The origin story for every new hero worth their salt contains within it the genesis for a new breed of villain – a Joker to every Batman, a Moriarty for every Sherlock, a SOPA to every Wikipedia. In the Spring of 2009, two new figures made their presence known: inFamous’ electric Cole MacGrath and Prototype’s virulent Alex Mercer. Both heroes were ambiguous anti-hero types, possessing within them the potential to be very good or very bad. Both games were decent open-world action games with their fair share of flaws.
Hindsight (and Metacritic) paints inFamous as the victor of that first encounter – though whether that makes Cole the hero or the villain in their dynamic remains to be seen. In any case, 2011’s inFamous 2 saw Cole return as the super-powered protagonist he had become by the end of the first game, leaving itself with the challenge of creating an arc of progression for an already near-Godlike character.
Tearing it down
Radical Entertainment’s Prototype 2 takes a different tack. The mad scientist Alex Mercer was king of all he surveyed by Prototype’s end and was never a particularly loveable protagonist even for an anti-hero. In the sequel, you play Sergeant James Heller – a war veteran, returning to find his wife and child have fallen victim of the Blacklight Virus Mercer originated. Heller too becomes infected, and swears to use the power it imbues him with to bring down the superhuman figure the previous game brought to power. As the trailer’s tagline puts it: it’s time to destroy your maker.
Playing Prototype 2 is a familiar experience. You still explore a ravaged city by gliding while striking a suitably messianic pose, bringing down your wrath on foe or innocent as you see fit (though health can now only be harvested from enemies and a ‘put down’ option has been added to avoid unnecessary deaths). The action is still split between stealth take-downs and brutal bouts of violence, and the former is more robust now so you won’t have to compensate with the latter when a tactic doesn’t work as it should. One early demo sees Prototype 2’s stealth tools used with terrible efficiency as you sneak up behind a guard while surrounded by his colleagues, place inside him a ‘bio-bomb’ and retreat to a safe distance as his body implodes, sending out tentacles of black matter which suck the other guards in to the black hole that was once his body.
Prototype 2’s gore is as hideously organic as its predecessor, with some of the kills in early previews appearing to be particularly unpleasant while Radical fine-tune the level of brutality that will be in the final game. You can still possess enemies’ bodies in the same, frankly violating, manner and your ‘hero’ is augmented with tendrils that can extend out to brutalise them in various other creative ways. For example: the same demo sees you wading through the corpses of those recently exploded enemies to reach the scientist they were guarding, whereupon you penetrate him with a tendril just to obtain the information he possesses.
New abilities for your tendril can be unlocked, though Radical promise you won’t be overwhelmed with an embarrassment of customisation options immediately. Rather these will be drip-fed, as you complete missions and clear areas. In fact this is representative of the way Prototype 2 treats ability enhancements in general, as they will more often be rewarded for securing an area or defeating a particularly powerful foe than the product of gathering up piles of cash to throw at upgrades.
One ability that will likely be available upon starting is the hunting enhancement, which emits submarine-like sonar to bounce off – and thereby highlight – your target. Visually this is enjoyably reminiscent of The Dark Knight and according to Radical is designed so your HUD isn’t cluttered with abstract icons to demarcate your prey. As effective as this may be, their philosophy of simplicity is undermined by another interview which reveals that during any battle the enemy that poses you the greatest threat will be marked by an icon above their head. Clearly Prototype 2 is still at a stage of development where its design philosophy can be somewhat in flux.
Prototype 2 bears many of the same dichotomies as the previous game; with good acts weighed against evil ones, order always on the brink of chaos, moments where you pass disguised and completely unnoticed suddenly becoming a torrent of explosions as you rip the turrets off tanks to turn them on their previous owners. Radical have acknowledged the all-or-nothing vibe of the previous game and have attempted to offset it with colour-coded areas of the city where the action will be more consistent. Red areas will be the badlands of all-out combat and warfare, yellow areas the partially-controlled quarantines of not-quite civilised cohabitation and green areas the regimented parts of town under military control.
A worthy opponent
Multiplayer is currently off the cards and admittedly would be contrary to the tale of a solitary vengeance Radical are looking to tell. That’s not to say the idea of super-powered players laying waste to the city doesn’t appeal but it’s clear that several overpowered combatants might be difficult to balance when the game mechanics are largely designed in relation to fighting underpowered enemies. Given the danger of being a big fish in a small pond it’s unclear how engaging those mechanics will be after the umpteenth tank has been de-turreted and hurled at unsuspecting humans, but there’s reason enough to believe that Prototype 2 might have enough tricks up its sleeve to hold its own in the red corner of this heavy-weight bout.
Whether Sergeant Heller has more to worry from Alex Mercer or Cole MacGrath, it’s safe to say that having strong opposition can only be a good thing. One can only hope it’s enough to bring the best out of Prototype 2 – though seeing the worst brought out might be fun too.