Prototype is an action video game developed by Radical Entertainment and published by Activision. It was released for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows.
Developer: Radical Entertainment
In Prototype, the player assumes the role of Alex Mercer, a man in New York City who awakens in a morgue in the middle of a pandemic with little memory of his previous life or of how he came to be in the morgue. The scientists who were about to perform an autopsy on Mercer are suddenly killed by what appear to be private security forces; Mercer takes several gunshots to the chest but is able to escape. He quickly discovers that he has been infected by the BLACKLIGHT virus and has acquired a number of strange and powerful abilities. Manhattan has been cordoned off by the military, and the city serves as an open-world setting as the game follows Alex for a number of days after the initial outbreak as he attempts to uncover information about his own infection and save the city both from the BLACKLIGHT virus and from the military's use of increasingly desperate tactics to contain the outbreak.
Infected with BLACKLIGHT, Alex Mercer has become something entirely superhuman and more than a little monstrous. He is nearly invincible, and is capable of rapidly consuming other people and assuming their identities. He possesses enormous ability and strength, making him capable of climbing buildings, free-running at high speed, jumping and gliding enormous distances, and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with entire military platoons. His primary combat abilities are hand-to-hand with limbs that have been transformed into devastating weapons like hammers, claws, tentacles, and blades, and defensive powers such as the ability to produce a shield or hardened body armor. Mercer can also use small arms he takes from his military components, and can throw large objects (rooftop air conditioners, cars, eventually even tanks and helicopters) with immense force and precision. He also has enhanced senses in the form of vision in different visual spectra: a Predator-esque infrared vision that helps him to fight in dark or smoke-filled areas, and an "infected vision" that gives him friend-or-foe targeting similar to the Eagle Vision feature in Assassin's Creed.
Mercer faces opposition from two factions throughout the game. He faces a number of other BLACKLIGHT-infected entities, ranging from individuals behaving like zombies to immense monsters with abilities and powers similar to Mercer's own. He faces human resistance in the form of police, military regulars, private security, special forces, and genetically augmented super-soldiers. Mercer is able to consume most of these enemies, and in addition to being able to assume the appearance of a consumed victim, Mercer also absorbs some of their experiences, abilities, and memories. This process gives the game some RPG-like progression in the form of skill trees that unlock additional abilities for Mercer, increasing his stealth, his mobility, his strength, and his combat effectiveness.
The game's narrative is quite disjointed: the game opens at the height of the infection with Mercer already having a fully developed set of powers, in discussion with a mysterious allied contact that has been guiding Mercer's actions. Following this opening prologue the game jumps backward in time to Mercer discovering his infection and we watch Mercer as his powers slowly evolve and he begins to unravel the conspiracy at the root of the BLACKLIGHT virus. At the end of each chapter, there is an interlude segment continuing the discussion between Mercer and his nameless contact; at the conclusion of the interlude the game jumps forward some amount of time from the previous chapter and continues the narrative from there. Only a short amount of the in-game timeline follows the conclusion of Mercer's communication with his contact.
As is typical for an open-world setting, Mercer's activities require him to travel to some specific location on the map and begin a mission objective. Some of these objectives advance the storyline. Some of them temporarily shift the balance of power in the ongoing conflict between the military and the infected. Some of them allow Mercer to consume specific individuals with memory knowledge of the conspiracy; we see these memories in the form of loosely-connected cut-scenes. Some of the objectives are repeatable combat or racing challenges intended to showcase or test one specific ability of Mercer's, with graded awards in the form of trophies. The city also has "orb collection" rewards for exploration, somewhat comparable to the mechanic in the Crackdown titles.
Getting the 'Pt' achievement for achieving platinum trophies on every challenge is one of the hardest things I've ever done in a video game. I had a lot of fun but also a lot of frustration in the process, and as a result this is not a title I'm likely to revisit even though I really enjoyed playing it. In those challenges I often knew what I needed to do but struggled to give the game the correct set of inputs to succeed. That's a pet peeve of mine, when the control scheme of a game becomes the primary obstacle to success. This inability to physically articulate my intentions for the character always feels like a design deficiency, and I thought a lot about Prototype's deficiencies during those sections of the game. By comparison the main storyline missions were often not challenging enough, even on the game's hardest difficulty.
