During the last console generation, we saw a widespread proliferation of superhero games. Amidst the slew of X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman games, Radical Entertainment’s Hulk Ultimate Destruction stood out as the most visceral, chaotic and action-packed superhero title of its time. Radical’s newest open-world, superpowered adventure, Prototype, is a spiritual successor to the Hulk’s groundbreaking title, and while it offers many of the same primal thrills, there’s very little heroism to be found. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a blast to play.
Prototype stars Alex Mercer, an amnesiac with astonishing powers who doesn’t know how he got them. The main crux of the game’s story is Alex’s quest to recover his memories, destroy the infected beings that have overrun the city, and stop the infection at the source. Despite the relatively by-the-numbers storyline, the game’s mix of in-engine cut-scenes, in-game narration, and a series of unlockable memories make the plot all but incomprehensible. Combine that with Mercer’s surly lack of personality, and you’ve got a backstory that most players will ignore altogether. Normally, this isn’t too much of a problem in a high-octane action title like this, but there are situations where the weak story actually affects gameplay. It’s often difficult to tell why you’re performing the tasks that are asked of you. Several times during my playthrough, I found myself completing missions without knowing how I had done so, and without really trying to.
Anyone who has played Hulk Ultimate Destruction will be instantly familiar with Prototype’s controls. Attacks and jump are mapped to the face buttons, while the left trigger targets enemies. It’s usually easy to switch your target by flicking the right stick while holding the left trigger, but it can get confusing when dozens of enemies are around, especially when they’re at different altitudes. As you progress s through the 10-12 hour story, you’ll unlock and upgrade dozens of new abilities. Mercer’s arsenal of moves and weapons is quite impressive, and includes everything from the ability to glide great distances to a whip-arm that can grab enemies from far away to a cannonball drop ability that sends you plummeting to Earth with the power of a meteor. These moves can be combined in almost infinite ways with Alex’s superhuman speed and strength, creating a combat experience that is fast, frenzied, and exhilarating. There’s vehicular combat in the forms of helicopters and tanks, and while they pack their own impressive firepower, they also explode a bit too easily to be frequently useful. Stealth elements exist at the fringe of the game, but they feel a bit tacked on and random. It’s a shame, too, because the underlying absorption mechanic where you steal health and memories from enemies and pedestrians is actually quite interesting.
A steep learning curve keeps things challenging, but there is some imbalance to the mission structures. At certain points, you’ll run into missions that take less than a minute to complete, then embark on a mission that can take up to an hour. Also, during the last 2-3 hours of the game the difficulty seems to ramp up to insane levels. Difficult enemies is one thing, but when you die repeatedly from completely unavoidable attacks, frustration sets in pretty quickly. It can be a fun challenge to figure out the best offensive/defensive combo to use against difficult enemies, but there are still moments of pure aggravation. Most of these, however, stem from the constant mayhem that defines the game, so at least it’s a fair trade-off.
Unlike most superhero games, Prototype doesn’t place any value on protecting or saving the lives of innocents. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to avoid killing civilians. Not only do your offensive moves tend to affect (read; destroy) everything around you, there are several missions where you’ll need to roll a tank through populated areas. I challenge anyone to get through these missions without crushing dozens of people, and to complete this game and leave less than a thousand innocent bodies behind. To be honest, I find it amazing that this game wasn’t the subject of serious controversy; it’s easily one of the most violent games of all time.
Since any character in the game can be absorbed and imitated, it was important for Radical to make sure every character model in the game looked equally good. They did just that, but just because they all look equally good doesn’t mean they look “good.” From a distance, everybody looks fine, and there’s even some nice character design displayed in the military enemies. Up close, however, some very muddy textures start showing up. It’s not usually an issue, since the game’s animations are generally excellent, but during cut-scenes, it’s a glaring issue. Prototype’s version of Manhattan is big and pretty, and looks especially great while Alex is running up its walls, hurdling its barriers and gliding over its rooftops. Texture and graphical pop-in are common, but less jarring than in many other open-world titles. Despite the insane amount of action on-screen at almost all times, Prototype manages to keep a relatively steady frame rate. With all the on-screen characters and impressive fire, smoke and super-power effects, this is quite an impressive feat, and goes a long way towards keeping the action fluid and frantic.
Prototype is the very definition of an action game. Getting through the arduous campaign requires quick reflexes, laser-like concentration, constant movement, nimble fingers, and a little memorization, but the game makes sure to make the player always feel like the baddest man on the block. And there are fewer badder men in all of gaming than Alex Mercer. It’s not polished enough to be a game of the year consideration, but it’s a whole lot of fun; as long as you don’t mind a whole lot of virtual blood on your hands.