Prototype Xbox 360 review
Aaron carves a path through New York to find the truth behind a virus mutating mankind, as he reviews Prototype...
Superheroes have had a hot and cold relationship with video gaming. For the most part, I think it's fair to say that, historically speaking at least, the medium hasn't exactly done justice to the larger than life characters that adorn comic books the world over. We've had some awful releases that are nothing more than cash-ins, and even games that are received with a modicum of fondness have hardly set the world on fire. True, we've had some great titles like Capcom's range of Vs scrappers and the semi-decent Spider-Man titles, not to mention to surprisingly good Punisher game from THQ, but most comic book fans would agree that even these relative successes have yet to really capture our favourite heroes properly.
So, how does a game developer get around this? What route should you take to finally deliver the game people want? The short answer... you do something else. Create a new hero in the comic book mould, one with which people don't have preconceptions and so, can't complain. Better still, you create the kind of hero that could probably take on every superhero around and come out smiling. Prototype, my dear friends, is one such example.
Unlike most other superhero-themed games, Prototype does away with any form of morally correct deeds, protection of the general public or goody two shoes monologue waffling, and instead puts you in control of Alex Mercer, a rather powerful young chap who, after some form of shady experiment, just so happens to be a shape-shifting, carnage-causing, damage-dealing agent of death. Empowered with a wide range of shape-shifting powers that let him alter his form to fashion weapons out of his own atomic structure, such as six-foot long blades, deadly claws and giant, arm-mounted hammers, Alex is a virtually unstoppable force. In fact, so unstoppable is he that even buildings can't get in his way, and he can simply run up and over them, jump massive distances, and even fly for short periods.
If you've played Radical Entertainment's Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, then Prototype will be instantly familiar, as it uses the same Titanium game engine. Many of the skills and abilities demonstrated by the Hulk, such as the aforementioned wall running and jumping, are present, as are other skills such as tossing around cars, running through traffic and general destruction-dealing fare. This time, as Alex, a true anti-hero if ever there was one, there are a few twists to the tale.
In his quest to find out what's happened to him, and why a strange virus that's infecting and mutating the population is slowly overrunning New York, Alex doesn't even pretend to be a good guy. No one is safe when he's around, and the civilian body count will no doubt be as high as the enemy number that falls to his powers. In fact, the game actively encourages this wanton destruction, as one of Alex's abilities is to ‘consume' and take the form of anyone he likes. This not only hides him from his enemies, and helps to avoid trouble, but it also restores his health and, when consuming certain key characters, also bestows him with other people's memories.
This mind-sucking element, presented as the ‘Web of Intrigue' is one of the game's major storytelling mechanics, and is also a very clever system. By finding and absorbing these key personnel, you'll witness fractured memories of each victim. Each of these may mean little, but when pieced together with other memories, you can slowly put together the story behind the situation, and Alex's condition. Filling the web is optional, but it's a welcome and intriguing idea.
For most of the game, though, you'll be doing one thing, and one thing only: killing. And few games have presented us with as many ways of doing this as Prototype. It's hard to describe just how insanely powerful Alex actually is. The range and sheer destructive ability of his powers is staggering, especially when you start to combine skills to form new tactics. For example, you could grab a car, jump up and throw it at your foe and then, in mid-air, charge up a flying kick and let him have a double whammy of painful proportions. Or, how about grabbing a soldier, running up a building and throwing him into his own men, before dropping down on them with the force of a comet?
Alex's range of morphing weapons all come with different abilities too. The Hammerfist, for example, (Alex's arms turn to into large, club-like hammers) lets you do massive but slow damage, and, once powered up, lets you elbow drop tanks into oblivion, and can even turn Alex into a hammer throw-esque torpedo. His ‘Whipfist' ability, which turns his arm into a long range weapon, can be used to clear a whole street with a single swipe, but can be equally useful for grappling onto enemy helicopters, reeling you in so you can hijack them.
Alex also possesses ‘Devastator' moves. These can only be used when Alex is in ‘Critical Mass' (his energy is high enough to fill up a separate section of his health) and are the most powerful moves in the game. These include sprouting masses of deadly tendrils from his body, clearing a whole area, and the impressive graveyard of spikes, which sees an area of spikes erupt from the ground, impaling people, mutants, cars and anything else that happens to be in the way.
