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Before jumping into Prototype 2, there’s something you need to know: its opening moments are kind of awful. Where the first game started us off with a fully powered-up Alex Mercer wreaking havoc in Times Square, the second begins with Sgt. James Heller, a revenge-obsessed but otherwise unremarkable soldier on Mercer’s trail, slowly stalking the virus-powered force of mass destruction in an improbable attempt to kill him with a knife.
Acting as a glorified tutorial, the game’s first hour or so holds your hand to an embarrassing degree, forcing players through linear tasks designed to teach them about the new powers Mercer gives Heller. This while the starting area (possibly based on Jersey City) is socked in with thick fog. It’s a disappointing, cheap-looking opener, but it’s worth powering through for the freedom and immense potential for fun that comes when the game finally opens up.
Like the first game, Prototype 2 sets players loose in New York as a near-indestructible superhero/genetically altered horror, where you fight zombies, hulking mutants and a sinister private army called Blackwatch. Blackwatch patrols the city under orders from the even-more-sinister Gentek corporation, which Mercer identifies to Heller as the real bad guys, thereby redirecting Heller’s revenge mission toward them and making most of the game about dismantling their monster-creating operations.
Really, though, it’s all an excuse for tearing all around New York City – now expanded from Manhattan (which is now a monster-infested “red zone” and isn’t explored until the game’s final act) to two new, less interesting islands that geographically correspond to Jersey City and Brooklyn – and wreaking as much high-speed havoc as possible against pretty much everyone and everything you see. To make this more interesting, Heller evolves an assortment of powers over the course of the game, most of which involve transforming his arms into really gross-looking weapons.
These include a pair of giant claws; a huge, armor-piercing blade; a whiplike tentacle called the Whipfist; a pair of shields that can parry enemy blows and briefly stun them; the Hammerfist, which unleashes devastating blunt-force attacks and can raise spikes out of the ground; and the Tendrils, which – with a charged-up attack – will send tentacles shooting out of enemies in all directions, grab onto whatever’s nearby and then rapidly contract, smashing them with cars, chunks of rubble and other enemies. There’s a similar move called the “Bio-Bomb” that Heller earns later on, which turns humans into tendril grenades, sucking anything nearby into themselves before exploding messily. Throwing one of these into a civilian-crowded sidewalk and witnessing the resultant explosion is nothing short of hilarious, and as much as we’ve used it, it still hasn’t gotten old.
As wild and gory as the combat is, though, it comes with its share of problems, mostly related to the somewhat shaky lock-on system. The game can get pretty crowded and chaotic as the action heats up, and it’s sometimes hard to stay focused on the targets you want to hit, thanks to lock-on's tendency to prioritize bigger enemies. This makes it hard to aim at inanimate objects, or to consume humans when your health is dangerously low during boss fights. Heller himself is part of the problem, too, as his powers can be hard to control at high speeds, causing you to overshoot targets, run up walls when you meant to run around them, and tackle distant non-threats instead of, say, the tank you were trying to hijack.
There’s more to the game than combat, though, and Heller has a few new, less destructive powers that play a significant role in the sequel. In addition to getting some of Mercer’s best abilities (like gliding and throwing cars) almost right off the bat, he can send out a radar pulse to hunt down certain targets. Using it correctly means getting to high ground, sending out a pulse and watching for where it bounces back from. It’s clumsy at first, but with a little practice, it’s a much more interesting way to track your prey than just following a blip on your map.
Like Mercer before him, Heller can “consume” any creatures he defeats, absorbing them for health and (in the case of humans) wearing their form as a disguise after gruesomely tearing them apart with a wide variety of increasingly horrific finishers. (The game doesn’t hold back on the gore, either, as enemies and civilians are routinely and instantly shredded by Heller’s attacks.) Absorbing military personnel lets him sneak into bases and other sensitive places undetected, and in fact Prototype 2 puts a pretty big emphasis on stealth and disguise. Many missions can only be started if you’re disguised as a soldier, and you’ll often need to slip into someone else’s shape when nobody’s looking in order to stop alerts at the end of missions.
A handful of missions even call on you to consume a target without being seen, which you can accomplish by sending out a radar pulse to see who’s being watched and who isn’t (and is therefore safe to eat). It’s oddly satisfying to eliminate the entire population of a military base this way, although maybe not quite as satisfying as smashing into your target, pulping him with your fist and then carving everyone else to ribbons while they plink away at you with their assault rifles and bazookas.
If close-quarters superpowers aren’t cutting it, you can also pick up and wield those assault rifles and bazookas, using a simple lock-on feature to methodically mow down anything in front of you. And once you’ve eaten the right soldiers at certain points in the game, you’ll also be able to jack their APCs, tanks and helicopters (although cars, strangely, can only ever be thrown), yank off their huge armaments to use yourself, or just smash them into scrap with a badass-looking finisher.
Once you’re in full command of Heller’s powers (which takes a while), the game becomes enormously fun, as you run up the sides of skyscrapers, glide through the city and treat the heavily populated streets as a huge, bloody, experimentation-friendly playground. Like Alex Mercer, Heller’s basically a murderous Incredible Hulk with knives for arms, and if you want to go on a crazy, gory, civilian-murdering power-trip rampage, no game does it better than this.
However, there are plenty of games that do other things better than Prototype 2. Story, for example, is among them. For all his cool powers, Heller isn’t a very likeable or fascinating protagonist, crashing through life with exactly one goal: get revenge for his murdered wife and daughter. And while other games (like God of War) found interesting ways to handle this premise, Prototype 2 handles it by making Heller relentlessly grumpy, scowling at his allies in distrust while still going off and doing everything they tell him to.
He is, however, a more noble protagonist than Mercer was; while Heller’s a remorseless killer (and there’s no penalty for killing indiscriminately), he does seem to care that the bad guys are hurting innocent people, and he goes out of his way to stop them. And there is a note of complexity to him, although it doesn’t surface until close to the end of the game.
The mission design isn’t great, either, usually revolving around simple, repetitive tasks that boil down to “eat those guys,” “destroy those things” or “go here before someone else does.” And while that stuff is fun, even relentless destruction can get tedious after a while. Especially in the earlier areas of the game, which – while we applaud the move away from Manhattan, which has been overused as an open-world setting – aren’t as much fun to explore as the borough that gives you a chance to swan-dive off the Empire State Building and leave an impact crater on the street below.
Prototype 2 starts out weak but ends much, much stronger, although its missions and storyline never really rise to a level beyond “enjoyable.” Even so, it’s enormously fun as an open-world playground, especially once all of Heller’s powers are at your disposal; there are always fun ways to experiment, to cause horrific violence and to watch the hapless pedestrians scatter. If you’re looking for an epic, hugely varied adventure, look elsewhere, but if you want a game that lets you run amok in creative, bloody ways, Prototype 2 is pretty incredible.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation 3 as the lead platform.
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