Sandbox games seem to be an ever increasing genre on Xbox 360 and whilst offering open worlds with lots of activities contained within, like their first person shooter brethren are becoming somewhat over-familiar experiences. The heady and fast moving backdrop of New York city and an unwitting protagonist are the mainstay of Activision’s Prototype. Cue Alex Mercer, a guy with little recollection of his past and blessed or perhaps cursed with some incredible genetic powers that can alter his form, making him a destructive entity amidst a military filled city which is fast becoming infected with a deadly virus. As convoluted as it sounds, there’s actually some gritty and entertaining depth in the game, but with so many other similar games available does it propel itself above its peers as a game with an anti-hero worth spending time with?
Without drawing too many comparisons with similar titles, looking at Prototype based on its own merits the troubled Alex starts off his adventures fully powered up engaged in the thick of things in Times Square. The deadly virus has spread, and New York’s already crazy citizens are even more crazed as they attack each other and engage in deadly pitch battles with the military’s special task force sent in to clean up the mess. The opening is pretty much a tutorial which eases you into the basics before cold-heartedly stripping away everything that appears to be cool, leaving poor Alex a shadow of his former self.
Once you start the game proper, you’ll have basic jumping/attack skills available and when the story progresses you’ll gradually unlock the chance to upgrade Alex’s powers – eventually regaining the awesomeness he had at the start of the game. New York is a diverse place and with various buildings littering its surface, the most used and prominent feature of the game is navigation. You’re not going to be able to take the easy option and hail a cab to get around, or use the city’s famous subway system. Instead you’ve got to rely on some pseudo parkour skills which go above and beyond what you might see in reality. In some sense of the word, Alex is endowed with superhero like powers which means he’s able to auto jump over any object (within reason) and if a looming skyscraper blocks his path then that’s not really a problem as he’s able to run up the side of it defying all laws of physics in the process – and no he’s doesn’t have rubber sucker like cups attached to his feet either, so these movements are spectacularly fast.
So, you’ve mastered running around denting car roofs and stamping on the odd pedestrian, but the real fun begins when you master the glide and dash moves. Here you’re able to extend your air time with carefully prepared jumps followed by a quick dash forward into a glide. No, Alex does not spout a pair of devil like leathery wings, but instead seems to just glide as if his jacket acts like it provides enough air resistance to keep him airborne, again defying the laws of physics once more. In fact if you’re going to sit there and compare the game to something realistic, then you might as well switch off and watch the discovery channel. There’s nothing realistic about the game at all, bar the re-created look of the city. This brings us to the next gameplay feature and one that is pretty broken. The developers made the decision to base Alex’s character on the famous T-2000 from the Terminator 2 movie, in fact in more ways than one. So, other than being able to sprout sharp and pointy objects from his mass, he’s also able to ‘consume’ any person and take on their form, yes just like the T-2000. This gameplay element allows for some stealth based gameplay as Alex loses his modern day ‘hoodie’ appearance for the multitude of pedestrians, cops and military personnel. A meter on-screen shows when people are suspicious and if his actions get too obvious then the shit hits the fan and the military closes in on him. Linger too long or cause enough havoc, then the military grunts will call in the strike teams who are a little more formidable.
Now here’s where the game becomes totally stupid, that’s not to say it doesn’t work, it just feels like lazy design that over compensates for a lack of confidence in gamers playing skills. Let’s say Alex grabs hold of a lone military guard in a quiet back alley and assumes his look. After the rather messy consume animation he’s free to now wander the city in disguise. That’s fine, but what is stupid and undermines the whole stealth mechanic is the AI are as blind as bats – or perhaps regular citizens are able to casually run up the side of buildings or glide through the air without breaking a sweat? Alex can run like a speeding bullet yet this is apparently normal behaviour in New York. He can jump several stories high, again this obviously happens every day in the city and he can also run up buildings and fly around literally feet away from others with no ill effects. Whoever made this design choice must have been smoking something. Ok, other superheroes get away with it because, well that’s expected of them and New York has gotten used to it. Yet in this case, when Alex is supposed to be stealthy it just doesn’t look or feel right in context of the game. Sure, it’s fun to be able to just take off up a skyscraper and to lose the heat, but the whole idea is just ill conceived.
Moving on, the game begins to really come into its own once the virus starts spreading rapidly, the process being tied to how many story related missions you complete. With a readily available map on the HUD you’ll never get lost trying to figure out where to go next, as missions, infected areas, military controlled zones and other activities are clearly marked. With a mixture of regular citizens and zombies amongst similar foul creatures, that’s not implying the regular folk are horrid in any way… ahem; hell comes to the city as mass carnage ensues. You’ve got Alex the lone entity trying to figure out his past, you’ve got the military trying to clean up the mess and then you’ve got zombies and other oddities running rampant attacking everyone who gets in the way. It’s a right mess and just the perfect backdrop for Alex to let loose his frustrations – especially once you’ve amassed enough super powers to become totally awesome. Outside of any missions you’re free to run riot and join in the fun and games which is quite satisfying to say the least.
