Last generation, Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy and Second Sight had the ill luck to release at the same time, despite sharing an otherwise unique concept. Games involving psychic powers and telekinesis were few and far between last generation, yet a pair of them came out at once, and it was relatively tragic for both.
Prototype and inFAMOUS were similarly star-crossed this generation. A pair of dark open-world games involving super-powered protagonists in a ruined city were fated to draw comparisons, and while common consensus declared inFAMOUS the winner, I always gunned for Radical Entertainment's shapeshifting, cannibalistic romp.
Nonetheless, both games were able to avoid the fates of their psychic predecessors, both performing well enough to earn sequels. For that, I am most gladdened.
Prototype 2 (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed]) Developer: Radical Entertainment Publisher: Activision Release: April 24, 2012 MSRP: $59.99
Alex Mercer was the epitome of an anti-hero in Prototype, but this time, he's crossed the line into undisputed villain territory. The Mercer Virus, a mutagen that once turned half of New York into crazed monsters, has been unleashed again, and Alex is the source ... or is he? Or isn't he? In Prototype 2, we play one of the victims, Sergeant James Heller, who lost his family thanks to the virus and now bears a burning hatred of Alex.
Things only get worse when, upon meeting with his enemy, Alex infects James with a strain of the disease that grants him deadly powers and earns the attention of the sinister Blackwatch group -- a private military organization that is using an infested New York like a private laboratory. Quite what Alex is up to, what Blackwatch is planning, and why New York has been overrun once more, all remains to be seen.
As Alex Mercer's unwilling progeny, James Heller has many of the same abilities. As with Prototype, players may freely roam New York at super speeds, with the option to sprint vertically up the sides of buildings, glide through the air, and hit the ground from any height. Yet again, our questionable hero can morph his body to generate a number of vicious weapons, earning claws, tendrils, blades, and whip arms as the game progresses.
Combat has been refined, no longer quite so full of random difficulty spikes. While still chaotic, a very nice balance has been struck between making the player feel powerful, but not thoroughly invincible. That said, controls are still a little unwieldy, with Heller sometimes randomly targeting far-flung opponents, or leaping huge distances through the air without any clear indication of why. That said, fights are usually so sprawling -- involving dozens of opponents in the milder situations -- that anywhere the player lands is usually full of more juicy bodies to slice open.
As the story unfolds, Heller will be able to pilot tanks and helicopters, as well as fling cars and other objects at ridiculous speeds. Every aspect of Heller's powers can be upgraded by investing mutation points, earned by completing objectives or finding hidden collectibles. Mutations are split into categories, such as Locomotion (running, jumping and gliding) and Power (enhancements to Heller's bodily weapons). Each of these categories have multiple skills to unlock, similar to Fallout's "Perk" system -- they even have descriptions and cartoon icons in exactly the same way -- and can have some firmly entertaining influences on the game.
As well as mutations, Heller can upgrade his general abilities by leveling up in the traditional manner. Each time Heller evolves, players can invest a skill point in various attributes, such as health, regeneration, shapeshifting and more. He can also improve his vehicular and weapon skills by targeting specially marked enemies and absorbing them. All told, there's an almost overwhelming amount of customization and improvement that players can make to Heller, and by the end of the game, he'll be literally leaping over buildings in a single bound, slicing huge foes in two, and practically flying from the rooftops.
Absorption yet again plays a major part in Heller's journey, for both regeneration and deception. Any human in the world can be grabbed and ingested, either stealthily or forcefully, allowing the sergeant to take their form and fool the opposition. Many missions involve walking into military bases disguised as a soldier before slowly eating one's way through the building and acquiring a certain target. Heller can "hunt" targets through the city by clicking the left stick and following a pulse that the soon-to-be victim relays back to Heller's position. This feature can also be used to determine which enemies can be seen by their allies, and which can safely be consumed without anybody noticing.
Unlike Mercer, Heller cannot point out enemies and pretend they're him, a great trick which would make soldiers panic and shoot an innocent man. The loss of this skill is a great tragedy, as it was one of the more fun aspects of the last game. Fortunately, Prototype 2 offers us a new toy that is almost as delicious, and consistently hilarious. The Bio Bomb plants a sample of the virus in a person's neck, causing that person to scream and draw the attention of anybody nearby. In a few seconds, the victim will then be pierced by multiple tentacles that spray from his or her body, latch onto nearby objects (and humans) and drag everything back toward the torse at such a rapid pace that it liquefies all living tissue caught in the crunch. Not only is this a great way to draw eyes away from the player, it's also a tremendous amount of sociopathic hilarity.
Prototype 2 answers a number of criticisms the first game had. Boss fights, for example, are more dynamic and aren't prone to artificial difficulty. Infected monsters, hulking super soldiers, and humans with the same "gift" as Heller are waiting to provide a decent challenge, with a combat system that makes a good use of blocking and dodging to create something more fluid and less luck-based than the last game. It's still incredibly anarchic, and sometimes hard to follow, but it's definitely an improvement.
