Prototype is, at its heart, the game that so many superhero games of the past have always wanted to be. From the supremely terrible Superman 64 to the surprisingly decent Spider-Man 3, superhero games have always reached for that epic experience but inevitably seem to come up well short of that goal with only a few minor exceptions in the entire history of gaming. Prototype takes a different approach to the epic feeling of being a superhero, opting instead to go for the "super" without the "hero" and try for simply "badass". As it turns out, this approach fits beautifully for Prototype because it frees the player to unleash his power without fear of penalty, but also because there truly are no heroes to be found in this dark tale. But while the approach seems to be the right one, I'm still left feeling like this is a glimpse into the beginning of what is possible in a super powered open world game rather than its pinnacle as some may have been hoping.
The main character, Alex Mercer, starts the game in the New York City Morgue on the autopsy table surrounded by doctors who are now terrified by what they thought was a very dead subject who has suddenly sprung to life. After they flee the room in a panic, Alex takes the opportunity to make an exit of his own and quickly discovers that he has picked up a number of superhero-like abilities during his "near-death" experience. From tremendous strength and speed to extreme durability and even shape-shifting as well as a host of other bizarre abilities that seem to be quickly growing in number. One such unique ability is the ability to "consume" people by absorbing them into his body and thus gain access to their memories, knowledge, and even their skills and abilities.
Through this consumption ability the main plot engine is revealed as Alex is a man who remembers very little of who, where, what, how, and why he came to be in the morgue. Fueled by these countless questions, and pursued by a specialized and highly unethical black ops military team throughout the infected city of New York, Alex attempts to fit the pieces of his puzzling past together before its too late - before everyone who knows what happened is killed by this new virus or the unhinged military forces trying to keep the details a secret.
What really makes things work for Prototype, and is the true heart of the game's appeal to begin with, is all of the power Alex Mercer has at his disposal. From an arm that can be used as a grappling hook to latch onto helicopters and hijack them to the brilliantly executed parkour abilities of climbing, leaping, and running on and over the city's buildings and environment. To increase this power throughout the game, Alex will earn evolution points (EP) for pretty much everything he does. With multiple categories of abilities there are plenty of choices on how to customize the carnage you can dish out. From the "Powers" category (which makes up his basic combat forms) which includes an arm-blade, super-strength, whip-fist (a grappling hook/lash-knife), claws, etc, all of which have their own set of special combos that can be performed and further abilities that can be unlocked with EP. And that's just one section of the upgrades available to purchase with EP, there are also movement powers that increase speed, jumping, air dashes, gliding, etc, and other sections for survivability, combat, disguise, weapons, and even vehicles each with their own selection of unique abilities.
All of this variety sounds great in theory but in practice you will most likely find a power or two that you enjoy and stick with it. For me it was the whipfist and the arm-blade which allowed both a ranged and a melee fighting style. Regardless of which group of powers you go with, they all have their strengths and weaknesses against certain types of enemies and they all feel pretty epic if they are kept upgraded and you make good use of the aptly named "devastator" special moves, which can only be used in certain circumstances (circumstances that you can control with a small bit of effort). Even some of the normal abilities can be tremendously fun when you discover inventive uses for them.
It is this variety of choice that makes the gameplay truly shine in Prototype. Just about every maneuver can be strung together with every other maneuver and in literally any environment with the parkour system handling the dynamic animations along the way. These endless options under your precise control combined with the feeling of immense power are what ultimately keeps Prototype from being completely mediocre.
So by now it's clear that the powers are pretty awesome but there is more gameplay than that and this is where things start to go downhill a bit for Prototype. The side missions that are offered range from "Glide", which involves gliding down from tall buildings onto a bull's-eye target to footraces, destruction missions, consumption missions, etc... Each event has preset goals that you must meet in order to earn medals and of course the better you do the more EP you get. These events are actually designed well as the camera pans across the event to make it clear what you are expected to do and where to go etc. The problem comes from the fact that they are poorly implemented and on the timed events such as the footrace the countdown to start occurs during this camera panning period and will often start the event before you can even see your character to maneuver properly. I say it will 'often' do this because the countdown speed is inconsistent, counting slow some times and extremely fast others. Luckily you are able to move from the time it says 'Go' regardless, so with some practice this issue can be overcome and the gold can be achieved ,but it's shoddy work on what is otherwise a well done mission system.
