Maybe it’s just me, but these days it seems like a lot of video game protagonists have become — well, kind of a bunch of whiny d-bags. From Marcus Fenix’s incessant droning on about his old man, to Commander Shepard’s intergalactic handwringing, to Modern Warfare commandos waxing poetic on the horrors of war, you can’t shoot an alien/terrorist in the face without having some brooding anti-hero wallowing in their own existential angst about it afterwards.
James Heller, the world weary protagonist of Prototype 2, is no exception. He literally stews in his own rage-juices and drops irate f-bombs with righteous indignation. About halfway through the game, I felt like giving him a big hug and offering a reassuring: “Dude, you can run up buildings and turn your hands into giant razorblades. You’re gonna be just fine.” Like Prototype 2 itself, Heller is entertaining in small doses but also gets a little old all too quickly.
Prototype 2 picks up a year after the events of Radical Entertainment’s first third-person superpowered sandbox slash ‘em up. New York is once again in the grips of a deadly virus which is spreading faster than an outbreak of Linsanity and turning perfectly uptight New Yorkers into hideous mutant-zombie monsters (think a shambling, bloodthirsty version of the Sex and the City crew). The cause of the outbreak, however, is none other than Alex Mercer, the protagonist from the first Prototype, who, in a fit of comic book-inspired cliché, has become — dun dun dun! — the villain! Players are thrust into the combat boots of the aforementioned Sergeant James Heller, an extremely pissed off US Marine who returns home to find his wife and child murdered at the hand of infected. Blaming Mercer, Heller sets out to get revenge
The problem with the hackneyed narratives of games like Prototype 2 is that you don’t really know what the main character – or anybody else for that matter – really wants. Nor, in all likelihood, will you particularly care. Of course, in a game that’s more about jump-kicking helicopters and tearing people’s heads off like Bud Light twist tops, a meaningful narrative and compelling dialogue isn’t exactly high on the priority list.
Prototype 2 falls back on the all-too familiar open world formula of its predecessor and countless other third-person sandbox shooters before it. Heller’s super-virus infected body allows you to leap (and briefly glide) over tall buildings in a single bound, in addition to producing organic claws which can be used to slice and dice both enemies and hapless civilians alike. You also can absorb any other person you come into contact with, which serves the dual function of both regenerating health and allowing you to take on their form. New powers include the ability to produce gooey tendrils which can bind and crush enemies and a new “hunting” ability that allows you to emit a sonar-like ping to track down specific high-value targets. As the game progresses, the powers amp up nicely as you evolve new abilities and upgrades. As with the first game, the action is also fun and frenetically violent, letting you slash through waves of enemies like a spastic Wolverine, punch holes in tanks and suck back humans like they were Capri Sun juice bags. Jumping two hundred feet into the air and cutting a soldier in half with a giant Chevy-sized arm-blade almost never gets old.
Where Prototype 2 stumbles, however, is in its repetitive level design. Story-based missions tend to be broken down into two types: a.) roll into an enemy base and smash the living crap out of everything or b.) assume the identity of an enemy, sneak into a base and then smash the living crap out of everything. The game tries to add a little extra meat by including Blacknet computer terminals which offer secondary missions, but these too tend to fall back on the same stagnant formula. Diehard fans might get a little bit of extended playtime with the inclusion of Radnet (available only if you bought the game new) which offers built-in DLC in the form of mini-game challenges and extra powers – an interesting idea in theory, but really only a flimsy excuse to try and squeeze in a bit of extra content. The result is a game that has entertaining enough gameplay mechanics, but is hamstrung by its lack of innovative level design. Don’t expect any of the diversity of missions and activities that you’d find in far superior sandbox shooters like Just Cause 2 or Saints Row 3.
Prototype 2 really feels more like an afterthought than an evolutionary step forward for either the franchise or the sandbox action genre. The visuals, controls and bloodsoaked open-world action are entertaining and polished, but the hamfisted story and repetitive level design means that, like its superpowered Debbie Downer of a protagonist, Prototype 2 is also one game that can be a bit of a drag.
Prototype 2 was developed by Radical Entertainment and published by Activision. This review is based on the Xbox 360 version. The game is also currently available for PlayStation 3 and PC.
Adam Volk is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications including Film Junk, Urban Male Magazine, The National Post and the New York Review of Science Fiction. For more of his witty blatherings, follow him on Twitter or check out his website.