Prototype is the latest open world sandbox game in which you wreak havoc in the city, armed to the teeth with an entire comic book's worth of superpowers. Its plot is the same old government conspiracy song and dance you've seen a thousand times, and it trades significant character development in exchange for exotic ways to sow death and destruction. In other words, it's an absolutely perfect game for summer.
You play as Alex Mercer, who woke up in the morgue eighteen days ago with no memory and a mysterious virus coursing through his body. A pseudomilitary group is doing its best to make him dead - though they're not sure such a thing is possible - but it's not all bad news for Alex. The virus that makes him a target also allows him to alter his body on a molecular level, changing his arms into giant hammers, letting him run faster and jump higher than he could imagine, and even glide through the air. The authorities call him a killer, a monster, and a terrorist - he will become all of these things in his search for the truth.
How far he gets depends in part on your collector's instincts. Rather than dish out the plot via cut scenes during the main story missions, Alex pieces together the Web of Intrigue by absorbing the memories of the dozens of people who are involved in the mystery. You'll stumble across Web of Intrigue targets largely at random; unlike missions, they're not revealed on your map, so you have to pass fairly close to them to even know they're there. Track them down, consume their bodies, and you'll be shown their unique perspective of the plot. It's a brilliant, jumbled, personal approach that puts a fresh coat of paint on Prototype's familiar tale of government conspiracies and experiments gone wrong.
Prototype's story is pretty juicy, but almost incidental to the actual gameplay. It's easy to forget why you're doing what you're doing as you use Alex's new powers to make Manhattan your playground. You start with a just a few basic abilities, but even those are enough to make you giggle with glee. Rend your enemies into beef jerky with enormous claws, consume people to steal their identities, or just leap from rooftop to rooftop. Yeah, the infection is spreading across the island and Alex is a marked man, but who cares when you can throw taxis at helicopters?
You can also run clear up the side of buildings, leap effortlessly over fences, and bound off walls like an acrobat. If you think you can get somewhere, you can, just by holding down the right trigger and pointing yourself in that direction. Run through the streets, shoving civilians and cars out of your way, or take to the rooftops to jump and airdash your way across the landscape. Getting from Point A to Point B shouldn't be a concern for someone with superhuman abilities, something Prototype thankfully understands.
After Prototype's few missions, you'll be let loose on the streets of Manhattan to pursue side missions or the main story as you see fit. Side missions are unlocked as you progress through the story; completing them well enough to earn a gold, silver, or bronze medal provides valuable experience points that you can use to unlock new powers or upgrade your existing ones. They also do a good job of breaking the mythology of the game. Call me cynical, but I somehow doubt that someone as bent on revenge as Alex would take time out of his day to practice gliding onto a specific target or getting the best time in a race across rooftops.
The missions also inspire more than a little déjà vu. One challenge may require you to "fight on the side of the infected" and kill as many soldiers you can in a set time period, while in another you might have to take out as many infected as you can. The missions get progressively more difficult as you go, and earning a gold medal (or platinum!) in all of them is no easy feat, but killing is killing is killing. Even the missions that put your running and gliding skills to the test are just repeated variations on the same theme.
The missions may be repetitious, your approach to them doesn't have to be. Alex has a staggering amount of abilities open to him. Consume a soldier to gain his tank-driving skills - then hijack a tank and use it to shoot rockets at a helicopter. Pick up the helicopter husk and hurl at virus detectors. Impale an enemy long-distance with ground spikes. Create a shockwave that pushes the crowd back by slamming into the ground. Turn your arm into a shield and bull your way to your objective. On and on and on.
Bottom Line: Prototype is more than a little similar to Spider-Man 2 and Crackdown and certainly isn't about to stretch your brain, make you ponder life's greater mysteries, or even care about who did what to whom. Which is fine, because that's not why you should be playing Prototype, anyway.
Recommendation: Let Protoype be your summer fling. It's a stupidly fun time, the perfect antidote to the summer doldrums.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Susan Arendt would like to complete the racing missions, but a bug in her programming prevents her from running in a straight line. She's hoping a patch will be released soon.