I watch it emerge from the ground. It’s huge, it’s dangerous and it’s my ticket to unlock the past. I see a military helicopter circling it. This is my chance! I quickly shape shift to my leash and latch on to the bird, taking control. It’s aware that I’m in the helicopter, and shoots me down from the sky by throwing rubble with deadly aim… but not before I landed a few missiles into it. As I drop from the sky onto it, I unleash my aerial devastator, landing next to it and summoning spikes out from the ground. It writhes with agony, screaming for its children to come to its aid. But they are no match for my blade. I quickly slash through them to reach the dying monster, and put an end to it by consuming it, unlocking another fragment of the twisted past that brought us to this day.
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In a nutshell, Radical Entertainment’s Prototype is a rush! It enters your system and turns everything upside down, leaving you with a heavy head and a bad hangover before fading away. For those who’d rather not read a lengthy exposition of its pros and cons, I’ll get a couple of things out of the way first:
Is Prototype worth your money? Yes.
Is it worth all the hype? No.
The game is set in New York, where there has been an outbreak of an unknown virus that makes anyone who is infected want to munch on other people. And our protagonist, Alex J. Mercer is back from the dead with uber powers and no memory of how he got them or who he is. In the journey through the 30-odd story missions, Alex attempts to piece together his past, figure out what’s wrong with the Big Apple and put an end to all the gooey nonsense.
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However, the story and the entire narration possess holes larger than Alex can create by dropping down from the tallest building in New York. I’ll start with the latter. The story unfolds via cutscenes while playing missions, and the much touted web of intrigue feature. The web of intrigue is represented in-game by a matrix of neural nodes. While playing, Alex comes across characters with an icon above their heads, indicating that consuming them unlocks a piece of memory related to the story.
These memories are told through highly stylised cutscenes, but the problem with them is that they are too short and abrupt to mean anything substantial individually. In order to make some sense out of the whole thing, the player will have to make the effort of hunting down these individuals to unlock entire chains within the web of intrigue. There are 148 nodes in the web of intrigue (unlocked through main missions, side missions and free-roaming), boiling it down to a player’s dedication towards finding out everything there is to the story.
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Which brings us to the story itself. Given how much the developers emphasised on the story, I expected a lot better than the standard military-experiment-gone-wrong affair. Sure, there are a couple of twists thrown in, but they are overshadowed by forgettable characters that you’ll hardly care about. Given Alex has no memory of who he is, I expected him to be more curious about his personal life. However, the developers chose to steer clear of any personal or emotional ties and kept a single-minded focus on revenge and deliverance to the unrighteous. I believe that a bit more focus on answering such questions would have added to the experience. Where’s the rest of his family? What happened to all his friends? And most important, why does he always wear a hood? What’s he got to hide under it?
And while we’re at it, Alex seems to have a warped sense of morality. His actions tend to indicate that he wants to get to the heart of the matter to prevent it from happening ever again. I would assume that he would want that so that innocent people don’t have to suffer. But these philanthropic tendencies end up taking the back seat when Alex beats a random guy on the street to a bloody pulp before consuming what’s left of him, for a boost of health or to figure out what’s going on. That said, the story is certainly not bad. It does a good job of carrying the game through to its end, and someone who diligently unlocks the entire web of intrigue will find a lot of depth in terms of back story and parallel points of view.
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So while the story may well end up as a forgettable aspect of his game, the gameplay is where Prototype truly shines. Radical has poured in all their efforts to make sure that Alex is one the “funnest” playable characters you ever come across. His multitude of powers seems to suggest that he consumed Superman, The Hulk, Spiderman and Wolverine before this whole thing started. His primary offensive capabilities come from his ability to shape-shift his arm to a variety of weapons, enabling you to slice and dice, whip-lash out some damage, “claw” your way to victory, or simply bludgeon your opponents to a gruesome death.
You can also use weapons such as machine guns, rocket launchers, and grenade launchers, hijack tanks and helicopters, and when things get too tight, execute some ridiculously cool looking special attacks called devastators that can dish out a lot of damage. And if you are the weak of heart, stealth is also an option (in missions that require you to butt heads with the military). Simply consume a soldier and walk into the military base. Consuming a higher ranking soldier gives access to more segments of the base, further giving the player the chance to unlock upgrades for using military weapons and vehicles.