Most of Alex' abilities can be upgraded. Some upgrades merely make Alex stronger, with more health or greater Critical Mass levels, and others grant totally new abilities and moves. To upgrade him, you need to use EP (Evolution Points), which are earned for completing missions and side tasks. These side tasks take the form of various challenges, such as killing as many enemies as possible, checkpoint-to-checkpoint races, base infiltration missions and more.
The better you do in each side missions, the more EP you'll earn. You can also gain EP from collectables, such as landmark orbs scattered around the city, and hint orbs, which grant helpful tips.
With so much to do and so many abilities, you'd be forgiven for thinking that controlling Alex would be a mess. That's not the case, however, and Radical has done a fine job of making Alex a very accessible and controllable character. All of his abilities are easy to pull off, and switching powers is simple enough. Combat is fluid and fast, although occasionally a little clunky when in hectic situations, and traversing the city is almost as enjoyable as it was in Treyarch's Spider-Man series. Some enemy attacks are a little cheap, especially the virtually unblockable barrage of attacks Hunters throw at you, but this is all part of the challenge, and makes the game more enjoyable.
It's not purely combat that's on offer here though, and the game does feature some stealth elements, albeit very light and unrefined. Alex's ability to take the form of anyone is an important skill here, and is demonstrated by the need to consume an enemy commander to gain access to a base, or to turn into a civilian if you're being chased by the military, thus avoiding detection so you can wait out the alert. There's even a Matrix-style element that sees Alex need to consume an APC driver and helicopter pilot so he can acquire the skills needed to drive/pilot these vehicles. Very nice. Consuming some other targets also boosts Alex's weapon skills, including more effective use of assault rifles and grenade launchers etc.
As well as his powers and on foot skills, Alex can also jump into and control some vehicles, such as APCs, tanks and helicopters, at will. The latter of these handles well, but sadly, ground-based armoured vehicle controls are a total car crash. Driving and fighting is a horrid, clunky mess that often sees you aiming for the wrong target while driving into walls, and as your vehicle gets thrown around by stronger enemies, you'll quickly feel a little out of control, often ditching vehicles unless absolutely necessary.
This is a relatively minor complaint, as vehicle combat isn't really the main focus here (although it's the best way to enemy hives and military complexes), and for the most part you'll be running and jumping around. A more relevant issue lies with the game's repetition.
The story missions are all fairly varied and enjoyable, with a range of different tasks, but all of the side missions are practically identical. The 'kill all enemies' challenges are all basic Smash TV-style waves of foes, and the consume events quickly become samey. After infiltrating the umpteenth carbon-copy military base, complete with identical patrols and characters, you'll soon start to get bored of attempting these diversions. In fact, if it weren't for the need to earn EP to upgrade Alex, these missions would surely fall by the wayside. As it is, some of these challenges simply feel like a chore, grinding away to level Alex up for the next mission. Radical really should have put more thought into more variety. A few different building layouts, or additional enemy types would have been nice.
I also have a problem with the game's opening mission. This tutorial-heavy battle lets you play as a present-day, fully powered-up Alex, before the game proper begins, flashback-style, with a newly ‘reborn' Alex yet to acquire most of his abilities. This mission serves as a good introduction to the controls, but also takes away any mystery. Right from the off you know what powers Alex will have, and as the game always displays a help box when you acquire new powers later on, the reason for this intro is further diminished. It would have been far better to start the game from the awakening of Alex, leaving the gamer to wonder what's going on and who Alex is.
While it obviously has its flaws, Prototype always manages to retain the main, important feature of any game - fun. Controlling Alex and his many and destructive abilities is a total blast, and I've played few games more entertaining when it comes to flexibility and variety in the main character. Alex's abilities are never a gimmick, and despite his almost god-like status, the game does offer a challenge too, especially later on, and when combating some of the game's tough bosses.
This is no instant classic, and certainly isn't earth shattering when it comes to production values, and any sequel really needs to address the flaws. But for a few days of enjoyment, you're guaranteed to have a wail of a time with this ultra-violent brawler.