In 2005 I was pleasantly surprised by The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, an open-world free-roaming action game by Radical Entertainment. “Pleasantly surprised” is the wrong term. The game offered an unparalleled sense of freedom of movement. It was a game in which you could hold a trigger button and run freely in whatever direction, the camera trained on an enemy, with no fear of impairment; The Hulk would effortlessly run through cars, up buildings and in general never stop until you told him to or he was hit by some particularly nasty ordnance. Even then, upgrades to his powers gave him the ability to recover in mid-air and land smoothly, ready to leap back at the enemy. This complete freedom of uninterrupted movement coupled with a combat system that always asked you to take what the world was currently offering you that very split second and use it to your advantage made the game not only fun, but often frighteningly intense. This game would not let go of you. If your attention flinched, you’d get pummeled and brought to a stop; The worst sensation ever in a game where moving around is so rewarding. Ultimate Destruction was an incredible game.
You may remember Ang Lee’s underrated movie adaption, and the scenes showing The Hulk bounding through the sky, running along walls and throwing tanks into the horizon; This was a full game of that, with none of it on autopilot. Some games seem designed to make your palms sweaty within minutes, and Ultimate Destruction was spectacular at this. It even leveraged it with a control system where every single thing you did, from punching to jumping to throwing and ripping at things, was chargeable; By holding down or tapping the button in question the effect of a given move would increase exponentially. This was a game where, if you wanted to hit the guy again, but harder, you could do just that.
When Radical’s next iteration on this style of gameplay hit us in 2009 in the form of Prototype, reviews were mixed. It arrived in close proximity to several other open world action games, some with tighter scope and higher polish, most notably Sucker Punch’s Infamous, a truly impressive open world action game. Perhaps worst of all, Prototype had an image problem, featuring one of the least photogenic protagonists in recent memory.
This game swaggered out of the gate featuring what would appear to be a cookie cutter anti-establishment story about a government coverup, a superpowered amnesiac urban guy-man-thing with Awesome Powers, set in boring old Manhattan. On first glance, for all intents and purposes, it was an embarassing tribal tattoo of a game.
And then I played it.
Prototype blows my freaking mind, every time I play it.
I played through the game once when it was released and I recently decided to play it again. I quickly remembered both why I love it so much, and also why I think it’s a special game that deserves greater attention.
Prototype plays its premise with a straight face, and a terribly mean spirit. As New York is quarantined and the military attempts to contain a horrible viral disease that threatens to end mankind, Alex Mercer, a superpowered amnesiac infected with a special strain of said disease tries to use his mutations to get back at whoever infected him and “caused all this”. Caught in the middle are thousands of terrified, screaming civilians.
Alex is a complete textbook psychopath. Everything he does is for his own base needs, and his need for revenge. Collateral damage takes up a whole new meaning as bystanders aren’t merely ignored in the heat of combat, but take on the role of thrown weapons, disguises and even food.
As Manhattan is torn to bits by the desperate struggle of the army to contain the thousands of hyperagressive viral monsters, the sky turns red with fire, and the streets fill with the panicked screams of the innocent.
At first while you play, perhaps you’ll try to minimize the collateral damage, swerving to avoid civilians or taking the battle to less populated areas. But all these attempts are futile. Eventually you WILL have to grab an innocent old lady, drag her to the top of a building, hear her feebly cry that you are hurting her, before you devour her alive. To survive.
Attacks upgraded over time, starting at simple punches but inevitably offers devastating earth-cratering thunderbolts as part of your common meat and potatoes arsenal. As you drop from a skyscraper into a crowd, bystanders are pulverized, and after an hour or so of gameplay, you are desensitized. The screaming, panicking innocent just become part of the background noise, already dark with brooding synthesizers and distorted percussion.
Prototype is one dark game, and it’s dark on a scale other games don’t dare approach. It offers you ultimate physical power and agility, to the point where it can barely be contained, and set you loose on the masses. This is a game where you will inadvertently kick a person so hard he will become a bloody surf board as he slides along the ground with your foot embedded in his head. It is relentlessly grim, relentlessly intense, and it just never, ever lets up.
There is no open-world model of hell as complete as Prototype’s, and it is completely stunning to play for this exact reason. Where Infamous toyed around with this darkness, Prototype has no inhibitions. It wants the horror to be front and center, and pulls out all the stops. Compared to the swaths of death Alex Mercer carves through the innocent, Infamous’ heartstring tug at the loss of loved ones becomes almost funny.
Prototype is never funny. It is dark, painful, bleak, screaming chaos. When the sun rises against the Manhattan skyline, it feels ironic.
If Radical hadn’t been impeccable engineers, this nightmare vision could never have been done. The streets are densely crowded, the framerate never cuts, and your movement never stops. Monsters leap and bound after you, as agile as you are, and you never have a second to stop. You need to keep running, you need to keep attacking, and you need to keep surviving. Nothing in Prototype breaks character. It is a stunning technical achievement.
With time, I come to accept Alex’ character design as well. He’s not someone to like. He’s a monster. And playing him is harrowing and primally delightful.
The best way to play the game, if you ask me, is on a well specced PC with an Xbox 360 controller. Crank up the resolution, max it out, put on some good headphones and just immerse yourself in how horrible it all is. It’s stunning.