Prototype 2 allows you to indulge in the amazing fantasy of embodying a Superman-esque protagonist with a massive chip on his shoulder. Instead of protecting Metropolis from the forces of evil, you are the embodiment of chaos whose sole goal is to cause as much violence and destruction as possible, which would be great if the game didn’t trap you within the confines of a boring and uninspired playground.
Anyone who played the original Prototype will utter an immediate groan when they realize that this game suffers from the ancient sequel flaw of stripping away all the abilities that the player earned throughout the first installment and forcing you to relearn everything piece by piece. There isn’t a deus ex machina in the story a la Death in Symphony of the Night, but rather a new anti-hero who has to tread the same ground in learning the neat tricks and mutations that the player already knows. This time around you control James Heller, an Iraq War veteran who comes back home to find his family dead and New York City in the midst of biological warfare. Heller blames all of life’s problems on Alex Mercer, the protagonist of the original installment, and spends the game navigating his way through various conspiracies in order to get his chance at revenge.
The major problem of Prototype 2 comes from Radical Entertainment’s insistence on presenting the world and story with such straight-faced pathos. Your whirlwind tour of revenge is a joyless affair that has you clashing with characters who wear their unhappiness like a badge of honor. Dialogue consists of a few verbs, some pronouns, and whole mess of swearing. Seriously, R. Lee Ermey would blush if he watched a collection of Prototype 2′s cinematics. I’m a huge fan of the entire spectrum of colorful language, but at a certain point, the mounds of vulgarity just start sounding a teenager’s attempt at writing Tarantino fan-fiction. It doesn’t help that most of the voice actors sound like they chewed on a handful of gravel before entering the recording booth. The only person who seems like they understand the preposterousness of the whole thing is Robert Morse, Bertrand Cooper on Mad Men, who fully embraces his role as a kooky old bastard who is quite content with having courtside seats at the apocalypse. But aside from this relatively minor character, everyone else feels like they’re acting under a strict, no fun allowed mandate.
Thankfully this joyless world and its inhabitants are all but forgotten when you’re actually controlling a fully-powered James Heller. Your mutations allow you to transform your limbs into various instruments of destruction that cater to how you want to deliver punishment. Arming Heller with a pair of Hulk Hands allows you to go full-on Banner by smashing through tanks and hurling yourself at the ground like an angry comet. Or if Wolverine is more of your flavor, you can turn yourself into a clawed predator who slices through any unfortunate meat that stands in your way. Each ability in the game has an easily definable superhero analogue, which makes sense considering that Prototype 2 is an evolution of Radical’s The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. But despite giving the player powers ripped from the pages of comic books, Radical fails to deliver the fun and energy that presides throughout those same frames.
The game also lacks internal logic when it comes to mechanics and storytelling. While playing the game, Heller has the ability to absorb any NPC and take their form. Nearly every mission consists of you shapeshifting in order to infiltrate a base, causing a complete ruckus, then evading your pursuers until the coast is clear. Your current form is stored until you absorb another character, creating the need to strategize what kind of character you want to take into certain situations. However, during the game’s various cinematics, Heller has the ability to morph into anyone he’s come across, allowing him to shapeshift at will in order to play the various organizations against one another. If he can do this during a cutscene, then why am I forced to run around the environment looking for a specific type of soldier that I had already absorbed 20 minutes ago? This divide between what the player is in control of and what the game itself presents is indicative of Prototype 2′s main problem: The game doesn’t seem to understand its greatest strengths, and instead focuses on its most prominent weaknesses.
It seems fitting with the whole anti-hero theme that the most fun to be had in Prototype 2 comes from completely ignoring what the game is telling you to do. Pretending that you’re the Last Thug of Krypton and just throwing a temper-tantrum throughout the city is a complete riot. Once you begin to flesh out Heller’s abilities near the end of the game, the mere act of traversal becomes a blast. Radical has refined their locomotion mechanics from Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and the original Prototype into a fluid, visceral beast. For all its flaws, the simple navigation from one point to another in Prototype 2 surpasses that of far better open-world titles like Batman: Arkham City. The ability to run alongside a skyscraper, leap hundreds of feet in the air, glide half a mile, then come crashing down with meteoric flair is a singularly unique joy. If Prototype contained the same plethora of baubles to collect as Assassin’s Creed or Crackdown, it would be much easier to ignore the bland missions in favor of powering up your protagonist through careful exploration. But in the end, there’s no reward to causing mayhem, and eventually you’ll be forced to endure another set of assembly line missions in order to gain a new power or unlock a new area.
It’s rare to find a game that achieves such excellence mechanically, yet completely unravels in nearly every other area. Radical Entertainment has something special here, but the oppressive story, indifferent characters, and hollow world all try their hardest to smother any sort of fun that the player finds. I’m not asking for slapstick comedy, but moments of levity in an otherwise serious action experience can go a long way. There’s a reason why Die Hard is considered by many to be a perfect film, and part of it has to do with the way that the story is presented with a healthy pinch of mirth. With the world of Prototype 2 going to hell, the least they could do is have a bit of fun with it.