Prototype Review: Last Action Omnivore
Thursday, June 18, 2009; 12:19 AM
At the outset of Radical Entertainment's Prototype, black wormy tendrils slither around a taxi, nudging it, goading, as not-quite-vigilant-enough policemen patrol a decimated city square. The city--another freeform version of Manhattan--is flushed, sanguine, the color of a flashlight beamed through fingers. High-rises, brownstones, and walk-ups look ghoulish, scummed with weird pustules of pulsing tissue. Half-human forms lie beside crumpled vehicles, ripening in the heat. Ravens roost on corpses like carrion omens. "I wanna be a part of it" New York this version's definitely not.
You're the reason for all of it. Some call you a killer, others a monster or a terrorist. You call yourself all of the above. Three weeks ago, someone loosed a lethal virus in Penn Station and you woke without explanation on a slab, memoryless, about to be autopsied. Now you hunt and consume, vampire-like, dissolving passerby like coffee poured over sugar, slipping into their skins as skillfully as a thespian swapping costumes. Your name is Alex Mercer, an accidental superhuman, an amnesiac with sociopathic tendencies, the only force powerful enough to save the city, but only if you can save yourself first.
Sound a trifle like Sucker Punch's inFAMOUS (PCW Score 90%)? That's the popular sell, but once you've graduated past the introductory missions, you realize just how much it's not. inFAMOUS is about ethical choices that change the story's course, whereas Prototype lets you choose between living and dying and to heck with moral niceties. inFAMOUS gives you exceptional abilities with power checks, whereas Prototype is a galloping, soaring, superpower extravaganza. In inFAMOUS you clamber deliberately up realistically ledge-littered structures, whereas Prototype's Alex sprints breezily up the sides of conveniently flat ones. If inFAMOUS's Cole is Stan Lee's Electro sans the neon-guacamole spandex, Prototype's Alex is more Marc Silvestri's sable-barbed The Darkness fused with Lee and Jack Kirby's otherworldly shapeshifting Skrulls, a mutating mass of coiled and writhing energy, one capable of hurtling between skyscrapers--or simply over them--like an alien projectile.
Alien-apparent, that is, but entirely earthborn. In fact Prototype's quintessential plague-story makes your ground zero for a metamorphic virus that's infecting Manhattan's populace. As Alex relates his horror-laced tale to a masked figure on top of a building, so you experience it in analepsis. As you're escaping from the morgue at the start, you're shot but--to your surprise--don't die. You discover you can leap over walls and, soon enough, entire buildings. Eventually you can fashion armor and weapons from your limbs, crab-leg claws to Japanese-style fantasy blades to tongue-like tentacular whips. Vehicles are everywhere, but you're limited to either destroying or lifting and tossing them. Why drive anyway, says the game, when you can fling yourself through the air, entire city blocks at a time?
At first all that power can actually be disorienting. Your inclination--or at least mine--is to fine tune, as you would playing other hyper-agile protagonists like Altair in Assassin's Creed or Cole in inFAMOUS. It's a losing proposition. Whether you're taking small jumps or bounding leaps, it's almost impossible to finesse your landings. Defying physics, you can change angle mid-leap, but so jarringly that you'll rarely have the thumb-stick aligned in the direction you intended. The camera has a tendency to swing down and face-forward, preventing you from tracking your trajectory isometrically, often sending you just past the edges of things, wrestling control away from you until you've finished the move. In short, a bit of a clumsy mess.
But then your leaps suddenly get longer and their arcs broader, providing the space you need to sort those aerial vectors. You acquire the ability to glide considerable distances and recover almost instantly from debilitating enemy throws. Your tactical combat moves and special abilities grow powerful enough that even glancing blows impact your opponents. You notice that the reason the game's been delaying subtracting hits from your health bar is so that you can react before it fully collapses. And suddenly everything clicks, and you realize this isn't a game about fiddling grabs and toeholds and precision maneuvers, it's a button-mashing gladiatorial smackdown. You're not some spider scrabbling gracefully across an intricately crafted cityscape, you're an amped up bull full-on charging it.
Once you've got Prototype's city-scale "adaptive parkour" under your fingers and you've swallowed the macho pill, Manhattan's more or less your oyster. The city's divided into infected and uninfected areas as well as military zones that you can explore at your leisure. The island's been quarantined (of course) as well as factionalized--it's you versus the military versus increasing droves of mutant citizens. Somewhere in there you'll have to tango with conspiracy groups as well as, well, let's just say those "mutant citizens" come in all shapes and sizes.
Initially your missions tend toward run-in-and-thrash-around brawls, the reward being buckets of evolution (see: experience) points to help get you properly leveled up while you're acclimating. But these quickly shift toward subtler activities, like ones that involve hijacking military vehicles and tackling multi-stage rescue sorties, or which capitalize on your ability to assume the physical form of the last person you've just gobbled down.
Gobbled down? That's right, Alex may be the game's titular anti-hero, but his virally-enhanced methods are strictly sociopathic. As he endeavors to define himself and exact revenge on whatever transformed him, he'll necessarily consume hundreds of individuals, innocents and enemies alike. In fact it's a little disturbing that pedestrians aren't just expendable here, they drop like flies, and without apparent penalties. I killed over 4,000 pedestrians in the course of a single game, not a one intentionally, yet finished the game with the score equivalent of "flying colors." While those pedestrians were obviously just facades with pull-string hysterics, it was tough to root for myself, since in the end I had to callously treat the people I was supposed to be saving as ants.