As with any sandbox game there are a plethora of side activities to engage in and these offer variants of what you are required to do during the story. There are plenty of them to unlock and for purists you can even obtain ratings, which in turn you can try to beat. On top of that, throw in some obligatory hidden items and you’ve got plenty to sink your teeth, or claws into. What is pretty rewarding is a web of intrigue feature which requires you to grab certain people scattered around the city (these are clearly marked when close by). Consuming these poor souls means you’ll be treated to some of the most impressive uses of imagery in a game to date. Each time you consume one of these people a short clip will play, filling in more of the overall story – alongside a number of still images which range from very disturbing to sublime. If you’ve got a weak stomach then be warned.
Prototype is a bit of a let-down in the graphics department and here’s why. Where other similar games have somewhat offered personality to play areas, this game seems to have taken a step back as things like cars and pedestrians are lifeless and dull. You’ll see twins, no sextets, no forget that, entire groups of people who look identical thus really making the inhabitants feel truly like cannon fodder. There’s no moral choices here as you drive a tank across cars, pregnant mothers, the aged and fluffy cute kittens. Ok that’s not entirely true but the principle is the same. There’s no love either, like you spot a rather sexy looking NPC and think to yourself, ‘wow she’s hot I best not land this helicopter on top of her then’. Basically the New Yorkers are there for producing the effect of numbers and nothing more.
The city itself, the combat, and to a degree the driving of tanks is pretty fluid, so no complaints there, it’s just in general the look of the game has a rough edge to it when compared to its peers – however it’s questionable whether this would actually hamper your enjoyment of the game. It shouldn’t really, but…we live in graphics hungry times don’t we.
The hustle and bustle of the big apple is effective, and it’s quite satisfying to make the girls scream and the guys scream like girls as you impale a passer by with your sharp pointy thing. As they run away in fear it’s like you’re left standing there scratching your head saying ‘awww but I was only playing’. Alex is gravely voiced, but as convincing as you can expect for a guy who can shape-shift and perform acts that we can only dream about in real life. He’s voiced well enough albeit somewhat cliché and with some lines of script that will either have you cringing or transfixed you’ll certainly gel with the character – perhaps it’s the hood. Hooded characters are always cool right? The voice acting in general is varied, and whilst there’s a lot of the usual military speak, when fused with performances from the many characters you’ll meet or maim, you’ve got enough variation to keep things on an entertaining level.
The music is pretty nondescript or should that be non existent in places. For the most part there enough noise in the game that having an additional layer of audio applied could induce a headache, that’s not to say there isn’t any, more like it’s non intrusive. This is quite a distinct design choice and in a way quite refreshing, as it means you can focus on being immersed into the game world without the need for emotive sounds to drive you along.
With plenty of missions on offer and as already mentioned a huge number of secondary activities, there’s certainly enough to keep you entertained for quite some time – well worth the price of admission that’s for sure. With some pretty tricky achievements to strive for as well, and you’ve got a game that could last you for months. When you factor in the enjoyment of just running around causing more chaos to the already chaotic madness then for most gamers they should have an enjoyable ride through the game. Does this translate well to multiple plays? Possibly not, but then again your first run through is always going to be a lengthy blast if you complete all that’s on offer.
Sadly there are no co-op options and thankfully there’s no tacked on multiplayer to cause distraction, although in honesty the former would have been greatly appreciated. perhaps this is something to look forward to as downloadable content in the future?
It’s probably pretty easy to pigeon hole Prototype as yet another superhero style sandbox game, and in a sense that’s very true; yet in a twisted and skewed way, Alex the anti hero is likeable and enjoyable to play as despite his whole world being shrouded in over-familiarity. With some questionable gameplay elements, that with a little more tweaking could have made the game a little deeper, Prototype is a very accessible game which all in all is a good thing. It’s a new IP and it’s not always beneficial to alienate your potential audience from the get go by trying to be too diverse from what’s expected. In this regard the game fulfils its promise and provides an entertaining experience which should appeal to action gamers across the globe, more so if you’re actually a citizen of New York – perhaps in this case it’s a dream come true.
If you’re after a game which isn’t overly complex, smothered in excessive violence, has a tangible yet far fetched and uncomplicated storyline, then Alex and his powers should be right up your street, alley, road or city, whatever suits. There’s enough meat and two veg here to keep the most particular of gamers happy and if you have a distastes for the overly aggressive and fast talking New Yorkers, well now’s your chance to exact revenge without the risk of becoming America’s most wanted. Good times.