Developer: Radical Entertainment / Publisher: Activision / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language]
2009’s Prototype earned a bad rap with most people comparing it to Sucker Punch’s inFamous, which came out a month afterwards. Both games featured similar storylines, with the star discovering fantastic powers and abilities as their city was overrun with enemies spawned from the same event that provided your origin story. But the game definitely had its high moments: blasting yourself from rooftop to rooftop in downtown New York City, and fighting scores of military forces in order to combat a rampant virus.
This is where Prototype 2 begins, although it feels much more like a new game than simply a sequel. Radical has taken the problems with the first game (targeting, combat, endless confusing skill menus) and improved on them, crafting a much better experience this time around.
If you didn’t catch the original Prototype, you can select the “Prototype Recap” from the game’s main menu and watch a two-minute video to bring you up to speed. The main twist is that in the first game you played as Alex Mercer, a scientist infected with the Blacklight Virus that gave you your powers, and this time you’re Sergeant James Heller, a soldier infected with the Blacklight Virus by … Alex Mercer. If you played the first game, you’ll know why that’s a reason to scratch your head.
As Prototype 2 opens, a cutscene explains why you care about Heller as your hero: he’s lost his wife and child. After a brief suspension from service, hereturns to duty in the Red Zone, the most infected part of New York City after a second outbreak of the Blacklight Virus. His squad is attacked by Mercer himself, whom Heller blames for the death of his family. A movement tutorial follows, with Heller trailing Mercer deeper into the zone. After confronting him directly, Mercer infects Heller and he blacks out.
Mercer awakes in a laboratory, which cues a combat tutorial that explains the basic punch and combo moves. It also introduces your health bar, and shows that you can grab and consume other beings to replenish your health: infected people, normal people, soldiers, mutated freaks, etc. They all add a little red to your life. Interestingly, no morality system is tied to this, and you could chomp your way through healthy New Yorkers throughout the game if that satisfies your palette.
Once Heller frees himself from the laboratory and meets Mercer again, he grudgingly finds himself working with him. From there, Heller is on his own, experiencing his first real in-game combat, and meeting up with Father Guerra, the priest at his old church. Guerra is part of an effort to uncover what Blackwatch has been doing in the city, and from there Heller discovers that he has “Viral Sonar,” a unique ability that allows him to track single targets over vast distances.
From there, the game moves into the core experience, which consists of tracking targets, sabotaging Blackwatch efforts, destroying specimens, and revealing how Blackwatch and Alex Mercer are involved. Heller accomplishes this primarily by snagging information from Blacknet Terminals, which he needs to access while in disguise. From there, he gains valuable intel that leads him to his next target. He can also receive phone calls from Father Guerra—and an unexpected ally from the first game–directing him where to go.
Since Heller’s Consume skill allows him to shapeshift into the form of the last person he has absorbed, he can use this to disguise himself and enter enemy bases, and even attend briefings as an enemy soldier to gain more intel. But beware of large Detectors placed around Blackwatch bases, as they detect Viral activity and can sniff Heller out even if he is disguised.
Besides the main story missions, Heller can also branch out into side missions, which net him more DNA and evolution upgrades. He can also partake in small events like quashing Field Ops or finding Black Boxes that reward him with more DNA and inject intel into the backstory. These aren’t necessary to finish the game, but they help level up your abilities, which is imperative to moving quickly around the environment, and surviving.
In fact, the game quickly becomes “which mission will let me evolve my attack skills” vs. “what’s the next step in the story?” as you amp up Heller to his maximum potential, something you can continue to do after you have completed the main game. You advance Heller by following the main story, consuming DNA strands in humans and laboratory specimens, completing sidequests, and even competing in Radnet challenges, which are completely separate from the storyline and included as a bonus through code activation (and are a bit ridiculous).
Heller’s abilities don’t differ that much that Mercer’s: both have Claws, Hammerfists, Whipfists, and so on. However, Mercer’s Musclemass ability has been replaced with Heller’s Tendrils, which can pummel enemies and suck a ton of debris towards one of them as a “Black Hole” attack. Heller also has two Devastator Attacks, one where he performs an enormous ground slam, and the other where he summons Brawlers in a “Brawler Pack” and they fight for him.
Like Mercer, Heller can also use any human weapons he finds, from the assault rifle to the missile launcher, and he can hijack both enemy air and enemy armor. Once he has mounted the vehicle, he can choose to Weaponize (tear off a turret or missile launcher and wield it), Finish (devastating finish move), or Hijack, depending on his skill levels and evolution abilities. Weaponizing or finishing is often the best bet, but you need to use enemy vehicles in missions from time to time, so hijacking can be useful for infiltration.
Visually, Prototype 2 is an enormous improvement over Prototype, without any slowdowns and frame rate drops you might expect when your screen becomes ultra-busy. The city and texture maps are more detailed, and you frequently swing the camera around just to see what you can pick out. Taking a chopper across the city, while not as cool as jumping Hulk-style from building to building, illustrates how dramatic the world can look from a bird’s eye view, while the ground-level combat scenes are equally impressive.
That said, there were many instances of texture pop, clipping, and items not held correctly by characters. Not “features” you expect after a partial install to the PS3 hard drive. But it’s nothing that detracts overall from the entire experience. If anything, the Radnet challenges are the most jarring. Having Heller divebomb on to a stationary squad of non-reactive soldiers is fun once or twice, but where’s a Survival Mode or a Cause As Much Destruction As Possible wave?
While it won’t bowl you over, Prototype 2 has a finely understated dynamic musical score that is ominous when it needs to be, shifting into a fast-paced tune when you’re engaged in combat, or once you have been spotted by a Detector. When the music doesn’t intrude into your brain and annoy you, that’s a good thing.
One thing that separates Prototype 2 from the original is the humor, despite the fairly heavy storyline involving mass murder, and the death of the protagonist’s wife and daughter. That, and a ton of f-bombs. You’ll think Scarface and 50 Cent: Bulletproof are church hymns compared with Heller’s overpowering potty-mouth alongside nearly every other NPC in the game.
The story also contains several twists and turns, ultimately culminating in a finish that feels oddly out of context with the first game. But, there’s no denying that James Heller is a much more interesting (and fun to play) protagonist than Alex Mercer. At the very least, you’ll enjoy his angry Mr. T impersonation while leaping around the city.
Prototype wasn’t a bad experience, but Prototype 2 builds on that framework, and provides a much richer gameplay experience. You might not replay this several times, but the main storyline provides about 12 to 15 hours of enjoyment, and the completetists out there will continue leveling Heller up long after the game is over.