These days it seems like every other announcement of a major game release includes open-world elements. In retrospect it seems inevitable; giving the player more to do in a bigger space just makes sense when you want to extend your product’s lifespan. Even if it’s just a marathon of hunting collectables scattered throughout the environment, it keeps them engaged, especially if your base formula is a solid one. When considering the origins of this trend, two names continuously appear in the records: inFamous and [PROTOTYPE]. It’d be unfair to say either one of these games overshadows the other, given how much DNA they share, but then the title image should readily imply that this review is only about one of them.
Created by Radical Entertainment, who at the time were riding high on the success of The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, [PROTOTYPE] was a step further into the territory of free-roaming superhero games. Where it’s half-brother included a moral compass however, this new title eschewed ethics entirely, offering players the role of an incredibly violent anti-hero and the freedom to exercise his powers as they saw fit, without judgement. It was, and still is, a liberating experience, which eventually played into what would become the franchise identity. Granted, there were plenty of flaws, but none that quite managed to eclipse the core gameplay. If you want to experience it for yourself, you can pick it up on Steam for just $19.99. If you want to hear more before hitting the store however, read on, and prepare for a lesson in violent catharsis.
Conceptually, there’s nothing wrong with [PROTOTYPE]‘s story. It’s a solid and rather original idea; a man named Alex Mercer wakes on a morgue slab with amnesia and bizarre shape-shifting powers, with his quest to recover his memory drawing him into a Bourne Identity-esque labyrinthine hunt for the truth about a secret government bio-weapons program. It’d be beautiful if it were pulled off correctly. Unfortunately the game’s cast of largely uninteresting and seemingly disinterested voice actors (not to mention utterly bland dialogue) do a very bad job of selling this brilliant idea. The result is a protagonist with the character of a block of wood, and a confusing tangle of conspiracies that it’s hard to care enough about to keep track of. It’s a testament to the need for quality control in all areas of development, and while it’s not unspeakable, it is definitely unmemorable.
If you still want details though, then the bottom line is Alex was involved in the creation of a weaponized virus that has New York under quarantine and descending deeper into total chaos with every passing hour. After being betrayed and shot in the head, he revives on the dissection table to discover himself a victim of his own creation, though in his case it’s arguably an improvement. Breaking out of his chilly confinement using his newfound speed and strength, he flees to the streets, exploring his powers as he goes.
He quickly learns that these include the ability to consume individuals, i.e. eating them whole and absorbing both their appearance and memories for later use. It’s here that the story gets rather dark, as faced with this new technique of cannibal mind-melding, Alex decides to use it to hunt down the people responsible for making him this way. How many innocents he slaughters and/or devours in his crusade is totally up to you. Whether this makes you a monster is irrelevant, seeing as you’re already just an anthropomorphic bio-hazard that can grow claws like machetes or drag helicopters from the sky. Your very existence is an anathema to human society, so does it matter if you’re good or evil?
Granted, this semi-nihilistic outlook isn’t entirely valid, as Alex does seem to genuinely care about a few of the people he meets, like his sister Dana. Still, apart from these stepping stones on his road to revenge, his capacity for massive and indiscriminate violence is both humbling and exhilarating. Plus, whatever humanity Mercer seems to possess exists chiefly in the mind of the player, since his ability to take people’s memories immediately raises questions as to the integrity of his own consciousness (which thankfully are addressed later on). It’s a fascinating experiment in projection, and it makes Alex an example of those cases where the storytelling is so bad, it’s almost good. His hollow and single-minded approach to things leaves room for the player to insert their own values, being as monstrous or mellow as they like.
Of course, [PROTOTYPE]‘s hit-and-miss story was never its greatest selling point. That honor lies with the gameplay itself. As previously mentioned, Alex is a walking disease with the potential for superhuman acts of violence. Initially it’s hard to see, as after his escape from the morgue, he starts out relatively weak, with a running speed a bit higher than the cars around him and the ability to jump twice his height. However, this changes dramatically as he absorbs more biomass and opens up a range of upgrades, including boosts to speed and strength, as well as fresh powers. This is where the game truly starts to shine. By the time you’ve unlocked half of these enhancements, Alex has become an agile and almost unstoppable death-machine, able to traverse the cityscape with an speed and agility that would make Spider-Man jealous. He hijacks helicopters like it’s going out of style, trashes tanks with his swollen fists, and treats enemies like walking health-packs, stopping only in his rampage for a quick snack here and there.
