Review: Prototype

Radical Entertainment’s Prototype has been a long time coming. The promise of shape-shifting slaughter in an open world was met with an equal mix of excitement and trepidation from gamers, but the game is finally out and judgement can be cast. A game with an anti-hero like Alex Mercer could go either way — it could be a delightfully violent romp full of ceaseless fun, or it could be a frustrating, unpolished mess of wasted potential.

Naturally, it’s both. Read on as Jim Sterling, Conrad Zimmerman and Brad Nicholson review Prototype. Full credit for our video review goes entirely to Rey. 

Prototype: (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC)
Developer: Radical Entertainment
Publisher: Activision
June 9, 2009
MSRP: $59.99

Jim Sterling:

Alex Mercer wakes up in a morgue to find that something’s not right. The city of New York has been infected with a virus that’s turning its denizens into monsters, and Mercer seems to be at the center of it all, making an enemy of the military and a mysterious organization known as Blackwatch. He also finds himself in possession of superhuman abilities, chief among them the power to absorb living matter and change his shape accordingly. 

The story is a very typical “shadowy plot to create a biological weapon gone wrong,” but it’s delivered with style and contains a few surprising little twists here and there. The main campaign will give you the bulk of the tale, but it’s only through filling out the “Web of Intrigue” that Alex will piece together the full puzzle. Mercer not only consumes people’s bodies, he takes their minds too, allowing him to learn new skills and information. Contained around the city are people with knowledge of the conspiracy, and if Alex absorbs them, he knows what they know. 

The Web of Intrigue is a clever and unique little system that, while not a revolutionary form of exposition, keeps the game rather interesting. Discovering, hunting and ingesting targets remains fun throughout the game, and some really cool scenes can be unlocked in doing so. It’s just a shame that the characters are not very compelling. I’d have loved for Mercer to be more sardonic, especially as he shows flashes of personality now and then, with an evil smirk or a swaggering boast. Unfortunately, he spends so much of the game moaning and smoldering that it’s difficult to find him likable the way an amoral protagonist needs to be.

Of course, nobody cares too much about story when there’s killing to be done, and the sheer volume of death on offer is staggering. Alex is a shapeshifter, and that naturally means he’ll be transforming himself into all manner of vicious and sadistic weapons. As Alex gains experience and attains upgrades, he’ll be able to turn his arms into claws, hammers, whips and blades. Each new combat power brings with it its own set of upgrades and special moves, and Prototype seeks to constantly reward players, showing them with so-called “Evolution Points” and constantly serving fresh abilities to unlock. 

As well as combat, Alex is also quite skilled at zipping his way around the city. Holding down a shoulder button will cause Alex to sprint and automatically jump over cars, push through crowds and dash up buildings. Despite the simplicity of the input, it remains immensely fun to have Alex tear it across town so fluidly. Once players access the Glide and Air Dash abilities, the movement becomes more interactive and even more fun. 

Ironically, perhaps the most enjoyable moments of Prototype are to be found during the downtime between fights. A rudimentary stealth system is in place, making use of Alex’s ability to blend in with civilians and soldiers. Consuming a member of the military allows Alex to stroll into military bases, and he can get even deeper in if he sneakily tracks and consumes a base commander. While not truly stealth, it’s incredibly fun to wander among your oblivious, moronic enemies. It becomes downright hilarious when one unlocks the “Patsy” ability, gaining the power to accuse other soldiers of being you, whereby he’ll be gunned down by his former allies. 

As much fun as Prototype is, however, it has its frustrating moments. Many of them. Some of the side missions have considerably tight time limits, but the control system is far too loose to cope with them. Making Alex run up buildings automatically is great when you’re not in a hurry, but he’s far too unwieldy when you need to get somewhere quickly, and the in-game map is not very good at helping you find a location in a pinch, especially as it often makes targets appear closer than they are. A number of enemies are also infuriating to contend with, able to shrug off your attacks but nail you with their own and break your combos, and every now and then you’ll just get swamped with foes that specialize in countering everything you can do, which ends up more irritating than challenging.

At times the game suffers simply from trying to do too much. Hijacking vehicles can be difficult because there are so many options that you risk Mercer doing the wrong thing and stuffing it up. The same is true when it comes to grabbing enemies. Sometimes I’ve killed a crucial consumption target because Mercer is hard to control (that’s when other enemies didn’t accidentally kill it for me). The sheer volume of abilities is also a pain in the arse to select from, with a wheel you access in bullet-time. Finding the right ability in a snap is annoying, and once you unlock the Blade power, you’ll probably just want to stick with it, negating the other powers altogether. Reserving a button for a simplified scroll-through selection would have been a nice option to make changing gears on the fly a little simpler. 

A few words should also be reserved for the game’s terrible targeting system. Mercer can lock on to enemies with a click of a trigger and scroll through targets with a flick of the right stick. Unfortunately, the game decides what is the “most dangerous” enemy and locks onto that one first, even if the most dangerous enemy is a harmless base several miles away and not the helicopters that are three feet away and shooting right at you. In addition, one gets so used to using the right stick as a camera control, that it becomes a pain in the arse to remember not to change targets accidentally while locked on.

