Review by Meho Krljic
Developer Radical Entertainment
Released June 9, 2009
Available for PC/Xbox 360/PS3 (Versions reviewed: Xbox 360 and PC)
Time Played 10 hours
Verdict: 4/5 Thumbs Up
“Come on, you play games because they are about destruction, not creation. Admit it!!!”
So… why do you play videogames? No, seriously, why do you play videogames? There are many answers to this question, even when it comes to the same person. Sometimes it’s about going to places unknown and dreamlike. Sometimes it’s about playing roles. Sometimes it’s about meticulous management of resources. About commandeering armies and developing technology trees. And sometimes it’s all about reflexes and hand-eye coordination.
But there is another thing. And it’s becoming more and more important as technology progresses. It’s the opportunity to inhabit another body. To be someone else, not just in name and identity, not just in presence and consequences (we have had that for many years) but in the simple act/fact of being, of taking space, of moving and interacting with the world.
This is why Doom is such a milestone in gaming history. This is why a game like X-com can be… a really great videogame but Doom can be a mainstream cultural phenomenon. In Doom you are not just playing the game. You are inside the game, you control the body inside the game and your mind temporarily forgets that this body is not the body you were born with. This is why Doom started the school of thinking, stronger today than it ever was, that videogames are ultimately about giving you an experience that you won’t be able to tell from real life (aside from it being much more awesome, of course).
This is why superhero games are only starting to make sense in the current or at least recent hardware generations. Yes, most of them suck for a number of reasons and you can usually pick anything from the list of videogame design sins – bad level design, unimaginative missions, weak enemy AI, artificial power limitations – and it will usually apply, but one thing these games are progressively getting better at is making you feel like you are that metahuman character on the screen, that you are the one doing all those incredible things with your incredible body.
It’s not just licensed superhero games that do this. In fact, it’s usually done better in games not burdened with an outside license. Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden are two games that demonstrate how seductive, how intoxicating it can be when you are allowed to control incredible, athletic bodies with a complex set of potential moves and a deep, intuitive control scheme underneath. Games about Hulk, Spider-man, Wolverine and Iron-man in the recent years have all tried (with varying results) to capture this magic.
So if your answer to the above question is “I play games so I can be a superhero”, you need to pay attention to Prototype. Not that there is a lot of actual heroism going around in this game, but being able to go beyond the constraints of a usual, everyday human body, being able to glide above the rooftops, run up the sides of buildings, being able to punch the pavement and send everyone in a ten yard circle flying into trees and cars – yes that makes this a superhero game.
Prototype… of a Prototype
Prototype is an open world action game made by Radical Entertainment. The team has had some experience creating open world action games before. Titles like Simpsons Hit & Run, Scarface and Hulk: Ultimate Destruction have all been interesting entries in the open world action game genre, the world where success is too often measured in proportion to how much the said game resembles GTA games. Radical has managed to come up with fresh, meaningful variations of the formula and the publishing giant Activision has made clear they were paying attention by purchasing Radical and making it Activision’s internal studio some four years ago. I am making a point of emphasising this because Activision publishes all those Spider-man games and they all (well, more or less) try to follow the open world action game formula. Prototype is, obviously more similar to Hulk: Ultimate Destruction than to any Spider-man game from the recent years, but there is something to be said about having a game that, similarly to Spider-man 2 or Ultimate Spider-man, manages to keep you glued to the screen and even seriously entertained even when you are perfectly aware of its many shortcomings. It all boils down to the body and the way you control it in urban settings. Prototype gives the player such a sense of freedom and power that just playing it for a few minutes swamps my brain with so much endorphin it makes me think someone should seriously consider packaging this stuff and selling it to sad, lonely geeks sitting at home and playing videog… oh, wait.
OK, moving on… to the story!
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before
Here at Tap-Repeatedly we distinguish ourselves by claiming that stories in videogames actually matter (some of us will go as far as to say that Left 4 Dead’s story matters but then again some of us are clearly insane). And Prototype… has a story. It’s not extremely good or very engaging though.
