The sandbox genre is a curious one. Booming this generation, largely due to the increased processing power of current generation consoles over the last, developers appear to have separated into two schools of design: realism, and the superhero. With the former, the aim of a sandbox game is to create a believable, life-like world. A snapshot of the world we know, or a world that once was. As seen with titles like Mafia II and Grand Theft Auto IV, thematically and in content, these sandbox games are grounded in realism, telling stories that could very well exist beyond our doorstep, within an open environment that exists independently (and often dangerously) beyond our control.
But then there’s the superhero philosophy, adopted by games like Arkham City and Crackdown. Here the sandbox aims not to be a cruel, realistic world, but a toy box, free from restrictions and open to all kinds of player meddling. These experiences aim to allow the player to experiment with their tools and abilities, to disregard reality and make the sandbox their own. And this is exactly the kind of game Prototype 2 is.
Prototype 2 picks up over year after the original game, Manhattan suffering a second wave of viral outbreaks, and Blackwatch again returning to ‘contain’ the situation. Alex Mercer, protagonist of the first game, is suspected to be involved. And this is Prototype 2‘s twist: you don’t actually play as Mercer. Instead, the story focuses on the newly introduced James Heller, an ex-US Marine on a mission to avenge his wife and child, believed to have died during outbreak. With his sights set directly on Mercer, the man he considers responsible for his pain, Heller naturally runs into some trouble which, in turn, infects him with the very same virus. Or, to put it simply, the game quickly gives an excuse for Heller to have all the superpowers Mercer has, and then some.
What follows is a pretty standard story of revenge, secrecy, conspiracy and murder. The tropes of films and literature mirroring these themes are all there: wise cracking tough guy hero, sensual and lusty female interest, crazy scientists doing crazy science, shadowy government operatives up to no good, and more. The narrative is easy to follow, with fairly predictable twists and turns, and does a good job of tying together Mercer’s involvement with the first game and where Heller, among other characters and organisations, fit into the big picture.
Simplicity works in Prototype 2‘s favour. Predictable as the story may be, the narrative and dialogue are presented in a way that seems quite self aware of the game’s premise. Outside of a couple of silly moments, Prototype 2‘s story never takes itself more seriously than necessary, well aware that a super mutant soaring through the city skies and throwing trucks at crowds of civilians, all the while cracking one-liners, is best reserved for cheesy Hollywood blockbuster style storytelling over pseudo philosophy and melodramatic nonsense. It’s a catch-22 though. As nice as it is to see Prototype 2 well aware of its subject matter, a generic story is still generic, and given the game’s abundance of in-engine cut scenes, stylised footage, and audio tapes, it’s hard to truly care, or stay interested, in Heller’s plight nor the world around him.
The sloshy Hollywood story is coupled with suitably sloshy gameplay. And by sloshy I mean both in terms of balls-to-the-walls action, and disgusting ultra-violence. In the case of the latter, it is a good disgusting, if you’re into this kind of thing. Seriously, Prototype 2 has gore coming out of every artery and hole where flesh should be. Enemies will be brutally dismembered and slaughtered by the thousands, and civilians too if you see fit, with no repercussions beyond waves of ‘response team’ enemies, not unlike GTA‘s wanted level. In fact, it’s hard to find a single interaction with any NPC in the game, good or evil, that doesn’t involve turning them into a pile of goo.
This is because, at its heart, Prototype 2 is a mindless action game. With the exception of a couple of powers, Heller’s continually growing selection of mutations are purely offensive. Blades and claws for slicing, and tendrals for latching onto objects and creating horrific webs of death. Tied into a levelling system that allows Heller to unlock new powers from specific boss-like enemies, and upgrade others through experience points, players are given the freedom to prioritise growing specific powers over others, slowly developing their effectiveness over the course of the game. The idea is neat, but mostly superficial, the options limited to concepts of health vs damage, regeneration vs speed, and so on. Players are unlikely to note drastic differences between ‘builds’ of Heller due to power similarity, the sandbox environment encouraging maximising everything at your disposal, and the unlikeliness of multiple playthroughs.
But this is okay, because the range of powers available are seamlessly integrated into the game design, and versatile enough to give players a good range of moves to murder their enemies. As noted, Prototype 2 is of the ‘superhero’ variety, which means Heller will be jumping from building to building, running directly up walls, soaring through the air, picking up and throwing vehicles, and much more. It’s like Arkham City on steroids, with all anticipated control and design restrictions removed. Really, it’s almost like cheating. In the span of only a few seconds Heller can effortlessly dismantle an entire block, grappling on to helicopters and tanks in between hurling trucks at soldiers, and still find the time to run up a few buildings in the process…with a civilian in one arm, if you’ve a flavour for King Kong fantasies.
