Waking on a cold mortuary slab, shape-shifting biological weapon Alex Mercer escapes the shackles of death to stagger, confused and angry, into an infection-ravaged New York City on the verge of self-destruction. With the military's elite Project BLACKWATCH struggling to contain the spread of a deadly virus initially unleashed at Penn Station, Alex sets about attempting to use his plethora of superhuman abilities to help clear his clouded memory, uncover his shadowy past, and exact a growing desire for revenge.
Prototype is, first and foremost, a straight-out action game. Granted, it may hide within a generous sandbox environment and behind a fragmented storyline told through snatches of character memory, but it's an experience built on allowing players to enjoy frantic battle encounters while wielding a staggering range of upgradeable powers. It's also all-too obvious from the get-go that, through Prototype, developer Radical Entertainment has merely created a fresh canvas of chaos for its widely unappreciated last-gen title The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction - which is no bad thing.
Initial player reaction to Prototype is likely to mirror the sensation felt by Alex at the top of the game as he evades the clutches of nefarious genetics company Gentek with little idea of where to find answers to his questions amid a familiar cityscape rendered suddenly alien and unrecognisable. However, from the player's perspective, an overwhelming arsenal of powers and a guiding mission map screen quickly combine to outline that point-to-point travel, efficient event completion and continual ability evolution are the keys to survival and progression.
More pointedly, the gathering and trading of Evolution Points (EP) is central to almost every action in Prototype and is a prerequisite to unlocking and honing the array of destructive attacks and superhuman abilities that make Alex an all-but unstoppable genetic weapon. Whether simply wreaking havoc across New York, retrieving environmental and hint orbs scattered about the world, tackling mini-challenges focused on specific powers and skills, or moving through the story missions, the constant attainment and careful allocation of EP via the game's Upgrade screen is absolutely essential.
And when the player isn't using EP to cultivate Alex's ability to jump, air-dash and glide great distances, fire-off a wealth of truly devastating attacks, or hurl all manner of heavy objects at enemies, the game's other core mechanic revolves around the somewhat disturbing process of consuming information - where 'consuming' is the operative word. As a shape shifter, Alex is not only able to replenish health by physically absorbing both human and mutant NPCs, he's also able to consume and assume the form of select human characters in order to gain stealthy access to restricted areas and secure snippets of vital memory that contribute towards uncovering a terrible plan some 40 years in the making.
Some may accuse Prototype and its astounding range of player abilities as being an exercise in gameplay overkill that disguises fairly shallow narrative (and they'd be right), but there's no denying the endless enjoyment to be had from battling multiple waves of reactionary military Strike Forces, beating back hordes of the infected and their accompanying Hunter abominations, and generally jumping into the middle of raging encounters between the two opposing factions. And, much more than another open-world superhero game presently doing the rounds, Prototype offers more clear-cut challenge and difficultly through its missions whereby correctly executing the right power combination at the right time can often be the difference between success and failure. Yes, the arsenal at Alex's disposal can be intimidating, but every move and attack, whether it's skyjacking helicopters, or elbow dropping from skyscrapers onto tanks, serves a purpose and has been included by Radical to give the player genuine choice on how they approach unfolding situations.
Sadly, the impressive variety reflected through Alex's abilities is not delivered in the game world itself, which provides a sandbox obstacle course that the player must merely navigate as opposed to interact with. Where InFAMOUS (there, I said it) sees Cole McGrath running, climbing and gliding with a certain controlled elegance, Alex is endlessly aggressive as he runs up relatively nondescript skyscrapers and chains together bounding leaps that carry him over the majority of smaller buildings. Indeed, while Empire City in InFAMOUS becomes a character in of itself because of the polished nuance of its parkour interaction, the accurate depiction of New York City in Prototype is, while teeming with life, oddly bland and without personality because Alex is only ever required to thunder through it or over it, never really stopping to embrace it. But, again, Prototype is a constant beast that doesn't known the meaning of the word 'subtlety' and it makes no apology for its action, which is always unremittingly feral in its staging.
In terms of presentation, Prototype isn't likely to cause any eyes to pop, but its in-game graphics and sound are pretty solid throughout and the 360's hardware only occasionally suffers beneath the testing weight of perpetually frenetic action. Although lightning fast gameplay pacing means most players probably won't care about the shortfall in visual pizzazz, core mission preambles are consistently weak - especially where vocal performances are concerned. Shockingly brief and largely bereft of emotion, the in-game engine story clips fail to match the initial impact of the fabulously shocking opening rendered sequence that introduces the player to Alex. That being said, the disappointing facial animation on Alex and other characters is still wholly superior to the laughable excuse for in-game acting offered up by David Beckham look-a-like Cole McGrath in InFAMOUS.
Because comparisons are almost unavoidable... Radical Entertainment's Prototype and Sucker Punch's InFAMOUS are wildly different gaming experiences that share the same structural blueprint; namely they're sandbox superhero stories. Having spent vast amounts of time with both titles over the last few weeks, it would be unfair to single out a clearly defined winner and loser - there simply is no definitive recommendation that fanboys can latch onto for the sake of pathetic forum posturing. While both games fall well short of original, each has its own set of strengths that help create a worthy purchase for those looking to roam an open-world while revelling in shallow superhero fiction.
Ultimately, it all comes down to personal taste and what you're looking for when assessing gameplay, presentation and narrative structure. Seeing as both Prototype and InFAMOUS like to 'borrow' from a wide variety of sources, it would perhaps be most fitting to offer a brief summation of each based upon that established penchant for respectful homage. So, if you're faced with making a single software purchase (as some inevitably will be), which path should you select when arriving at this particular fork in the gaming road?
In terms of appreciation concerning core components such as environmental scope, gameplay interaction and superhero powers, InFAMOUS is clearly the well-adjusted offspring of Grand Theft Auto, Assassin's Creed and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed - blending Empire City's unerring attention to detail and parkour-friendly design with a superb grace of movement and an electrifying lesson to LucasArts on how an action-packed Jedi game should be made.
Meanwhile, Prototype emerges as the raucous illegitimate spawn of Crackdown, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and The Darkness - making no excuses for portraying Manhattan as a throwaway playground to be leapt, swooped and flown over with ease while gleefully blowing shit up, ignoring the body count, and rushing headlong through an incessant flood of gory but breathtaking action. So, pick a path, left or right, Prototype or InFAMOUS - everyone's a winner.