So, you are Alex Mercer, a guy sporting a hooded sweatshirt, a funny looking jacket, a pair of jeans and a pair of really really good sneakers. You know, for a game that does in-game advertising by having billboards with DC Comics logo strategically placed across the Manhattan skyline, it strikes me as a missed opportunity not to have Alex’s sneakers branded with a recognisable corporate logo. Considering how much running and kicking Alex does and how Activision usually try really hard to demonstrate that you can always go lower in your golddigging efforts, someone in the marketing department should have been working harder.
So, you are Alex Mercer and… you’re dead. At least that’s what a pair of pathologist-looking guys in white coats think when they approach your body in the morgue, suspiciously brandishing their shiny scalpels. Apparently, Alex has participated in some kind of an experiment involving… some kind of a new pathogen and he’s… some kind of dead now.
Until the first incision is made, anyway.
Being Dead isn’t So Bad
You know, there have been games before that have shown their protagonist having the worst day (or days) of their lives: Half-Life, Max Payne, Second Sight etc., but Prototype really makes an effort. Alex wakes up from whatever kind of death he has been immersed in and, as it usually happens, is disoriented and scared. Screaming white coats and menacing-looking soldiers with instructions to terminate with extreme prejudice don’t exactly help. So it’s a fight or flight situation of the first order and Alex flees. And then fights.
Being dead tends to screw up one’s memory, it seems. Alex died and then got better but his memory is gone. Amnesia is such a tired videogame cliché that, frankly, I feel a little ashamed Radical has pulled that one on us, especially as it doesn’t really contribute to the storytelling very much. We are dealing with a government conspiracy here and having an artificially ignorant protagonist on top of all the usual X-files tinfoil hat blabber doesn’t add much to the excitement. The game also shoots itself in the foot by drowning the player with bits of information (discovered either through story missions or through half-random discoveries tied to the so-called Web of Intrigue system) that individually look like they matter but collectively just make the experience a little disjointed as it is impossible to say which bit is essential and which is just… there.
Now, I am not saying Radical has not been making an effort here and sure as hell, it is hard telling stories in an interactive medium to start with. Having all that and an open world to deal with is really hard. There is a reason after all why cinema usually goes for linear storytelling even if they play around with chronology and perspectives from time to time. Prototype wants you to gradually uncover pieces of the story but they can not control when and where you will be doing this and the impact of the story is that much weaker for it.
It doesn’t really help that the characters are flat and uninspiring and that the cutscenes are written and directed to be merely serviceable. The Web of Intrigue scenes are stylistically better but then again, you will be seeing so many of them that you won’t care that much after all. It’s not a case of style over substance, it’s just a story we have seen many times before devoid of much character or personality. Yeah, American military will sometimes do bad things, blah blah blah, tell me about it, they blew up half my hometown ten years ago [sorry about that Meho ~S] but do you see me running through Manhattan eating people and punching perfectly good tanks into scrap metal? The hell you do!
But this is exactly what Alex will be doing throughout the game (with some of my help, yes, I am merely human after all), his primary motivation being revenge, but also curiosity and some of that sense that this is the right thing to do even if it involves a lot of collateral damage. As Alex starts waging his one man war with the American military (for the record: they never stood a chance!) things go from bad to worse and the infection he caught starts spreading through Manhattan. As a result, the island is cut off from the rest of the world and huge military presence in the streets is there to respond to the fact that the population is progressively turning into mindless, scavenging mutants, claws, tendrils and all. It’s on, as they say in cartoons.
For more of the story behind Prototype feel free to look for the tie-in comicbook published by the abovementioned DC Comics (their Wildstorm imprint). It’s the usual Justin Gray/Jimmy Palmiotti mercenary job and, well, it’s edible but hardly unforgettable. In the game you at least get to punch those pesky tanks yourself.
