Prototype In Restrospect - The Best Kind Of Mindless Fun

A look at one of the best open-world games of its time, and the best case for how good gameplay can shadow everything else bad about a title.
There is no greater feeling than jumping from atop a building and knowing you'll be safe when you land.
There is no greater feeling than jumping from atop a building and knowing you'll be safe when you land. Activision

June 2019 was, for the most part, a month like any other. For a lot of people, this past month meant that spring is in full bloom, and that in less than a month summer will be arriving. It’s also the halfway mark to a year that seemed to fly by, and reflecting on the releases of the past half of the year and whether or not they’ve been great. E3 also happened, which brought some new titles in the form of announcements, trailers and so much more.

It also marked the tenth anniversary of a game I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. It’s a game that’s pretty much responsible for getting me into the hobby, and what I’ve seen retroactively as kind of a turning point for game design. I’m talking, of course, about Prototype, developer Radical Entertainment’s masterpiece and one of my most favorite video games.

Prototype is a single-player open-world action-adventure title set in Manhattan, which is being devastated by a virulent outbreak. You play as Alex Mercer, who, after a strange and intriguing turn of events, turn into a shapeshifter capable of ridiculous feats such as jumping incredible heights, gliding, running up the side of buildings, enough strength to kill people with melee attacks, and shapeshifting parts of his body into deadly weapons.

There is an underlying plot that makes sense of the damage Alex can cause, but for the most part it takes a backseat to the true star of the game: the gameplay itself. Prototype, for the most part, is a sandbox game that incentivizes utter destruction of everything and everyone, from the military and the special ops Blackwatch, to regular mutated zombies, to massive hulking ones, and even the unsuspecting populace that converge within infection-free areas – Prototype revels in wanton destruction free from any kind of prejudice, and it recognizes that sometimes players just want to wreck stuff in the coolest way possible.

It took pride in its edginess, too. I was 15 when Prototype first came out, and it certainly made a mark on younger, edgier me due to how ‘dark’ and ‘gory’ it was compared to other titles I’ve played before. The time it was released also reflected this teenage angst phase for many people; the ‘scene’, in particular the emo and post-punk stuff was what I could most remember from that bygone time. Somehow, during this time, it’s the coolest shit ever to see a guy wearing a hoodie transform his right arm into a blade that could bisect, bifurcate or just plain eviscerate civilians in one clean swipe.

As a game, Prototype did a lot to introduce to me what I value in game design the most, which is gameplay. For some people, you can't get them interested in a title unless there’s a good story, or for others, certain games are unplayable if the graphics aren’t good. While those are aspects that should be focused on, all I ever picked up from playing video games was how much fun I was having. If it was tedious for the sake of exposition, or it had phenomenal graphics, but absolutely repetitive gameplay, then I found myself not having fun; then a few years ago, after graduating from college, I pick up Prototype again for the first time and it’s still as fun as the day I first played it all those years ago.

You can chalk that up to blind nostalgia, or a clear favoritism, and you’d be right on both accounts – however, it did remind me that some things just never change. Despite it’s dated graphics, it’s comically laughable cutscenes, dark, nihilistic story and the overall show of age, the older me still enjoyed Prototype for what it mainly is: a gameplay-driven sandbox action game where you can act out your destructive fantasies.

Prototype was followed by a sequel, Prototype 2, which a section of the fans might say was an improvement over the original. It’s more of a mixed bag for me, since it does a lot of things better, and some things worse – the protagonist James Heller, in particular, I found to be very unlikeable due to the fact that he can’t stop needlessly spouting curse words every sentence or so. Alex did the edgy thing way better in my opinion, and all without uttering a single ‘fuck’ throughout the game. It’s a mechanically fine title, though, and it received a positive reception, but it did spell the end of its developer's run making video games.

Not too long after the release of Prototype 2 came the downfall of the Prototype series, and its developer Radical Entertainment. The studio was under Activision at the time, and as if there was a snap from Thanos, the studio disappeared. This actually only hit me after a few years, when not only did I realize that there was probably never going to be another Prototype title, but if there ever was, it would most likely be a soulless cash-grab capitalizing on the nostalgia of people like me. There would likely be microtransactions and DLC that was supposed to be in the base game right off the bat. When you think about it, Prototype 2 already had a form of this, present in the Radnet Access pack, which charged money for features that were just present in the first Prototype.

During all those playthroughs, I wished that there was another game that let you play once again as Alex Mercer, in a more expansive environment and with more powers at your disposal, I end up thinking about the state of the game industry today and count myself lucky – for now, at least.

Prototype isn’t the best game ever made, nor will it make the top ten for most people. You can chalk that up to different tastes and subjectivity overall, and that would be okay, because in the end I can still enjoy it. While it was PlayStation hits like the Crash Bandicoot series and Heart of Darkness that introduced me to video games, as cheesy and stupid as it may sound, it was Prototype that ultimately sparked my love for it. As an exceptional title, it’s carried mostly by the fun that can be had while destroying everything within your sights. It also showed that some titles can be timeless for gameplay reasons, and the hammy dialog and story can be an afterthought because of how good it plays.

Happy 10th birthday Prototype, and may you never be revived for the wrong reasons.

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