You are Alex Mercer. What exactly that means is initially unclear because this is a man who has lost his memory and awoken in a morgue to a world in which he possesses untold power. A viral outbreak has claimed Manhattan, forcing the island into a military quarantine. The infected citizens are undergoing radical, monstrous changes -- none more drastic than Alex himself. This anti-hero finds himself with the ability to shape shift and absorb other beings. As the most powerful being on a closed island, the entire city is your playground. And it is a game world that feels unfinished.
Prototype is a single player, open-world action game in the style of Crackdown or The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. You play as a man gifted with superhuman powers and the option to go most anywhere you like and do most anything you want once you get there. It's sandbox gaming with a heavy focus on pure action.
Though you play as a man bestowed with superhero power, Mercer is anything but heroic. There are no moral choices here. Mercer has vowed to destroy those responsible for his current situation and he has the means to do it. To gain new powers or refill your health bar, you'll literally absorb other living beings. Find yourself a little low on hit points and you can simply grab an innocent bystander, crush his or her head, and then consume them for a quick boost. If you find yourself in a pinch with attack choppers chasing you through the roads, you can absorb a person and morph into their likeness to blend in with the crowd.
As you work your way through the game you'll unlock new and ever more exotic powers. There's an air dash and a glide move that help you quickly travel from one side of Manhattan to the other. There's a massive elbow drop that can destroy a tank in one hit. There's even a whiplash arm that can be used to latch onto passing helicopters to hijack them, Just Cause style. These moves give Prototype its personality. These are what set it apart from most other sandbox games and make it worth a look. Sure there are a few guns to fire and some tanks you can drive around, but the real draw here is the fact that you can turn your arm into a giant blade and then dice monsters with it. Or, if you're a bit twisted, the draw is the fact that you can grab a person by the neck and simply run across the city with their flailing body in tow.
But how long can you do flying elbow drops onto tanks or throw people off of rooftops before it gets boring? The world itself here is far from the most engaging...
The answer to that will vary by the player, but obviously messing around with the powers isn't all there is to do in Prototype. The storyline involves 31 missions including everything from simple seek and destroy affairs to stealthy infiltrations to escort missions and massive boss battles. Most of these missions are standard in design. In fact, if you've played many open-world games, you've probably played identical copies of these in the past. And since repetition is oftentimes the name of the game here, you can be sure you'll be doing uninspired tasks over and over again.
Quite often Prototype follows the design philosophy of everything and the kitchen sink. Instead of fighting a few enemies, the game tosses dozens upon dozens at you. Then it throws in a few tanks and helicopters as well as a couple dozen innocent bystanders for good measure. It's a design that creates a lot of tension, though I found the action too chaotic at times. Even the policing system is dialed to the max and too aggressive. You can't do something as simple as run through the city while leaping off of buildings without alerting the Strike Teams, at which point you're forced into some shape shifting or combat. This can make the basic act of exploration more work than it should be. There is very little downtime to counteract the high stress of the missions.
Prototype's design leans heavily on the fact that you can refill your health by consuming victims at any time. Some attacks can drain half of your health bar or more. Others juggle you in the air leaving you open to frustrating combos from enemies. And sometimes you'll think you've dodged an attack only to get hit a few feet away anyway. But it's OK, because you can always go get more health, right? Not really. The action heavy sequences involve barely surviving to the next checkpoint or running in and out of the action ad nausea trying to stay alive. Skilled players won't have too much trouble, but Prototype's chaos could quickly become overwhelming for others. I found several points of the game to be unnecessarily aggravating to the point where I would have turned Prototype off and walked away if I weren't reviewing it.
Alongside the main quest is a set of side missions called events to tackle at your discretion. Beat them and you earn some Evolve Points (EP) to upgrade Mercer's powers. Radical smartly hands out EP like candy. Complete just a mission or two and you'll quickly find yourself spending EP to grab new powers and abilities early and often. It's hard to stop playing when you know you'll get a new move by making it through just one more mission.
Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot of variety in these events and I often found myself wishing they made better use of Mercer's vast array of powers. Those included here are dominated by things like checkpoint races and killing sprees -- things that have been done so often as side missions in games like this that they're hardly worth mentioning. It's cookie cutter game design at this point. There is one exception: A mission that tasks the player with gliding long distances towards a bulls-eye. Why aren't there more imaginative events like this? You can throw a person hundreds of yards. Why not include some sort of shot-put event? There was a real opportunity to get creative here, but instead too many of the side missions directly mirror the mindless killing or limited stealth of the main game.
More interesting than the halfhearted side events are the undirected diversions. These don't pop up on your city map and aren't missions in a traditional sense. These diversions merely exist within the world -- even while playing through one of the main missions -- for you to tackle. The concept of collectibles has been extended to what's called the Web of Intrigue. These are people that, by being hunted down and consumed, reveal splintered visions of the infection's history. They're slick and wonderfully tantalizing -- little in Prototype is more exhilarating than being in the midst of a tough mission only to see one of these targets stroll by.
There are a couple of other diversions that I found interesting, as well, including army bases that must be stealthily infiltrated to score weapon and skill upgrades. It's through these that you can even unlock the ability to call in airstrikes. I quickly had this skill maxed out -- infiltrating the bases is pretty darn fun -- only to learn that the airstrikes look rather poor. Which brings us to one of the biggest problems with Prototype.
Even while confined to a relatively small game world -- Manhattan is not recreated to scale -- Prototype manages to have visuals that range from bland to downright ugly. The only real savior is the smooth animations which do a great job towards making Mercer's powers feel real. Running up the side of a building, doing a flip over a railing, and then leaping off into a charged drop attack just feels cool.
Unfortunately, there's the rest. The blandness is seen throughout in a city recreated with few landmarks and instead filled with generic, lifeless buildings. It's seen in the drab color palette. And it's seen in a city filled with what appears to be a dozen or so identical clones all wandering the streets together. Just climb a building or get in a helicopter and look out at the skyline to get an eyeful of Prototype's ugliness. The draw distance in Prototype is atrocious. Move quickly along the building tops and trees, bushes, cars and other structures pop in and out as the game struggles to draw them. Everything else is shrouded in an ugly fog. In a game where you spend much of the time pouncing from one roof to the next, this ugliness is felt throughout.
It isn't just the streaming world that suffers in the looks department. Aside from specific infected buildings, no structural damage can be done. You can't even knock over billboards. And when you do take down the few buildings you're allowed to damage, the resulting explosion is laughably bad. All of the real chaos you can create is limited to vehicles and passing pedestrians. Your cool powers don't feel quite so cool when you can't even break a window by throwing a tank at it.
These technical issues are so severe that they do in fact impact the game's ebb and flow. There are 250 orbs scattered throughout Manhattan for you to collect. Unfortunately, you oftentimes can't see them until you are literally on top of them. The game engine fails to draw them at any meaningful distance. You can be across a street and not know that you're within 20 yards of one of these orbs. Without any other ways to find them -- there are no maps or sound indicators -- tracking down all of the orbs is less fun than it is chore.
It seems Prototype's developers didn't know when to say when. Tons of enemies are tossed into the mix, and so the visuals suffer and the gameplay occasionally becomes too chaotic and unfocused. Some cutscenes feel out of place and pointless while others are well done. Nobody ever put the finishing touches on Prototype to tidy it up and make it fully presentable.
A case in point is the power set. There are a ton of upgrades to nab in Prototype and improving your character is some of the most rewarding gameplay offered here. There are so many powers, in fact, that cramming them all on a controller proved difficult. The most disappointing moment I had while playing Prototype came when I finally earned enough EP to unlock the Cannonball move. I don't think I need to point out how cool that sounds. And then I looked up how to do a cannonball: Hold the Square Button and then hit Circle at the same time while in the air. Two buttons that are on opposite sides of the diamond and cumbersome to reach: That's just awful design.
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