Occasionally, I review a game without being quite prepared for what it offers. A title, perhaps, that I have overlooked, and not given much regard to.
Prototype is just one such a game, and the full extent of the experience is still sinking in.
Prototype rides on the waves of other titles like Spiderman, inFamous and TV shows like Heroes. The game draws many parallels with these superhero games and shows, both in its gameplay as well as the characters and the storyline. Initially it seemed Prototype would just be more of the same, and the first five minutes nearly put me off, however shortly after I was pulled into the game world only to be spat out about three days later, my palms sweaty and wondering what the hell had just happened.
The game sees you take control of Alex Mercer, a man infected by a brutal virus that is making its advance through Manhattan. Mercer is in search of answers - answers to why the virus is claiming so many lives, and why it's given him unique and superhuman powers. Not to mention why the military has the city locked down, and who released this deadly virus that turns normal people into enraged zombie-like creatures. The story is fantastic with some excellent twists and turns that you will not expect. The game starts with Mercer standing at the top of a building speaking with a shadowy figure, telling him his story while the city crumbles below. The streets are jammed with taxis trying to escape the mayhem, though as the military has blocked off access to Manhattan there’s no escaping the island. Suddenly you are torn back two weeks to a time before the infection started to spread, and you relive those fateful weeks through Mercer's eyes.
This mayhem is one of the highlights of the game. As it progresses and the city visibly erodes in front of your eyes, more and more people rush to the streets in a panic trying to flee the virus. Cars race around and crash in their panic (though one has to wonder why, when there is a deadly virus spreading, they choose to go out at all). More and more abandoned cars, as well as bodies begin to litter the streets and rubbish fills the air. It gives one hell of a sense of something big, something almost apocalyptic. It is a stunning feeling, and the developers deserve recognition for making it work.
Mercer is somewhat of a superhuman anti-hero. He can absorb the traits of others in a similar fashion to Silar from Heroes. As you traverse this massively open-world environment (Manhattan in its entirety) you discover people with unique skills. Mercer can merge their thoughts and their bodies with his own, giving him a health boost and also providing him with knowledge. The player is given excerpts of the puzzle by consuming people who have some knowledge of what is going on, and putting the pieces together from there.
Through this method, Mercer can take on the shape of almost any person in the game, and acquire abilities such as helicopter pilot, or tank driver. These are not skills that Mercer has innately, much like some of his best attacks. As he discovers more about the virus, he also discovers more about himself and his own abilities - he can morph his hand into a sharp blade, or his fist into a claw which he can extend out to grab onto things. He can form his arms into hammers which can smash the ground, causing mass devastation. The developers have given you a very large range of attacks and weapons to use, including supercharged attacks which are unlocked by gaining experience points to spend towards character advancement.
Have your claws out, and you can use a supercharged attacked to ram your arms into the ground and bring the claws up underneath a group of enemies, skewering them onto its points. These things give a true sense of awe to the title, and add a new element to the concept of mass destruction.
Despite all his attacks, Mercer is by no means immune to damage. Though he can learn new forms of defence throughout the game, he does take damage quite easily. It is for these moments that his nimble movement comes in handy, to escape over the rooftops or up the side of a building very rapidly. The best part about this is that the game manages the jumping and climbing itself, making you very fast and very nimble, but also allowing almost anyone to pick up the controller and immediately look like a total pro leaping from building to building and bounding through the streets with ease. The game encourages you to move around like this, firstly by not allowing you access to the hundreds of cars that drive around, aside from the military ones which you can requisition, and secondly, as the infection spreads the roof-tops are decidedly easier to avoid attack and detection. Not only do the beasts that the virus spawns try to rip your head off, so do the military when they recognise you for the monster that you are.
Military will regularly give chase with tanks and helicopters, which you can take down or capture for your own use, and these are decidedly dangerous to say the least. As the game progresses and you unlock more powers it becomes possible to latch onto helicopters and skyjack them, which looks and feels pretty impressive. On top of this, Mercer can track down hives, which are essentially buildings the virus has taken over in which it produces its evil spawn, and if you destroy these you gain a brief advantage over the virus, hitting it where it hurts. For this purpose some good military tanks or helicopters are the perfect measure, though if you feel the need you can turn these against the military, allowing you to go about your business without being harassed.
Because you can shape-shift, you can find an alcove, or somewhere out of sight, and take on another form, laeving your pursuers unable to determine where you went. This is all done very well through the GUI and controller scheme, which is very simple to pick up and play. The GUI shows you when you are being watched by military, and also when they are on your tail (or when they have lost track of you). Although if you want to stand and fight, the game doesn’t let you down.
There is always a considerable amount of action to be had, and your powers do enormous damage when implemented correctly. Units have weaknesses against certain attacks, and it pays to have a play to see which attacks do the most damage against which units. To make attacking easier, holding the left trigger locks you onto a target, and flicking the right stick switches between targets rapidly. This doesn’t make things too easy, as the game still throws enough at you to make sure that this alone isn’t enough to win.
Graphically, my initial feelings were of disappointment. Prototype appeared somewhat bland at times, and with odd graphical effects, particularly for destroyed vehicles which just seemed to turn into smouldering blocks. However once I got past these initial impressions, it all came together. The graphics suit the mood that the game is trying to set, with the dark ambience suiting the rioting and chaos below, and at points the game really does look fantastic.
There are some moments however where the game engine struggles. It's striking how ugly destroying hives or military bases can look, the latter being somewhat uninspired, particularly when buildings collapse. In having said that, throw in some really nice animations, and no slow-down, and you have a pretty good looking game. Even when you have hundreds of civilians running around the streets, with equally as many cars, the draw distance remains excellent and the frame rate steady;, certainly no easy feat.
What is a shame is that given the large environment of Manhattan Island, we're still constrained to completing story missions and a few ‘events’ on the side, which generally involve using a certain ability to destroy a number of enemies within a set time-limit. You can also participate in rooftop races, and here Prototype takes a page out of Crackdown’s book, as you'll find the same orb races, along with up to 200 orbs you can collect for extra experience points in the game. Why you would do this other than for achievements we have no idea, as on completing the game my character was largely maxxed out without these extra experience points. It would have been nice to see the developers give us an extended experience by including more in the way of side-quests, or simply things to do.
The lack of a multiplayer emphasises that this game does not provide the best value for money. You will probably spend somewhere upwards of fifteen hours completing the main quest, and a few more hours tying up any of the races if you are that way inclined, which isn’t nearly as long as we’d like to spend with a game with such a fantastic character and gameplay components. We’d certainly love to have a reason to keep playing, however now that we have finished the campaign we just can’t see that happening for any extended period of time. Surely the developers could have come up with some form of multiplayer, though they do need to be commended for the single player story as it's easily one of the best so far this year.
Prototype was a real surprise for us. We weren’t expecting something quite so good, particularly in the way of story-line and single player, where so many games these days seem to cut short in favour of including some form of multiplayer. Here the developers have chosen to skip multiplayer and put all their emphasis into the single player, and fortunately it works really well. Graphically the game certainly has its moments, but comes out very strongly in the gameplay department with an amazing character, and fantastic controls, along with superb attacks and powers that would make Marvel characters stare in awe.
It's a pity that the game loses points for falling short on replayability and longevity, with only the main storyline providing any real fulfilment. When a game provides such a massive open world city, it would be nice to be able to have it utilised to its full potential. What we do know for sure though is we still need to digest the fantastic campaign, and spend some time basking in the incredible experience.