Sunday, April 29, 2012

REVIEW - Prototype 2.

"If you're not having fun with [Prototype], I have to posit it's because you've decided you're not going to." 
-from the Prototype review-
Okay, so you're a super-powered ultra-mutant who jumps seventy-five feet, runs like a Lamborghini and can shape-shift your limbs into various implements of death.

Let's talk.

To understand how far Prototype 2 separates itself from its origins, you need to have appreciated Radical Entertainment's Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction back on the PS2/Xbox/GC.  Fans have been waiting since 2005 for a return to that glorious exercise, and I'm afraid we're waiting still.

As an action game, Prototype 2 is fine.  Great even.  As a fun gamePrototype 2 is above-par.  As a game that, like Hulk, you will want to replay over and over, mastering its systems and gleefully throwing the sand around the box, it is... less successful.

There are, perhaps, two different formula for open-world games.  One sees the world itself populated with unique and random events, dense in artificial intelligence and narrative (Bethesda titles, GTA/RDR) while the other paints the game world in broader strokes, but offers the player higher heights of craziness in how we interact with it (Prototype, inFamous, Just CauseSaints Row and, well, Bethesda titles).

Prototype 2 remains one of the latter, but feels in many ways to be a step back from what came before, despite - and perhaps due to - how much they've refined its systems and streamlined its move list, in the name of better presentation and greater accessibility.

Forever in Hulk's shadow.

I played a game in 2005 where I was on the run from a strike team of attack choppers and exosuit-wearing soldiers.  I dashed through the city streets, snatching up telephone poles.  Targeting a twelve-foot enemy behind me, from a run, I could fire the telephone pole like a javelin through my target's chest, throwing them back fifty yards and stapling them to a wall beyond.

When the choppers began raining thunder on me, I could catch their rockets out of the air to throw back at them.  I could leap on to the cockpit of one, bashing my face into its windscreen before targeting another nearby heli and drop-kicking the chopper I was riding into it.

I could uppercut an enemy into the air, jump into them and perform a combo which ended in an airborne volleyball-style spike that drove them into the ground.  I could smash my hands together so hard it created a shockwave that would obliterate anything within two hundred yards.  I could flatten out a city bus to use it as a surfboard.

I had options.

Well, it's 2012 now, and things have been streamlined.

Grab a helicopter, press triangle.

Even compared to 2009's Prototype, things have been severely simplified.  James Heller has been gifted with (almost) the exact same body-morphing weapons as original antihero Alex Mercer - a blade arm, a whip arm, a claw arm, a hammer arm - but instead of each mutation changing your move list significantly with unique combos, two at a time can be mapped to your face buttons.  You can have claws on square and the whip on triangle, for example.

This is each mutation's move list:

Tap (on ground) = combo.
Hold (on ground) = power move.
Tap (in air) = combo/air move.
Hold (in air) = power air move.

That's it.  Now, let it be said that the power moves are super useful, and this is still a system of far greater depth for melee combat than you'll find in any modern open-world game.  Counter-intuitively, its simplification provides a nice boost of pace to the combat as you dodge a foe, use the hammer fist's ground pound to float them, charge a claw pounce and leap thirty yards to scratch them from the sky.

Keep in mind, this is three button presses.  This is tapping X, holding square, then holding triangle.

Each offensive mutation has its own properties, suited it to particular enemies, and while the simplification makes it very accessible - very reliable - it also limits the player, in terms of what we're allowed to do.

When you land on a chopper in Prototype 2, four button prompts appear - you can jump off, you can hijack it, rip off its missile pod or kill it in a single blow - the finisher animation changing based on which mutation you have equipped.  It's so prescribed.

It's like they forgot about all the other cool shit you can do to a helicopter, once you've grabbed hold of one.

Hold the attack button when airborn.

This is a tradeoff.

The upside to limiting your options is that what options you have are always perfectly clear - and Prototype 2 still gives you more than you're used to, if this is your first visit to Radical's entertainment.  It remains very cool to jump onto a tank and rip off its missile pod for personal use, or throwing a solider into his friend so hard it kills both of them, or running up a building while carrying an ambulance so you can throw it into a helicopter.

That's still cool - and it's all so accessible that pulling off awesome stuff is a breeze.

Locomotion is still one of the star players, here.  Racing along at street level, you can leap to the wall of a nearby building - dashing across it at a forty-five degree angle - before springing off its side to go soaring into the night, your arms spread in a glide.  While you're up there, you can air-dash three times, each time gliding a bit higher.  Now soaring a half-mile above the city, you send out a Hunting Pulse, and detect your target 400 yards below.  Plummeting towards him, you tap circle at the last moment and crash into him with a rolling grab before consuming his puny human form and stealing his memories.

Simply moving around the city is a thrilling, comfortable spectacle.

Anyone who tells you that the platforming in this game - which essentially turns skyscraper rooftops into a big 'ol Mario level - is loose or unwieldy, is wrong.  This is a game where you can fly for six blocks and land on a glowing two-foot-wide marker without breaking a sweat.

Again, simplifications are made in the name of accessibility.  In tutorials, it makes perfect sense to tell someone that tapping X will allow you to do a combat dodge - jump is X, so dodge-jump is also X.  Sure!

In practice, it's frustrating to hop limply to the side when you want to jump thirty feet in another direction, in the same way having your air dash also mapped to X creates a few unintentional leaps.  Getting around the city is still a ton of fun - a glorious fantasy of freedom and power - but it feels a bit less perfected than it was in Prototype.

