(Nitpicking is not meant to be a comprehensive review or synopsis of a game. It instead serves to discuss the design aspects that most contributed to my emotional response, or lack thereof, to a game. A general knowledge of the game is assumed and spoilers may be present.)
As I understand it, sandbox games are those games that provide the end-user with a sufficiently large and open-ended world, in which said end-user can travel freely throughout. In turn, the player is able to interact with the inhabitants and constituents of the open-ended world, in order to craft his or her own experience. Developers of sandbox games will typically give the player goals, such as progression through a main storyline or side quests, in order to provide boundaries and a framework for the player. The end-user of course has the option to completely ignore these developer set goals.
Generally, I try to avoid categorizing or defining games according to any decisions made by the developer, especially since developers themselves tend to break genre boundaries. However, for the purpose of this article, I will categorize Prototype as a sandbox action/adventure game.
More often than not, I don’t like sandbox action/adventure games. When it comes to the sandbox action/adventure genre, as seen in other recent installments such as Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 2, and Grand Theft Auto IV, a sense of stagnation throughout various aspects of the game is usually very present.
In terms of level design, the end-user is presented with a very large and open world, but it is a world that never changes. Despite how much an end-user accomplishes, whether it be completing a large number of missions, accruing a countless number of kills, or saving innumerable victims from certain death, the world is always indifferent. Enemies continue to spawn in order to challenge the player, non-lethal inhabitants continue to conduct their lives in the same manner as always, and environments remain uninterested and unaffected. Stagnation is ever present.
In terms of goals and story, so much time and effort is seemingly spent in developing an open-world that quality boundaries are not created for the player. Stagnation through repetition is achieved. The end-user, in order to progress the storyline, is forced to complete the same actions over and over again. Whether it is pick-pocketing information from an adversary, killing enemies at an outpost, or chasing a competitor through city streets, any action can lose its appeal after its tenth iteration. This is doubly true when the means to perform these actions do not evolve, such as not being able to gain or utilize substantially different weapons or vehicles.
In terms of pacing, open-worlds are often so large that it can sometimes take longer to travel between mission locations than to complete the missions themselves. Coupled with sometimes repetitive goals, this can often lead to boredom.
Refreshingly, stagnation is not a theme prevalent in Prototype. Throughout my playtime I was astounded at the amount of meaningful evolution that occurred in all aspects of gameplay and design.
The main and playable character, Alex Mercer, is forced to combat a number of different enemies during the game. These include military units with various weapons ranging from machine guns to rocket launchers, common infected with the ability to scale buildings, Hunters who are able to match Alex in physical attributes, advanced Hunters denoted with the tag Leader Hunter, and even vehicles such as tanks and helicopters. What is particularly interesting about each enemy is that they are not simply upgraded versions of each other, with increased health or damage. Each enemy type has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, and as such, forces the player to modify his or her combat tactics.
In order to effectively achieve this, the end-user is given the option to gain various powers and abilities, each having its own strengths and weaknesses. From the start of the game Alex is given the ability to disguise as anyone he consumes. This ability is particularly useful against military units, as the player is able to walk unimpeded into bases when disguised as a military official. It is also valuable when the player is severely outmatched and wishes to make a hasty retreat.
Later on in the game the player gains the ability to stealthily consume military personnel without alerting any other nearby units. Entire military bases can be destroyed without a single fired shot using this power, in conjunction with the abilities to call in an artillery strike and/or accuse other military units of being Alex in disguise.
Unfortunately common infected, Hunters, and Leader Hunters are not concerned with or fooled by disguises. When Alex first encounters a Hunter, the player is without any substantial physical powers and is forced to make use of military weaponry to win the battle. Immediately afterwards, Alex gains the ability to create and use razor sharp claws, which prove to be effective against further Hunters.
During later battles in the game, when faced with combined military and infected enemies, I found myself frantically switching between powers in order to most effectively destroy and kill those that threatened Alex. To remove a crowd of common infected I utilized the whipfist power, which allowed me to employ a long whip to cut through multiple opponents with one sweep. In order to destroy a tank I switched to the hammerfist power, which gave me the ability to deal an extremely strong but slow attack. To kill Hunters I switched to the blade power, which provided me with a six foot long arm-blade. It provided for very frenzied, chaotic, and satisfying gameplay.
Prototype’s ability to evolve as a game is not restricted to the enemies and available abilities. I was particularly impressed with how Radical Entertainment varied the missions and environments.
Available throughout the game are of course a number of side activities that the player can perform, such as movement and consuming challenges. Performing these provides extra currency which can be used to enhance Alex’s abilities. These however are typically menial and repetitive. Prototype really shines in its main story missions. There are thirty-one missions to perform in order to complete the game, and no two feel the same.
Early in the game, Alex is tasked with infiltrating a military base, requiring heavy use of the disguise and stealth consume abilities. The situation takes a turn for the worse very quickly when Alex is forced to lead Hunters, much more powerful than himself, to a new area where he can combat them. Another mission midway through the game results with Alex losing some of the powers that he had previously gained. This forces the end-user to severely change his or her tactics against enemies that had, prior to the mission, been easy to defeat. Towards the end of the game Alex must protect a pump while it is being assailed by waves of infected enemies. In between these infected waves, Alex must combat military units who are also trying to protect the pump.
Certain mission themes are repeated throughout the main storyline, such as "protect this" or "infiltrate this base." However, the situations, obstacles, enemies, and Alex himself evolve enough that the protect missions, infiltrate missions, or other various types of missions never get repetitive.
Alongside the mission progression, Prototype’s environment continues to evolve. The sandbox action/adventure title is set in New York City at the beginning of a viral outbreak. As the player progresses through the story, the infection continues to spread. Water towers become incubators for Hunters, buildings become hubs for common infected, and panic-stricken uninfected run through the streets. In turn, the military presence increases in order to combat the infection. Tanks roam the streets at increasingly regular intervals, helicopters begin patrolling throughout the city, and military bases materialize in greater numbers. As a result, Manhattan progressively becomes a more dangerous and fascinating place.
Prototype is of course not without its problems. The lock-on system can be inaccurate, the controls can be a bit too finicky, and the boss battles can be a test in endurance. However, it really shines in addressing the flaws of past sandbox action/adventure games. The game provides very satisfying combat that constantly changes and forces the player to think. This, alongside varying missions structures and a city that continuously increases its ability to end your game, ensures that Prototype moves at a very fast pace and never gets boring.