In 2005, Radical Entertainment changed the face of sandbox gaming with Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, an open-world romp that sent Marvel’s green goliath on a rampage across a heavily destructible city, completing both story missions and various other challenges. It was a successful design that was then cribbed for last year’s Incredible Hulk movie tie-in game, albeit without its predecessor’s sense of irreverence.
It’s now 2009, and Radical has returned to the Ultimate Destruction formula with the ironically named Prototype. Gone is the gamma-irradiated goon, replaced by Alex Mercer, a shape-shifting amnesiac dropped in the middle of Manhattan in the midst of a mutagenic viral outbreak. Without a past, without boundaries, and seemingly without morality, how does Alex Mercer stack up against the Hulk for destructive delights?
First, let’s talk about innovation, particularly the absolute joy that comes from playing as Alex Mercer. Alex’s agile movements, based off of parkour, are adaptive. There are no overly complicated button presses or timing to worry about: simply sprinting forward allows you to push pedestrians out of the way, run up the sides of buildings, and vault over rooftops. At times it can get a little twitchy on corners or narrow spires, but the sense of speed and agility is exhilarating. Alex’s other abilities include turning his body into a living weapon, sprouting blades and claws from his hands to eviscerate his foes, or consuming them (an act that looks just as nasty as it sounds) for health, or to steal their identity. Identity theft is a crucial element of the game, allowing you to walk amongst the humans undetected, as long as you can keep from killing them. The combat is still the meat of the game however, and it’s positively glorious, as you litter the streets of the Big Apple with bloody clots that were once your enemies. The body count from a single rampage can rise into the thousands (my personal best from a particularly nasty tantrum was around 3,000 dead total) leaving the streets literally running red with blood.
Prototype’s other innovation comes from how it handles its story. Prototype delivers its meaty plot via the Web of Intrigue, a series of short visual vignettes that offer up plot points every time you consume a target. At first, the memories feel disconnected and random, but when taken in the context of the web, a network of pulsing neurons, the story begins to come together as a cohesive whole. It’s really nothing particularly special, just your typical claptrap about weaponized viruses mixed with some elements of the Tuskegee Experiment, but its delivery method becomes addictive, and almost a game within itself.
Unfortunately, the story feels wasted on Alex Mercer, who himself is a completely one-dimensional character. True, he’s fun to play from a mechanical standpoint, but when it comes time to face his demons or parade some skeletons out of his closet, there’s absolutely no empathy for him. While this can work well for villainous monsters, it doesn’t work as well for anti-heroes.
The other thing that doesn’t seem to work are the various challenges peppered throughout Manhattan. While concepts like footraces or target practice felt right at home in Hulk’s cartoony world, they feel peculiar and forced in Prototype’s grim and gritty universe. I understand the need to break up monotony, but going from the mass slaughter of zombified pedestrians to a minigame that has you gliding into a glowing bullseye is jarring and unnatural. Several of the other challenges don’t feel nearly as awkward (destroying mutant hives, consuming foes for Web of Intrigue nodes), but the aforementioned “physical” challenges feel out of place in Prototype’s blood-soaked world.
Perhaps the saddest, and most ironic part of Prototype is that its accurately-mapped Manhattan makes the game feel less like its own beast and more like a clone of last year’s Incredible Hulk tie-in, itself a clone of Radical’s own Ultimate Destruction. I understand the reason behind picking Manhattan as a backdrop (lots of skyscrapers, easy to quarantine due to it being an island), but after too many other games set in New York City, Prototype feels like a game without a unique identity. It’s truly fun and addictive, but its lacking in the polish and cohesion that elevated its predecessor to something greater than the sum of its parts.