nettlesome gun emplacement, but it's a lot more fun to pick up a car and do that. The first game encouraged the creative use of power and the second extends the same invitation.
While I found Heller to be an interesting character, I'm not dwelling much on the game's continuity, probably because I came to it late. I didn't play the first Prototype when it released in 2009 and made myself acquainted with it only in preparation for this review. Suffice to say, the protagonist of the original, Alex Mercer, does quite a heel turn, though he was never a truly noble guy. A splendid indoctrination video available in the game's main menu, followed by the tutorial level, helps set the game's paranoid tone. Ultimately, though, the only thing you're really sure of is who you can't trust: and that would be the brainless mutants of New York Zero. Several impersonation missions and a few sequences before the game's climax left me wondering why Blackwatch, the corporation ostensibly responsible for this bioweapons disaster, was my adversary. The answer is basically that they're stupid, which is par for the villain course, I suppose.
Prototype was received as good-but-not-great, though it did provide some visceral thrills, and it becomes apparent about half a dozen missions in that Radical Entertainment is sticking to that formula. The open-ended action—the mayhem you create in the open world, not the set pieces—just feels like it was tuned to accommodate button spammers, of which I am one, admittedly. The fact a power upgrade will automatically equip was a little off-putting, and speaks to an optimization for more casual players. I solidified my impression of Prototype 2's difficulty when I picked a fight with a Blackwatch base in open-world play, slaughtered all of the ground personnel and they sent the attack helos after me. I just waited it out on a rooftop, redirecting the missiles back into the choppers with my shields trait. I took a few hits, but I was never seriously threatened in it, or in any alert situation, really. There are some difficulty spikes once you get to the red zone of Manhattan, but nothing fatal to your efforts.
Loads of gamers will want to jump into that kind of action, and it is fun, if not entirely challenging. I suppose the insane difficulty level you unlock after the first playthrough will deliver a more complete experience. But Prototype 2's real artistic asset is a remarkably well acted Heller. His lines could have easily been twisted into the kind of macho nihilism that makes antiheroic roles so cliché. Here, Cornell Womack—in a superb voice-acting job—communicates genuine unhappiness with the entire situation. Heller is pissed off that he has been forced to take responsibility for something he cannot understand, and that the only people he can truly trust are really powerless to change any of it.
Some may find Heller's swearing gratuitous. Thanks to Womack, who seems to care why Heller is spewing invective, I find it evocative of an interesting character. "Did I say I was a fuckin' hero, you piece of shit?" he snarls, convincingly. Because Heller doesn't want any of this. In a balletic boss fight atop Madison Square Garden against the real evil behind New York's devastation—not the Blackwatch goons, nor the mutant infected, but a combination—Heller dismisses his enemies with "Fuckin' pieces of shit." I've said exactly that many times at the end of a big video game battle. Either I understood his anger or he understood mine, but either way, the connection was made.
Acting is just one component of a narrative, though. Heller's disgust will mirror your own as you try to drain the swampy tale of Prototype 2. Stories in the science-fiction conspiracy sub-genre all run the near-fatal risk of making everything a reversible lie. There is too much of that going on too early in Prototype 2 to make the game understandable, especially when juxtaposed with the game's relentless—and much more satisfying—action.
Yes, as everyone is well aware, there is a showdown with Mercer in this game. And if the runup to it and Heller's motivation comes straight from the instruction manual for a summer popcorn sequel, there is one sequence where another adversary's character change is well timed and enlightening. It told me something about both him and Heller. Prototype 2 may be a typical story, but it is not a mindless one.
The bottom line question for me in considering a video game is whether it is fun. Prototype 2 is, enough that I want to give the entire story another go around playing a little more expansively—picking up collectibles, grinding and ranking up Heller so I can see everything he has to offer, and competing in and completing the challenges and side missions offered by Radnet and Blacknet. It is fun being a badass, and I want to inhale that a little more deeply.
But outside of giving you a more admirable character, Prototype 2 doesn't do much that is different from its predecessor. It does a decent job of disguising a typical plot but, when everything is fully revealed, what you're left with is pure action. In the end, that's what makes it recommendable.