Puny human.

You feel wholly badass while playing Prototype 2, and gone are the difficulty spikes and occasional frustration which seasoned Radical's last two games - but this, too, is a tradeoff.

It's too easy.

On Insane difficulty - in which one would hope to find a bit of a challenge - I have yet to face any stiff opposition.  Having familiarized myself with the game's mechanics and tactics, I breezed through this hardest of difficulty levels with the same amount of effort required to properly fry an egg.  If you simply pay attention to what's going on, you'll have no problems.

That may be why Prototype 2 is much easier than its predecessor - there's relatively less going on in any given fight than there was, before.  Enemies have fewer attacks, and fewer foes need to be simultaneously dealt with at any given time.

Radical was always excellent at throwing an insane amount of stuff at the player at once, and I'm sure at this point you'll know that when I say they've made their action a bit less busy - and so, less challenging - there is a tradeoff.

By not pushing as many polygons, they were able to make their game much better-looking.

The game's graphics, and overall presentation, while somewhat below-par for a triple-A open-world game, are a massive improvement over Radical's 2009 outing.  The story is still a yawner, but the moment-to-moment writing and voice work are all tons of fun.

A sergeant shrieking that you just ate the VIP he was supposed to be protecting, or protesting to his commander that he won't be able to follow you and the monstrosities you're chasing because "they're like fucking cheetahs!" goes a long way to reminding the player just how incredible their actions are.

While graphics and writing may not seem like such a big deal in a B-movie action game, it has a huge impact on what Radical has always reveled in offering - spectacle.

Camera angles will dynamically change to frame your Wolverine-esque Claw Pounce, your glorious chopper finishers, your brutal consumes.  Everything looks much, much better.


Of course.

There is a tradeoff.

The camera is now unlocked from your current target.  If you're attempting to deal with a helicopter, for example, you're holding down L2 to lock the camera on it as you attempt to find a car (or civilian) to throw at it.  As soon as the chopper passes overhead, the camera will stop following it - and now you have no idea where your enemy is, what its health bar looks like, and if that car you just tossed did any damage to it.

Prototype 2 is a laundry list of such choices made, on the part of the developer.  It takes one step back for every step forward, and is ultimately a game of similar overall quality to Prototype, even as improvements are made.

Having said all this, let me make one thing very, very clear.

It's fun.  

It is so much fun.  If I didn't have to switch back to The Witcher 2 for review purposes, I would be finishing my Insane difficulty playthrough and heading right back in, in search of a platinum trophy.

This is a game where you just play and play and play and play.  A game you start playing at 11pm and have trouble tearing yourself away from at 5am.

Yes, the combat mechanics have been pared down, but they're (almost) faultless at translating player intention to onscreen action.  Yes, much of your abilities are very prescribed, but they look fabulous.  Yes, there's less going on onscreen, but what occurs there never feels arbitrary or unfair.

I love the different and distinct boroughs of New York Zero.  I love the new enemy types, taking advantage of Prototype's (interesting, from a sci-fi perspective) lore.  I love the way collectibles will ping on a map, removing the need for tracking down a .png on GameFAQs.  I love springing from the side of this skyscraper to the side of that one before launching myself into the air, soaring over a target, and plummeting towards it hammer-fist first, obliterating everything within fifteen yards on impact.

I haven't been so in love with a game with so many flaws since Dead Island.

Perfect?  No.  Better than the last one?  Sorta'.  Fun?

Yes. Fun.  So much fun.

  • a fantasy of freedom and violence
  • significantly improved graphics and overall presentation
  • they swear like, a lot.  And y'know what?  It's fun. The writing is very cheeky and often pretty damned hilarious.
  • side missions will always add a bit of insight or foreshadowing to story missions. 
  • Cornell Womack does a great job as Heller - he drops f-bombs beautifully, and transitions well to more serious dialogue
  • all your powers and mutations look way more stylish than they did in 2009
  • the locomotion/platforming is still a ton of fun
  • far better melee combat than you'll find in any other modern open-world action game
  • streamlined combat options and controls make turning intention into action rather effortless
  • no more difficulty spikes!
  • new enemies are all successful creations
  • the different offensive mutations all feel necessary, and useful
  • the three boroughs of NYZ all feel distinct, and the Red Zone is glorious
  • much better boss fights than those in Prototype
  • I love the way it instantly transitions into the game from the start menu when you continue your latest save.  It's kind of amazing.  You'll load up the game, and here's the menu, and behind it is a scene of the city.  As soon as you press start, you realize the game has already loaded your latest save.  The menu disappears and the camera pans over to where Heller is standing.  It's like, whoah.  Nice touch on that one, Radical.
  • it's a game you just play and play and play and play

  • graphics remain below the triple-A standard
  • the simplification of the combat removes a ton of options from your arsenal
  • Heller is a rather paint-by-numbers protagonist
  • the simplification of the locomotion means you sometimes dodge when you want to jump, and sometimes jump when you want to dash - it's not as good as it was in Prototype
  • the writing is fine, but the story's another yawner
  • takes no advantage of the interesting sci-fi questions from Prototype
  • so wait, what was the Dead Zone?
  • samey mission design
  • allowing the camera to stray from your lock-on target was a seriously bad idea
  • battles are less dense and chaotic
  • the hardest difficulty is way too easy
  • it makes me wish I was playing a high-def Hulk

There are a lot of tradeoffs, here - it's far from perfect - but it is so much fun.

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