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Prototype 2 (Xbox 360) artwork

Prototype 2 (Xbox 360) review

"While Prototype 2 is a definite improvement, it’s not like fixing the first game’s flaws unearths some hidden masterpiece here. It’s not a great sequel so much as the game we should’ve gotten in the first place, and now it arrives several years too late to the party."

The problem with Prototype was that it only had one volume. I get that “empowering” was the adjective that they were going for, but when you’re already wall-running up skyscrapers and punching tanks into the dirt with your bare hands in the opening sequence, where do you go for the remaining 20 hours? MadWorld and Bulletstorm, two games I loved, both capitalized on similar visceral pleasures but had the decency to keep it short and sweet, calling it a day before they overstayed their welcome. It was cool the first time I ripped the AC unit off the roof of an apartment building and threw it at an attack helicopter, but as it pressed on, Prototype just became wearying.

Prototype 2 is realistically no less loud, chaotic and (shall we say) grisly than its predecessor. A non-gamer would look at it and think it was made by crazy people. Yet this time, it actually paces itself, ramping its difficulty at a more steady pace and saving some of its biggest surprises for the final act. Is that enough? Not really. The lousy visuals, bad dialog and barren sandbox world are all still in full swing, and they’re even less justifiable with an additional three years’ worth of raised standards. Prototype 2 fixes its predecessor’s most central problems, and now the issue is that it took us so long to get here.

Prototype 2 asset

Still, when approached as a straightforward action romp, Prototype 2 works. It works for its depth, it works for its diversity, it works for its brutality, and it works for the crunchy sound effects and creative gore effects that, let’s face it, play a huge role in making a game like this so satisfying. Blessed with former protagonist Alex Mercer’s shapeshifting superpowers, James Heller can transform his limbs into all manner of claws, clubs, blades, and tentacles. He can hijack vehicles, throw heavy objects, morph into people he’s consumed. He has a new attack called “tendrils,” which introduces some of the most visually striking carnage I’ve seen in a long time. He’s ridiculously overpowered, and that’s why he’s fun to control.

How do you make a game challenging when the entire selling point is that players are overpowered? Last time, Radical fumbled around in the dark trying to answer that question. Missions in Prototype usually ended with players being tasked with simply leaving the area of conflict, and it was easier said than done as Alex was knocked around like a pinball by the stockpiles of explosives his BlackWatch adversaries brought to the fight. Prototype 2 takes a step back. It never overwhelms the player. Most of the armed forces it pits you against are cannon fodder, while the enemies meant to pose a legitimate threat to Heller’s safety – the mutants, the supersoldiers, the gunships with ridiculously well-trained pilots – are even more aggressive than before. Early in the game, a punchup with a fellow shapeshifter is treated as a full-on boss battle. Several hours later, you’re expected to take several of them on at once while completing an entirely separate objective.

The most disappointing thing about Prototype was how monotonous and one-note it felt when juxtaposed with the genuine wealth of options presented by its combat. With more variety in its scenarios and more breathing room for experimentation, Prototype 2 fixes this. And I’ve always said that if a game succeeds in being fun, I’m willing to overlook nearly anything else. Prototype 2’s awful, awful writing puts that attitude to a strenuous test.

Prototype 2 opens with a genuinely heartbreaking cutscene that depicts a U.S. soldier losing his family to the “Mercer virus,” and it’s almost enough, just for a moment, to make you sympathize with Heller before you even take control of him. Whoops. Turns out Heller is just a generically mean-and-angry, post-Kratos basket of violence and expletives. Radical, it’s not 2004 anymore. Shoehorning this many f-bombs into your dialog doesn’t make your game edgy, and Heller comes off less like a tragic figure and more like a grade schooler who just saw The Departed. We’d have trouble rooting for him at all if the colonels and scientists he fights weren’t even more one-dimensionally despicable than he is. This game is actually sophomoric and transparent enough to at one point bring up the fact that BlackWatch is experimenting on unborn babies, just in case Heller’s childish outbursts had you questioning whether you were on the right side. His NPC sidekick is a Hispanic priest, an archetype that I’m pretty sure Cheech Marin has parodied at some point.

Even poor Alex Mercer, once a legitimately complex anti-hero, has been downgraded to a full-on dark-and-brooding villain, and the role has even been recast, because I guess Barry Pepper’s voice isn’t snively enough. Good thing Mercer was already wearing a hood, or he would’ve undergone a design change for the sequel. Look, if Prototype, in this day and age, could make me gasp out loud over the explanation of its main character having freaking amnesia, it was doing something right, witless dialog and all. Prototype 2’s story and writing do nothing right. Woe be the sequel that tries to fix its predecessors’ problems and introduces new flaws of its own.

And even then, that’s not counting some of the fundamental shortcomings that Prototype 2 doesn’t correct. Take Heller’s acrobatic free-running, which allows players to scale buildings as easily as they’d sprint across the ground. Looks cool, feels great, totally saps the reward out of actually exploring the sandbox world we’ve been given. We didn’t jump around collecting orbs in Crackdown because we like shiny things; we did it because the strenuous effort it took to reach those high places made the view from the top that much sweeter. I don’t know this city any more now than when I started, as it’s functionally nothing but a featureless enclosure in which to run from one waypoint to the other. It’s the most unjustified sandbox world this side of L.A. Noire.

So while Prototype 2 is a definite improvement, it’s not like fixing the first game’s flaws unearths some hidden masterpiece here. It’s not a great sequel so much as the game we should’ve gotten in the first place, and now it arrives several years too late to the party. It certainly looks the part, with pitiful particle effects, constant framerate issues and some of the most embarrassing draw distances I’ve seen in a sandbox game this generation. As is par for the course in a game like this, Prototype 2 offers an achievement for reaching the highest point in the city – the Empire State Building, in this case – but there’s not a lot of fun in that when you can make the climb in a matter of seconds, and even less when the world below you is shrouded in a thick, green fog. Panau, this is not. Speaking of which, have you played Just Cause 2? I'm gonna go play it right now.


Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (April 29, 2012)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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