GameCrank: Prototype

Patrick

PatrickGame review by Patrick Pontes
(Prototype is available for Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
Alex Mercer is not in the best mood today, and it is not difficult to see why.  After waking up on a glass slide in the middle of an autopsy, Alex finds out that he has been presumed dead.  Alex has no idea how he got stuck in a morgue or what happened to him, nor does he remember anything else.  He tries to leave, but the military is on his case and is trying to make him dead as can be, along with just about everyone who has ever known him.  The good news is that he has been mysteriously gifted with powers akin to those of the T-1000 from Terminator 2, as Alex can shape-shift and transform his arms into a variety of helpful weapons; that, and he also has the power of a sort of cannibalism, as he can consume other beings and absorb their memories.  At the same time as all of this, a viral outbreak is taking over Manhattan and the military has been sent out to stop it while propagating as many army stereotypes as possible.  Alex merely wants to find out what happened to him and make those responsible for his situation and the outbreak pay, whether or not they did it on purpose  and whether or not they had good intentions.

There is a bit of novelty in playing as the anti-hero.  Playing as the selfless, sacrificing goody-two-shoes has to get a little draining after a while, and it is just kind of nice to play as the enemy you would normally be out to destroy.  Prototype focuses just about all of its characterization on Alex, for the rest of the cast tends to go AWOL for long periods of the game at a time.  Most of the mission cut-scenes last only about twenty seconds, and it’s usually just the characters giving Alex objectives to complete and then the inclusion of a campy line here or there to spice things up.  The details of the main plot are more often told through consuming the minds of people throughout the city, which the game stores in a huge meaty file-cabinet known as the Web of Intrigue.  Targets for this meta-game are scattered throughout the city and can be consumed to reveal clues to Alex’s past.  Despite the fact that the cinematics during these encounters are interesting and well-presented, the order in which you encounter these targets are often random, meaning that you may unfortunately come across plot-twists early on of which the game seems to make a big deal in the future.  Overall, the story has some interesting ideas and more than a few ways to express them, but much of the government conspiracies and dramatics feel laughably dumb and the game focuses on the relation between the player and Alex instead of Alex and the other characters.  Dialogue and voice-acting are passable, but when Alex’s voice actor tries to sound angry, the result is as comical as it is awesome.  This is typical, cliché video game storytelling, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

If Grand Theft Auto IV is a living and breathing world as most people say it is, then Prototype is one burning hell-hole in a city.  While Prototype’s city is essentially only one third the size of the map of GTA IV, I would say that less is more in just about every single aspect of the game. Let me show you what I mean.

You have a decently-sized city that has plenty of things to do in it as well as freedom for goofing around.  You have the means to move quickly through it and get from point to point efficiently.  There are reasons for doing the side-missions and collecting the trinkets sprinkled around, but you will still want to get back to the main story missions because they are the most exciting and well-designed.  You do not have your fat cousin calling you ever half-hour to play arbitrary mini-games, as in GTA IV, and there is almost no down-time for dating and bowling because the entire game revolves around the main gameplay mechanics.  These are pretty much all the things Grand Theft Auto IV failed to grasp properly, as it was much too busy jumping back and forth between gameplay ideas and felt like it wasn’t sure of what kind of game it wanted to be–gritty and realistic or ridiculous and fun.  This is not that GTA IV doesn’t do several things exceptionally well, but Prototype knows exactly what it wants to be (or at least it appears to) and Prototype is all about the action.

The portrayed world of Manhattan in Prototype is one large war/hot-zone.  As the mysterious virus that has been released on the city begins to take over, the otherwise calm and normal streets of good old NYC are turned into battlegrounds that pit the military against hordes of infected monstrosities.  The way that more and more of the map is absorbed by the virus and how the whole city evolves over time is awesome and makes the sandbox world feel different with every other mission you complete.  There is no down-time: you have opportunities to start huge skirmishes with hundreds of soldiers, helicopters, tanks, and mutants at any time you want.  There’s almost never a dull moment, which will definitely affect your overall enjoyment of the game depending on your taste in pacing.

