Written : Friday, June 19, 2009
By: Alan Pettit (GT: The Pants Party)
There are probably few things more enjoyable in a video game experience than having free reign to do as you please. Sandbox games have always been a unique beast, taking longer to develop and being harder to get right. With so many elements and so many different ways the player can explore the world provided, it is easier to find faults, inaccuracies or glitches that the development team may have missed or not been able to rectify before setting their game upon the market. Prototype, being of the sandbox variety, could easily be put under a microscope such as this and be found with only a few faults.
The plot centers around a man named Alex Mercer. Alex wakes up one day dead in a morgue. Okay, I guess he didn't technically "wake up dead," but the scientists who were about to autopsy him definitely thought he was. Taking offense, Alex slaughters them and escapes, as you do. He isn't sure what exactly is going on, but he has changed and so has the world around him, which in this case is Manhattan, New York. His first order of business is locating the only person he can remember, his sister Dana. She helps him unravel the mystery early on, as do some other characters introduced as the story unfolds and Alex learns more about what has happened to him, as well as what is happening to the population of Manhattan.
Progressing through the game, Manhattan becomes increasingly affected by a virus that turns its citizens into aggressive, zombie-like drones. Strangely, this doesn't give cause for concern to the general population, as they continue to simply walk around the city casually, waiting to be infected. There are also more advanced infected creatures such as huge dog-like Hunters, or the fun tentacle-beasts that pop up from the ground called Hydras. On top of all this that Alex has to deal with, the military are on his back the entire game as it becomes clear they had something to do with both Alex's situation, and the affliction the population has undergone.
That is definitely going to leave a mark....
The changes Alex has undergone are his saving grace. Any normal man would be dead or captured in mere moments without something to help them out. Luckily Alex has gained many abilities, some unlocked only as the game progresses. The main unique ability is the power to "consume" anyone he wishes. Alex can absorb the abilities, memories and appearance of a character; something that comes in handy for multiple reasons. The abilities will increase Alex's effectiveness with normal military weapons and vehicles, the memories help progress the story and paint a bigger picture of what is going on in the story and the appearance is a great way to avoid detection by the military. On top of all this, consuming an enemy will restore a portion of Alex's health.
A general boost to speed, strength and agility are the other main changes in Alex, whilst Alex's other abilities are all gears toward combat. You start with a simple skill that turns your hands into razor-sharp claws, later gaining the ability to turn your hands into hard iron. You'll also get whip-like tendrils that can be used to grab and reel in far away enemies (particularly useful to assist in skyjacking a helicopter), and while not as effective as you would hope, your final combat ability is an arm-blade. You also have a few defensive tricks such as a large shield made out of whatever infects you, and full-body armor of the same variety unlocked much later. Only one of these can be active at any given moment, so choosing an ability to fit the current situation is important for your survival.
Prototype prides itself on an "adaptive parkour" style of gameplay, though there is little control over this aspect from the player's perspective aside from directing traffic as it were. As you sprint through the city, Alex will leap over cars, effortlessly run up and across building edifices and do acrobatic moves such as hand-vaults to navigate the landscape; however, you can't force any of these moves to appear, they simply happen when they should. The freefloating camera does a good job keeping up with the fast-paced free-running action, though sometimes you do tend to outmanuever it. Getting lost behind buildings and small alleys for a moment before it could rectify the situation was not uncommon.
They're behind me, aren't they?
With this being a sandbox game and all, you can choose to work on the main missions at any time by locating a particular ally who will give you some info and send you on your way, be it your sister, an ex-girlfriend, a helpful morgue doctor or a mysterious man on the other end of a cell phone. The missions all vary in objective and difficulty, especially since you can do each one differently depending on your play style. For instance, if you are tasked with infiltrating a military base, you will be required to consume that base's commander to get his key. You can either go in hot, grab the dude and book it out of there to take the heat off, or go in disguised and attempt to use a stealth consume in order to avoid any suspicion.
Other missions are more straight-forward, though since Alex holds no affinity for the military or the infected, you will often be on both sides of the fight. If you need to infiltrate a military base to consume someone for information, then having the infected on your side just makes sense for a distraction. Likewise if you need to confront a more evolved infected that is holed up in one of their hives (normal city buildings infected beyond saving), then the military's special tanks are your best friend. As you progress through the game, the difficulty seems to ramp up quickly and overtake the description of what level you're on. Easy starts to feel like normal, normal like hard and hard like rape without lube.Once you perfect your strategies and take some time to fight smart instead of barreling through all of your enemies, this can be overcome easily, but it is a jarring discovery.
The other two staples in a sandbox game are no less prevalent in Prototype. There are hundreds of collectibles to hunt down, comprised of landmarks (big blue orbs), game hints (big red orbs) and Web of Intrigue targets (humans). The Web of Intrigue is a collection of memories that Alex receives from the military and citizens who know something about what happened to him or the situation at large. Some are required to be consumed to progress the story, while others will simply fill in the blanks and create a richer back story for the game. There are also dozens of mini-game events scattered through Manhattan, unlocked as the game progresses.
