Prototype 2 Review [XBox 360]

Like a firework - the technical aspects are all well and good, but they can only get you so far, and the major appeal lies in the bang and the bluster, and though it might not last too long, it burns fiercely enough in its short spectacle to be completely engaging while it does.

rating:3.5

The virus is back. The sequel to Radical's hugely enjoyable original takes place once more in New York (though this time it carries a new "Zero" tag at the end), which is over-run by a new virus, which has turned the place into a bloody, gorey shitstorm. Along with the new virus, we also get a new protagonist in virally-modified James Heller and a new villain in the familiar shape of infected former hero Alex Mercer. Heller is driven by vengeance, thanks to the virus killing his family, and his sense that Mercer was to blame, turning his back on a good life to hunt and potentially destroy his prey, with the help of his own, more impressive infection. The decision to drop Mercer and lead with Heller was a good one, as was the one which sees the new hero equipped with most of Mercer's abilities from the get-go. It means the transition from the comparatively slow prologue and first hour into high-octane, gore-spewing mayhem is as swift and painless as as full-blooded an actioner as this requires. And from the very outset, the violent chaos that bursts forth from the end of your finger-tips is immediately and hugely rewarding: there is virtually no learning curve to achieve the most explosive results, and it makes for an accessible, engaging experience. There is a price to pay for that accessibility though - that comfortable long-term accomplishment one gets from besting a challenging game, or overcoming obstacles in any walk of life has been left at the door. But the experience of playing, and the downright absurdity of the carnage the player can cause outweighs that limitation, in the same way that vulgar summer blockbusters can occasionally be some of the most enjoyable cinema experiences. Occasionally. Much like Saints Row 3, the order of the day with Prototype 2 is excess, and lots of it. But that's not to say that the game is off-puttingly Michael Bay like - yes there are some frankly astonishingly bonkers moments, all of which the Transformers director would probably giggle gleefully at, but the gameplay experience is actually far deeper than you might expect from such frivolous fun. Because the game encourages a number of different gameplay approaches, without judgement or narrative consequence, so it is possible to experience the game in a number of different ways dependent on what type of player you are. Yes, the balls-out, all-guns-blazing approach is the most fulfilling, but that doesn't mean it is the only way to win. It's a slight shame that the missions on offer lack variety, as most follow the same basic pattern, and though you do feel Heller growing and gaining strength as they go on, it all gets slightly repetitive towards the end. The game looks very good: the art direction is very well accomplished, and every level is introduced with a high-contrast black and white cutscene, which is a bold but effective stylistic choice that also pops up when Heller's health is failing to highlight the immediate threat of death. Characters are impressively designed and executed, and the animation set that shows off Heller's many mutations is particularly eye-catching, without any detail being lost in the face of the amped up gore factor. The huge open-world environment is also impressively executed, which lends itself to the irresistible experience of exploring it through Heller's superhuman abilities. The city scape is beautifully designed in both aesthetic and ergonomic terms - so not only do the streets look good, they also offer huge potential to really open your legs as Heller, and use some of his more eye-catching mobility skills. It helps that Prototype's collectibles aspect is arguably the finest handled of all of its facets - there is a raft of side-missions, and lairs to tackle and it is a damn sight more fun collecting the blackboxes than it is playing out near identikit levels with less tangible rewards. There are some problems of course: while the story is well executed, the decision to try and humanise the protagonist is somewhat problematic when it comes to eating innocents to regenerate health, especially when one of the objectives is protecting and avenging the unwitting cattle who are at the mercy of the shady Blackwatch. There's also a problem with the way the game presents its antagonists, and it is here that Radical's character development stutters to the point where you never particularly care about your enemies. Real Machiavellian evil depends on disarming charisma, and dispatching innumerate footsoldiers without personality, especially in the ultra-gorey manner that Prototype 2 encourages, becomes a little one dimensional. Added to that the fact that Heller's humanity begins to fade as the game develops - not as a narrative choice, but as a consequence of odd writing decisions that see him degenerate into little more than a muscle-bound stereotype, rather than the broken, vengeful father the pre-release marketing suggested. Again, the parallel with the summer blockbuster movie insists itself in the way characters are presented, and how short-term thrills fundamentally trump long term presentation issues. But, as I have already qualified, it is in those short-term thrills that the game is most successful: nothing quite comes close to the God-like feeling of knowing all that carnage laying before you was created by your own hands, and the superhuman exploits of Heller - jumping up buildings, bounding down streets, weaponising biological tissue - are all viscerally entertaining. Prototype 2 is probably best considered as a giant firework - the technical aspects are all well and good, but they can only get you so far, and the major appeal lies in the bang and the bluster, and though it might not last too long, it burns fiercely enough in its short spectacle to be completely engaging while it does.

Prototype 2 is available to buy now on XBox 360, PS3 and PC.
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