(Xbox 360 Review) Prototype 2

Developer: Radical Entertainment
Publisher: Activision
Genre: Action
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 7 = Good

New York City has not fared well since I last visited the world of Prototype. After the return of the virus that ravaged Manhattan and transformed original protagonist Alex Mercer into a super-powered mutant, the city has become a shadow of its former self. The second, even more potent outbreak of what is now known as the Mercer Virus has ravaged everything in its path. In the 14 in-game months that have passed since order was said to be restored, New York has become New York Zero, a segregated collection of boroughs comprising a three-zone area of contagion where Blackwatch and US soldiers corral citizens and battle the virus’ bloodthirsty creations.

Into this new nightmare steps Sergeant James Heller, a soldier in the US Army called in to help restore order in NYZ. Unlike most of the other troops, Heller requested the assignment for the sole purpose of tracking down and exacting revenge on the man whom he holds responsible for the death of his wife and daughter: Alex Mercer. Since their death during the outset of the latest outbreak, Heller has been a man on edge, discharged and reinstated only because of the dire need for more boots on the ground in the world’s most dangerous hotspot.

The chaos that resulted from the outbreak of the Blacklight virus in Prototype has been surpassed in Prototype 2. New York Zero is comprised of three segmented zones, named after a color-themed threat system to designate relative safety and mutant penetration. The safest area is the Green Zone, which is where the game begins. As Heller unravels the mysteries behind Mercer and Blackwatch, he will gain access to the hazardous Yellow Zone and apocalyptic Red Zone. Despite its standing, the Green Zone is far from trouble-free, as the infected routinely remind the populace that their safety is a tenuous illusion that is maintained only by Blackwatch’s farcical pretensions of doing right. In fact, Blackwatch is just as deadly as any postulating tentacle-flailing beast, raiding makeshift camps and herding people into holding pens from which they never return. As Heller comes to realize the company’s role in the outbreak, he takes up Mercer’s cause and handles them in an equally subtle way: by blowing up and ripping apart everything he possibly can.

This will all be familiar to fans of the original, but what might be surprising is just how familiar it all is—at least, initially. It isn’t until mid-game or so that the many changes really begin to shine through and the game comes into its own. While the gameplay still consists of running and gliding around an open world, picking up quests, and taking part in side events, there is now a greater focus. At the same time, progression doesn’t feel as forced, with the prior’s frustrating bosses replaced with additional side missions that reveal more of the backstory and unlock additional powers. The actual core set of story missions isn’t very long and can be burned through in short order, but that would leave many stones unturned and abilities underpowered.

By hacking into Blackwatch’s network, known as Blacknet, Heller is able to access 23 mission sets that allow him to undermine the company’s efforts. The missions largely follow the same sequence, with Heller first tracking down key personnel by using his sonar-like hunting ability to send out a signal that will ping the mark’s location. After tracking the person down amongst the hordes of soliders, citizens, and monsters, he then has to sneak in close enough to absorb them without being detected, which will allow him to not only take their shape but also peek into their memories. The knowledge he gleans is then used to infiltrate and take down a number of different facilities, including munitions depots, research labs, and testing grounds. The extra story bits, played out during brief and highly stylized full-motion video clips, offer a nice behind-the-scenes look at Blackwatch’s operations, and just how nervous Heller begins to make them as he takes down their men in droves. The missions also unlock ability bonuses, which offer a range of offensive, defensive, power specialist, predator, and locomotion mutation upgrades. Each category offers a variety of perks across the range of attack types and abilities, resulting in anything from an extension of the whipfist’s range, to a higher health increase when consuming enemies.

The events are the primary replay drivers as they don’t lead to any additional insight or story advancement but their scores and accompanying medals go towards a number of unlocks, including new mutations, behind-the-scenes vignettes, and a new skin. These events also tie into RadNet, a service available for free for first-time buyers that offers additional extras for free or when special event sets and challenges are completed. There will be over 50 items by the end of the service’s seven updates, which is still ongoing at the time of this writing. The goals follow a familiar pattern as they are based around mission objectives as well as mutation attack types, such as using a set number of dive attacks to take down enemies or grabbing scattered cargo as quickly as possible. The familiarity helps with racking in the golds and getting the best rewards, but it also makes the set events easier to get through.

The desire to make Heller even more powerful is always at the fore. In channeling the virus’ mutation properties into deadly appendages, Heller’s powers are similar to but slightly different from Mercer’s. Heller is able to morph his torso into a protective shield, his hands and arms into a variety of deadly forms: long claws, giant boulders, tentacles, razor-sharp whips, and a massive blade. Even if the story, with all of its twists and ridiculous tough-guy dialog, is of no interest to you, the optional missions are well worth undertaking just to beef up the powers. The enhancements, mutations, abilities, and attack types are doled out at a steady rate, and by the end, Heller is an absolute monster. One of my favorite powers is the new bio-bomb attack, which injects an enemy with the virus and causes them to shoot out tentacles that grab and yank in nearby objects before they explode in a bloody mess. It’s both effective and hilarious.

