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Wot I Think: Prototype 2

The Mercer Seat

Several months after its console debut - the so-so sales of which lead to Activision closing its developer - open-world superhero game Prototype 2 is now out on PC. I've been hulking out, wall-running up tall buildings and eating people alive for the last few days, and then I played some Prototype 2. Allow me to foist the following words about it upon your monitor.

You shouldn't speak ill of the dead, they say. And with Activision having recently sent Prototype developer Radical Entertainment off to their unsettlingly large boneyard (in the company of Bizarre, Octane, Luxoflux, Budcat, 7 Studios, Underground Development, Shaba, Sierra Entertainment, Gray Matter and Infocom), criticising what becomes a posthumous sequel on PC does feel cruel. Then again, praising it to the highest heavens wouldn't result in any more cash or security for the people who made it. The whole business gets me down, I must say - and that isn't what a Hulk-inspired game about rampaging around an open-world New York should do.

If you played 2009's Prototype, you're not going to be enormously surprised by Prototype 2. Like its predecessor, it's an uneven blend of superheroic excess and grimdark moping, where the surly tone is distractingly at odds with the gleeful carnage. It's like hiring a clown for your child's birthday party, but then he just sits in the corner muttering and swearing to himself. (Prototype 2 does love to swear, and in its constant, look-at-me-ma-I'm-mature stream of f-bombs the word it's so very fond of loses all force and meaning, instead coming off contrived and irritating).

The sequel outwardly seemed to do the right thing by ditching unloveable former protagnoist Alex Mercer in favour of a new, similarly mutated anti-hero, but autocue-reading megagrump James Heller is even harder to sympathise with. He swears and he moans and he swears and he never smiles and he swears and he doesn't like anyone or anything and he swears, and while he's got just, tragic cause for being such a bad-tempered miseriguts, that doesn't make wearing his shoes any more comfortable.

There are occasional, jarring bursts of humour, such as when Heller inexplicably goes crazy apeshit because a computer he needs to access doesn't have an alt-key, or the parodic big brother PA messages from the cartoon villain military who control this infection-besieged New York. It's foolish to What If or If Only when discussing a released game, but it feels so lacking in definable character of its own. More actively pursuing the tongue-in-cheek could have given it so much more of a voice.

I could not bring myself to care about the despondent story, Heller's vengeance quest against Mercer and the boo-hiss scientists responsible for his newly-mutated state and the death of his family. In practice, this entails repeatedly finding and 'absorbing' a series of baddies, interspersed with big huge fights against soldiers, tanks, helicopters and genetically-modified monsters. That stuff I could and did care about, because it's a festival of absurdist violence set in enormous grounds.

The key pillars of the first game remain. Smashing stuff and people up with big ugly claws; power-leaping and gliding around the rooftops; consuming whoever you like in order to adopt their appearance, thus achieving disguise for either stealth or access to new areas. It's tightened and refined, generally being both easier to control and more excessive more quickly. While Heller gains a series of new powers as the game goes on - for instance, having a pack of huge mutants to order around, or ripping the weapons from tanks to then use against their original owners - he has access to the base set of Mercer's abilities not long into proceedings.

The upside of this is having plenty of ways to kill people and plenty of space to do it in, with the jump'n'glide mechanic especially retaining its high-velocity joy. The downside is that matters get familiar fast, and the escalation of threat can't quite keep up with the escalation of Heller's abilities and the player's acclimatisation to controlling them. I found myself tending towards stealth more and more, simply because the threat of being detected is higher than the risk of being defeated.

It's reasonably tricky to be beaten in a straight fight, other than during particular scripted moments and boss fights, because you're the Hulk. Hulk is the strongest one there is, even when he's miserable baldy guy in a hoody with giant pink claws instead of giant green fists.

So, instead I inclined towards the self-set challenge of trying to absorb all the guards in my next target zone undetected, until there was just one guy patrolling and curiously unconcerned that all his mates had simply vanished. You can't absorb someone safely if anyone else can see them, so I found myself waiting patiently for patrol routes to leave someone exposed, or causing distraction (throwing a car, blowing up a radar) to make everyone run in one direction, then slipping into disguise and entering the base from the other side so I could silently chow down on anyone left straggling.

This was a strangely satisfying way to approach the game, and even if it was not making full use of Heller's inreasingly deadly and grotesque superpowers, it did feel more in keeping with the concept that he was a wanted man in a city under military lockdown. That concept is not something Prototype 2 seems to get entirely right, as soldiers seem unbothered by seeing a man fly right over them or having their mutant detection devices mysteriously blow up just a few feet from where they're standing. The soldiers are very forgiving of seeing someone with superpowers run by, given they've told you're public enemy number one and must be taken out at all costs.

As my powers slowly grew, I did thrill to wigging out in spectacular fashion. The power that leaves giant, sticky, red tendrils, adorned with bits of dismember soldier, hanging between walls like nightmarish spiderwebs was a particular treat. It can go big, it can go gruesome and it doesn't stand in the way of letting you achieve it. Given quite how many games artificially prolong themselves by simply dangling their biggest and best tools of destruction out of reach, I'm grateful for P2's near-instant bombast.

Trouble is there are only so many ways to skin a cat, even when you've got a draw brim-full of intriguingly-shaped knives, so galumphing freely around the city runs out of road before too long. Smashing things and eating people are the order of the day, and there are no real alternative distractions to warrant doing this outside of the missions. There are collectibles, of course, and side-missions, but the latter are marked on the map and the former as routine as it sounds. So, I found myself consistently carving my way through the missions rather than than my usual open-world tendency of wandering and experimenting.

As with Orcs Must Die! 2, we're essentially looking at a tweaked, expanded version of the first game rather than a true rebuild or new exploration of the ideas. That's fine, and aside from the truly remarkable feat of coming up with an even less likeable protagonist than Prototype 1's, this is comfortably the superior of the two games. Without an addition as big as co-op though, I'm harder pushed to say quite why you need this in your life if you've already played the original.

The closest thing it has to Mutation With Friends is the RADNET scoreboard-based challenges, but those are meanly ringfenced into the RADNET pre-order DLC. It looks a bit better than its predecessor (and doesn't feature loads of magazine shops called Magazine Shop, which is a relief), there are more powers and the sense of wanton destruction is heightened, but... Oh, I can't be bothered to put anything after that dotdotdot, I'm only repeating myself now.

Maybe if Prototype had more charisma, maybe if someone in it cracked a smile, maybe if you couldn't almost hear the actors turning the pages of the scripts they're reading aloud for the first time, maybe if it wasn't entirely set within a rather routine cityscape, maybe if it had surprised rather than simply continued it would have been a smash hit and Radical would still be with us today.

Such moralising, despite my very real sympathy for those who lost their jobs because of a hugely profitable corporation's merciless fixation on its bottom line, is academic to the issue of the now though - should you buy Prototype 2? "Maybe." Stick that in yer bloody Metacritic pipe and smoke it.

Edit - some have reported performance issues with the PC port. I didn't encounter anything that stood out in that regard, but maybe I'm either lucky or stupid.

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