An Evolutionary Dead End

Prototype 2 Screenshot

HIGH The Prototype characters are über-badasses.

LOW Outdated mission and world structure, repetitive tasks.

WTF The eleventh-hour attempt to humanize Heller.

On a recent GameCritics podcast, the question of what makes a good open-world game was brought up. During the discussion, we mentioned things like exploration that rewards players with interesting things to find, charting your own course through the plot, and not feeling as though the world was an empty expanse between waypoints. Most important of all was the sense that the world would actually respond to the changes the player was affecting.

Prototype 2, the open-world sequel from Radical Entertainment, doesn't meet any of those criteria.

As someone who appreciated the original Prototype despite a wealth of technical and design problems, I'd been looking forward to a new installment hoping that the devs would clean things up and do the concept justice—after all, the idea of controlling a super-powered mutant with unbelievable destructive capabilities is pure gold. Unfortunately, Prototype 2 polished up some old rough edges without making any further progress or improvement. Those touch-ups aside, the project feels painfully repetitive, limited in scope, and out of date.

To give credit where credit is due, new protagonist James Heller is a reskin of Prototype's Alex Mercer. Although this may sound like a negative, it's not. Mercer was one of the most powerful characters I've seen in a video game, and controlling him was deeply enjoyable. With the ability to morph his limbs into deadly weapons, absorb enemies to take on their appearance, and the hops to leap and glide across a city in a heartbeat, more Mercer (via Heller) is quite welcome. However, despite the kinetic thrill of flying above ten blocks of rooftops or eating half a crowd of zombies and liquefying the rest with razor-sharp tentacles, Prototype 2 is mostly boredom and disappointment.

Much like any last-gen open-world game, the three islands that make up the playing area are separated from each other by a nonsensical barrier (in this case, unswimmable water) and the player must unlock things as they go by completing missions marked by waypoints on a map. Despite the wealth of abilities at Heller's disposal, these missions must be completed in a preset order and in a particular fashion, and there are never any choices to be made along the way. It's the same boilerplate that rose to prominence in Grand Theft Auto III back in 2001, and it ignores many of the advances made by the genre since then.

Prototype 2 Screenshot

For example, unleashing Heller's offensive capabilities can be cathartic in short bursts, but it ultimately feels pointless and hollow. Regardless of how many assaults are made against the military bases scattered throughout the islands, they simply respawn once the player leaves, as if nothing ever happened. There is no territory to gain control of, no way to make a permanent mark on the world, and there's little reason to explore the game's virtual acreage other than to pick up collectibles scattered here and there. Furthermore, there aren't any characters to meet, any side-quests which support or undermine any faction, or any citizens to help or hurt. All destruction, all the time makes the world feel flat, lifeless and artificial, completely the opposite of what this genre should be striving to achieve.

This tired, stale formula might not be so bad if the supporting content actually made up for it, but Prototype 2 is a disappointment there, as well.

Despite his obligatory "my family was killed by the bad guys" background, James Heller is utterly unsympathetic and intensely unlikable thanks to the fact that he's another always-angry guy aping God of War's crab-ass hothead, Kratos. With profanity constantly spewing out of his mouth and a complete lack of depth, humanity, or relatable emotion, I felt no engagement at all.

The gameplay is just as flat as Heller's personality. The go-nowhere story-based missions are standard stuff—kill this guy here, explode this thing there—with little exception. The optional missions peppered throughout the city are arcade-style skill tests (Earn a gold medal! Beat your friends' scores!) that don't have any relation to the story mode. Between missions, the developers offer up a never-ending string of tedious cellphone calls and dark-toned cut-scenes that do a hell of a lot of telling and precious little showing. Just like the original Prototype, it's hard to care about story and characters that don't aspire to anything, and the level of sophistication in every aspect feels like a holdover from the PlayStation 2 era.

Although it's accurate to say that Prototype 2 is "an improvement" over the original, that's not the same as saying that it's a great game, or that it's even on-par with the kinds of things hitting shelves these days. Playing a character with the ability to eat, bash, slice, and destroy everything within sight while flying over skyscrapers sounds like a dream come true on paper, but without any real player agency or a rich, compelling world to do it in, it's all for naught. I still love the core concept, but thanks to the shallow, one-note design and myopic scope, it's hard to take Prototype 2 as anything other than a missed opportunity. Rating: 5.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, drug references, intense violence, sexual themes and strong language. Although I can't say that I recall anything warranting the sexual or drug cautions, the rest is quite applicable. Players will rip enemies apart in gory explosions of blood, several "fatality" maneuvers are graphic in nature, and in general, the level of violence is pretty over-the-top. In addition, nearly every character in the game uses a ridiculous amount of profanity. Keep your little ones far away.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be aware that there is a "beep beep" sound that signals when a homing missile is about to hit. Although there is an on-screen prompt telling the player to deflect it before impact, it's very hard to keep track of without the sound giving the player a heads-up. Missile damage is a pretty trivial thing overall, though. Otherwise, there are subtitles for all dialogue and no other significant audio cues apart from the missiles.

Brad Gallaway
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11 years ago

The games for me just turns into a mess its poorly paced theres no story its just destroy everything mindlessly. I guess for me its to open. Reminds me of the trouble I had with the assassin “lets climb a build game”tho there is more structure it just got boring after awhile. Then again I get bored with SA and GTA so I must suck.

PS:Rage was a let down.

Modern Angel
Modern Angel
11 years ago

Dear Brad, Prototype 1 and 2 are the only games on the planet Earth that have me sitting for hours on end with my mouth open, staring at the screen. Some other good games I enjoy merely shut down my nervous system for outside information (Rage, Killzone 2, Deus Ex, Super Mario World 3D, Resident Evil: Revelations, Mortal Kombat,…), but Prototype does something else entirely. The power of the game is that it is constantly moving in a fast pace. There is no resting point. It is also necessary to think about tactics while fighting the monsters, to determine the… Read more »

Micheal S.
Micheal S.
11 years ago

I have not completed the game yet, but I am on the second island and I am in total agreement with you. Another point is that although it looks like there are a ton of customization options with respect to abilities, its more often than not a choice between better jumping or better air dashing. In general it does not matter a whole lot which one you pick since the other ones won’t unlock until later in the story so you’ll probably get both anyway. Something that I wanted to point out that I think was also a problem in… Read more »