And punch them you do. One of the refreshing aspects of Prototype’s story and characterisation is that this is an 18+ game not just because of the excessive gore but because of the fact that the protagonist just doesn’t give a damn. His goal has little to do with ethics and he is unconstrained by moral choices you will find in many similar games. Unlike inFamous, for instance, Prototype does not measure ethical qualities of your acts, implying instead that the goal justifies the means and if eating innocent bystanders means you get to punch more soldiers across a city block, with an eye firmly on the object of your revenge, then, hell yeah, it’s dinner time!! It is liberating not being tied down with rigid moralistic systems and if you want to play the game as a goodie-two-shoes and spare the civilians, well, the gameplay is flexible enough to accommodate you, it just won’t be rewarding you with anything. And frankly, why should it? In this game, you’re a monster. A monster with a face and a name, yes, but a monster nonetheless – you don’t share human physiology any more, you don’t share human notions of life and death any more and it is a good guess that whatever passes for human soul has left your body sometime around your transition into a powerful, shapeshifting mutant.
Bring da Ruckus
Ahh, and so we come to the real meat of the game: power, shapeshifting and mutation.
Prototype follows the usual open world game design by separating the missions into classes. There are storyline missions that are longer and more complex (some of them ending in bossfights), there are side missions that only thematically tie in with the story and serve as resource gathering opportunities, and there are semi-random mini-missions that are apparently an effort to emulate the emergent gameplay nature of other open world games. Then there are collectibles, a bunch of floating orbs lifted almost wholesale from Crackdown that give you evolve points (EP) or experience points and hints (the latter largely useless as those are just repeated hints you get through tutorials anyway ). It’s all pretty mechanical and Prototype can justifiably be criticised for its unimaginative mission design.
It usually boils to this: Alex has to go to a certain place, fight a large number of adversaries and steal/collect/destroy stuff. In some cases, it’s more than one place, in other cases it’s collecting and destroying, but it never feels terribly deep (even though you do get to jump off buildings and do flying kicks into robotic vessels in mid-air). Open world games in general are not very deep in their mission design and they replace this lack of depth with breadth, which is understandable, but recent examples of games like Saints Row 2 demonstrated that there is a way to deepen the missions (even throwaway side missions) and engage the player deeper, if you want to invest extra effort.
Radical’s efforts were invested in other areas of the game and this is why the missions, even when they boil down to ‘destroy two floating robot-like things while soldiers shoot at you from the ground’ turn out to be fun, most of the time.
Because it again comes down to the body, Alex’s mutated, enhanced body, your post-human body and the way you can use it to interact with the gameworld.
The game actually begins with a short mission that is chronologically near the end of the story and in this mission Alex is, how shall I put it, very much mutated. His shapeshifting powers are almost at their peak in this introductory episode and the glorious chaos a novice player can wreak in the middle of Manhattan using differently shaped limbs is so great that they will only marginally register that the mission objectives are really simplistic (‘defeat the military’ says the game, as if you were some kind of a soulless, robotic avatar of a higher hippie force controlling your movements… oh wait).
And then it’s taken away and you start at the beginning and gradually build your way to a superhuman destruction engine through playing side and story missions and collecting experience points.
Only, even while Alex is relatively weak and moderately mutated, he’s still able to go through almost anything the game can throw at him with relative ease. This is a game of empowerment, a game of joyful destruction and it makes sure not to screw with its core values.
What Alex can do to start with is to run very, very fast and jump very high. He can run up any vertical surface and climb and jump his way to vertigo-inducing heights. He can kill people with one punch and wreck cars without breaking a sweat. Other games start you out really weak, with the intention of making your evolution meaningful. Prototype makes sure you feel superhuman from the very beginning and then proceeds to give you ridiculous power.
