Relating to a videogame protagonist can be tough. Most times our fearless leads, with their admirable actions and handsome faces, are nothing more than vessels. They’re personae to which we attach our ideals. If a game’s presentation and influences are smart, this is easy to do. In Prototype 2, it is not.
James Heller is a wounded man. His family is gone and he has no one. It’s difficult to notice this underneath his imperishable mesomorphic frame, which sprouts glowing tentacles that’d make an anime writer blush. His body writhes, changing arms to blades, to a whip, to a pair of elastic limbs that web-up and tear enemies apart. Imagine if Peter Parker calibrated his web-shooters incorrectly (a pinch too much of disembowelium) and instead crafted a brutal concoction that latches foes to objects in the area, severing them and their entrails. Sorry ’bout your whole not having a digestion track, Green Goblin! But I digress…
Heller returns home from a tour in Iraq to find his wife and daughter dead. Distraught, he joins a suicide mission to kill Alex Mercer, Prototype‘s main character and the man responsible for the Mercer Virus, which has ravaged New York City for a second time. Heller blames Mercer for the death of his family and seeks revenge. In the first few moments of the quest, for unclear reasons, Mercer transfers his virus and super cool powers to Heller. In short, Heller becomes an indestructible, shape-shifting ex-soldier who is hunting the man who gave him powers. Following? Good.
Throughout the hunt, Heller discovers conspiracies, government cover-ups, and betrayals. He weeds through colonel after scientist after super-powered freak in an expansive rigmarole, aided by several cohorts including priest-turned-vigilante/Robert Rodriguez film regular, Father Guerra. With so many players on the table, Prototype 2 is difficult to dissect. Adding to the convulsion is Heller’s ability to consume and take the form of anyone he encounters. Side missions often require pillaging these poor souls’ memories for information to track down more poor souls. In time it devolves from something engaging into: “I took the form of this guy, whose memory told me he was in cahoots with that guy. Kill that guy.”
The game’s gift lies in its gory splendor. When Prototype 2 cries havoc, dogs are the least concerning. As a comic book fan and someone who, as a kid, yelled into his bedroom mirror hoping his hair would stand on end in blonde, electrical glory, I love the power in Prototype 2. I love leaping off skyscrapers, gliding toward a fiery battle and annihilating enemies. I love the parade of ineffective bullets enemies pump into Heller as I deflect rockets and toss cars. I love it so much, I only play it briefly. Before long, right around the time my surroundings look like a Jackson Pollock painting, I realize how empty the experience is. I have all of the power and none of the investment. The magic dissipates.
See, I don’t relate to Heller. I empathize with his story, but I never root for him (partially because he uses the F-word as a comma). I root for me gaining new, more destructive abilities. To do that, I play his story, but my main motivation is always to gain more power.
Prototype 2 does a neat trick from which most other games shy away. It grant godly status from the outset. Usually, video games begin with nothing (Zelda, early Metroid titles) and give items along the way, or they strip players of powers (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the God of War series, later Metroid games) and give them back to as the game progresses. In Prototype 2, neither is true. I start with the power and it’s all I yearn for afterward. I can die, but I can also easily pick off random NPCs for health. If I choose, everyone is a health pack. There are no dire moments in the combat, just pauses to go suck up a few hipsters and their ironic homeless chic clothes.
Without character growth or story depth, Prototype 2 suffers from not having anything to suffer from. There’s no tension. There are difficult moments, but they never amount to a commitment or a relation. They just move Heller from one check mark on his death list to the next. The chaos is brilliant when it layers on obstacles, such as hijacking a fleet of helicopters in midair, leaping from one to the next, and eradicating them from the sky with swift, gorgeous bombardment. But action is only as exciting as what is at risk. In Prototype 2 that means little.
Review based on PlayStation 3 release.