If there’s ever been a case of the gameplay carrying the story like a millstone around its neck, this is it. “Prototype 2″ is an incredibly fun and well-designed game with a story that sometimes makes it feel like you’re playing a comic book from the mid-’90s. I’m amazed Rob Liefeld didn’t get a story credit.
Of course, it’s hard to complain when you can flip a tank, steal its missile launcher, shoot a bunch of pathetically outmatched troops with it for laughs, and then reflect the missiles a helicopter fired at you right back at it before throwing that tank at it to blow it out of the sky and then morph into a soldier and walk away snickering.
Radical has essentially been refining one game, its “Incredible Hulk” series of games, over the last decade or so, and the results are fantastic, gameplay-wise. The controls of the original “Prototype” have been heavily tweaked for the better; for example, instead of needing to pull up your shield in the in-game menu, where it basically served as a status buff, you can now just hold a shoulder button to block, and even reflect attacks.
The game is chock-full of useful touches like this. Everything you fight now has a visible health meter. The new radar system makes the vision powers in the first game actually useful without holding your hand. Stealth-consuming enemies is no longer an incredibly annoying chore and actually pretty fun, which is good since you’ll be doing it a lot.
Similarly, how your character evolves has stepped more towards an RPG style. As you hit new levels, you get skill points to distribute in health, regeneration, movement, and so on. But it’s also important to complete side missions and find collectibles, which the game makes challenging without being frustrating, because these grant you permanent status buffs: higher health, more damage, faster speed, instant takedowns, and so on.
Best of all, the difficulty curve is enough to be challenging without being frustrating, and much smoother and more balanced than the first game. You’ll die occasionally, but it won’t be because the game cheats. Even when you have health regen at maximum, and a pile of status buffs, you’re still going to need to prioritize who you take out first.
Graphically, the game is better, but in a welcome switch, the open world is more varied and better designed to get around in. The first game had you climbing skyscrapers for hours: this one is much smoother.
There are a few downsides: occasionally, enemies will have a little icon floating over their heads, but will be in or behind something, which can be confusing, and at first, you’re going to want to complete the story missions before doing the side ones because you’ll need the powers they grant you. The first act of the game is essentially a very long tutorial, especially the first half hour, which is just a string of cinematics and short gameplay moments. And the missions tend to be a little repetitive: go here, destroy this, eat this dude, kill or run away from the military.
Which brings us to the story, which is, well, awful. James Heller, our protagonist this time around, takes all his character cues from Kratos: he’s dour and angry all the time. Granted he doesn’t have a lot to yuk it up about, but he’s pretty one-note, even with his dead family and vendetta against Alex Mercer. Mercer, by the way, is funnier this time, but nothing he does in the entire damn game makes any sense whatsoever, and considering he drives the entire plot of the game, that’s a problem.
Secondly, this game really wants to beat it into our heads how much it sucks in NYZ. You’ll find black boxes around the city, most of which are audio recordings of Blackwatch doing awful, nasty things, because apparently the guys in quasi-Nazi uniforms throwing random civilians to monsters for “study” and controlling New York with a fascistic iron fist just weren’t evil-seeming enough. They’ve got nothing to do with the plot; fortunately, you’re not finding them for story breadcrumbs, just the powers.
If that weren’t enough, pretty much every third word is profanity, which doesn’t really bother me that much, but has the unfortunate side effect of making the dialogue laughable. It’s even in powers description and game flavor text. The overall result is the game becomes pretty much impossible to take seriously plot-wise because it sounds like a fourteen-year-old wrote it.
Is “Prototype 2″ worth sixty bucks? Gameplay-wise, absolutely. This game is a hell of a lot of fun. But the story winds up holding it back. It’s not quite “Batman: Arkham City”, but if you’re looking for a fun open-world action game, this will fit the bill quite nicely.
image courtesy Activision