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If you’ve ever played 2005’s The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction (or the lukewarm 2008 follow-up from Sega), then you know that its “hero” aspect is largely inconsequential. Who cares about saving puny humans when you can make boxing gloves out of their cars and smash their buildings into rubble? Being a rampaging monster was a lot more fun than trying to be a good guy, and that was something Radical Entertainment – also the developer of Ultimate Destruction – seems to have taken to heart when creating Prototype.
Above: Go on, embrace your inner murderbeast. You know you want to
While it looks like a standard superhero game, Prototype is really more about running amok through Manhattan as an unstoppable force of nature. Its protagonist, Alex Mercer, has been infected by a virus that’s turning everyone else into zombies and oversized mutants, but in his case has just given him amnesia and a fat portfolio of really gross superpowers. As the island gradually descends into zombie-infested chaos, Alex has to contend not only with swarms of increasingly monstrous infected, but also with the trigger-happy military, who are hell-bent on killing him before he uncovers the truth about his identity.
To help him survive, Alex has a staggering array of powers and special attacks, most of which revolve around turning his arms into weird implements of destruction. Busting out a set of claws enables him to slash his enemies to ribbons and impale them with underground spikes, while the telescoping “whipfist” can slice large crowds of enemies (or civilians) in half, hit distant enemies and grab helicopters for easy skyjacking. His “hammerfist” power turns his hands into huge, heavy spheres for blunt-force trauma, and transforming one of his arms into a single huge blade enables him to slice open tanks in seconds. Infrared and “Infected” vision powers help him single out enemies when the action gets too thick, he can grow a suit of armor to protect himself from the game’s tougher enemies and - when his health is either really high or really low – he can bust out massive “Devastator” attacks capable of killing everything around him.
Above: Sort of like this
Oh, and he can fly. Or something awfully close to it, once you’ve fully unlocked his air-dash and gliding abilities. Used in tandem, they can give you a boosted glide that’s good for covering large distances in a hurry. Finally, Alex is able to use any weaponry dropped by soldiers, ranging from M-16s to heat-seeking bazookas, although this aspect doesn’t get really cool until you’ve gained the ability to call in airstrikes or jack tanks and helicopter gunships. (That said, the canned animation that accompanies every tank-jacking could have stood to be a lot shorter, as Alex’s posing makes it more likely he’ll get knocked off the tank by a rocket before climbing inside.)
You’ll need to play for a while before you earn all this stuff, of course, but Prototype plays it smart by starting out near the end of its story, offering a quick taste of what full-powered Alex can do in a completely infested Times Square. Once that’s over, you’re sent – via flashback - to square one. The city quiets down and you’re left pining for those kickass abilities, which have been reduced to just sprinting up walls, throwing cars and chunks of scenery, and absorbing people to get a health boost and the ability to disguise yourself as them.
Thankfully, you’ll feel like you’re earning those powers back quickly. In its first few hours, Prototype rewards you with tons of “evolution points” for every mission you accomplish, every military base you clear out and every infected fiend you consume, enabling you to unlock awesome new powers every few minutes. It’s not until fairly late in the game that a feeling of grinding through levels sets in, although by that point the upgrades are strictly optional, and you’ll have unlocked so many that you’ll probably have a hard time keeping track of them anyway.
Above: Seriously, there’s like 113 of these things to unlock
There’s one caveat: the more powerful you become, the more likely you are to notice one of Prototype’s central flaws: the controls are great for blasting around like a high-speed madman, but they can be a tantrum-inducing bastard when you need them to be precise. If you’re trying to scale narrow surfaces (like the pinnacle of the Empire State Building, for example), you’ll need to take it extremely slow if you don’t want to leap out into space – and even then, Alex might inexplicably hurl himself off the building with no input from you. Similarly, the game’s rooftop races can quickly turn frustrating if you’re not careful, as a careless flick of a thumbstick while air-dashing can send Alex careening in the exact opposite direction you wanted, usually off a building.
While we’re on the topic of exploration, it’s worth pointing out that games set in Manhattan – particularly sandbox games – are anything but novel at this point. We’ve played in versions of New York’s central borough dozens of times, as superheroes, cops and criminals, and by now it’s old hat. Prototype’s version, however, has three things going for it: it’s filled with crowds of civilians who scream, scatter and panic when you start unleashing ultraviolence. The scenery usually goes by so fast that any familiarity you might have with it doesn’t matter. And it’s the most detailed rendition of Manhattan in a superhero sandbox game to date.
If you need further proof, we’ve grabbed hold of three other Manhattan-set superhero games of varying quality – The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man 3 and Spider-Man: Web of Shadows – and compared them on two arbitrary criteria to see how Prototype stacks up.
Above: Alex’s view into the distance is hazy during the day, but becomes a little clearer at night when the lights snap on
The Incredible Hulk
Above: The Hulk’s version of Manhattan is beset by a horrible fog that turns all buildings into vague gray lumps. That, or he has horrible eyesight and it’s extremely realistic
Above: Tobey Maguire’s skline stretches into the distance a little more uniformly, but seeing its ugly buildings in sharp relief does them no favors
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows
Above: The Manhattan of Spidey’s make-up outing doesn’t look all that great up close, but damn does it ever look sharp at a distance
Above: Prototype’s Times Square keeps the lights on even in the face of disaster, sending a clear message to the world that New York will not let the giant tentacle monsters win
The Incredible Hulk
Above: Hulk’s version of Times Square is nothing special, but at least you can hurl stuff at all those paid ads and knock them off their buildings
Above: There’s nothing wrong with Tobey’s Times Square, but the rest of the game is terrible so we’re going to declare this awful
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows
Above: Web’s Times Square is a hell of a lot prettier than the last two versions, but that’s not really saying much. Also, try not to stare too hard at Spidey’s ass
Exploration aside, the combat’s a lot of fun, even if it tends to boil down to just pointing yourself in the general direction of the enemy and mashing buttons to rip shit up. For tasks requiring more finesse, there’s a quick lock-on targeting system that enables you to easily single out enemies for punishment, although it’s not quite as good at prioritizing (for example) the soldier right next to you over the tank that’s two blocks away). Given Prototype’s strong emphasis on superpower-assisted hand-to-hand brutality and the absolute expendability of almost every living thing in the game, however, this is usually only a problem when you’re trying to use guns or snatch a specific individual out of a crowd.
