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Shape-shifting, blood flowing by the bucket, confused plot and game design in Activision's Prototype...
After several hours into Prototype you get a feeling that the extra development time afforded to Radical Entertainment following the Activision/Vivendi merger was spent squeezing as many new features into the game as possible. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it does get to a point where a fully upgraded Alex Mercer is an unfathomable protagonist to master and the game occasionally feels as though it lacks a central focus.
Prototype is one of the lucky few titles that Activision deemed worthy of holding onto following the purge of former Sierra/Vivendi titles, which puts it into the same category as Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot. Unlike the children-friendly mascots of yesteryear which have no genre or format limitations and can be pushed out on a regular basis to meet Activision's demands of exploitation, Prototype is a violent, excessive open-world title based on a new IP - one that sits quite well as a solitary title, but one that we have doubts can be expanded into its own franchise.
The game begins as it means to go along with a prelude chapter occurring 18 days after the main cataclysmic events of the game. Its hellish depiction of Manhattan following some sort of Armageddon between an oppressive military force and the disfigured creatures known as the Infected is a startling way to begin the game. More significantly, you get to see early on what a fully powered-up Mercer is capable of with the streets literally awash with blood as he slices, dices and guts anything that stands in his way. Even a battalion of tanks and gunships is no match for Mercer at this stage, performing elbow drops from the top of the New York Times Tower and causing tentacles of mass destruction to emerge from the ground below him, eviscerating anybody in his proximity. Quite quickly you're thrown back to the present day where Mercer awakes on a surgeon's table, much to the horror of those that were about to cut him open and have a look at what makes him tick. It's a difficult story to get a grasp on at first, but that's the point. Handily, you're taking control of a character who doesn't know what's happened to him and so Prototype uses this as an integral plot device.
One of the game's biggest qualities comes from the way Radical has decided to tell the story; flicking between plot points with the attention span of a gnat and creating a sense of gaining an understanding alongside Mercer as the plot progresses. Central to this and emphasising the chaotic nature of the plot is the 'Web of Intrigue' dynamic, which spits out random memories from the assortment of specific characters that you can consume and possess. Collecting these is largely optional, but goes a long way to piecing together the fragmented pieces of the plot as each of them have a link in some form to the central storyline. The haphazard way in which they're presented emphasises the disorganized nature of the story, which leaves it feeling a little bit like Christopher Nolan's Memento. Admittedly it's all fairly conventional fodder beneath this: military playing around with genetic experiments and unleashing all kinds of demonic hell upon the streets of Manhattan, but the way in which Prototype goes about telling this is fairly novel at least.
Open-world, sandbox titles tend to fall into the 'crooks n robbers' or 'superhero' vein; with an array of awesome supernatural powers Prototype definitely falls into the latter. Coming quickly after Sony's entertaining inFamous, we had some concerns that Prototype's superhuman sandbox effort might be a little too soon and close for comfort. Fortunately, Radical Entertainment's title manages to offer a surprisingly distinct experience, which feels closer to the studio's former work on The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction than Cole's adventures with electricity.
Although it's set in an open world, Prototype doesn't necessarily embrace the concept in its design. Progress through the missions is linear from start-to-finish, so there's little to no choice as to how you go about the game. Secondary missions are very much left down to personal preference and come in the form of racing around checkpoints dotted around Manhattan to obliterating as many creatures as possible in a certain time limit. They're little more than arcade styled challenges with rewards coming in the form of Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum medals to provide Evolution Points to purchase new techniques and can easily be avoided if you just want to stick to the main storyline. That said, there is a considerable number of different challenges and they do provide the variety that the game needs and are fun and entertaining in their own right.
Underpinning the entire experience is a fluid and responsive control system that makes taking control of Mercer endlessly entertaining. Whether it's the results of Mercer's infection or perhaps he was a former Parkour champion before becoming a guinea pig for the military, Mercer can traverse the environment with tremendous ease, scaling the walls of skyscrapers like he's taking a dog for a walk in the park and generally making all other video game protagonists look like rheumatoid geriatrics in comparison. By holding onto the shoulder button Mercer sprints up walls and leaps over obstacles with consummate ease, but never in a way that detracts from the skill that's required like Assassin's Creed or feels overly forced like infamous did at times. It's testimony to the control system that it manages to provide entertainment right through to the end of the game, which is about 10 hours of gameplay.
To label the combat system and its multiple upgrades as exhaustive would be a gross understatement. Primarily attacks are grouped under two different buttons, with charged attacks slowing down the action in a dramatic style. On top of these basic commands is a vast array of different techniques grouped under the four different genetic weaponry forms at his disposal. Mercer it seems is a genetic weapon that the military wants to control, capable of sprouting all manner of claws, blades, hammers and whips from his body. There's no denying that Mercer has some of the best moves we've seen in a video game for some time. Soaring from the skies above onto the shoulders of a military guard and using his body like a surfboard never grows old; neither do the array of Devastator moves that are unlocked throughout the game. When Mercer is fully upgraded, zipping around the air with dashes and sky-jacking helicopters, unleashing tentacles that erupt from the ground below, there's no denying he's a bad-ass even if they might have taken a little too much influence from Christian Bale's performance of Batman. The concept of mixing and matching different attacks with defensive capabilities and awareness powers opens up the possibility of developing different strategies for different situations, although its implementation via a circular on-screen gauge can be a little unwieldy even when the action slows down to a crawl as you're attempting to make the decision. There's probably a little too much if we're being overly critical; it's impossible to memorise every technique Mercer has at his disposal and the end result is you never feel as though you've truly mastered Mercer's capabilities.
Although we'd never label Prototype as a stealth game, it does dip its toe into the pool and we've got to say that it works sufficiently well for the most part. The premise is that military guys will quickly pick up on Mercer and shoot on sight. Unless you're quick to dispose of them they'll radio for a Strike Team, which brings a pack of gunships to your direction and requires a quick getaway or drastic action. This in itself is a great feature as it ensures there's always a frantic pace to the action. By consuming military guards or civilians however Mercer will take on their appearance, and can wander freely around military bases or the streets without fear of getting caught - until later when devices that can detect Mercer and super soldiers turn up on the scene. It's a satisfying dynamic that compliments the exaggerated nature of the combat and sits well with the sandbox design, even if it never dares to go the whole whack. Towards the end of the game the stealth dynamic also seems to get thrown out of the window with Mercer able to walk around freely; perhaps by that stage the military are too caught up with the situation engulfing them then the antics of a hoodie.
With a stylish depiction of the carnage on the streets, coupled with a good control system and an exhaustive supply of attacks, Prototype has all the ingredients of a top notch action title. It's just a shame that the decision to cram as much as possible into the game also affects the design of the various missions. Prototype throws numerous different challenges at you for individual missions, but at the cost of a strong central focus that leaves you hard pressed to recall any specific mission. Whether it's infiltrating military bases, destroying Infected water towers, or merely defeating big, ugly mutated bosses, there's a lot of variety in Prototype's 31 story missions but we never found ourselves particularly engrossed by many of them.