Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Prototype Review

People will often tell you that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But some of the best-told stories actually begin in the middle. Take the film Memento, for example. The story itself, about a man trying to find the person who raped and killed his wife, isn't terribly interesting in and of itself. But the main character, Leonard, has a type of amnesia that gives him no long-term memory of anything since his wife's murder. As Leonard uses an elaborate system of notes, photos, and tattoos, the story is actually presented in the film from a point near the end of the story backwards to the beginning.

Prototype's story is a little like that. You play as Alex Mercer, a man who wakes up in a morgue with fragmented memories, strange powers, and a military that wants to take him out. You spend the beginning of the game with no idea what's going on, and learning about Mercer's powers as he does. The plot unfolds by completely story missions, but also by absorbing the memories of people he kills. And what unfolds is a story of government conspiracies and bioterrorism that dates back to the sixties.

The developer, Radical Entertainment, is the same developer that brought us 2005's Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, and it shows. Mercer has free reign about the island of Manhattan. Like the Hulk, he can climb buildings, jump really high, and throw heavy objects. But Mercer has many more powers, some more useful than others. He can cover his body in a suit of armor, turn is arm into a blade or a whip-like weapon, and glide through the air. His most interesting ability, though, is the ability to grab and absorb other people. This can have three benefits. The first, and most immediate, is that he regains health. The second is that he can take the appearance of whoever he absorbed, effectively disguising himself. And finally, for marked targets, he gains their memories. These memories might just open up a bit of plot background, or they might teach you a new skill, such as how to fly a helicopter.

The mix of powers and gameplay makes for some very fluid combat. You could run up the side of a building, jump off and glide to a nearby building, kill and absorb a soldier, use his rocket launcher to take out the helicopter tailing you, jump down into an alley until the heat's off you, then run back to the enemy soldiers on the ground, accuse one of them of being you, hijack a tank while your patsy is killed by his comrades, use the tank to take out a guard tower, then get out and throw the tank and the backup that's been called in before sprouting claws that you use to eviscerate any survivors.

The game's pacing is very good as well. The first few missions you do are relatively easy as you get used to using Mercer's powers. Just when you start to feel invincible, a new type of enemy will be introduced that will seem overpowering... until you unlock a new power. The story missions are varied in type so you don't really feel like you're doing the same thing over and over, and the bosses are challenging without ever feeling impossibly frustrating. When you die, you don't want to throw your controller in frustration; you want to try again and approach the situation a little differently.

Like most sandbox games, you're not confined to story missions. There are plenty of side challenges. Doing them is totally optional, but they give you "Evolution Points" that you can use to buy upgrades.

The only real knocks I have against the game are that it could be a little short if you don't do any of the side missions, and that everything in Manhattan sort of looks the same. The fluid gameplay, buckets of combat options, and interesting story all serve to make those complaints very minor and easy to overlook. If you like sandbox games, comic-bookish superhero games, or action games in general, you owe it to yourself to check out Prototype.

Final Score: A

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