Jul 3 2012
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC eventually
Prototype 2 offends me.
Prototype 2 is an open-world urban-sandbox action game developed by Radical Entertainment, who did the well-regarded The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, a game based around a huge, unstoppable rampaging monster, way back in 2005. For Prototype, they applied that experience to a character who was their own intellectual property – another huge, unstoppable rampaging monster, but this time he was a shape-shifting cannibal named Alex Mercer.
Prototype was released around the same time as inFamous for the PS3, and I was one of the few people who considered Prototype superior because, although it wasn’t nearly as polished, it was far, far more nuanced, way smarter, and more interesting and ambitious.
Prototype 2 is none of those things. It has slightly better gameplay than its predecessor but is less interesting and far dumber in every other way. To explain properly I need to cite specific examples. I’ll do this by comparing the games’ endings because they’re indicative of the respective strengths and weaknesses. I need to be explicit here because otherwise people will play the game and think, “Surely he’s exaggerating; maybe the payoff at the end exonerates the lousy story a bit.” It doesn’t. So, SPOILER ALERT, if you care about this sort of thing.
As stated above, the protagonist of Prototype is former Gentech scientist Alex Mercer, who begins the game with partial amnesia, jumbled memories of people trying to kill him, and fun powers. He learns very quickly that he can consume other humans and usurp their memories and forms. He also reunites with his sister, in a great scene where she says, “Alex, I thought you were dead, it’s so great to see you’re alive!” but her body language says, “Ohgodohgodohgod, I’m trapped in a room with the monster from John Carpenter’s The Thing; what do I say to make him not eat me?” At the end of the game, some things come out about Alex Mercer: He was a sociopath who was never on good terms with his family; he tried to hold his employer ransom by threatening to unleash a supervirus on New York City unless they gave him a lot of money; they called his bluff, but he wasn’t bluffing, and they shot him when he tried to release the virus.
Which means he’s dead. The truth is that the protagonist of Prototype is not Alex Mercer; it’s a viral mass. The jumbled memories the game begins with are just recollections absorbed from Alex Mercer’s corpse, and its default appearance looks like him because his was the first form it ate.
Moreover, the virus ends up being a much better person than Alex Mercer ever was; it actually feels brotherly affection for Alex’s sister because it thinks it’s supposed to, while the real Alex never did. At the end of the game, it tries to sacrifice itself to protect New York, detonating a nuke to contain a potential second viral outbreak, and only survives due to luck and being damn tough.
In Prototype 2 Alex Mercer – or at least the viral mass masquerading as him – is the villain. You play as James Heller, a soldier who returned from a tour in the Middle East to discover that a second viral outbreak is consuming New York, killing his wife and daughter. The news blames Mercer, and Heller soon meets him and is also turned into a virus-powered superhuman. Mercer claims that Gentech was actually responsible for the second outbreak and that he wants Heller’s help in bringing them down.
Here’s the ending reveal: Virus-Mercer, not Gentech, caused the outbreak because he wants to turn the whole of humanity into a race of superhumans whom he’ll have absolute control over, ending all war and disease forever. His sister ultimately betrayed and abandoned him (she’s Heller’s quest-giver for the final act of the game) because she remembers when they got along as kids, but ever since he got his superpowers he’s been a sociopathic monster, thus completely reversing the first game’s protagonist’s entire character arc and final reveal.
I’m sure you can understand how someone invested in the first game’s story might feel miffed (or even peeved) by the way the second handles things. Disregarding core elements of a previous work to make writing the sequel easier is a narrative trick used only in the worst, most disappointing franchises. Radical Entertainment wanted to make the protagonist of their first game the antagonist of the second, and in order to do it they turned him into a completely different character. Shame on you guys.
I get that it’s hard to write a storyline for an open-world sandbox game on a strict timetable. For reasons ranging from art budget to bug triage, literally any piece of content could get cut at any point in development, but this laziness and lack of integrity inform every element of Prototype 2’s writing. At every chance it has to be smart, Prototype 2 is dumb; every chance it has to be subtle, it’s blatant; where it could be a game for adults, it’s full of “adult content” that will appeal to 14-year-olds. It is in all ways less compelling than its predecessor, and I can only thank the uncaring universe that produced this game for not also making me pay money for it.
This review is based on a retail copy of Prototype 2 for the Xbox 360, provided by Activision for promotional purposes.