If you were to ask me to sum up my impressions of Prototype, those words would be: “so close.” The gameplay elements of Prototype, with one glaring exception, are dead-on. Maneuvering about the city is not just a breeze, it’s one of the most fun activities I’ve done in a videogame this year. Switching between powers is one-button-simple, allowing you to claw through a crowd, flip over to Muscle-Mass and toss a car (you can toss a car without Muscle-Mass, and then switch into Whipfist to conveniently consume a bystander; literally, a power every second if you wanted to. But then the game is hamstringed by so-so graphics and an okay plot tethered to pretty terrible cut-scenes. What’re you trying to do to me, Radical?
As far as the plot goes, Prototype isn’t half-bad. Our “protagonist” is Alex Mercer, who wakes up in the morgue to find a New York City infested with zombies and monsters, with no memory of how he got filled with lead. Alex’s quest to find out who he is and how he’s wrapped up in this nightmare forms the narrative core of Prototype; he’s assisted/directed by various supporting characters, including his sister and former girlfriend. In Alex’s way stand the United States Marine Corps and a covert organization called BlackWatch, who are looking to contain the infection, even if that means killing every civilian on the island.
It’s hard to call Alex a superhero, or even Prototype a superhero game, because it’s impossible to avoid killing civilians. The game rewards you for it, in fact; a good portion of the “consume” game mechanic is used to restore Alex’s health, and innocent bystanders are a main source of Alex's diet. That and the wanton killing of U.S. Marines makes it hard for me to call him a superhero at all, but Alex is pretty consistently billed as anti-hero throughout the development process. The player ends up killing civilians not only via consumption, but thousands of deaths occur like accidental clawings,slashings, and flying motor vehicles. I spend a good portion of the game repeatedly apologizing to e-people for their untimely, accidental deaths.
The powers Alex uses to hack and slash his way through both regular armies and armies of infected are varied and generally interesting. The Claws are Wolverine-like appendages that are best used against crowds, Muscle-Mass is general super-strength, Hammerfist and The Blade are for use against armored vehicles, but my personal favorite was the Whipfist, mostly because it allows you to lasso a helicopter. You heard me: lasso a helicopter, swing up to it, and steal it. It’s these moments of ridiculous awesomeness that make up for all of the other mediocre moments.
The other non-mediocre element in the game is a by-product of the consumption mechanic. Via consumption, Alex can absorb other people’s memories and knowledge, adding not only to his skill-set by allowing him to drive tanks and pilot helicopters, but adding to the Web of Intrigue, a neat way to keep track of the memories Alex absorbs (what I like to call the “good cut-scenes”) and expand the story. Web targets are scattered throughout the city, popping up on your radar as your soar over their location, or as an objective in one of the mini-missions.There are a ton of mini-missions to accomplish, everything from foot-races across buildings to timed fights. They’re fun, especially the glide challenges and the foot races, but the combat oriented challenges are somewhat repetitive. Kill so many Marines with this power in this amount of time, or so many infected in this vehicle, etc. Combat is fun enough, but it takes some getting used to; the targeting system is less than ideal. Supposedly, hitting the left trigger selects the most potentially harmful target in your field-of-view, but most often the enemy that’s “most potentially harmful” is across the city, while the Hunter-beast that’s eating your face is somehow less of a concern. Manually switching between targets is a quick-fix, but you run into the same issue with cycling between “most dangerous” enemies.
The graphics are kind of a devil’s compromise. You can see forever in this game, and most of the buildings are greatly detailed at a distance, and while the character models aren’t finely detailed, you can see a couple hundred of them moving fluidly onscreen at any one time; in short, the broad strokes are well done. The fine details are what’s lacking, but that’s the trade-off; quality versus quantity. There’s a lot going on onscreen, but nothing there, graphically, that makes you stop and say “whoa.”
Well, there is one major negative “whoa;” the cut-scene animations are kind of awful. Everyone looks like a bad plastic-y mannequin, and the dialogue is stiff and short. The cut scenes lack any sense of drama; they’re a thing that happens onscreen that throws some exposition at you, while not giving you any real emotion or characterization. While overall the plot is decent, you come away from the experience generally not liking anyone. All the characters are one-dimensional, which is about what you would expect from most videogames; the down-side is that they all seem to come from the jerk-hole dimension.
The main question, though, is did I enjoy myself, and the answer is, solidly yes, and I enjoyed myself for more than 12 hours of gameplay without bothering to do most of the events. Getting around town is a roller coaster ride, a 3D platformer with a whole city for a playground. Want to know how Spider-Man feels swinging around town? Play Prototype. Want to know how the Hulk feels, tossing cars and helicopters around? Play Prototype. Want to know how Superman feels, saving innocents? Prototype is not that game. Prototype is about the experience of power; plowing through crowds, drop-kicking helicopters, and fighting three-story tall monsters, and it’s those moments, which are not few or far between, but constantly and consistently improve the entire experience. Prototype is a ridiculously fun, but ultimately flawed experiment, its moments of greatness muddied by the details.