Review / Prototype (Xbox 360)

Prototype comes to the scene on the heels of both a rise in open-world action games, and games that focus heavily on moral choices. Prototype is definitely an open-world action game wherein NYC is your oyster. You can go anywhere and do almost anything (except go indoors of course). Morality on the other hand, doesn’t really enter into it.

Alex Mercer, the classic protagonist who doesn’t even know who he is, must try to discover why a deadly virus is consuming New York, and in the process embark on a quest to resolve his own identity crisis. Your first introduction to gameplay opens with Alex standing on the street being shot, point blank, by some soldiers and the words “Kill Military Personnel” come up. I would venture a guess that I killed 50 innocent people in the first 5-10 minutes of Prototype. Most of the game is framed by cutscenes that take place after the events you are playing, where Alex is talking to an unknown figure about what happened, and as you would expect the game catches up to that moment near the end. Prototype has been classified by some as a “Super-Hero” game. Well, the game, and Alex Mercer are super, but he is hardly a hero.

The free roam nature of the gameplay breaks down into a few categories. 1) Take a story mission, 2) take a side mission/event/challenge, 3) Item collection/exploring. The “events” or challenges that are spread around the city are mostly timed events that require you to rack up a score to obtain a medal at the end. You get experience points for these that allow you to purchase from the large pool of super powers and abilities. You can also explore for the trophies (which are like hidden packages only easier to see) or people to consume for their memories as part of the Web of Intrigue. The missions themselves are decently varied, and the scale of them gets larger and larger as the game progresses. You start by blowing up a few things, and near the end have to blow up maybe 11 helicopters in a single mission. One of the things that makes Prototype difficult is the war going on. Alex Mercer has no allies in this, so the infected are your enemy, as is the Military. So, no matter what you are doing, if you make a ruckus, you could have both sides crawling up your ass. This feature can also be one of the games biggest frustrations, as you are often being shot by the side that should be helping you, during boss fights.

The control in Prototype is simultaneously great, and horribly frustrating. The controls are mapped to every button on the controller, which most of the time I love and have no trouble adapting too. The more precise I can be, the better, and from here the trouble starts. This game suffers from what I will call Gears of War Syndrome at times, and what I mean by that is that a button serves multiple functions and the game thinks you are trying to do the wrong one. Basically as you get more powerful, your finesse suffers more and more, which is fine when you need to blow up some tanks, but not at all fine when you are a trying to do a time trial, or fight a hard boss. The most troubling of these problems is that the run button is mapped to the same button as your air dash, and often the direction you wish to air dash is misinterpreted. It would be fine if the game didn’t ask you for precision, but every once in a while it does.

The two most frustrating things in Prototype’s gameplay are the following: First, the knockdown that pretty much every enemy attack causes by the end of the game. Nothing disrupts sweet gameplay like things that stun you, which everything does. Secondly, jacking vehicles is the most ridiculously long, gratuitous event, during much of which you can be hurt. I just want to get into a tank, not spend a moment examining the serial number on top, then ripping the lid off, then cracking my knuckles, all while being shot by five other tanks. And in the meantime the driver, in his panic has turned the gun away and driven me from what I wanted it for in the first place.

Which brings me to the stealth missions… Boy, this was a great idea, that didn’t make much sense. I fully recognize that in an open-world game where you destroy everything in sight, the AI needs to be pretty dumb, because if you can’t get away ever, then it’s hard to use traditional gameplay. However, when I walk into a military base, violently grab their commanding officer, eat him in front of them, fly away until I they lose me, and then walk back into the base disguised as the commander that 50 people just saw get murdered, that is a bit silly. Even more to the point, when you are in the indoor bases, everyone is looking at each other, it is an enclosed space, and not only are you expected to stealth consume people in there, but you can. I will say this though, the consume function does allow for a cool mechanic in that you need to consume military personnel with the proper skills to get better at flying helicopters, driving tanks, and using guns.

Some people would argue that the game’s graphics are a little lacking compared to other titles out there today, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, however, and this is very important, that has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of this game. Prototype is fun, and the polygon count and lack of light reflecting algorithms do nothing to hinder that. New York is a really big place, and this game doesn’t load once you start playing it. Everything is alive all the time, because Alex can traverse large areas very quickly. As a comparison, Assassin’s Creed feels so alive on the city streets and everything you do is reacted to no matter how insignificant. Prototype on the other hand is dealing with a much larger scale, and while those little moments don’t feel as real, the entire city is fully alive with this war between the infected and the military. You hide among the people (when you aren’t killing them for life), and as the game progresses the infection gets worse and worse so you see the city deteriorate in front of you. Little details spice up the huge world like lights going on and off in office building windows, and the result off all this is that the city doesn’t feel bland despite the fact that you are forced to destroy it and its people at every turn.

Prototype has a decent story for a game of this type where one is not really expected. It is strange that it is almost all told through other people’s memories, and you get more detail the more you are willing to complete the web of intrigue. This brings me to one of the most unique things about Prototype. I don’t know if it is a good thing or a bad thing, it merely just is. Alex Mercer hardly ever talks to anyone. When he needs information, he kills the person who has it, and just watches their memories. It is pretty jarring at first, but then you sort of get used to it. Just another example of how morality is totally out the window, there are no options to make “good” choices. Innocent people die when you run, that’s how mad Alex Mercer is.

Last minute throw away comments: There is no noise when you run up the side of a building (it just sounds like running on the ground even though it is almost always over glass), some of the voice acting isn’t great, shadows often don’t work properly, but the web of intrigue cut scenes are very well done by the sound and visuals teams.

Prototype is extremely fun. Without doing all the side missions I clocked in beating the campaign on normal in about 14 hours, and doing it all would put you just under 20. It didn’t feel short, and I almost always got sucked into playing it for hours at a time. It can be frustrating at times, but I found the gameplay very satisfying. Just as in Assassin’s Creed, sometimes running around for no reason is just plain awesome. Alex can do amazing things, so why not do them. I think Gabe from Penny-Arcade summed it up pretty well, “In Prototype, you can do a karate kick on a helicopter. WHAT THE FUCK ELSE DO YOU WANT.”

+ Fun gameplay with good variety of abilities.
+ City feels alive with a living war.
+ Insane amount of destruction.

– Stealth doesn’t make a lot of sense.
– Knockback and vehicle jacking is VERY frustrating.
– None of the civilians have much of anything to say.