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I Know What You Did Last Winter: Reviews in Haiku Part III - Prototype
by Greg Mengel
So at this point Prototype is going on nine months old, which in dog and game journalism years is ancient. Still, when opportunity knocked for me to play and review it this Christmas, I leaped at the opportunity, having heard so many zany, ridiculous things about it beforehand (most of them involving throwing cars around like volleyballs and partaking in the complete destruction of New York). Once the smoke cleared and the game disk lay defeated on my coffee table under my victoriously outstretched feet, I found that Prototype was a considerably hard game to assign a grade to, for a number of reasons. Check them out in detail after the jump.


A falling park leaf
Floating downward, cannot see
It is raining death

If Prototype, the latest action-adventure game released by veteran design company Radical Entertainment, is known for one thing, it’s violence. For example, you can kick a helicopter in the face. It gets criticised for its overly gruesome gameplay and a paddling-pool-shallow plot. But you can kick a helicopter in the face. gave its 360 and PS3 versions a measly cumulative rating of just over 79%. But you can kick a helicopter in the face.

As you can see, I’m torn. On one hand, Prototype is the ultimate in shallow, meat-heady, violent gaming. On the other, it’s well-designed, engaging, and, to be perfectly honest, a lot of fun. And you can do something with helicopters… Something both awesome, and completely ridiculous and insane. …I can’t seem to remember...

Oh yeah. You can kick a helicopter in the face.

Prototype tells the story of Alex Mercer, an American terrorist who wakes up on a street corner with no recollection of his past, only to discover that he has somehow gained the ability to heal quickly from bullet wounds, shape shift his appendages into various tools and weapons, and absorb other people’s memories and physical forms by eating them after punching them repeatedly in the torso and head. I could not make this up. Basically, he’s Carnage from Spider-Man lore, only instead of being crazy and anarchic, he's angry and sullen. Emo-Carnage, if you will.

By absorbing a series of scientists, military officials, and helpless civilians, Alex discovers the truth behind his transition from man into monster, as well as clues to a major conspiracy going deep into the bowels of the US government, and rooted in the politics of the Cold War. Sounds pretty good, huh? It's not. I'd say digging into this conspiracy would be interesting, but I'd be using the word interesting far too liberally. At times, it will catch your attention, but only briefly, after which you'll return your focus and attention to the senseless killing.

The setting of Prototype is a sandbox modelled upon Manhattan, the most well-known borough of the city of New York. Most of the major buildings and landmarks you probably think of when imagining Manhattan, like the Empire State Building or Times Square, can be found in the game and explored. Not only is exploring fun because it's New York, but there is a reason for it, as Alex acquires experience points for absorbing hovering blue bubbles found hidden across the map. Alex can also grab experience by randomly killing civilians or completing missions.

Once acquired in bulk, these experience points can be spent either to upgrade existing powers in Alex's biological arsenal, or to add new ones. To keep things simple, every power and ability Alex currently has are organized into a menu screen, accessible from the start menu. From there they are separated into different categories, such as combat, which obviously deals with all powers that do damage, or travel, which also obviously includes powers that will help you to more expediently navigate Manhattan's steel jungle. There are a few duds, but the majority the powers available to Alex are unique, useful, and satisfyingly entertaining.

Alex’s superhuman skills, which include running up walls and harmlessly free-falling from skyscrapers, or sprouting horrific claws from what used to be his arms and impaling people on them, will make you feel like a god. A scary, tumorous, vengeful god, sent to earth to redefine the word "hell" to the living. There was a special moment, when I found myself barreling in a dead sprint through the masses, knocking people aside like they were made of rubber while holding a smoldering tank above my head, which I then threw, after leaping fifty feet into the air, into an army helicopter, when I knew this game was special.

The story in Prototype is the worst kind of ridiculous. Alex is less a character than a walking ball of testosterone, filled to the brim with coming-of-age brooding and a fulfilled sense of teenage physical dominance. What I mean here is not that Alex actually is a teenager (he's actually a twenty-something adult); but that he doesn't know how to respond to his changing body, and that leads to him making horrible decisions. Rather than thinking through events and attempting to come to an intelligent conclusion about his predicament, he makes knee-jerk reactions to every event that comes his way. Those decisions almost always involve the destruction of both Army and civilian property and life. There were a few times in the game, after he had just destroyed something particularly impressive, when I expected Alex to toss out a line from Percy Shelley’s "Ozymandias", perhaps the manliest line in all of literature: “I AM OZYMANDIAS, KING OF KINGS! LOOK UPON YE WORKS, YE MIGHTY, AND DESPAIR!” His actual dialogue is about as manly. Throughout the game, Alex’s transition as a character starts off at frightened and confused, then evolves into angry and confused, and finally climaxes at confident and belligerent, while still fairly confused. As shallowly developed as Alex is, every other character in the game is ten times worse. While the story is terrible, it’s so overshadowed by gameplay that it could be nonexistent, and the game would be no worse at all. One could even make the argument that it would be better.

With so many epic powers and abilities to manage, I was surprised at how easy Prototype was to control using the Xbox controller. Switching from one ability to another was easy, and the auto targeting system in the game is one of the best I've seen yet. Hats off to Radical for taking so many moves and abilities and implementing them in a way that flows naturally from the fingertips to the controller. Having not played the game on a PC, I have no idea how wieldy or unwieldy controlling Alex is on a keyboard.

All things considered, Prototype is an enigma for me. It is one of the few games that pretends to rely on a strong plot, but still stands up on its own when that plot runs away screaming at the first sign of meaningful character development or a story that doesn't involve pubescent angst and tank-throwing as a core theme. The gameplay really is that good, even if it depends on an ocean of blood, manliness, and violence. I'm halfway convinced that the entire game is secretly an idol to the Norse god of war, Tyr. If you can ignore a complete lack of plot, want to slaughter millions of civilians in a Manhattan sandbox from the comfort of your living room couch, or just want to face-kick your very own helicopter, then this game is for you. I need some plot in my action-adventure games, so I'm giving it a mediocre seven.

Just a warning for those of you who do decide to grab a copy and slaughter the animated masses – even if you're not religious, after playing Prototype for more than thirty minutes, you will feel the need to go and pray.



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- Greg Mengel

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