Of course it’s not a total power trip all the time, as such unlimited destruction would quickly grow dull. The game does a good job of introducing mechanics and enemies that can match you to some extent. There are sections where you will have to sneak rather than slash your way through a problem, tracking down and abducting key officers to infiltrate military facilities, or else facing off against foes that can match you to some extent, like super-soldiers and beasts born of the infection sweeping the island.
Both of these add challenge to what can quickly threaten to become an otherwise-effortless experience (though the former can get a tad frustrating given the finicky AI). Even when you master these aspects though, they remain essential, adding variety to an enormously empowering experience. Want to feel like a devious and sneaky bastard? Sneak into a military base by absorbing its commander without anyone noticing, then start a firefight with the ‘Patsy’ ability, which allows you to sow confusion by accusing someone else of being Alex in disguise. Tired of wading into mobs of soldiers like they’re blood-filled pinatas? Find a Hunter or some super-soldiers to test your mettle against.
This is what makes [PROTOTYPE] such a liberating experience: its capacity for violent catharsis. Alex is a living weapon; a tool of destruction that makes you feel like a god among insects. If you’ve had a bad day, and want to relieve some stress this is the game for you. When you’re not running, leaping and gliding across the landscape with the elegantly-designed and exhilarating traversal system, you’re causing mayhem without consequences on a scale that feels deliciously invigorating. Compared to the joie de vivre you get from knocking a task force sent to stop you out of the sky with an air-conditioning unit you just ripped off the roof with your bare hands, shooting people with the weapons your enemies drop seems passe and weak. Guns? Who uses guns when you have a sword the size of a motorcycle for an arm?
Of course the game still has flaws that might discourage you if you notice them in between the bouts of cannibalism and slaughter. Being a product of the late 2000’s, [PROTOTYPE]’s visuals have not aged gracefully. Of course given the distance most of the action takes place at, it’s not a huge problem for the most part if you’re the type that values gameplay as much as visuals, but the low-res textures and special effects can be troubling if you’re a stickler for fidelity. It’s not so much ‘bad’ as ‘mediocre’, like several other features including the soundtrack and voice-acting.
Also, it should be restated that the AI is pretty stupid, and not in a good way. They have a tendency to bunch up in ways that can make the sneaking aspect of the game a real chore if it gets bad, but at the same time, some will just try and walk through walls if their patrol route gets interrupted. Also, the fact that you can use the ‘Patsy’ trick as many times as you want without arousing suspicion is simultaneously hilarious and irritating. You’d think soldiers would start to question orders after the fifth incident, or the third even. But no; they’ll happily gun down whoever you finger, so long as you outrank them.
However, these are just a minor annoyances. The biggest issue you might encounter is a particularly nasty bug that has yet to be fixed, and which makes it impossible to load saved games without the game crashing to desktop. You can bypass this by starting a new game, but having to do this every time you want to load your old save quickly becomes tedious and tiresome. It’s really a wonder that this was never patched, but then it’s not exactly game-breaking given there’s a tried-and-tested solution; it’s just frustrating.
All in all, the part of [PROTOTYPE] that deserves the most respect apart from the gameplay itself is the care with which Manhattan has been rendered. Certainly, there are aspects that might not be true-to-life, like the military bases which spring up like mushrooms no matter how often you demolish them, but for the most part, it’s an accurate rendition of the Big Apple, which only enhances the super-hero aspect of the game’s power fantasy. It’s a lovingly-crafted replica; a sandbox of memorable locations which just makes navigating it all the more easy and enjoyable.
[PROTOTYPE] is one of those games that has survived not because of its visuals or technology, but because of its experience. It removes the boundaries of morality and plops you down in a world with a fistful of biomass and the freedom to do whatever you want. It’s a landmark from the early days of the open-world games that now proliferate the market, when the formula was about excitement rather than survival. Is it mediocre to the point of blandness in some places? Absolutely. But does that kill the joy of jumping fifty feet straight up, or dropping like a human bullet into the midst of your enemies with the force of a Javelin missile? No, no it does not. So if it’s mayhem you’re seeking, Alex Mercer has you covered. Just watch out he doesn’t invade your personal space. That never ends well.
|+ Amazingly fluid traversal system.||– Aging visual effects and unpatched bugs|
|+ Empowering violent catharsis||– Forgettable story|
|+ Well-crafted sandbox||– Gameplay offset by mediocre elements|