Flawed, dumb and surprisingly fun
Prototype 2 is a silly game. Its promotional material may try to paint it as something else but its sensibilities remain right in line with its flawed predecessor. The Johnny Cash-laden trailer – full of dead families and sad photographs - may try to elicit some kind of emotional resonance by pulling at the heartstrings of a broken father’s plight, but the story and its characters are little more than a propellant for the absurd actionPrototype 2 revels in. It’s hardly an emotional journey and it shouldn’t try to be.
Embrace being puerile; it’s what Prototype 2 is good at.
New protagonist James Heller may have a sad past; his wife and daughter killed by the virus that afflicted New York in the first game. But if there’s one characteristic that defines him – with cussing coming in a close second – it’s anger. Kratos could learn a thing or two about throwing a temper tantrum here, with former protagonist Alex Mercer taking the main brunt of Heller’s animosity. He blames Mercer for the death of his family and he will stop at nothing to extract his revenge.
It’s hardly original storytelling – even if flipping the protagonist to the antagonist is a nice touch – but Heller’s ludicrous disposition becomes surprisingly enjoyable, even if its attempts to humanise Prototype are immediately futile. He’s certainly a more interesting anti-hero than Mercer ever was – with a better dress sense as well – and his propensity for dropping non-stop F-bombs never stops being humorous. Its dark and brooding tone may never embrace its eccentricities, but Prototype 2 is inoffensive and easy to make fun of. Heller’s stereotypical and inane constitution is completely idiotic, but you can appreciate it in the same way you do a B-movie - even without the intentional cheesiness. A tonal shift to treat it like the comic book it seems like it wants to be might have been a welcome change, but there’s a sense of self-reference and some generally funny writing that lets you know it might not be taking itself as seriously as the surface-level indicates.
Unless it is and this is way too much credit.
But how could it be when you factor in the combat powers bestowed upon you? Heller’s infected with the same virus that turned Mercer into a super-powered tool of destruction, and there are very few differences between the two. You can still leap hundreds of feet into the air, sprint up the sides of skyscrapers and glide across the sky like a flying squirrel; while your mutated arsenal features Freddie Krugar-style claws, a colossal blade and elongated tendrils that wreck havoc on the streets of New York Zero.
Your plethora of powers will be familiar to anyone who ever played the first game, but its base-level systems have become more accessible and fun as a result. There are no longer pages upon pages of new powers to fumble through. Instead, you’re awarded new abilities at certain points throughout the story, giving you a chance to use every power available without ever missing a beat. It’s an improved and streamlined system that makes it easy to remap your powers on the fly, encouraging experimentation, while it focuses its upgrades on more passive abilities. As you complete missions and kill enemies you’ll earn Experience Points that can be used to improve your traversal, health and so on. You can essentially outfit Heller the way you want, eventually creating the ultimate killing machine.
It’s empowering, and as you get better and better the sense of dominance produces unadulterated fun. You’ll be able to destroy tanks in one fowl swoop, rip a crowd of enemies in half and unleash a ravaging concoction of seismic activities and deluging tendrils that will decimate anyone stupid enough to venture near you. There’s little challenge as a result of your superiority, but the slew of new powers and your general improvement maintains its levels of enjoyment; and it’s certainly a welcome change from the frustrating difficulty spikes prevalent throughout the first game.
Even the stealth mechanics have been improved upon, despite an otherwise lack of change on the infiltration side of things. Like Mercer before him, Heller is able to shapeshift into anyone he consumes, allowing him to wander into enemy strongholds as he sees fit, decked out in his most recent guise of human flesh. Most of the missions in Prototype 2 contain some sort of espionage as you head off in search of more information, and grabbing and consuming an unaware victim is pulled off with relative ease. If you’re in view of other prying eyes the game will simply prevent you from consuming, smartly negating a frustrating failure as you set the base on full alert. It removes the trial and error that can hamper any stealth sections, and it’s extremely satisfying to glide your way through an area, consuming targets as you go while their buddies remain completely unaware. On your part there’s always going to be a sense of logical disconnect as the AI pays no attention to the increasingly dwindling numbers around them, but it’s understandable considering the absurdity of it all.
Heller certainly gives the Hungry Hippos a run for their money as he dashes across the city, intent on eating everyone and anything who knows something of worth. It becomes somewhat of a running gag and repetition does begin to seep in. Missions don’t often deviate too much from the running/eating/killing variety, though the joy of using your ever-expanding repertory of powers nullifies some of the tedium. It’s at its most interesting when you’re forced to hide in plain sight, helping your enemies to get the answers you need. Using the arid firearms to blend in might not be the most enjoyable approach, but it’s an appreciated diversion from the regular mission structure.
Even the checkpoint races that crop up in side-missions provide a nice change of pace. They too begin to border on monotony before its foundations are shaken and an onslaught of enemies greets you at every checkpoint. It becomes a tense race against time and pursuing helicopters, though it’s disappointing these chase sequences aren’t more natural or fluid. Escaping from enemy forces at any other time is all too easy as you bound from building to building; the three areas of New York Zero providing ample opportunities to showcase Heller’s extreme brand of parkour. It’s just a shame the city isn’t all that interesting to look at. The fake Yankee Stadium has its charm but it’s all too familiar, and the small boroughs of the first two areas offer little of interest.
The dilapidated state of Midtown’s most famous landmarks is a particular highlight as grotesque, heaving vines wrap around each magnum opus, spores oozing at the ready; its aberrant grip like the branch of a tree taking a hold of an abandoned structure after decades of decay. But it’s an overused setting, further spoiled by a lingering fog that hides away a limited draw distance. It’s assuredly an improvement on the first game’s technical shortcomings but it’s not enough to garner any sort of affinity for its decrepit metropolis.
Prototype 2 remains at its best when it focuses on the farcical. Its New York sandbox and brooding narrative paint a world without hope, but the wholesome joy that devolves from its profusion of powers and the ability of its protagonist to swear up a storm proves that the world of Prototype holds the hope of juvenility. It’s a silly game with an awful camera – particularly indoors – a bad draw distance, repetitive missions and a paltry story, but the unabashed mayhem it conjures and lays at your finger tips makes it surprisingly easy to recommend. It might not reinvent the genre or introduce anything new, but Prototype 2’s tweaks to its original formula make for a highly entertaining game.
That it even exists is perplexing. That it’s as enjoyable as it is despite limited changes is a gleeful occurrence.