Try as they might, games can never seem to stay out of the headlines for long. It only takes a copy of Call Of Shooty to be found in the bedroom of a young murderer and all of a sudden, the blood is on the developer’s hands in the eyes of the misinformed masses. And while the vast majority of gamers might roll their eyes every time an entire medium is labelled corruptive, dangerous or downright evil after an atrocity is committed by someone that once played a Nintendo, the truth is that some games simply aren’t so easy to defend as others. We can shrug away accusations that World Of Warcraft could be in some way responsible for driving someone to murder. We can laugh off the idea that the odd Team Deathmatch is training us all to be better terrorists. But when playing Prototype 2, any such common sense deflections go out the window, leaving only a saddening window into a wider world. This is what the sensationalist headline hunters think every videogame is like – it’s indefensibly brash, unnecessarily brutal and utterly brainless, almost to the point of becoming a parody of modern gaming. And while that revelation leaves us feeling a little dirty for enjoying Radical’s so-called sequel, we still haven’t done a murder because of it. That’s got to be worth something.
Simultaneously a no-nonsense game and an utterly nonsensical one, Prototype 2 picks up a year after the events of the first game, recasting previous antihero Alex Mercer in the role of chief antagonist as the virus claims New York for a second time. Despite the game painting Mercer as the Big Bad Wolf of the piece, reskinned hero James Heller bizarrely makes friends with the former star within the first half hour, only for the two to fall out again soon after in what plays out to be as arbitrary a narrative as a video game has ever muttered. But Prototype was never about ripping yarns or convincing characters, nor should it be expected to be. It’s a perfect slice of sandbox silliness, a celebration of gaming before moral decisions and branching dialogue became the norm and with all due respect to Radical’s achievements, a toy. A great toy in many ways, sure, but a toy all the same. And in that respect, it’s effectively the same gig as before, albeit with a dangerously stereotypical expletive factory in place of the brooding emo frontman of the 2009 original.
But for every bolt Radical tightens, another comes loose. Improved visuals and a far better coherency to the action come at the cost of having to split New York into three separate unconnected areas; rebalanced and additional powers mean that the most satisfying abilities aren’t introduced until the game’s twilight; a simplified levelling system makes the road to ultimate power a straight one indeed, though some of the original’s freedom of customisation is sacrificed as a result. The original’s uneven difficulty has thankfully been stamped out as well, though once again it’s fair to say that every silver lining has a cloud – Normal difficulty is now an absolute cakewalk and once Heller is all powered up, it’s virtually impossible to die at all. It’s rare to see player power taken to such an extreme and in that respect it’s certainly an interesting decision on Radical’s part, but all it really does on a gameplay level is usher players towards the New Game+ option and the more demanding difficulties.
What it lacks in challenge, though, Prototype 2 more than makes up in pure, unashamed fun. A lot of its mechanics are daft and overly forgiving but the destruction is enormously satisfying. Much of the action plays out like a messier string of glorious six-star GTA chases, explosions engulfing most of Manhattan while grotesque tendrils skewer and sunder the city’s mutated residents. There’s a wonderful flow to it all as well, clipping issues and a similar technical sloppiness to that which helps make Saints Row the loveable open world clown falling by the wayside when everything comes together – dive from a helicopter, nuke it with its own missile pod and dive to street level to toss a few cars at the remaining choppers and you’ll see what we mean. And, as with Saints Row, the over-the-top nature of the game means that technical burps can actually work in its favour too, hilarity often forged from glitches and technical mayhem in a way that only a game so clearly refusing to take itself too serious can get away with.
And there’s the clincher. If you like your games to tell an engaging story or to break new ground, Prototype 2 will probably make you vomit up your own pelvis through sheer outrage. If you’re looking for powerful messages or the advancement of a medium, you’ll likely be left with little but a sour taste in your mouth and the desire to write a strongly worded letter to Radical expressing your dissatisfaction with the whole experience. But if, on the flipside, you’re someone that goes into a game armed with nothing more than a desire to be entertained, you’ll struggle to find a more accommodating host than Prototype 2. Sure, it’s poorly designed in some areas, technically flimsy in others and a by-numbers video game in many other aspects. But it’s fun. Dirty, stupid, borderline broken fun perhaps, but fun all the same. Leave your preconceptions, inhibitions and judgments at the door and Radical’s latest will not fail to entertain. It’s the gaming equivalent of The Expendables then, if you will – a celebration of straight-up action that feels compelled to conform to the usual trappings of structure and narrative even though it’d arguably be a whole lot better if it had the balls to go against the grain and focus exclusively on what it does best.