As the experience points start piling up and as the game allows you to unlock upgrades, Alex becomes even faster and stronger. Traversing across the city now becomes a combination of jumps, running/wallrunning, gliding and air dashes. And all of it can get upgraded. Meanwhile, Alex not only gets better health and regeneration powers, he becomes stronger, able to do awesome area-of-effect attacks straight out of Hulk (the abovementioned ground-pounding but also a fists clash) and his control of shapeshifting increases. This, in turn allows him to form different weapons from his arms, giving the player a sweet dilemma whether the enemies are best dealt with using claws, blades, hammers or an explosion of really evil looking tendrils.
Combat is complex on paper (simple and special attacks, blocks, grabs, throws, combos, super-finishers, jump-attacks etc.) but in reality it’s too chaotic to be considered deep. Ninja Gaiden this simply isn’t and if you have played the recent Wolverine game, well this isn’t that game either. Combat is as much about strategic retreat as it is about punching and the ridiculous agility at your disposal is as much of a weapon as are Alex’s mutated limbs. You will repeatedly run circles around your enemies, climbing walls and jumping in and out of the impromptu arenas, making sure you consume a soldier or a civilian (or both) in the process because this will regenerate your health. Prototype is really like being Spider-man and Venom at the same time. And Hulk. And a little bit of Wolverine.
This is not to say, then, that combat is a matter of just having to tap one button repeatedly. It is simple but it demands that you get better with time. It demands that you develop skills, spatial awareness and a good idea of what your enemies can and are likely to do in a situation. The game won’t be pitting you against any terribly smart opponents, it will instead opt for spawning dozens of them and having them attack you from every direction. You will routinely be fighting hordes of the infected (big ones among them being pretty formidable at close range and really fast moving) while they fight squads of soldiers who are shooting at you while tanks are rolling down the boulevard and choppers hover above your head, all of them showering you with 5.56 ammo and RPGs. The game gives you the tools to survive but you need to know when to fight, when to run and when to change appearance.
Identity Theft, and Other Amusing Stories
This is one of Prototype’s more original contributions to the open world genre (although, Scrapland had something along those lines going back then). Alex is able to consume people by grabbing them and executing a special move and this is not just a way to replenish health but also gives him access to their memories (filling the Web of Intrigue nodes) and skills, and enables him to assume their appearance at will.
This has multiple purposes. Skills allow Alex to broaden his palette of offensive tactics by enabling him to jack and drive tanks and APCs as well as to call in airstrikes. Meanwhile, changing appearances grant him access to areas otherwise out of his reach. Typically, this is reserved for story or side missions where consuming a commanding officer of the premises will allow Alex to enter the military base and do evil things inside.
But don’t think this has any kind of radical (er… no pun intended… really) impact on the gameplay as the game will really only allow you to do this in controlled environments. If you are saying “OK, Meho, so what’s to stop me from spending the whole game impersonating someone else and just solving the situation quietly, without so much as a drop of blood being shed,” well, congratulations, you had a great idea but this is simply not that game. Prototype won’t let you do things the peaceful way or the violent way. There is only one way and it involves violence with a little bit of sneaking thrown in to make it taste better. It works well, make no mistake, but it’s not very ambitious.
But then again, violent games are okay if they can keep it up and Prototype makes some valiant efforts in this department. It’s a game of speed, power and destruction. It allows you to dominate the urban landscape with an assortment of crazy, parkour-on-steroid moves and that doesn’t get old as you go on. Yes, inFamous was about making you look cool while running, jumping and climbing and managing to make it look natural. Its protagonist, Cole McGrath, looked like a believable human being just enhanced enough to be ‘super’ but not out of the realms of conventional possibility. Alex Mercer, in comparison, is all about excess. He doesn’t waste time looking for ledges and window-frames, he just runs up buildings at 100 miles per hour. He can jump twenty yards up and then proceed to glide for hundreds of yards. He can lift a car and throw it into a helicopter, shooting it down from the sky. He can bodyslam a tank. And if you don’t do it in the first five minutes of the game then you are most definitely playing the wrong game.