By absorbing marked enemies, Heller will upgrade his skills with more conventional weapons and vehicles. During the course of the game, he will run across a range of firearms, from grenade launchers to machine guns, all of which can be used to great effect against both humans and mutants. He will also tangle with tanks, helicopters, and armored transports, and after increasing the appropriate skills, he will be able to launch onto them and have the choice to weaponize them (rip off their weapon and use it), hijack them, or finish them. Finishing a vehicle is a quick way to get rid of a serious nuisance, with a deathblow following a few button taps, while hijacking will allows for the vehicle to be piloted until it’s destroyed. The freedom all of these options offer is fantastic; it’s one thing to glide from roof to roof, but quite another to glide onto a patrolling helicopter, hijack it, and then use it to blow up all of a nearby base’s ground defenses before strolling in on foot.

Of course, it also helps that the strike forces have been seriously toned down. This was a persistent annoyance with the original because the quick ramping up of Blackwatch forces bogged down even the most mundane tasks. While the game is easier as a result, the shift also allows for a better sense of momentum, with the game maintaining a decent clip and offering a stronger sense of Heller being a genuine force to be reckoned with.

Prototype 2 sports a host of other improvements as well. Unfortunately, it also suffers from many lingering problems as well as the same issues that plague other open-world titles. It’s really a matter of degrees, though, as the many changes are noticeable but still fail to iron out the issues; for example, while Heller is easier to control than Mercer, he is still tuned for ‘high action’ and anything that requires a gentler touch—grabbing an item, strolling past a guard—is often difficult due to his constant battle-style reactions (say, automatically running up and backflipping off of any wall he comes into contact with). Similarly, while aiming has been improved, there will still be times when the lock doesn’t hold or the system auto-targets an odd mark, as in the time when I jetted past the nearby scientist to a massive air conditioning unit that I then yanked out of the ground. Needless to say, the guards were tipped off that I was not, in fact, an elderly female supervisor.

Then there are the pesky reoccurring problems with fast-paced action games, especially those with sandbox-like settings. The camera isn’t always able to keep up with all of the movement, often struggling to provide a clear view in the frequently tight indoor spaces. Outdoor brawls can become equally confusing due to clipping problems, with Heller seemingly going inside the base of a tentacle as enemies bound around and go in for the kill. The larger navigable areas outdoors mean this is less of a problem than with indoor encounters, but they can be just as disorienting.

But such problems won’t be new to gamers who have experience with massive worlds, well acquainted as they are with clipping, pop-up, erratic populace AI (surprisingly unfazed by a man who just jumped from the top of a skyscraper), and occasional screen tearing. There are some upsides, though, including some great-looking, varied environments that provide some of the best zombie-apocalypse-style visuals I’ve seen in a game. The various zones not only allow for the action to slowly shift towards larger, more over-the-top encounters, but the gradient also allows for the increasingly blighted environments to have a greater impact. Small and large issues persist throughout, however, and it seems as though we’ll have to wait until the next generation for the hardware to catch up with developers’ open-world ambitions.

On the less-technical side of the scale, a paradoxical struggle has arisen from the desire to create and populate such huge worlds: as the areas expand and technologies advance, it seems that it has become increasingly difficult for developers to come up with enough compelling activities to justify all that space. Whether the protagonist is Ezio, Heller, Mercer, or Spider-Man, few action games are able to match the expanse of their playgrounds with equally varied and engaging missions. A handful of standout titles have, but for the most part, it’s all about saving another person from another ledge, picking another pocket, and gathering another stack of scattered documents. While Prototype 2 doesn’t lack things to do, there just isn’t much variety. Sure, there are lairs to clear, field teams to wipe out, and blackboxes to track down for upgrades, but these short asides don’t break up the monotony that creeps in from tackling the same handful of objectives and handful of events—all sharing the same objective template. And unless these are handled early on when Heller is still evolving, they will be far too easy towards the end. It also seems that not having some Blackwatch minigames was a missed opportunity, what with their already being a good half dozen usable weapons and vehicles. A few missions have Heller shapeshifting and going out on patrol with them, using their armaments to secure evacuation sites and rescue scientists, and after Capcom embraced Resident Evil‘s mercenaries, it seems a natural fit to have a few events based around working incognito against the mutants. That’s more wish-list material, though; I’d just like for this inviting world to want me to stay.

Prototype 2 is undoubtedly a superior game to its predecessor, but that praise is somewhat muted by the fact that I found the original to be a clunky offering. Radical has definitely taken steps in the right direction by offering large, open areas for Heller to run around in and cause insane amounts of havoc, but the story is only a few hours long and the extras are left wanting. While there are events and challenges to tackle, their similarity dulls their allure while their easiness during the last act makes most a walk in the park. A post-game New Game + option and Platinum awards for events opens up, but by then, there’s nothing more to see or do. Prototype 2 is a good game; there just needs to be a lot more of it.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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