Prototype 2 review – A silly but satisfying action game

James Haresign April 27, 2012 - 12:00 pm

Review: PROTOTYPE 2 sees the return of the Blacklight virus  - and it’s mutated into a prettier, meaner and dumber form…

I was worried, in the run-up to Prototype 2′s release, that Radical Entertainment really were aiming for the lowest common denominator. The majority of the advertising centred around the fact that Sgt. James Heller can deal some ridiculously nasty and messy kills, and half the in-engine cutscenes have enough explosions to put Michael Bay to shame. The dialogue, too, felt more than a little forced, with ‘fuck’s and ‘arsehole’s punctuating every other sentence.

It’s never clearer than with the big problem that still remains for Prototype, one which Radical had quite loudly proclaimed they had fixed: that of its main character. In the build-up to release, there was a lot of noise made by the developers as to why Alex Mercer was now cast as the bad guy, and Sgt. James Heller was defending the world against him. Mercer was apparently “a dick,” a psychopath nobody could get behind, and someone who casually killed anyone who even stepped close to him, with intangible motives due to his amnesia.

Yet apart from the amnesia, Heller is every single one of those. In some cases, he’s far worse. He’s clearly terrifyingly unhinged, embracing the need to kill far more than Mercer ever seemed to. When you have to head to another island, he casually talks about eating someone to steal their seat. And it might seem a minor detail to some, but there’s not even an achievement to try to restrict your daily intake of civilians. As for his motives, well, yes, his family is killed before the game even gets going, but it just feels a little nebulous.

In a nice touch, Heller’s identified as suffering post-traumatic stress disorder following his family’s death, and only manages to get assigned to New York because of how bad the situation is getting there. He then promptly comes face to face with Mercer, the man he blames for killing his wife and daughter, and manages to stay alive for a short time, which impresses his adversary. Heller’s finally infected, gets captured by Blackwatch, gets experimented on, escapes, and once again comes face to face with his creator, who quickly gets the sergeant to switch sides…

Hang on a minute! This is the man you’ve blamed for your family’s death, and all it takes is for him to say, “Not me! Look, Blackwatch are clearly nasty, is was obviously them,” and you sign up to join his team? It just runs a little too simplistically, and these changes in attitude never really stop.

Easily led

It’s the classic videogame problem of the main character ignoring his own motives to go along with everyone else’s, but in Prototype 2 it seems so much more obvious. Heller was painted as a man consumed by his hatred, but as soon as the game gets into its stride, the whole set-up is forgotten.

What’s left, then, is the game itself. Prototype’s combat was uncommonly satisfying, and that’s certainly still the case in its sequel. Heller maintains all of the best powers Mercer had, and even adds a few of his own, the most obvious being his tendrils and the bio-bomb, both of which add a delectably destructive feel to the massacres. These abilities are no longer individually picked, but rather assigned to buttons. X and Y each take an offensive power, and a bumper gets the shield. It makes Heller’s shapeshifting seem that much more impressive, and the combat itself far more fluid to control.

On the other hand, the targeting system is fiddly as hell. Man, the number of times I found myself wanting to target a helicopter or brawler, only for it to lock onto a small soldier half way down the street. It’s all the more galling because the targeting is only really needed in the big fights – the ones where you’re fighting for your life for a change – and it’s damn hard to actually hit the one thing that needs to die quickly.

Another of Heller’s new abilities, Hunting, works well too, allowing the game to occasionally escape the problem of waypoints and engage you in tracking someone down using your own abilities. It’s underused, though, mainly only appearing in side quests, and you can sometimes stumble upon your target by chance, therefore eliminating the hunt altogether.

But to concentrate on combat alone is to ignore something Prototype 2 does very well: stealth. That might seem unlikely in a game about a shapeshifting killing machine, but the key word there is ‘shapeshifting. The game always gives you the option of going in and tearing people to shreds, but most of the time there’s another way. Radical Entertainment have let you take full advantage of Heller’s abilities, and while it takes care and planning to stroll into casually into a military base full of enemies, it’s often the far more satisfying option.

To keep the level of stealth up, the game almost takes an aura of Metal Gear Solid as you do your best to act human and stay out of the viral detectors’ area. There’s even a power – the bio-bomb – that you can use as a decoy, distracting guards and letting you consume a target without anyone seeing. I still think that’s cheating, though.

I Am Dead Space

The game’s been given a visual workout, too. The prologue, in which you take control of a still-human Sgt. Heller, may not play that impressively, but it’s certainly pretty. Situated deep in the Red Zone, or Times Square as it used to be known, this part of the city now looks like the love child of I Am Legend and Dead Space, the environment wrecked, covered in disgusting red gunk.

Once Heller has joined the infected brigade you’re dumped in the Yellow Zone, the area of the city that has a little infection but which Blackwatch still hope to contain. Well, that’s what they’re telling everyone, anyway. This area of New York does certainly look like it’s seen better days, with homeless people standing around and shanty towns scattered across the island. It’s clear that this a city ruled by an oppressive fist.

The cutscenes have taken on an entirely new look, too, incorporating what used to be a cool promotional image into the actual game. It’s here that Prototype 2 seems to get a little carried away with itself. The wash of greys and blacks and occasional bright reds and blue certainly gives the game into its own unique identity, but’s not always entirely successful.

The cohesion of the world has been dramatically improved since the previous game, though – no more are there weird glowing orbs spewing out of dead enemies that you need to collect for experience, or collectibles that make no sense. Everything ties into the world and into the story, and usually leads to some sort of upgrade.

Prototype’s leveling was never that intuitive, with random point values buying different abilities. Little of that system remains. You still earn levels as you play, and these give you the basic abilities – run faster, more health, and so on – but it’s the side missions in which things get interesting. Split into five areas, each mission hub tells you which one it offers an upgrade for; you complete the set and you unlock the upgrade.

It’s a system that works well: if you know exactly what you want to improve, you simply head to that mission area without worrying about spending points, simply performing the tasks required. All the while, your base skills are improving. If you so choose you can completely ignore the extra upgrades – all the main components level up during the campaign, and while the game is easier if you take on the optional unlocks, they’re never a requirement.

Prototype 2 is a much more cohesive package than before, even if it’s no more coherent. It may be a bit of dumb action game, one whose story doesn’t even seem to try to make sense, but lying under the surface is just enough satisfying, messy and horrible action to keep things exciting.

Prototype 2′s storytelling is still as babbling as before, and its main character just as much of a dick, but this big dumb action game is more cohesive than its predecessor.

Prototype 2, from Activision and Radical Entertainment, is out today for Xbox 360 (reviewed) and PS3. It’s out for PC in July.

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