This breathtaking demonstration of speed and power is what makes Alex fun to play as. Yes, the side missions are not very imaginative, but rooftop checkpoint races actually force you to improve your movement skills and fighting dozens of opponents amongst all the explosions and flying metal is good even when it’s hard to tell what’s going on most of the time. Sure, the bossfights are even more chaotic and often downright tiring but this is what you get in the game made on excess. And when, in the middle of fighting you get a notification that a Web of Intrigue target is close by, you will make sure you consume them because this just makes the chaos even more chaotic.
An Abundance of… Stuff
This philosophy of excess spills into other things as well. The game economy is all screwed up as the game hands you out experience points like they were going out of style or something. Alex gets some serious upgrades at surprising speed and the game’s response to this is usually just to up the number of enemies it will throw at him. But let them come, I say. If I wanted a peaceful resolution to my problems, I would have played Chulip. Prototype is about the gratification found in exaggerated destruction and it makes sure you are never left without stuff to do. Other open world games have been known for their passive moments when you were left without a ride and anything meaningful to do, far away from mission markers. Not so in Prototype. The very act of traversing the city is exciting in itself, not to mention it’s very quick and efficient and action is never too far away. And to make sure you can step out of the action as soon as you want, the game allows you to shapeshift into a civilian or a soldier (depending on who you have consumed recently) once you have managed to break the line of sight and your wanted level will instantly drop to zero. This sounds like a cheap cop-out and it would be in a game with a saner balance of forces. But here, you are encouraged to do so because otherwise you wouldn’t live to fight another day (or, more realistically, to fight in about 30 seconds).
What about other gameplay options, you ask? I am a sensitive little thing and love when my open world games give me non-violent things to do. Like, you remember when Will Wright claimed his daughter plays GTA games but only drives a moped and is careful not to run anyone over?
Well, no… not really. Prototype caters to this kind of audience only to a small extent. There are abovementioned rooftop races but they are a far cry from GTA’s street races and there are collectible orbs that also give you experience points that I have already mentioned bring Crackdown to mind. Now, in Crackdown collecting these orbs was almost a game unto itself but Prototype, despite its efforts, is not really there, for at least two reasons.
First, the placement of orbs makes no sense. They are supposed to be tied to landmarks, but for every one placed on the top of a very tall building, there are another three just lying on the ground in the park. Also, they are not very easy to spot because, while the draw distance is not as bad as other reviews are trying to make it sound, they are still not very visible. Crackdown had a totally ingenious audio cue that made sure to let you know when you were near an orb, but Radical guys forgot to steal that element when they were copying a great template.
Second, while in Crackdown climbing stuff was mostly about skills, in Prototype you can just run up the side of a building to most places. When orbs are hard to get it is usually because the game cheats and gives you a surface you are for whatever reason unable to run up and it screws with the camera so that Alex starts doing things you are not intentionally telling him to.
So, no, non-violent option is not really substantial for this game. It’s there but you won’t be spending hours in Prototype away from combat. Instead you will likely choose to participate in large scale battles where you will singlehandedly be destroying military bases or mutants’ hives. I love when open world games give you the opportunity to control territory and while Alex is not interested in extending his gang influence across Manhattan’s los projectos, ridding an area of a hive or a base will actually thin out the enemies’ presence in it and considering that the game’s primary effort to slow you down consists of spamming you with hundreds of enemies, there is a good reason to do so. It’s fun too, as bringing a building down takes some work and it usually involves hijacking tanks or calling in airstrikes while you fight off hordes of on-foot opponents.
So, Prototype is all about those damned thirty seconds of fun repeated over and over. It isn’t deep, it isn’t terribly ‘emergent’ and it isn’t even very challenging but it is fun in a very physical, very visceral way. It continues putting you into situations that will develop into utter chaos and you will emerge on top of this chaos, blood dripping from your arms, the smell of burning gasoline and metal in the air. You will feel as if you’re there and doing all those things and for some people this will be a reward in itself.
Other people will want to know about technical details. Very well.