Scattered throughout the map are unlockable side-missions, small challenges that test you with certain weapons and vehicles or have you running timed checkpoint races around expansive portions of the city.  All of them are scored with medals which, combined with the extra goodies you earn upon success with any medal award, make them highly addictive and become part of a routine after beating main story missions.  There is no restart option, however, so unsuccessful trials of certain challenges can become tedious given the difficulty shoved down your throat on a regular basis.  Also, pretty much all of these challenges boil down to killing and jumping, which is fine in small doses, but the main story provides plenty of time to blow off some steam in the same way.  Ultimately, earning Platinum medals in all of them might provide a great sense of accomplishment, but it seems like much more trouble than it is actually worth and only the obsessive will follow through to the end.

The main story missions are much more diverse.  You do plenty of bushwhacking though enemy hordes, but the objectives come in a nice variety of killing.  Destroying bases, protecting and escorting (thankfully well executed and rarely frustrating), blowing up fleets of helicopters, and just generally causing chaos are all on the agenda here, and each mission changes things up every single time with new elements added to the gameplay and compound challenges to keep you on your toes.

The game is mainly separated into two sections: combat and navigation.  The platforming here is largely focused on Alex’s ability to glide through the air, perform speed-boosts, and climb straight up any building he pleases.  The par-core controls are superb–you will be skyscraper-hopping all over town and landing on targets with perfect accuracy after just a bit of experimentation and practice. I cannot think of a game that does platforming on this kind of scale that does it right.

The big focus here is combat, and everything I said about the jumping applies here as well.  Defeating enemies, completing missions, performing certain mini-objectives, and scoring Gold, Silver, or Bronze in side-missions all reward you with Evolution Points to spend on upgrades.  There are so many moves and abilities to unlock that, by the end of the story, you will pretty much be playing an entirely different game than when you first started out and there will still be more powers to experiment with.  Alex gains four main melee weapons by shifting his arms into claws, clubs, a whip and a double-edged blade.  Each has its own playing style that dramatically change how the game works.  The depth here is vast, but nothing ever boils to the point of overwhelming you.

Prototype, like all open-world games, is at its best when the game lets you screw around and have fun.  The story missions are the obvious highlight, but just messing around with the military and people on the street is great fun.  Even if you tire of the game before the story ends, grabbing someone, running up the Empire State Building, hurling them off at the top, and then body-surfing on their corpse on the way to the ground is something that I wish could be in every game just because it is so ridiculously cool.

My first impressions for Prototype were not particularly high.  The first level is incredible, as the game lets you off the leash with all of your powers and tells you to go nuts in a huge battle-royale in the middle of Times Square.  You can tell that this was obviously made for the game’s demo and it got me totally pumped. Right after that, though, you find out that (a la Forrest Gump and Slumdog Millionaire) the rest of the game takes place in a single flashback with little cutscenes here and there that fast forward to the present.  You start the game off when Alex just discovers his powers and heads out with pretty much nothing other than his jumping abilities and his ability to throw cars halfway across the city.  Building up all your powers to the point where the first mission starts off takes a while, but it is a game that gets better as you go along.  Prototype is a game that goes up, down, and up again, as even though the beginning is not bad, by the end of the game I was having a total blast.

As I mentioned, the combat is the main focus here and, thankfully, it never runs out of steam.  Enemy types are generally sparse, but each requires certain strategies and allow room for experimentation.  There is one downside to the depth in that some powers are inevitably more powerful than others.  Once you unlock the whip and the blade, the two strongest and cheapest weapons in the game, the rest of your abilities go straight down the drain.  You can still get through by using any of the powers the game gives you, but there seems to be one obvious solution for each encounter.  The game itself will even occasionally telegraph to you which are your most effective attacks and how you should use them.  It hurts the experimentation a bit, but I rarely ever bothered to pay it much attention.

