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Meet Sergeant James Heller, Prototype 2’s leading man and one of the most prickly anti-heroes in modern gaming. During boss fights he growls taunts like, “I’m going to rip your spine out through your mouth!” Nearly every line of Heller dialogue drips with cartoonishly exaggerated menace – the ‘rage quip’, to coin a phrase. He’s Kratos in a leather jacket, leaving a trail of corpses and smoking tank husks in his wake as he stalks Alex Mercer, whom he blames for the death of his wife and daughter. You know that righteous fury schtick that actor Samuel L Jackson has reprised in countless films? Heller is what you’d get if you bottled the collective bile from all of those performances in one man, and then set his fuse burning.
Despite all the chest-thumping bravado and apocalyptic dourness of New York Zero’s urban rot, Heller’s quest for payback sets the stage for some of the most cheerfully destructive sandbox play since Just Cause 2. You’ll hoist passing vans and cars overhead like The Incredible Hulk, and hurl them at helicopters swarming about your ears like gnats. In addition to godlike strength, the virus Heller’s infected with means that his arms can morph into a variety of death-dealing instruments, much like Terminator 2’s T-1000. Options include Wolverine-style claws, Juggernaut-esque hammerfists and tendrils that stretch out like Mister Fantastic’s arms, leaving fleshy threads behind that snap nearby debris towards your targeted foe as if attached to rubber bands. Why offer just one superhero game when you can create a template flexible enough to encompass a vast range of them at once?
In terms of the setting, theme and core gameplay, Prototype 2 is basically a more polished and feature-packed retread of Crackdown 2, all murky big brother conspiracies, supersoldiers, mutants and viral outbreaks set against the backdrop of a battered metropolis. Crackdown 2 had a shady pharmaceutical giant called Shai-Gen, while Prototype 2 has Gentek. Crackdown 2’s desperate antidote measure was called Project Sunburst; Prototype 2’s equivalent is Project Whitelight. Both are set in analogues of New York. One has freaks, the other has so-called infected. Likewise, Heller’s gliding soar is all but indistinguishable from Crackdown 2’s wingsuit, and both games have an achievement for scaling the highest skyscraper in their worlds. They also employ the same gravity-defying leap, although Prototype 2 invites you sprint up the side of structures first, indulging the fantasy of locomotive freedom. The major difference is that in James Heller, Prototype 2 dares to have a lead with personality, even if he’s the irascible, foul-mouthed sort.
There’s a dazzling seamlessness to every aspect of Prototype 2. You feel it as you traverse the world, sprinting powerfully up buildings, bounding high into the air just as you reach the lip of the roof and then transitioning with a tap of the right trigger into a glide that will take you to the next rooftop.
Combat uses subtle tricks to keep that same kind of fluidity. When you jump to stage a mid-air attack, the game slips into slow motion nearly imperceptibly to give you a chance to rotate the camera to target your enemy and cue up a finishing move of your choice. It doesn’t get much better than jumping off the edge of a skyscraper, spinning the camera to catch a helicopter in your sights, then deploying your tendril attack like some grappling hook reimagined for an Evil Dead movie.
Progression through the game involves completing a series of missions that are designated on your mini-map by the first letter of the character at the centre of each one, à la recent Grand Theft Autos. You typically have a couple of story-based mission options at any given point, which makes it feel less like the campaign is funnelling you through a pipe to its conclusion. Navigate Heller to the small column of light and the mission triggers automatically.
Unfortunately, since Heller winds up slaughtering almost everybody he meets, the game has to keep pulling new sacrificial rabbits out of its hat to keep the plot barrelling forward across its six- to eight-hour span. After several hours, so many character names have come and gone that they all blur together. Some were Blackwatch officers. Some were Gentek scientists in lab coats. Each new name will soon be discarded from your memory like a body cremated to make room in the morgue. The more bodies that pile up, the less consequential each new character becomes.
As in the first Prototype, you piece together the narrative by consuming key characters, thereby absorbing their memories. In part, this allows Heller to tell one character, without irony, that he looks forward to eating his brain (who’s the real zombie here, eh?). When you grab a person, options appear. Do you want to hurl them at an enemy? How about infecting them and making a living ‘biobomb’ out of their body? Or you can consume them, which restores a sliver of your health bar. It’s hard not to chuckle aloud when you’re low on health and start rampaging through fleeing crowds, grabbing civilians and devouring them like so many shrieking, stumbling Mars bars.
A handful of ill-advised missions later on require you to pilot a slow-moving helicopter, which feels all the more prosaic given how accustomed you’ve become to the charms of your mutant appendage toybox. But don’t worry, you won’t be sitting in a helicopter cockpit when you finally square off against that hoodie-sporting creep – that sneering, under-dressed Ezio. You’ve played this game before, no question, but don’t miss the chance to experience the current apotheosis of the ‘one-man apocalypse’ subgenre.