The mini-games, or events as they are called in Prototype, are broken up into a few categories: Movement (much like the agility races in Crackdown), Glide (using your air glide to land as close to the middle of a bulls-eye as possible), Kill (use a specific power or weapon to kill enemies in a set amount of time), and War (side with either the military or infected to wipe out the other team). Once you perfect your strategy in these events and earn a Gold rating, you'll unlock an even harder target and have to go for Platinum ratings on them all, though if you had already earned it while working on Gold, you won't have to do them again. If you're even more ambitious, you can go for Radical ratings on all of them, though there is no incentive to do so aside from perhaps a boost to your ego.
So as I said before, by putting the world of Prototype under a microscope some faults can be found. Manhattan is a big place, and since it is a real-world location, being accurate is key. Developer Radical Entertainment is no stranger to the landscape though, having already done it once for Hulk: Ultimate Destruction many years ago. In the meantime however, they've been doing Crash Bandicoot games and perhaps forgot that they needed to update the depth of the world for the next-gen audience. The layout and general feel is there, but the buildings are a bit static, almost looking painted from a short distance. The rest of the graphics, especially Alex's abilities and the mature-rated action of a large fight, are really good and get you right into the thick of things.
Alex is voiced by Barry Pepper (you'll probably remember him as the sniper from Saving Private Ryan), which helps add a nice level of depth and feeling to the character, sucking you into the story while you play, so long as you don't get too distracted by the open-world playground that is. The rest of the cast, from your doctor friend to the military leaders are also nicely done and add a positive element to what little story is told through cut-scenes.
The hustle and bustle of Manhattan is portrayed well enough as well, but the military communication channel that pops up constantly is a bit distracting, especially with how oblivious they seem to be to Alex's movement. Despite running faster than any human, flipping over tanks, jumping off buildings and gliding through the air, the military is never alerted to your presence to the point of attacking until you are seen using one of your special abilities or attacking them directly. I suppose it was necessary to avoid constantly being shot at, but it seems a bit silly when you think about it. Between that and the fact that the city's population ignores the infection and continues on with their daily lives irregardless makes the believability of everything suspect, but you can see that if Radical made it a bit more real, the game would have been over in minutes.
The achievements are somewhat typical for a sandbox game. You get rewarded for completing all the main story missions, finding all the collectibles and completing all the events to a Gold and/or Platinum standard. Then Radical threw in some of the unique open-world achievements, such as running over 500 people in a single tank, taking out 20 helicopters in a single flight or hijacking 50 enemy vehicles. While they aren't all that unique, all the achievements serve to give you additional goals and prolong the gameplay, which is almost always welcome until they reach the point of needless grinding. So enter; Trail of Corpses. Playing off Dead Rising which tasked you to kill 53,594 zombies and then Left 4 Dead which one-upped them to 53,595, Prototype asks 53,596 infected kills. Sadly they were beaten to the punch by a Japanese game called DoDonPachi Daioujou Black Label Extra (so they should have required 53,597 in actuality), but I suppose we can forgive Radical for not knowing about that little gem from the Far East.
Overall Prototype is a fabulous game. Only plagued by very minor design flaws and rather unfortunate camera annoyances, there really isn't anything you can peg down and call a hindrance to the gameplay. The only real issue I had was with the difficulty ramp, but again you'll just need to play smarter to adjust with it. For sandbox fans this is definitely worth a purchase, as there is a plethora of story missions, events and collecting to keep you busy, plus the open-world will have you making up your own achievements and goals for hours of extra gameplay.
Good voice acting, battle sounds and background noise, but constant radio chatter from the military com channel is a bit distracting, especially since they'll never react unless you engage them or use a power directly in front of them.
The graphics are decent, but the overall look of the city is rather bland. You'll spend most of your time running about, so seeing the same block buildings over and over is tiresome. However, the battle action is awesome and the opening CGI scene is one of the better things I've seen in any game recently.
There are slight camera issues when you're going too fast (namely in the Movement events), but otherwise it is very easy to move, target and kill. Switching powers is a breeze, but some of the combos unlocked later in the game get a bit complicated to pull off.
Prototype is pure fun, plain and simple. Between the actual story missions, events and even the collectible searching, you'll have plenty of things to keep you busy.
Not an entirely inspired list, but it fits the feel of the game and adds to the gameplay. The riff on Dead Rising/Left 4 Dead is a bit tiresome, the same way increasing Gears of War's Seriously got old after the second one.
A great addition to anyone's collection, especially for sandbox fans. Without being a direct superhero game, it takes the best parts of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, throws them in a blender with a unique story and out comes a game that goes down smooth.