Early in my review I had a number of control issues and as a result was unimpressed with the control scheme and generally how it felt, which for a game like this is very important (note that I played the game using primarily a mouse and keyboard). As the game progressed though, and I got used to the setup and what they were trying to do with each button, it actually grew on me. There is no doubt that the controls can be extremely complicated and at times unnecessarily so, particularly for those who want to learn the combos and the special moves. The plus side to this scheme is that for the price of complexity you receive a great deal of control over the character and can do some truly amazing things. As a result, I'm content to call it a wash and just give the warning to the reader that if you only stick to the basic controls and don't learn the complex stuff as well (particularly the dodges, glides, dashes, etc), then the game is a whole lot harder to complete. In short, if complex controls are not your thing you might want to pass on this one. Keep in mind however that this learning curve, and fine control of Alex's movement in general, is much simpler with an analogue controller so I highly recommend it for PC users who have the option.
Undoubtedly the area with the greatest disparity between expectations and reality came with the graphical presentation. To be clear the game doesn't look awful and once you get going and having fun you won't really notice the issues so much, but the city and the enemies do have some awfully grainy textures. The plus side of this is a fairly sizable view distance which is somewhat required given Alex's capabilities, and it is probably the need for such a large view distance that limited the graphics to what they are. To add to this problem pretty much all of the cut-scenes that play during memory flashbacks of people you consume are seizure inducing affairs that, while you will probably want the story info they offer, may cause you headaches if you don't skip them every so often (there are a ton of them in the game). They aren't so bad at first but they seemed to wear on my eyes pretty quickly. As for animations, Alex and his main foes tend to have very well done animations but the citizens on the street and some of the infected hunters could have used some more work. A bit more polish could have gone a long way here.
The audio presentation surprised me a bit by turning out quite well despite the graphical shortcomings. Voice acting from the main characters is solid and believable on the whole and is amplified by some fairly sound writing that does get a bit cheesy and cliche in places but holds it together pretty well. The only issue with the voice acting is actually the smaller parts, which tend to be noticeably worse. The sound effects on the other hand are spot on as every devastating move generates the appropriate sounds of crushing/ripping metal, panicked screaming, and of course explosions. The music is nothing spectacular and in fact I turned it down a bit because it tends to drown out some of the dialogue otherwise.
The occasionally cheesy and cliche writing does however come together into a decent story in the end with a few twists and turns along the way. The twists and turns aren't really that surprising for those who take the time to collect the web of intrigue targets but they do reveal a substantial effort to build a story with some depth and personality. Much of the main story missions are centered on Alex's search for answers and maintaining the balance of power between the infected and the military that are both gunning for him. Sprinkled throughout all of this are an abundance of cut-scenes that constantly build up the tension and remind the player of what's at stake on every mission. This constant story progression and the rapid pace of power upgrades give the game a fairly fast pacing from start to finish and manages to wrap up the major loose ends quite nicely along the way. You probably won't be waiting for the film adaption with eager anticipation, but you won't be left disappointed either.
The other presentation issues I noticed were issues with the game's menu system, specifically with the upgrades menus, which provided very short and vague blurbs of what you were about to buy. It would always inform you which button combinations were needed to pull off a new maneuver but the description of what the maneuver would actually do was often completely unclear. Even simple descriptions like increased speed were unhelpful in that they provided no context for the amount of increase you were getting beyond "faster than you are now". But with EP points at a premium and a ton of other abilities to buy, you might be justified in wondering whether the 50,000 EP you're about to spend on speed is only going to get you two percent more speed or twenty percent more and thus whether you might be better off buying a new power or combo maneuver. It's a minor gripe though because you can get enough to buy every ability offered by doing side missions, but it is another example of much needed polish.
Finally, and as of late most importantly, the game's value is on the low side of mediocre. With the main story and a moderate sampling of the side missions the game will take you anywhere from 14 to 16 hours to complete and anywhere from 5 to 20 hours more depending on the side missions you want to try and how you go about them. If you want to gold medal every event, find all of the "landmark" and "hints" orbs, and find every web of intrigue target - it could take a very long time unless you get yourself a map of where these things are located. Just doing the medal events might be another 3 to 5 hours though. All told, the game is likely good for 20 hours of entertainment as most folks won't be interested in doing every little thing but will instead likely be contented to just collect what they can while playing the game and maybe do a few things after the main story is done.
I have to say the sheer epic feeling you get from the game makes it worth trying but it has a number of flaws, almost entirely involving a lack of polish (as I've mentioned throughout the review). Extra work could have easily brought the game up from mediocrity and onto the doorstep of true greatness. Having fallen well short of that though, I would say anyone who finds the idea of being a superhero (minus the morals) an appealing concept will probably be happy with a purchase (especially once it drops to under $40), but for those who are just looking to pass the time with an interesting action game you may want to stick to the rental on this one. Because of what the gameplay accomplishes, I really wanted to give a full recommendation for people to buy it, but it falls short in enough of the essential polish that a game requires that it doesn't deserve an unqualified recommendation, but at the very least if you were interested enough to read this far you should be renting Prototype.