Prototype has problems. Lots of problems. Luckily, it’s also one of the most fun and thrilling games to have come out in a while. Its flaws stop the game from being considered superb, but it’s such a blast and there is so much to play with that it remains a great title. Even the repetitive side missions feel fresh simply because Alex has so many toys at his disposal. If you’re a fan of uninhibited violence or just like to screw around with the heads of faceless military grunts, then this is definitely worth picking up. 

Score: 8.0 

Brad Nicholson:

You don’t want shake Alex Mercer’s hand. He isn’t a nice guy. He doesn’t have any traits that a person can find adorable or admirable, nor does his revenge story inspire empathy. As I played Prototype, I thought I figured out who Alex Mercer was: a maniac bent on destroying himself and the things he used to cherish. A late plot point reveal did nothing to wipe his unclean image from my mind.

Mercer’s disregard of morals was a high point for me. It made Prototype playable.

At the end of every mission or confrontation with the military, a tally informed me the cost of my actions. Rarely did that tally — especially towards the end of the game — tell me that I didn’t kill the innocent. In fact, I usually killed more civilians than I did military or “infected” creatures-slash-humans. If I were forced to care about every Toyota I crushed or penalized for every soul I consumed for health, the game would have been unplayable. Prototype is much too populated with the weak.

While it was probably a simple design decision, I found myself consumed with Mercer’s appetite for destruction — his antihero swagger. Occasionally, I felt like I was controlling Riddick again, except Mercer doesn’t flash brutish strength or disassociation. He’s a The Crow figure, bent on revenge and regretting having something stripped from him in a past life. Even his cadence spoke that parallel to me.

Prototype does a wonderful job illustrating Mercer’s freakish powers and ability to annihilate. The inky blackness that consumes and creeps up his body as he summons his dark powers is a beautiful touch — it makes every leap between buildings, every shattered vehicle or building that much more emotionally powerful. The occasionally reddened horizon, progressive worsening of city infrastructure, and twisted people who aid him on his quest are the perfect frame for Mercer’s violence and disregard.

Yet, as brilliant as the presentation is, it doesn’t make up for the game’s broken mechanics.

Mercer is a particularly fast fellow, and I often found myself fussing with the camera whenever I was forced to make aerial reverses, quick jumps from attacks, or even initiate combat before the game believed me to be ready. In a few words, I found the camera to be too slow for Mercer — a problem considering the game’s pace of battle that often had me fighting countless villains at once with a variety of powers that require speed.

I also struggled with the game’s combo system, which is a combination of simple button presses. Beyond the fodder, the game’s complex monsters refuse to allow you to pull off more than one or two actions before they spill into a loop of attacks that can crush Mercer within seconds. Thus, you’re forced into quick-strike actions that aren’t effective on the heaviest foes. This wouldn’t exactly be an issue if several enemies — often of the heavy variety — weren’t consistently surrounding me.

Plus, the heavier attack combinations are often initiated with the same button presses required to do other stuff. There was one boss fight towards the latter half of the game where I found this shortsighted combo system particularly frustrating: Prototype expected me to pull off a special maneuver in a spectacularly short amount of time. Even though I pressed the two buttons required of the attack, I would often spill into a series of quick strikes — the wrong action. As a result, my health would be greatly decreased or occasionally massacred within seconds.

Boss fights in Prototype are clunky and don’t allow you to play the way you have been playing the game — by wrecking and overpowering. They’re boring tit-for-tat affairs, worsened by having to constantly navigate hordes of fodder monsters during the confrontation. Taking my eye off the prize with annoying and often deadly base monsters isn’t a good thing.

My combat frustrations go further: I can never seem to recover enough health to do the tasks set before me — all of which are huge. When the big monsters slam me for huge damage, I have no way out. When missile barrages nearly put an end to me, I have no clear-cut way out — the AI will doggedly pursue and put the final bullet in my freakish back. Even if there is a harmless civilian for me to consume, he’ll get blasted from my arms the second before I can put him in my belly and thus my health bar. It’s a bummer — I feel like there’s so much fun that I could be having.

But should I be running away? I often asked myself that while playing. Prototype builds you up and teaches you to control Mercer as if he were a wrecking ball, capable of weathering anything. I didn’t appreciate the momentum drops brought on by the above.

Outside of the fighting realm, the structure of the game is annoying. Like most open-world action titles, you’ll find yourself doing side missions in order to get rewards, or in Prototype’s case, gaining experience points to learn more moves. These missions are of beat-the-clock variety that had me doing a variety of meaningless things: navigating rooftops, defending or attacking buildings, killing, and consuming victims. These are initially entertaining, but fall flat after the third time through.