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Speaking of upgrades, everything in the game dishes out experience points, which the player can use to upgrade both active and passive abilities. There are so many abilities and moves at the player’s disposal that it might seem a little overwhelming at first. However, this is one of the strongest points about the game. No particular weapon or move is overpowered compared to the others in its category, because of which the powers that you choose are not forced upon you, but more of a matter of preference and comfort. It is not practical to use every move beyond trying it out immediately after you spend some points on it. Figuring out which move works best in a given situation is the difference between success and failure in the game.
The sheer number of abilities has one disadvantage though; some pretty weird button combos to execute them. For example, in order to call in an air strike on a military base, the player will have to target the building using L2, and then press R1 and TRIANGLE to execute it. And how about pressing SQUARE and CIRCLE simultaneously to execute a particular devastator (I ended up not using that one at all).
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Given that this is a sandbox game, how well you traverse the environment is as important as combat. There’s no doubt about it: Alex moves like a dream. Pressing down on R2 makes Alex run at an incredible speed, automatically navigating any obstructions in his path (which includes running up buildings). This, combined with the charged jump and the glide ability, which are unlocked fairly early in the game, ensure that you’ll zoom across New York City, quickly becoming the envy of the likes of Altair, The Prince (of Persia, duh!) and Cole McGrath.
So while moving across Manhattan will have you grinning like a 6 year-old who just got an unlimited supply of candy, Manhattan itself is quite a turn off. The buildings look drab and lack any sort of character or variety, while the denizens at street level single-mindedly go about either walking about calmly as if all is well with the world, or running wildly and screaming bloody murder.
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In fact, the AI in general seems to suffer from concussion. At one point, I walked up to the middle of a crossing, picked up a car and threw it in one direction. While people in that direction were immediately driven into frenzy, everything was calm and quaint on the other side. These anomalies even extend to the enemies. The military, on the constant look out for “ZEUS”, will spring immediately into action if you do something weird like, you know, consume someone in front of them, or turn your hands into a pair of claws. But apparently they consider the ability to run at super speed up the sides of building a well-documented human trait.
The mission structure follows the standard sandbox conventions. The story and the side missions are indicated on the map and the player has the choice to play them in any order. The story missions are usually a variant of going to a location and spilling unusually copious amounts of blood, sometimes consuming a key character to progress the story. The pacing in these missions can hit or miss, though. You see, individually the enemies are absolutely no match for Alex. So what they don’t have in quality, is made up through quantity.
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The heat of battle usually involves multitudes of soldiers and the infected attacking Alex (usually at the same time) with rocket launcher-wielding enemies and hunters (an infected mini-boss) tossing Alex around like a ragdoll, and tanks and helicopters raining death from all directions. What this means is that a slight miscalculation in the number of AI opponents can quickly turn a challenge into a frustrating bottleneck. I encountered such situations a couple of times during the game, once during a mid-game boss fight, which sort of detracts from the experience. However, these spikes in difficulty are few and far between, and for the most part, the game presents a healthy challenge, which might seem insurmountable till you figure out how it needs to be handled. Also, the final two boss fights of the game are extremely well designed and will stretch your tenacity to the limit.
The side missions are centered around consume, combat and movement. There are checkpoint races and long jump events (where you must land as close to a point as possible in a single jump) to test your movement prowess, combat based missions where you have to kill as many enemies as possible in limited time, or pick a side (infected or military), and win the battle for your faction as quickly as possible, and consume events which are completed by consuming a set number of marked people in a given timeframe to unlock more nodes in the web of intrigue. All events award you a gold, silver or bronze medal (with the exception of consume events) depending on how well you perform. Apart from dishing out experience points, the side missions do not contribute to the main story in any way. The ability to immediately restart an event (if the player feels he can do better) is a nifty little touch though.
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In terms of sound, the game performs adequately. The characters have been voiced-over well, and the background score does its job to fill in the gaps without presenting anything noteworthy. In the graphics department, the game was hardly meant to be cutting edge, but given the long development periods, there are a few kinks that should have been worked out. The environments mostly look dull and drab, and there’s the occasional pop-in as well. That said, the game handles the insane amount of on-screen action very well. I never experienced slowdown in my playthrough, which lasted close to 12 hours.
All in all, Prototype is a game where you’ll never feel like you’re completely in control. It’s a rollercoaster ride, screaming across your mind at top speed with no intention of letting up. The best you can do is hold on to your hat. At times, you won’t be able to make any sense of it or figure out why you’re doing it. But like any rollercoaster ride, once you’ve braved it, and stepped out of the car with wobbly legs and your heart pumping blood at double rate, you’ll have these words on your lips: “What a ride!”