Back in the late 2000s, the ‘superhero sandbox’ genre was rather sparse. 2004’s beloved Spider-Man 2 tie-in game proved that there was definitely a market for a title involving a superpowered individual given free rein to do whatever they wanted in a large open area. Whilst Ultimate Spider-Man and Spider-Man 3 certainly had their fair share of fans, neither of them managed to quite capture the same rampant appeal of the web-slinger’s second movie outing. It wasn’t until 2009 when the genre received something of a renaissance with the release of three games that each left its own mark on the landscape. The first to be released was Insomniac’s inFAMOUS, a Playstation exclusive. Then came Prototype a month later which was subjected to immediate comparisons due to its similarities with the former. Finally, and perhaps most notably of all, came Batman’s Arkham Asylum in August, which surely needs little introduction. These three games proved that gamers were still very much interested in donning the mantle of a uniquely garbed hero (or villain) and being let loose upon an open playground to cause whatever mischief (or heroism) they so desired.
Prototype, stylized as [PROTOTYPE] was developed by Radical Entertainment and published by Activision. It was originally released on Xbox 360 and PS3 in 2009, and was later ported to the Xbox One and PS4 in 2015 as part of the Biohazard Bundle to a mixed reception.
So What Is [PROTOTYPE]?
Prototype is an open-world action game in which players take control of Alex Mercer, an angsty, foul-mouthed man with terrible fashion sense. Fashion sense aside, Mercer has been infected with a horrific virus that bestows him with incredible shape-shifting powers. He doesn’t remember anything but gradually learns more about himself and the sinister conspiracy around him as the game progresses. Sound familiar? It’s probably a scenario you’ve heard before, and I wasn’t too engrossed by the narrative, though it does at least throw a few curves here and there to try and keep it from flat-lining. There wasn’t many likeable characters in the game, and the only thing that really kept me hooked was one twist regarding Mercer that really took me off guard.
The powers he gains include turning his arms into an assortment of deadly weapons, super speed, immense durability, and the ability to consume other beings to both restore health and assume their form as a disguise. As is the case with games of this ilk, the player is able to accumulate experience points and spend them on various upgrades to expand their deadly arsenal. Fairly standard stuff, but what was it about Prototype that really made it stand out amongst its arguably more polished, well-received brethren?
Ever wanted to disguise yourself as a sweet old lady, run up a skyscraper, and then elbow drop someone on the ground with a massive mutated arm? Well, this game lets you do that and then some. With Mercer’s ability to consume others and assume their physical form as a disguise, Prototype allows the player to embark on a goofy chaotic rampage across the city. Unfortunately, the powers are unavailable when in disguised form so unfortunately no claw-grannies for you, but still. Sometimes the fun comes with the stories and experiences the players make for themselves using the tools provided by the game, and Prototype allows for that freedom. Speaking purely from experience, I used to love disguising myself as a soldier and stealthily dropping into a military base for a covert consuming session, like an interactive version of The Thing. Though the game is considerably less polished and on the whole felt a bit cheaper than its contemporaries, it was those moments of free creative glee that kept me coming back for more whenever I just felt like letting off some steam.
Was It Fun?
With Mercer’s incredible athletic skills, the city is simple and fun to traverse. You can sprint, leap and glide from ground level to rooftop, then rooftop to rooftop in mere seconds, taking in the grisly red hue that envelops the city as the game progresses. Since this is an action game, combat gets a heavy focus and you will certainly be doing a lot of it. Being able to switch Alex Mercer’s offensive powers on the fly is where the real meat and bones of the action are, and it’s this system that allows it to stay fresh and unique. It’s good fun provided you don’t think too hard about it and can put up with the game’s less than stellar quirks. There’s experimentation to be found in the way you mix and match your different powers, which was something that was thankfully expanded upon in the sequel. There’s fun to be had by playing with different combos and power swaps, although some definitely see more use than others. More often than not I found myself resorting to using the Whipfist (a long, bladed whip arm) to hit and grab enemies from a safe distance.
While the powers themselves are a joy to use, the actual combat itself isn’t too polished. If you don’t utilize your movement skills to hop over and dodge enemies you will frequently find yourself being rag-dolled around the area while losing large chunks of your health. You have plenty of ways to recover the health back, but it’s still not very enjoyable. Many of the mutated creatures you face will use rapid, flailing attacks that are hard to escape from which leads to frustration when dealing with multiple foes at once. Such occurrences often led to me resorting to using the same reliable attacks & combos for dealing with enemies without much variation, which definitely pulled some of the fun out of the experience. Going back to an 11-year-old game with gameplay that was never too smooth to begin with can be a pretty rough experience to say the least, especially if you’ve been spoiled by games of a similar genre with marginally better combat.
In addition to your own mutant capabilities, you are able to utilize the weapons of the military force known as Blackwatch to combat both them and the mutated monstrosities that are out to ruin your day. Pretty much any weapon can be hijacked, you can pick up guns, drive tanks and steal helicopters if you so wish. They’re nothing special, I personally have more fun using the powers but sometimes the situation calls for more heavy artillery that only rockets and big machine guns can provide. The chopper, however, can be quite awkward to use, as the button used to rotate the chopper is also the button that switches your target so you might frequently end up hitting the wrong enemy while you try and position yourself. If you wish to covertly assume the position of a soldier, then you are free to pick up any wieldable firearm and play the game as an extremely basic third-person shooter (which is sometimes safer than getting up close and personal.)
Prototype is alright. It’s a solid action game with plenty of fun to be had provided you can look past its jank and often frustrating missions. The obvious parallels with inFAMOUS are definitely there, and if you liked one then you’ll probably like the other. Prototype offers players plenty of freedom to make their own entertainment in the infected New York sandbox, with lots of missions and bonus challenges to sink their claws into. We’ve had much better open-world superpower games since then, but Prototype’s mix of powers along with its innovative costume/disguise mechanics does a fairly good job at making it stand out from the rest. It’s worth a go if you’re curious or just want to have some silly, bloody fun but don’t expect much beyond that.
Do you like the colour red? Do you like being absolutely bathed in it? Because this game has tons of it. From the excessive gore caused as a result of your bloody trail of carnage in the streets to the sickly pink colour of the infected mutants, the game is a reddish assault on your eyes. I understand that it was part of the design choice to fit the theme of a city undergoing a mass infection but after a while, I just got sick of seeing red all the time. At least some of the pre-rendered cutscenes looked nice.
Prototype is somewhat of an oddity. It doesn’t look great, the story isn’t very interesting and the combat can often be frustrating. There is something about it that keeps making me come back to it though. There’s something undeniably fun about having all this power at your disposal and being given free reign of the city to do what you want with it. In fact, I’d argue that the best part of the game is when you’re done with the story, you’ve unlocked everything and you just embark on a roaring, gory rampage. Cleaving through streets of infected with glee, freely leaping from building to building before doing a backflip off the tallest point and landing a bullet dive drop on some unfortunate soul that happens to be standing right at the point of impact.
If you play games for deep stories or are just in it for the visuals and presentation, you may be disappointed here but if you are able to just enjoy causing mindless carnage and creating your own fun gory scenarios then you may just enjoy this grisly power fantasy.