This sense of empowerment and control is fantastic. Anybody who enjoyed using ‘all weapons’ and similarly overpowering cheats for the Grand Theft Auto series will be right at home with Prototype 2. Rarely has a sandbox protagonist felt so powerful and dominant over the entire game world, let alone this be the staple of ‘fair’ design. It’s you against the world, and you already have the home advantage.
Mindless carnage is all well and good, but only for so long. So, Prototype 2 attempts to string the action together with a series of quests, some optional, as well as the usual sandbox treasure hunts. The latter is exactly as you’d expect: various pockets of the city hiding goodies to find, or marked enemies to kill, rewarding the player with experience points upon victory. Nothing you’ve haven’t seen before, but welcome none-the-less, giving the player something to do when not on missions.
Design of missions, optional and required, can be separated between a focus on subterfuge or action. The former is quite interesting. Heller can ‘absorb’ characters, adopting their identity, allowing him to access terminals and enter restricted zones unbeknown to those around that he is a ticking time bomb of death. This mission design relies on a simple system of NPC line of sight, the game preventing you from stealth absorbing any character being watched by another. Thankfully, Heller’s detection abilities give him information on who is watching who, allowing prioritisation of guards to decide who needs to be killed first, working your way down the chain to get to your target. The idea is basic and functional, avoiding tedium that plagues many stealth elements of other mechanically varied game, but lacking rich foundations to be truly varied.
Often, Heller can disregard stealth in favour of action, while the other missions will simply be action. These tend to play out exactly as you’d expect. Heller is given targets he must take out, characters to chase down and absorb, waves of enemies to defeat, and eventually an escape from end-mission baddies. Given the stability and enjoyment derived from the core mechanics, action missions are plenty of fun. The design notes the overpowered arsenal of abilities at Heller’s disposal, throwing plenty of tanks, soldiers and helicopters at the player to keep them occupied. At their best, action missions play out the like greatest Hollywood action films, combining the aforementioned seamless movement and skills of Heller with light narrative to keep the mission flowing. To put it bluntly, this means lots of explosions, distressed enemies in awe at Heller’s powers, bullets flying every which way, as the streets of Manhattan become a scene out of Michael Bay’s best work.
To prevent repetition, Prototype 2 does a pretty good of introducing new gimmicks into each mission. These mostly take on the form of a previously unseen type of enemy (such as a new vehicle), or rewards of new powers when the target has been killed. The first half of the game does a better job of this, quickly throwing new goodies at Heller to bring the pacing up to speed, while the latter half tends to rely more on what’s established. Even so, there’s a few creative gimmicks to spice up missions, including one where the player must pretend to be part of a clean-up crew, slowly walking through the ruined Manhattan streets, ‘cleaning up’ stray mutants. Stuff like this shows the team has a genuine creative streak, doing their best to venture from the norm.
Missions are split between the sandbox world and interiors. Unfortunately, in design, both of these are a little bit boring, and arguably Prototype 2‘s biggest flaw. Indoor missions have a tendency to reuse the same locations and environments over and over, from science labs to virus infected sewers, meanwhile the teams vision of Manhattan just isn’t particularly memorable. Maybe not being familiar with the real city hurts my impressions, but there’s just not much to Prototype 2‘s sandbox that sticks out as memorable. Slums, streets, construction, towering skyscrapers: it’s a city, as you’ve seen a hundred times over, with no real significant features or designs to separate it from the rest.
I suppose that really sums up Prototype 2‘s biggest problems: being unique. In the grand scheme of things, simplicity works against the design. Most steps the game takes towards variety boil down to revising an existing concept, or reimagining it with a new coat of paint. This enemy is a little bit stronger, and that one has a new weapon. This power causes enemies to splatter, while that one chops them in half. Prototype 2 has strong foundations, but tries to stretch these over an entire game. With so many other sandbox games on the market, including the original Prototype, this sequel lacks hooks of originality and genre evolution to really stand out. It’s all a bit too safe.
But that being said, strong foundations are still strong foundations, and Prototype 2 does a wonderful job of polishing up the original’s design to deliver the same kind of experience with a nicer coat of paint. It’s an action packed, furious ride that never lets up on the explosions, or the gallons of blood. The focus is on excitement and action. On ease of control. On freedom of play without restrictions. The focus is on fun, and it is there Prototype 2 succeeds most. Anybody after are superhero simulator, especially those missing games like Crackdown, is bound to find plenty of enjoyment in Prototype 2.