A recovery of sorts is the stealth system, which is entertaining but flawed. Changing shapes and assuming the look of a guard is a great way to avoid fussing with the camera and combination system: you can hijack tanks and helicopters — two things that throw your powers away.

was an odd game for me to play. I’ve never had the problem where I really wanted to play a game but disliked it so much. Prototype has a stunning world and an interesting antihero. I loved Mercer’s recklessness and the lack of punishment for assuming his identity. But I found it hard to stomach the side missions, ridiculous boss fights, camera, and combat system.

My suggestion is to rent Prototype and see how you can deal.

Score: 6.5

Conrad Zimmerman:

The story of Alex Mercer’s quest for vengeance is not a particularly novel or interesting one. We’ve seen it countless times in videogames and this example is nothing special in terms of plot, pacing or theme. The presentation of said story, however, is excellent. 

The Web of Intrigue, a series of nodes representing people in New York City who would have some knowledge of what happened to Alex is a great idea. Consuming certain individuals fills in a little bit of the story through a cutscene and unlocks more links in the Web. It’s a lot of fun to eat these people and see what they know and I often found myself abandoning a mission to grab these targets.

It’s just too bad that the meandering story doesn’t deserve such a cool implementation. At one twist, characters that I had spent hours becoming invested in get casually tossed out of the story. You never hear anything about them ever again, despite being last seen at what would likely be a critical moment. They ceased to be of value to the narrowly focused narrative and were therefore written off. Once I figured that out, I was hard-pressed to bother caring about anyone else in the story lest they suffer the same fate.

The very first moments of Prototype are utterly thrilling. Huge monsters, waves of mutated enemies and massive tanks fell beneath my awesome power as I navigated the game’s tutorial section, set near the end of the story. My immediate rection was one of fear. Was I fated to hour upon hour of gameplay just to work towards the point where I can feel like this again?

The answer is an emphatic, “No.”

The first reason for this is the manner in which Prototype heaps new powers and experience points onto the player. Upon completion of the very first mission, the game unlocks in the neighborhood of twenty abilities for you to buy. And experience can be earned in a ton of ways very easily, so it’s not hard to snap up most powers soon after they become unlocked. The flow does not slow much either, with abilities opening up like a floodgate initially and not really petering out until the last third of the game.

Some abilities are not simply granted to you by spending a requisite quantity of experience points. These skills must be acquired by consuming people who already possess them. Aptitude with firearms, artillery and helicopters are earned by infiltrating military bases and making lunch out of specific people. While the stealth system in the game may be a bit over-simplified, it is still incredibly satisfying to skulk around a base to wait for your target to be unobserved and then step into the greasy spot where his body was before you ate it looking just like him.

The difficulty curve in the game is such that you can feel potent from beginning to end so long as you remain versatile. Every situation has a solution which can give you the sense that you have utterly dominated your opponents. Walking directly into enemies and tearing them limb from limb accounts for a good chunk of scenarios but many benefit from the use of stealth or guerilla tactics. The variety and freedom to devise new approaches to missions is very welcome.

It’s this difficulty curve that helps keep what would become bland side missions feeling fresh and interesting. Nobody is going to have a great time infiltrating their tenth base as presented in the initial missions of the game. Add in more devices able to detect Alex in his disguised form and the late-game supersoldiers who can see through it as well as pummel the crap out of you, and you have a challenging, different experience than you had early on.

Lots of these missions have time limits but they’re usually pretty reasonable. I ran into one mission in which I was to kill as many enemies as possible using Alex’s ability to swing a massive tendril where the time limit was really an issue (due to the spawn points for enemies). The vast majority of diversions can be accomplished fairly easily if you’re willing to invest the time to practice them a bit.

Main story missions quickly become chaotic affairs with Alex stuck in the middle of a rapidly escalating war between the infected and the military. It’s a bit easy to lose your head (figuratively and literally) in the midst of everything going on and the game’s camera and targeting systems do little to make the player feel more comfortable at the outset. With time and practice, you can learn to manipulate both of these elements in such a way that makes combat feel fluid and natural, but players should probably not be expected to train themselves in the use of a mechanic which should function in a self-explanatory manner in the year 2009.

As Brad mentioned above, boss encounters are a problem. They break up the momentum of the game horribly by forcing you to slog through a long, drawn out battle where you ping them for a little bit of damage and avoid getting hit as much as possible. While it seems clear that the intent was for boss encounters to be epic and a little terrifying, it winds up being quite dull. They are wars of attrition in a game where you are built to blitzkrieg. 

And, while I’m bitching, I don’t much care for a lot of the graphical design. Oh, sure, Alex looks great. The attention to detail pretty much begins and ends with him, however. It’s been a while since I’ve visited New York, but I don’t remember it being as clean and without character as the city Alex Mercer lives in. Likewise, character models for nearly all foes and civilians are bland and poorly animated.

It doesn’t much matter because the game succeeds in making you feel awesome. It’s full of moments where you perform something for the first time and it’s just so brutal that you get a little giddy. He may not be unstoppable but Alex Mercer is more than capable. It’s a blast to play and I had a great time from start to finish. Absolutely worth playing.

Score: 8.0

Overall Score: 7.5 — Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)

Destructoid Staff