In all honesty, Prototype does occasionally pretend to be a stealth game.  Alex has the ability to take on the appearance of anyone he consumes, allowing him to infiltrate bases and take army vehicles in a soldier disguise without opposition.  You soon gain the ability to perform stealth kills, where Alex sneaks up behind his prey and consumes them without alerting nearby soldiers.  This leads to some comical situations, as Alex will be slurping up targets that are no more than two feet away from their comrades, all while making the bizarre morphing sound effects and having blood fly in every direction, and he will still get away completely clean.  The AI is also laughably dumb, as you can do a flying cannonball dive and create shock-waves that blow up cars, but when the soldiers come running by, they will be mostly just marveling at the crater you made and will be cautiously searching around you for the person who did it.  The stealth, by technical terms, is horrible, but I think that the best kind of stealth game is the worst kind of stealth game–unrealistic and stupidly funny.

Prototype does have a small mish-mash of problems.  The difficulty is largely ideal, but there are more than a few irritating moments.  A lot of enemies have very cheap attacks, such as a type of infected monster called the Hunter who has the ability to do a flurry of stunning and damaging attacks while being invincible at the same time.  Enemy tanks and helicopters are absurdly accurate, and when Alex is pelted with explosions, he inevitably turns into the equivalent of a birdie in a military game of badminton.  You do have automatic health regeneration, but it takes so long to activate and heals you so slowly that it might as well not even exist.

The boss fights are not the game’s highlight.  There only a few of them and they are a bit too frustrating for the game’s sake.  Most of their attacks are pretty much unavoidable and the fights generally rely too heavily on Devastator attacks.  Seeing as you can only use these attacks once your health is maxed out, this pattern leads to a hit-and-regenerate tactic that drags things out to a degree of tedium.  Thankfully, there are often tons of people around you while fighting bosses, and you can consume them for a quick health boost.  Some of the more difficult missions are similar to this, so the pacing takes a little dive there as well.

It feels weird saying this, but Prototype does actually begin to get repetitive by the end.  Once I found my unique playing style, I was able to breeze through the rest of the story and I pretty much ignored the rest of my moves.  I still took the time to try all of them out and I did enjoy myself while doing so, but it rarely resulted in a change to my actual strategy.  The moves just aren’t balanced very well.  This is one instance where quantity tends to over-shadow quality.  While all of your powers are fun and have their own bells and whistles, you sometimes do not have the absolute control that you want.  For example, your regular punching skills have almost five times more upgrades than any of your other powers, even though it is the weakest approach to combat.  Overall, the depth here is satisfying in just about every aspect, but I seriously found myself wanting more in certain areas.

This aspect rarely effects the visual presentation, however.  The graphics are impressive, but at the same time, are also in spots a mixed bag.  Character models outside of cut-scenes can look unsightly and a lot of smaller details feel half-cooked.  That said, you will never see another game with this much going on in each frame, with literally hundreds of characters, vehicles, explosions and effects going on at the same time.  The draw-distance is great and I never found a single technical flaw in my entire twenty-hour playthrough.  The animation is great, especially with Alex himself, and the plentiful blood and gore looks just as realistic as it needs to. The music, though in small quantity, is fine, but the only memorable tune off the top of my head is the main theme from the intro and credits.

I really do wish that I could love this game.  There are so many ideas for a great franchise and a wonderful collection of concepts.  Sadly, Prototype only resembles a huge ball of great ideas that never really materializes into anything amazing.  The list of moves and the things you can do here are of a quantity and quality of entertainment that is otherwise rarely seen, but with so much to check out, this ultimately leads to a lot of things that necessitate diregard.  The story is interesting and has brilliant minds behind it, but it simply needed better direction and execution.  Everything here looks like it should be part of something incredible, and to a degree it actually is, but after beating the the story missions, I felt like my experience was complete.  I still sampled the different difficulty settings and unlockable powers, but I was done with it just as soon as it ended.  Prototype is great mindless fun as well as an exhilarating action game, with potential to be a favorite among many people.  I hesitate to say that I loved it as a whole, but I do hope that Activision and Radical Studios did find success and I do hope we will see Alex and his mysterious powers again.  Prototype is a game that, like its main character, might be less than human, but also something more.

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