This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Prototype 2.
When I did the Infamous 2 review, I mentioned that the release of supervillain murder sandbox thing Infamous being so closely timed to that of supervillain thing murder sandbox Prototype sort of overshadowed its genuine high quality beneath the inevitable comparison and the subsequent lingerie pillow fight. But now it's Prototype's turn to get a sequel and fresh assessment outside of the sheltering influence of lacy petticoats, and I can remind you all now that Prototype was as entertaining as you would expect from a game in which a skinny bloke in formal shoes and too many overshirts destroys a tank by hurling commuters at it.
When you get right down to it, Infamous and Prototype do have pretty significantly different feels, which mainly comes down to a matter of scale. In Infamous, you might laboriously climb a six-story building and then zap a couple of snipers in the balls, whereas in Prototype you might sprint up the Empire State Building, slice fifteen soldiers in half with one swipe and leave their balls relatively unmolested until YOU EAT THEM.
So what with Alex Mercer being established by the end of Prototype as having the destructive potential of Godzilla operating a forklift without regulation training, a sequel wouldn't be much of a challenge if it focused on him again. So our new protagonist is James Heller, a former military sergeant whose wife and child were killed in the first outbreak; they were probably one of the passersby I scarfed down to get my health back up while I was fighting that big tentacle thing. And after a second, remarkably similar outbreak hits New York - just can't catch a break on the East Coast, can they? - Heller goes in as part of the military occupation but is swiftly transformed by Alex Mercer into a pile of well-disguised spaghetti carbonara just like him. James must follow the same path of evolution Alex did to build up his powers while getting to the bottom of two nebulous agendas: that of Blackwatch, the ever morally dubious PMC who could only be called cartoonishly evil if we're talking about one of those cartoons that goes out at three in the morning on a foreign-language TV station, and that of Alex Mercer himself, although it turns out both agendas essentially boil down to "let's infect a bunch of innocent civilians for a larf!"
You could be forgiven at this point for thinking this sounds like a case of "second verse, same as the first" - same city, same murder powers, same evil PMC wearing some kind of corporate regulation repellant, etc. - but I would say Prototype 2 does just enough to actually feel like a sequel rather than an expansion pack. Just. On the borderline, really. For example, while Mercer got his douchebag powers from wearing a popped collar on top of another popped collar, Heller escalates the arms race by just having one massive popped collar. It's kind of absurd. He could defuse bombs in it. He could probably glide without even having to do the blood shooting thing.
On top of that, while making Mercer come across as anything but an anti-hero at best was kind of a lost cause while he's happily surfing orphans across broken glass Slip 'n Slides, effort is made to make Heller more traditionally sympathetic with the whole dead family backstory thing and an emphasis on story missions centered around trying to help the victimized civilians. All of which ends up for naught when Heller starts helping himself to the proletariat buffet. Switch up your protagonist as much as you like, they're still controlled by a player, an entity as ethically restrained as Joseph Stalin playing with his bath toys.
Also, while I seem to recall the tentacle power in Prototype 1 reduced all the other powers into so much hyperactive beef jerky, there seems to be a much better balance here and enough variety to keep things interesting, although the power to summon monsters to fight for you makes massive melees all the more confusing, leading to a moment when I tried to give an order to what I thought was my loyal puppy Biscuits Hamilton and got my favorite tendril bitten off for my trouble.
Also also, I'm fond of how Prototype 2 consolidates the character upgrades and side activities. Blimey, that was a dry way of putting it. FUCK AROUNDY MAKEY SUPER MURDER! Rather than universally acquiring points to spread around an overly complex character sheet like a D&D player rolling a half-orc barbarian wizard tax accountant, you complete little sequences of side missions with little mini-stories and then get to pick one upgrade from a categorized list. It implies a greater amount of thought than spraying race and arena challenges across the sandbox map like a mouthful of rice from a man who just found a baby spider in his rogan josh.
But one rather odd feature is that there are additional challenges that only become unlocked on specific dates staggered out from release day. And just speaking for myself, I think it's rather cocky of Prototype 2 to assume I'll still be playing it come June, especially since now I'm done with story mode there doesn't seem to be anything left to do in it, because all the remaining challenges don't get unlocked for a few days. I suppose I could just fuck about, since Prototype still wears a princely crown in the area of sandbox time wasting. Even the mere act of getting around has a curiously addictive elegance to it. Leaping a hundred feet into the air, banking around, kicking off buildings and landing on a dime on somebody's baby.
Games like this and Skyrim and Just Cause 2 really are the sort of thing Triple-A development should be making all the time, because it really is the only thing they do best anymore. They badly need to understand why they should stop piling all their resources into designing glorious skyboxes and elaborate set pieces and other things that fall solely under the category of "looking at stuff", when you cannot possibly compare "looking at stuff" to "blowing up stuff", "running to the top of stuff" and "skiing back down stuff with two still bloody scalps attached to the soles of your shoes."
But while I do like Prototype 2, I think both it and its predecessor have one significant problem that, well, they're just kind of silly. If you take the time to track down the collectible audio logs, you'll find that approximately one hundred percent of the things record someone at Blackwatch talking about how much he loves throwing schoolchildren into jet turbines and rubbing the greasy remnants into his prostate. And you have to wonder where Blackwatch could possibly be finding this seemingly inexhaustible supply of emotionless psychopaths - possibly Liverpool? The story writers are trying a little too hard to make Heller out as the lesser of about fifteen different evils by my count, which admittedly a fairly Sisyphean task when he plucks passersby from the vale of tears as one would idly take a mint imperial from the bowl on the counter at an Indian restaurant. By the end of the game, even Alex Mercer loses all depth and starts archly giving monologues like fucking Sinestro, just in case anyone still likes the guy more than the new designated hero.
The franchise could stand to take itself just a smidge less seriously, I think, because that's certainly my attitude when I'm trying to beat my toddler shot put record.
- We thought we had finally killed him: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I wish I, too, could produce limitless quantities of the stuff one might find under a foreskin after bathing in a coal mine for eight months
- I guess only a fucking lunatic would wear a hoodie under a collared shirt
Extra: Escapist Expo Announcment
So me and a bunch of my Escapist chums are attending a bit of a get-together this year we're calling "the first Escapist Expo". September 14 to 16 in Durham, North Carolina. Check the website for more details. Hope to see you there! Yes, you! No, not you, the pretty one.