When I wasn't struggling with the controls, this was a very rewarding game to play. Mercer can wreak incredible havoc as he roams around Manhattan, and I really enjoyed the minute-to-minute activity of the game, particularly set against the backdrop of slow progression in the city from martial law during the early stages of the pandemic to sheer anarchy as infected overwhelm the city's defenses. Mercer can tear the top off a tank, throw it to knock a pursuing attack helicopter out of the sky, and then walk around the corner to consume a Marine and casually walk out of the military cordon in disguise. It's a cool balance between super-hero aggression and Assassin's Creed style precision stealth. The game pops in my memories, more clearly than most anything else which was released that year.
The primary mode of travel in the game is climbing buildings and jumping from rooftop to rooftop. It reminded me a lot of Crackdown, in a good way. Manhattan is one of the most iconic patches of land, real or imagined, anywhere in human memory; getting to use the whole of it as a big jungle gym was surprisingly gratifying.
The story didn't make a lot of sense to me; not enough of what was happening to Mercer was revealed in the main storyline. The secondary story felt very confusing, as it played out in no specific order through memories Mercer absorbed from people he consumes through the course of the game. Every scene we see in those memories is in first-person perspective, and it's a different person in each memory. I also found the ending confusing; Mercer defeats a BLACKLIGHT-infected boss and the fight goes out of the sentient virus the same way the fight goes out of the Flood at the end of Halo 3, but Mercer himself is essentially BLACKLIGHT embodied. The game suggests a yin-yang conflict within the virus during some of the harder-to-find flashback cut-scenes, hinting at something like an idea that the virus which has consumed Mercer is actually competing for genetic superiority against the existing strain of the virus. How has Mercer's defeat of the virus changed it, and him? The thing I liked least about this game's story was the way the conclusion made the protagonist an even more enigmatic figure. As a Spawn-esque super-hero raising hell on the streets of Manhattan, Mercer is a vivid and well-realized character, but as a person with internal conflicts, desires, and motivations, he's murky at best.
Prototype is a breakout game for Radical Entertainment--one of the first things they've released which isn't a license of outside IP. It's not clear to me whether the IP itself is owned by Activision or Radical, but either way, the commercial success of a title like this usually means increased access to resources and talent for the developer. The game is also a strong showcase for the technological abilities of Radical's Titanium engine, which seemed stable and performant to me. Prototype has a great action-packed arcade feel to it, a perfect title to take out for an afternoon of casual play, and challenge to reward continued time investment from more hardcore gamers. I'm hopeful that this is going to be the successful debut of a new franchise, but I'm not sure how much there is to write home about technologically.
This is a super-hero game, plain and simple. The character you play is really almost more of a villain, but the powers and the odds against him are straight out of comic books. Most of the gameplay innovations were new and interesting powers for a character who was already pretty powerful the first time we met him, and those innovations aren't going to be readily portable to a game that isn't based on that same super-hero. Crackdown had a similar problem, and its sequel was lackluster because of it.
The other problem with super-hero games is what you do once you've finished telling the origin story. The appeal of a super-hero in video games is rooted in his ability to overcome increasingly dangerous challenges, and at some point you end up making the hero so powerful that he becomes a walking, talking deus ex machina. Batman is probably more fertile ground for video games simply because his abilities are subject to more realistic limits.
After I finish a video game I like to think about how this game will change the implementation of games that follow it. With Prototype, I really find myself drawing a blank. The ability to wreak so much pure destruction is what makes the game appealing, but video games are faddish, seasonal things. It's generally the more subtle nuances of a title that establish its real long-term legacy. Alex Mercer can drop from the top of a skyscraper and shatter the street below him, but I'm not sure I can describe the game where he does it as groundbreaking. A hell of a lot of fun, just not groundbreaking. If you haven't played Prototype by now, you might just want to jump in with the sequel, due out sometime in the middle of next year.