Above: Most of the time you can do OK by just mashing the attack buttons
Prototype’s Manhattan is also littered with a slew of broadly varied side activities, which range from obsessively collecting meaningless “landmark” orbs to rooftop races, Pilotwings-style gliding challenges and weapon/power-specific rampages. The coolest ones are the “Consume” events, which involve tracking down a marked zombie or soldier and then either destroying an infected hive building, absorbing a few more marked soldiers for their memories or – best of all – slipping into a military base in disguise and stealth-consuming the specialized officers inside.
There is, of course, a point to all this. As you crash through the game’s story missions, Alex’s search for identity becomes a pitched battle to understand the virus before it (or the military) reduces Manhattan to a wasteland. It’s not that Alex is particularly heroic – he has zero compunction about devouring terrified civilians in broad daylight and assuming their forms – but stopping the spread of the virus and rescuing Manhattan from annihilation jibes neatly with his desire to hunt down every last person responsible for his condition and devour them.
Above: It only gets more disgusting from this point
When Alex consumes certain people – like the targets in a lot of his missions, or the wandering targets of opportunity scattered throughout the city – he gets a glimpse of their memories, which are then added to a massive flowchart called the “Web of Intrigue.” As Alex gains more memories, connections will appear between the ones he’s gathered. While not essential to the game, completing the Web is a cool way to find out the full story behind Alex’s identity, the virus project, the military’s plans and the histories of some of the former test subjects that show up as monstrous bosses.
Speaking of bosses, don’t expect the game to go easy on you once they show up. As you wander through Prototype’s Manhattan, you might start to feel a little invincible, as just about any common enemy – even the goddamn Strike Teams that get called down every time some Marine catches you flying – can be quickly killed or escaped from without much bother, especially if you’ve unlocked a lot of your superpowers. The bosses, by contrast, will make you feel like a punk.
Above: One of those little sub-bosses that later becomes commonplace
Often best described as “total bullshit,” the bosses are dead-set on killing you, hard to get away from and tend to take very little damage from your attacks. They can kill you quickly if you go toe-to-toe with them, and one of them even vomits jets of boulders at you every time you try to get close enough to attack. There’s always a strategy to defeating them, of course, but finding out what it is usually takes a little experimentation and a lot of dying (or a lot of consumed victims, if you’re lucky enough to be near a steady supply and can keep them from being continually knocked away).
If nothing else, they're at least suitably epic - the biggest battle fills huge chunks of Times Square with disgusting, bulbous tentacles - and in a game of Prototype's size, there are always plenty of things to do that don't involve fighting them. You won't get far unless you do, but there are always crowds to disembowel and military bases to level with counterfeit airstrikes. And that's a big part of Prototype's charm: when you want to just haul off and smack an entire city in the face, it's there for you.
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows?
Yes. Web of Shadows is fun and all, but it feels flimsy and cartoony next to Prototype. And while both games make you watch as Manhattan descends into zombie-infested chaos, only Prototype’s zombies are bloated grotesques you can slice to gory ribbons. Also, Spider-Man can’t drive tanks, and his web-swinging feels even less precise than Alex’s gliding. This one’s no contest.
The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction?
Yes. Of course Prototype is better than the last-gen Ultimate Destruction, but seeing as it’s that game’s spiritual successor, it’s still worth a quick comparison. Prototype and Ultimate Destruction have an extremely similar feel and control scheme, and UD’s DNA is evident in everything from Prototype’s wall-running to Alex’s ability to hurl cars at helicopters with lock-on precision. But Prototype smooths a lot of UD’s rough edges, and presents a bigger adventure in a cooler city, with a more interesting plot. Really, the only things we’re sad to see missing are the ability to punch buildings into rubble, and the boxing gloves Hulk would make out of cars. Those were a lot of fun.
Maybe. As we stated in the review for inFamous, Prototype and inFamous are substantially different games; inFamous is a little slower and much more deliberate, with gameplay that feels a little more like an open-world shooter, while Prototype is a wilder, anything-goes sandbox brawler. But there are still unshakeable (if superficial) similarities between the two. Both revolve around wild talents awakened by a disaster, both feature upgradeable powers that grow and evolve as you pursue the story and both take place in quarantined cities filled with climbable buildings and enjoyably inane side tasks. And both, for some reason, feature a mission in which your task is to go around dealing with contagion-spewing water towers, which is a weird coincidence.
Ultimately, inFamous feels more focused and restrained, while Prototype curb-stomps focus and hurls restraint through a plate-glass window. InFamous will appeal more to those seeking a more morally centered superhero experience, but Prototype is freer, faster, more varied and more fun.
Although it’s beset by blandish graphics and wickedly uneven difficulty, Prototype delivers a fast-paced, relentlessly amoral and wonderfully brutal sandbox adventure in a detailed city filled with cool things to see and do. Alex Mercer might not be the most sympathetic “hero” out there, but then again, most sympathetic heroes don’t have arms that turn into huge, razor-sharp whips.