Of Archictecture… and Props
First off, this is a single player game. There is no co-op, there is no multiplayer. Live with it. Second, the PC version is not sporting the Games for Windows banner and there are no achievements in it. The Xbox 360 version does have achievements but they are not very imaginative. What I do appreciate about Prototype is that it doesn’t just hand you achievements for watching the intro or some similar nonsense that many recent games have been guilty of.
The music in the game is dramatic and dark, perfectly accompanying the prevalent mood. I wasn’t whistling any of it on my way to work this morning, but it does its job and blends into the background unassumingly. Voice acting didn’t irritate me but it’s hard to imagine anyone from the cast will proceed to receiving an academy award any time soon.
To the visuals then. Much has been said on other websites about Prototype’s short draw distance and popup. To this I say: get a life, dammit. Yes, the draw distance has been known to be longer in other games and there is some popup here but let’s be a little bit realistic: Prototype is one of the fastest, craziest open world games made so far and the way it streams its world (with a LOT of vertical movement going on at all times) is very comfortable. And, really, its art direction deserves more criticism.
Yes, the mutation effects on Alex’s body are cool, but that’s about it. The city in the game is not very inspired (Radical allegedly shot more than 20,000 photos of Manhattan while preparing the game but had to trim down the ambition considerably due to budget constraints) with nondescript samey looking buildings all over the place. There are hardly any memorable vistas in the game with a lot of architecture being liberally copypasted left, right and centre. The cars are cloned like crazy (but you don’t get to drive them so it’s not such a big deal) and the people not only look similar but act in a small handful of predictable ways. No, you won’t get interesting AI behaviour that GTA has spoiled us with over the last few major games. But you will get chaos and blood and explosions and while even in these areas the game has to carefully handle its assets, there are no crippling framerate drops or other problematic occurrences. The game is also fairly stable and I have not encountered bugs of any kind on Xbox 360 or PC (the PS3 installation bug is reportedly being fixed as I type this).
The game is just not very pretty and that might be a problem for some. Animations and lighting effects are good, but the character design and architecture are bland. inFamous had more style but on the other hand Crackdown was also rather weak in this department. And even though the game looks marginally better on PC, it’s safe to assume you won’t be playing Prototype because it looks pretty.
Which leads us to the question from the beginning: why do you play games? Is it to analyse and discuss the elements of their design or technology on the Internet? Is it to have fun? Is it a little bit of both? Or is it because in certain games you can stick your hand into the ground at your feet and gigantic claws will pop out of it impaling and slicing everyone stupid enough to stand in front of you? Despite all of its objective flaws, Prototype is a consistently fun experience for this reviewer because it gives him a body he never dreamed he could control and a city spread out beneath this body, ready to be ravaged, brutalised, destroyed. It’s a strange relationship, indeed, but as wiser men than me have said before: love is hell.
Minimum System Requirements (PC):
- Operating System: Windows® XP (with Service Pack 2) and DirectX® 9.0c or (Windows Vista® with Service Pack 3)
- Video Card: 256 MB 3D hardware accelerator card required – 100% DirectX® 9.0c with Shader Model 3 support*
- Processor: Pentium(R) Intel Core® 2 Duo 2.6 GHz or AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ or better
- RAM: 1 GB of RAM for Windows ® XP / 2 GB Windows ® Vista systems
- Hard Drive Space: 8 GB of uncompressed hard disk space (Plus 500MB for swap file.)
- Sound Card: DirectX 9.0 –compliant sound card
- Peripheral: 100% Windows(R) XP/Vista – compatible mouse, keyboard and drivers, 100% Windows(R) XP/Vista – compatible 4X DVD-ROM drive or better (600K/sec sustained transfer rate) and drivers
*Supported Chipsets for Windows(R) XP and Vista All NVIDIA® GeForce™ 7800 256 MB and better chipsets All ATI® Radeon™ X1800 256 MB and better chipsets
Windows® XP; AMD Athlon 5000+; 4 GB RAM; nVidia GeForce 9800