When you look at the evolution of open-world action games, you'll quickly find that we've got two major ways to develop one: the realistic world filled with cops and crime, and the comic book world full of superpowers, heroes, and villains. But with a couple of recent games, both of these niches are starting to blur: first, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows and inFAMOUS gave the player to do right and wrong and get an entirely different result (and set of goals to achieve). Recently, Red Faction: Guerrilla busted open the more realistic genre by giving it a sci-fi overhaul yet still keeping those same mission archetypes, secondary activities, and more that you got used to back with Grand Theft Auto.
Now, Radical Entertainment's Prototype takes the hero thing a bit further, as it's hard to argue that its main character is anything but a bad guy. Alex Mercer has been infected with a virus that, during the course of the game, is slowly enveloping Manhattan. Unlike those mindless zombie-like creatures and powerful brutes, though, the strain Alex has is not only immensely versatile, but he has the ability to blend in with humans and consume life forms to find out everything they know.
The game starts off with a highly-structured "preview" of what Mercer eventually becomes. The biomass inside his body can form itself into weapons, like claws, hammers, or a huge double blade on one arm. He's got the ability to run straight up walls, jump dozens of feet into the air, and even glide from building to building. When the introduction is over it goes back in time to Mercer's "awakening" with the virus growing inside him and his memory of his life before the infection wiped clean. He quickly learns about the evil corporation that spawned the mess, Gentek, and of some of the key characters that shed light on why Manhattan has suddenly been quarantined by the military. Mercer will have to disguise himself as various people (an easy and fun ability to use, something that could have easily been screwed up by the developers), fight both the newly infected populace and the military, even while they fight each other, and unravel the secrets of how he got where he is.
This superhero game gives us a pretty impressive-looking version of Manhattan that changes over time as the infection spreads from one neighborhood to another, and Alex can traverse it in highly entertaining ways. But what makes the aerial action fun is the targeting system and special abilities that will allow Alex to take on aerial opponents and, in many cases, become a flying machine of death himself. The game tosses tons of "Evolution Points" at you for doing almost anything, and those are funneled into buying upgrades for your abilities. The nice part is that the developers clearly tested these abilities a lot, and while you can't really test drive them or see them in action pre-purchase, I found that just about everyone of them costs about what it's worth. It's always depressing to spend a ton of points on an upgrade in a game like this, only to find out the new attack or ability is severely underwhelming. Here, you almost always get what you pay for.
You'll need those abilities, too, as the military gets more and more serious as you move on. You can't just punch a tank to death, but with the Hammerfists, that's not a problem. You won't be able to easily hijack a chopper even after you gain the ability halfway through the game, but with the Whiplash ranged attack ability, it becomes pretty much trivial.
The gore level in Prototype goes well beyond what you might expect, even for an M-rated game. Any living thing can essentially be ripped apart in a number of ways, and Alex' ability to grab foes and Consume them - as in, the biomass living inside his body literally devours it, absorbing it in a rather gruesome way - is always a little unsettling. Sometimes you'll actually catch a glimpse of an unwitting victim's limb actually sticking out of Mercer's back as the infection inside him gobbles it up and pulls it inward.
The military start off with only a basic knowledge of the danger Mercer represents to them, but they catch on soon and will eventually have plenty of gadgets to help track and detect him, and in those later stages, you'll have to avoid or disable those defenses. That along with the ability to use disguises to sneak into military bases and then stealthily consume them in order to use military weapons and vehicles really adds an extra element to the game that you might not have expected to see. In some ways, Prototype almost has too many things to do - both the bumper buttons bring up radial menus that let you choose from a ton of abilities, and while you can assign a few of them to the D-pad directions, you'll be using those bumper menus more and more as you near the end of the game.
The story and cutscenes in Prototype won't win any awards, and Mercer himself isn't really terribly likable of a character. In many games this would be a pretty significant downside for me, but here it's easy to focus on all the awesome destruction he can dish out. From hugely-powered Devastator moves to the ability to grab and throw anything smaller than a building, you've got quite a few ways to dispatch foes. The missions you get sent on are entirely dedicated to taking the plot further, and new side missions will appear here and there as you progress through the story. These side missions will sometimes give you a singular objective where you either succeed or fail, and others give you bronze, silver or gold ratings based on how well you do. At first I thought these were goofy because there's no real cutscenes to introduce them so they're completely divorced from the story, but then I realized that it'd make no sense to have the citizens of what is quickly becoming a post-apocalyptic Manhattan give a super-powered, infected death machine some kind of menial job. He's not a crimefighter. So by having the game in essence talk directly to the player, I think it's a better choice for the most part.
Still, at some point the story gets just a little too dull and you realize the game might actually be better if it just talked to you directly for the whole thing. There's no real feeling or genuine emotion behind all of the violence, and at some point the plot turns from a reason to be violent into a semi-plausible excuse at best for the developers to give you a big sandbox to be mean to people, infected, and the military in. Taken further: just about the whole game would be intact without a single cutscene or bit of voice work from Mercer, as almost all of the fun parts have very little to do with unraveling the mystery. So while it's there and the game will make you dig into quite a bit of it, there's still a lot of it that's optional - and none of it is that fantastic anyway.
Prototype has no multiplayer modes of any kind but it does include some interesting extras. First, there is the usual huge number of hidden orbs scattered throughout the city for you to find, and as you find more they become worth more EP as you go. Beyond that, completing the game allows you to start over with all of your increased powers, and you can go back through the story with your extra abilities or just complete any side missions you didn't do. Since this game is ridiculously fun just tearing around the city causing chaos, this is probably a bit more appealing than I make it sound. The best part? Picking up a car and just sprinting down a sidewalk, bashing hundreds of people in the face with the car and sending them all careening away with over-the-top ragdoll physics.
Prototype, in a lot of ways, does right what many superhero games have been trying to achieve for years. It's not a surprise to me, then, that Radical also made Hulk: Ultimate Destruction back on the original Xbox - it's probably the only game that got even close to getting the formula right. Well, they got it this time, as Prototype is a ton of fun and its hugely overblown abilities, which are a total blast, still might not be enough with the kind of enemies sent at you. This is a great game with only a few minor downsides that are hardly worth mentioning because everyone of them can be completely erased every time you hit the X+B Devastator move. If you're even remotely interested in games where people shoot things, punch things, walk, run, or drive around - is that just about everything yet? - then you owe it to yourself to check out Prototype.