Life in the Streets
New York City. Businesses and skyscraper office parks sit almost side-by-side with brownstone rowhouses and ramshackle makeshift shanty-towns. Subdued and mentally broken, a frightened populace walks the streets, throwing wide-eyed glances over their shoulders, with an occasional angry voice raised in protest. A tank passes slowly, menacingly pointing its single black eye at the people as it parts the masses, its segmented treads grinding on the tattered asphalt. The tank is not performing its vigilant duty alone – a cadre of armed soldiers (presumably grim-faced beneath their full-body armor and face-concealing masks) flank and keep pace with it, guns cradled casually, throwing jaunty glances left and right at a public that shrinks back and cowers in response.
Suddenly, a single shape peels itself out of the crowd; what moments ago was a US Marine in full camos instantaneously morphs into a pissed-off looking man. Before any of the soldiers can respond, the man has literally launched himself forward, shouldering aside military troops and passersby alike, only to hurdle onto the tank and proceed to bare-handedly rip off its swiveling main cannon. Leaping off, the man uses the tank’s severed top section like a comically oversized hammer, jumping up into the air and bringing it down upon the remaining body of the tank with a liberal downward swing, exploding metal into metal in a slow-motion display of raw power.
The soldiers not caught in the ensuing blast of fire and molten shrapnel gather themselves in a tight formation, radio for backup, and proceed to fire into the marauder, heedless of civilian casualties. As a nearby military chopper approaches, the man sweeps his arms in front of him, towards the soldiers. Tendrils of diseased, alien flesh and tissue erupt from his arms, racing towards the soldiers and exploding into a destructive web of razor-sharp spears, skewering all caught within it with deadly efficiency. Turning to face the oncoming chopper, the man’s arms now change shape into vicious claws, with talons a foot or two in length, and rockets himself impossibly up toward the oncoming heli. Slicing through steel, he severs the metal bird’s rocket launcher from its side, crashes back down to street level with it, and empties its remaining payload back up at the chopper itself, before carelessly tossing aside the spent shell of the launcher.
As the flaming wreckage of the helicopter careens out of the sky and joins the burning behemoth that, moments ago, was a tank, the man turns and rushes toward a nearby building, jumping up just before impact, continuing his run vertically up, finally leaping into the air over the lip of the building’s roof, splaying out his arms and legs and literally flying over the roof and out of sight of any retaliatory firepower that may have been scrambled to head this way.
Blazing husks of heavily armored military machinery, piles of lifeless bodies laying where they were cut down, and no suspect in sight for as far as the eye can see. The scenario described above took all of fifteen seconds to play out in its entirety. Insane? Maybe.
For James Heller, one-time U.S. Marine and current genetic freak and branded public enemy number one, it’s just another day at the office. This is Radical Entertainment and Activision’s Prototype 2.
A New Prototype
Prototype 2 is, first and foremost, all about giving the player as much freedom as possible by making you into the ultimate destructive badass. There is literally nothing you can’t do as you smash and tear your way through the enemy ranks to uncover the secret behind a mysterious second outbreak of the Blacklight virus, one that claimed Heller’s own wife and daughter as its victims. Returning from a military tour of duty in Iraq only to find his family dead at the hands of another virus outbreak in New York Zero, James Heller joins up with the troops in NYZ, hoping for a chance at revenge against Alex Mercer, protagonist of the original Prototype and the man he holds responsible for his family’s death. He gets his chance to go face-to-face with Mercer sooner than expected, but is no match for the other man’s superhuman strength. Heller ends up infected by Mercer with the same virus that made Mercer himself into a genetic anomaly. Becoming a genetic mutation himself and finding himself placed somewhere in No Man’s Land on the food chain – hunted by the Blackwatch troops that have declared martial law on NYZ and out for blood against Mercer and the other mutants – Heller must seek out the aid of the only one he still trusts: Father Guerra, priest of his old neighborhood church. Together, they set out to undermine military authority in NYZ and bring to light the truth behind the renewed viral outbreak, and ultimately attain revenge for all those who’ve perished because of it.
Heller retains many of the powers and abilities that made Alex Mercer such a formidable foe in the original Prototype. Consuming the genetic material and biomass of other humans allows Heller to assume their identity, letting him access military bases unrecognized and generally sneak in and out of top-secret areas. Assimilating other powerful individuals also gives Heller access to an ever-expanding arsenal of genetic mutations to use as weapons and improve other attributes like Speed or Defense. As a result, Heller, who is already a juggernaut from the word go, quickly becomes an unstoppable machine, capable of superhuman feats with ease, and can hold his own against even the strongest weapons and adversaries.
Immitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
Influences from many other games crop up all over Prototype 2. As I leap from rooftop to rooftop, bound across streets and vehicles, and take plunges from dizzying heights only to remain completely unscathed by the impact, I am heavily reminded of open-world action powerhouses Crackdown and Crackdown 2, right down to the “arms-windmilling-in-mid-jump” animation. However, Heller isn’t restricted to only scaling heights he can reach by jumping, but can instead run straight up the side of any building or structure, plowing through fire escapes and smashing windows as he goes. The sense of vertical mobility from games such as the Assassin’s Creed franchise (not to mention stealthily blending into enemy crowds and sneaking to find your target) is present as well. Finally, it’s possible for Heller to become almost fully airborne, combining insane jumping distances with air glides and dashes to glide over buildings and circumvent the bustle of the streets below. Running along the sides of buildings and gliding from place to place without ever touching terra firma is pleasantly reminiscent of controlling a superhero in games like Spider-Man or Rocksteady’s Batman series.
Controlling a powerful beast like James Heller certainly has its charms, as any plan you might hatch to achieve your goal is easy to execute. That’s not to say that the Blackwatch troops playing cat and mouse with you are pushovers; the machinery of war is tireless, and if you let yourself into a drawn-out encounter, you better be prepared to switch to a defensive strategy on the fly. Heller can grab any humanoid within arm’s distance and absorb them to gain a quick boost to his health – a must against some opponents like Blackwatch’s Project Orion super soldiers or bosses. You’ll also run across others like you, humans granted genetic mutations by Mercer and powered up to disproportionate levels. Eventually, you’ll have to sharpen your skills and evolve into a killing machine lethal enough to take out the elite ranks of the enemy – and caught in the middle as you are, that means going after both sides.
With such a heavy emphasis placed on the action, a lot of the game’s other elements come to the forefront less prominently, though that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with them. Graphics and sound design are likely not going to blow anyone’s mind, and it’s hard to stop and marvel at any visual beauty while you send spiky tendrils across the screen to impale a host of enemies and you listen to the slimy squelching and sucking as you consume the living, screaming body of some poor devil. It’s all suitably nauseating, and calls to mind any number of Japanese gore films, but it isn’t likely to be blowing anybody’s mind anytime soon.
With a solid foundation of over-the-top action that turns your every mission in New York Zero into an enjoyable romp of savage power, it’s hard to notice some of the game’s faults. Nonetheless, a few things hold this game back from being truly epic. The main culprit here is that the game presents players with an open-world sandbox to roam around in, though the story can only be advanced in usually no more than one or two places at a time. The developer’s goal in giving the player free reign and an input in how the story plays out is hampered by a too-restrictive mission progression. Each of the city’s three boroughs has to be tackled in turn, and each offers up a few collectable items to find and side missions to complete, though these usually take the form of “take out X group of enemies” or “clear out base Y”. The much-hyped Blacknet missions, which see Heller hacking into the enemy’s data network to sniff out potential threats and leads, also results in missions that often take a rather formulaic approach: hunt down a specific person in the game world (using a brand new Hunter tracking power), consume them to gain their DNA, then go on one of three or four different generic missions, either completing a timed item run or taking out a specific opponent. It’s not that these missions are dull or bland, but their one-after-the-next nature obliterates much of the joy of having a whole city to play in.
Some main story missions, especially early in the game, could have also used a bit of sprucing up, as there was entirely too much “take on enemy form, infiltrate enemy base, take out enemy leader, escape” to suit my taste. However, I enjoyed the variety lent by some later missions, such as attempting to infiltrate an enemy stronghold only to be inadvertently sent to the front lines, forced to fall in with a Blackwatch squad and clear out Infected in the city in order to locate your real target. While the story itself is filled with twists and turns as you might expect, being stuck between two factions both trying to alternately kill you and use you for their ends. However, the plot itself is moved forward by certain key missions only; most other missions have sketchy, even downright tenebrous connections to the overarching story.
The final item of note may not be a negative, depending on your preference. As noted above, the game does have close gameplay ties to numerous other franchises, making it hard to credit even the most bad-ass moments as purely original; it sometimes just feels as though you’ve played this before – though it was undeniably awesome when you did! Even the original Prototype is too visible in this sequel, with a few refinements and additions, but a otherwise very strict adherence to most of the same gameplay principles and mission structures that defined the first title (which was itself very reminiscent of the open-world action title Infamous, having been released at almost the same time). Individual preference has to play a big part here; the first Prototype was a well-received game, and completing missions that fit interchangeably with its mission structure isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Final Verdict
Overall, Prototype 2 is an incredibly fun romp through a post-infection New York, putting as much unadulterated, over-the-top power at your fingertips as you can handle. Being given the Big Apple as your virtual plaything, letting you literally control the streets and the fates of those who live in them, is no small deal, and easily overshadows a somewhat shaky story progression and carbon copy mission elements. Turning the tables on Alex Mercer, the protagonist of the first Prototype, is a big draw, as is being able to mete out some swift and brutal punishment to the faceless might of a corrupt military. James Heller is the next big thing, and he is the prototype!