Similarly, side missions are now much more involved. An entire set of optional quests involve Heller taking out key Blackwatch personnel and disrupting the faction's plans. While prone to repetition and some infuriating glorified checkpoint races, these missions are worth doing and they don't feel quite so inane as the out-of-context athletic games that Mercer was expected to undergo in Prototype. For added rewards, players can hunt black box recordings and eliminate field operatives hidden throughout the city, earning new mutations for their efforts.
While Mercer's brand of silly challenges are not in the "proper" game, they have been preserved in the game's purchase incentive, RadNet. RadNet is unlocked via a code found in new copies of the game, and will drip feed a new set of challenges to the player each week. Such challenges involve jumping off buildings and smashing the ground to take out static targets, racing through rooftops within a time limit, or tossing barrels into an incinerator while soldiers try to stop you. These challenges unlock new upgrades, or award extra video content and Avatar/PlayStation Home goodies. However, having had access to seven weeks of content, I have to say that I don't find any of the RadNet missions fun. They're pretty much the same meaningless distractions that annoyed me in the first game, and I found myself more than happy to ignore most of them. At the very least, it's fair to say that this is one pass code that is very optional, mostly because it doesn't provide much in the way of entertainment.
The main game is more than enough amusement, and will provide at least a solid ten hours to get through the main story, with plenty of extra distractions -- and a New Game Plus -- left over. With the power to hide in plain sight, slice through limbs using multiple bodily extensions, steal guns, throw cars, and pilot both tanks and helicopters, there's a great sense of variety to the game. Almost all the abilities of the last game have been retained, with extra new powers such as the summoning of a pack of loyal monsters that tackle multiple opponents or focus on a single target. There's loads to do, tons of upgrades to earn, and three distinct zones of New York to explore, all affected by the virus in their own unique way.
All that said, the game still drags toward the end. Heller can do an insane amount of stuff, but the missions themselves are all fairly uniform and there are few surprises once you've done all that can be done, with plenty of game left to get through. It's always entertaining to jump onto a roof from ground level, and instantly parkouring through the streets by holding down a single button is strangely entertaining, but one does it so much that it becomes almost fatiguing by the end. Similarly, combat can be so overwhelmingly rampageous that it almost feels like too much. There's nowhere to go from Prototype 2's starting point, no crescendo to build to, because it already started on maximum. There's a consistent level of awe, but it's a static level, and definitely wears a little thin toward the end.
One clever way in which this repetition has been combated is with the splitting of New York into the three aforementioned zones -- the yellow zone, green zone, and red zone -- each with their own special atmosphere. The yellow zone is an oppressive place where people are being herded like lab rats, and live at the mercy of Blackwatch's double-edged protection. The green zone is relatively untouched, with people trying to go about their normal lives despite the military presence and attacks from mutants. Meanwhile, the red zone is a place of all-out war, with total devastation and violence in the streets. The zones are a great way to keep the game fresh, and even though players will be doing the same things in all three of them, the change of atmosphere is certainly welcome.
A few issues from the last adventure return, such as a control scheme with so many options that Heller won't always do what you want. It can be quite irritating to have him pick up and throw a barrel when you wanted to consume an enemy for health. It's also a pain to have Heller running up walls when you just wanted him to sprint on the ground, due to the context-sensitive nature of Heller's locomotive powers. The player can sometimes feel ironically powerless, unable to get a grip on a character who will fight with unpredictable results. It's certainly better than the last game, with a targeting system that at least doesn't lock onto the wrong thing quite so much, but there are some notable moments of exasperation to be had.
Still, Radical manages to pull out all the stops at the end for one climactic rumble that I shan't spoil, but is worth getting to. The game's story is also quite intriguing, with a protagonist who feels more rounded than Mercer was as an antihero. As for Mercer himself, I still feel a little disappointed that the game refuses to give him more personality than he has. As an antagonist, he's certainly bumped up the charm a little, and he is presented as a formidable and even seductive foe, but I feel like so much more can be done with him. Hints about his motivation are given throughout the game, providing some opportunities for a truly interesting character that Radical seems disappointingly reluctant to take. Though I always felt Mercer had the potential to be a truly enthralling personality, it seems I shall have to wait yet again for that potential to unlock.
Prototype 2 is far more polished, varied, and ultimately superior to its predecessor. It falters due to us having already seen a lot of what it can do in the last game, and the sheer consistency of the chaos means it never reaches new heights and can drag on a little, but it nonetheless provides a gratuitous binge of bloodthirsty mayhem that should amuse anybody looking for a solid power fantasy. While not quite as fresh as the last installment, Prototype 2 is a laudable step forward for what I hope becomes a continuing series. I feel that the Mercer Virus, its victims, and those that seek to use it, have a lot more to offer, and after this entertainingly homicidal helping, I'm looking forward to whatever may come next.
Simply put, Prototype 2 is your number one choice for anybody who wants to inflict abject biological horror on an entire army of helpless individuals who are nonetheless just nefarious enough for you to feel justified.
Charming - Not perfect, but it's easy to ignore the rough spots when faced with so many engaging design decisions and entertaining moments. A memorable game that's hard not to like and recommend to others.
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