Prototype 2 is anything but subtle. The follow-up to Radical Entertainment’s 2009 murder simulator rarely gives you a moment to breathe without gunfire, rockets and tendrils of errant intestines bursting from the screen. Its anarchic approach to gameplay can grate on you, but without a meaty plot to hang its crimson hat on, it’s also the open world adventure’s most defining asset. The question is: does the bloody sequel do enough to build upon its shallow predecessor, or is it simply another dose of forgettable fun?
The game’s exaggerated opening certainly encourages the idea of a vastly improved narrative. Emotional exchanges between new protagonist Sgt. James Heller and his wife attempt to add some humanity to the previously lifeless series but, within moments of the game opening, it’s back to business as usual. Heller is a predictable archetype; a soulless conduit for Prototype’s needlessly excessive gore. Agile and strong, the character’s a solid addition from a gameplay perspective, but his homicidal curse-laden schtick wears thin long before the credits roll.
And unfortunately, that criticism applies to the narrative as a whole. While the pacing is certainly better than its uneven predecessor, the series is still leagues below the likes of inFAMOUS. Transforming the franchise’s former protagonist Alex Mercer into a villain is certainly an interesting gimmick but, like so many of the game’s other narrative threads, it ultimately goes nowhere.
As such, you’ll need to grit your teeth through excessive radio chatter and buzzword-heavy cut scenes. All you really need to know is that there’s a virus spreading throughout New York City (or New York Zero as it's been renamed) and you need to consume as many souls as possible to piece together exactly what’s happening.
Prototype 2’s soul consumption mechanic is actually one of its highlights, allowing you to explore various characters’ memories and even assume their appearance. This presents the formula for some well implemented stealth sections, which see you shifting between the personas of different NPCs as you attempt to infiltrate copy-and-paste facilities and strongholds. It also solves one of the most persistent problems with open world titles to date, allowing you to easily escape from chasing factions by simply adopting a different form and waiting for your pursuers to lose interest.
But while stealth is admittedly well implemented, Prototype 2 is at its very best when it’s being brash. Heller starts off as a well equipped protagonist, incorporating many of Mercer’s original upgrades from the outset – but he evolves beyond recognition throughout the course of the campaign. The game does an outstanding job of rewarding you with new weapons and abilities as you progress, keeping the combat fresh throughout the entirety of the title’s 15 hour running time.
Abilities are largely derivative of other games, but Radical Entertainment’s implementation is good enough to make them feel unique at the same time. God of War’s chain blades are a notable inclusion, allowing you to reach distant enemies or cut up crowds with a well placed swing, or you can 'borrow' the Incredible Hulk’s gigantic fists and Wolverine’s deadly claws. A new tendril attack allows you to chain up foes in gloopy masses of infected viscera, while the appropriately named bio bomb gives you the option to detonate groups into exploding showers of crimson gore. Switching between the core weapons is a simple process, encouraging you to experiment with different load outs as new enemies approach.
The mixture of infected and non-infected foes means there’s plenty of room for variation as you coast through Prototype 2’s campaign. Non-infected enemies attack with machine guns, rocket launchers, tanks and helicopters, providing scope for some enormous battles. Meanwhile, the infected tend to assume the form of lumbering monsters, challenging your ability to counter in slightly more personal fist fights.
It takes a while for Prototype 2 to bring everything together and hit its stride, but once you’ve reached the final district (of which there are three) it really starts to shine. Fighting off infected enemies while dealing with tanks and helicopters is brilliant fun, and Radical Entertainment’s done an excellent job of pacing the difficulty. Foes are always challenging but rarely make you feel underpowered, and that balance provides the basis for some truly exhilarating battles.
Heller may be strong, but he’s also nimble too. As you progress through the game you’ll level up various abilities (through the collection of XP) that improve your locomotive attributes. By the end of the campaign you’ll be able to fly, run up vertical buildings and jump several times your own height. It’s a mechanic that makes getting around the relatively large world a pleasing and remarkably quick experience. Combine the traversal with combat, and you unlock the ability to, for example, jump up and steal the weapons from a helicopter, then shoot it out of the sky before you even hit the ground. The game’s excessive use of slowdown to punctuate every impact ensures you feel the importance of every explosion and kill. It’s a game that really revels in the moment-to-moment carnage of its action.
Some of that impact would be lost if Prototype 2 wasn’t technically sound, but the developer's done a wonderful job of keeping the action smooth. There are occasional minor frame-rate hiccups, but given the sheer scale of what’s happening on screen at times, it’s staggering that the developer has managed to keep the gameplay so consistent.
Of course, that smooth performance does come at a price. Prototype 2 isn't an especially bad looking game, but it’s not a particularly pretty one either. A good draw distance highlights the scale of the game’s open world but drab, samey districts and shoddy character animations make exploration less engaging than it should be. Thankfully the game has enough distractions and sub-objectives to pull your attention away from the familiar looking architecture and drab colour palette. The audio is similarly repetitive. Some good use of subtractive sound design further highlights the impact of explosions and attacks, but a samey cinematic score will leave you frustrated and reaching for your television’s volume control.
Perhaps more problematic is that the game itself appears to run out of ideas long before its campaign draws to a close. While the combat remains enjoyable throughout, the tedious nature of hunting down targets and picking off vast waves of enemies begins to outstay its welcome. Some chase sequences and brief stints in vehicles help to relieve the monotony, but are ultimately short-lived.
Like its predecessor, Prototype 2 is an enjoyable distraction rather than a must-play affair. Its varied combat and satisfying traversal mechanics provide the title with a surprisingly solid basis, but a lacklustre plot and dreary setting prevent it from competing with the very best in the open-world genre. There’s certainly fun to be had here, but it’s of the disappointingly dispensable kind.