Manhattan Island has suffered all manner of fates in movies over the years. It was attacked by monsters in Godzilla and Cloverfield, hit by tsunamis in The Day After Tomorrow and Deep Impact, and targeted by aliens in Independence Day and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. But though I am Legend comes close, the New York borough has never before been subjected to a disaster quite like that depicted in Prototype. In this fast-paced open-world action game, the military is doing what it can to contain a viral outbreak that's turning the island's population into mutants. As amnesiac Alex Mercer, who's trying to figure out what's going on, you spend much of your time caught in the crossfire. Fortunately, what Mercer lacks in memories he more than makes up for in agility and superpowers, and as a result, he's an incredibly fun character to play as in a game that also counts an intriguing story, varied missions, and some memorable boss battles among its features.
At the outset, Mercer is a much easier character to control than he is to understand, especially if you opt to play with an Xbox 360 controller rather than a mouse and keyboard. Making giant leaps, gliding through the air, and even running up the sides of skyscrapers are effortless actions. You could probably make it from one end of Manhattan to the other in a straight line using nothing more than the sprint button if you really wanted to, since it's the only one you need to scale buildings, barge through crowds, and overcome obstacles like cars and rooftop air-conditioning units parkour-style. No fall will ever hurt you, no obstacle is impassable, and there are very few enemies who can keep up with you when you're at full clip. Combat is also relatively simple early on, but as you progress and learn more about who and what Mercer is, his repertoire of moves grows exponentially until remembering which button combinations or keys trigger which moves in which of his five forms becomes something of a challenge. You certainly don't need to remember how to use every single move you unlock with evolution points, which are earned by doing just about anything, but it's unfortunate that even after picking favorites you might find yourself having to hold down up to three buttons (a trigger and two opposing face buttons) simultaneously to perform them. You don't need to do anything quite that crazy on your keyboard, but there are a lot of keys to remember.
Regardless, combat in Prototype is a blast. Using the Function keys or a slick radial menu that slows down the game any time you call it up, you can shape-shift into different forms that morph your arms into blades, a whip, and hammerlike fists. You also have the option to use more conventional weapons dropped by enemies and, eventually, to hijack tanks and helicopter gunships. The latter are especially fun, because you can use a whiplike arm to latch onto them in midair--even while falling from another helicopter that you've been shot down in. One benefit of having all of these options available to you, as well as the ability to disguise yourself as any human character that you "consume" (read: absorb) to regain health, is that many of the already-varied story missions (as well as a couple of the boss fights) can be approached in a number of different ways. For example, if you need to destroy an item inside a military base, you could attempt it in one of the aforementioned vehicles, walk right in there and set about killing or consuming everything that moves, stand on a nearby rooftop and throw things, or even disguise yourself as a soldier and distract the real military by pointing at a nearby character and declaring that he's the enemy. As a soldier look-alike you can even call in airstrikes from your unsuspecting comrades, but you get only a very limited number of these. Some missions, and almost all of the optional challenges scattered across the island, force you to play a certain way, but for the most part you're free to use the environment and everything in it however you see fit.
It's almost impossible to play Prototype without feeling like Mercer is an overpowered character at some point, but any time you start getting too comfortable, there's a good chance the game is about to change things up on you. To give specific examples would be to risk spoiling the game's story for you, but suffice it to say that new enemies and hazards are introduced, moves you've come to rely on might not always be available or effective, and as time passes, Manhattan becomes an increasingly perilous place to be. The difficulty curve is nigh on perfect, and the fact that you're continuously adding new moves to your arsenal to combat new dangers helps keep the gameplay from getting repetitive.
The same can't be said for the scenery unfortunately. Save for a handful of landmarks like Central Park and Times Square, much of Prototype's Manhattan starts to look the same after a while, and because the whole island is yours to explore from the get-go, it never changes. With that said, moving around the island is so much fun as Mercer that you inevitably end up exploring anyway, and there are 200 glowing orbs to find around the city to encourage you to do so. There are a number of other things to do outside of story missions as well. Optional timed and score challenges include checkpoint runs across rooftops, battles in which you must remain disguised as a soldier and use only conventional weapons, gliding toward targets and trying to land in the center, helicopter strafing runs, and more.
Perhaps the most interesting challenges are those in which you have a time limit to consume a number of highlighted pedestrians in different areas of the city. These pedestrians, of whom there are more than 130 to find both during challenges and during regular play, are special because they each have some knowledge of what's going on in Manhattan, and when you consume them, you're treated to a brief montage of their relevant memories. Few of these contain much information individually, but they're slickly presented, and unlocking a large number of them adds an extra, dark layer to the occasionally predictable story that's well worth the effort. Similarly, if you choose to infiltrate military bases and consume specialist soldiers inside, you can learn abilities from them (how to fly a helicopter, for example) or improve your effectiveness with guns. Prototype's core story missions can be beaten in less than 10 hours, but you can comfortably double that number on your first play-through if you're not in a rush and take the time to check out all of the optional extras.
If those extras include the aforementioned military bases, you'll find that Prototype's camera definitely isn't at its best when Mercer steps inside a relatively small, confined space. It occasionally has trouble keeping up with the action outside too, but it's rarely detrimental to gameplay and you can always pan it down yourself after running up the side of a building if you want to make sure you land on the roof, for example. Furthermore, there's a lock-on targeting system that will keep enemies in view at all times, which is especially useful during boss fights. It can work against you on occasion, though, because on a street crowded with civilians, zombielike infected, and abandoned taxicabs, hitting the lock-on button will almost always default to one of the cabs, or a bench, or a chunk of concrete, or some other inanimate object. That's great if you're looking for something to throw at a troublesome helicopter, but less helpful if you have almost no health left and desperately need to consume some folks.
Targeting innocent civilians isn't encouraged, incidentally, but Mercer isn't a character who shows any remorse as he tears up Manhattan and is a danger to anyone and anything that's living. And make no mistake: Prototype is a truly brutal game when Mercer is on the warpath. Enemies will be cut in half horizontally, torn in half vertically, have holes punched clean through them, and be decapitated, skewered, and even used as projectiles. And all the while, there's a plentiful (though not overly excessive) supply of blood spilling onto the streets. These particularly gruesome kills are accompanied by sound effects that do a decent job of letting you know exactly when an enemy's flesh is being compromised, and screams from the crowd and radio chatter from the military do an excellent job of reminding you that the trouble in Manhattan isn't always at Mercer's location. Mutants and the military can be played off each other on occasion, and a quick look at the city map makes it easy for you to identify which neighborhoods are controlled by which group and which are contested.
Frequently, battles that you're not directly involved in can be seen playing out as you negotiate the rooftops above, as can large crowds of fleeing civilians and mutants shambling toward their prey. Prototype isn't a game in which any one visual element is remarkable, but it looks good, and the frame rate generally manages to stick close to 30 per second even when the number of characters and the amount of action onscreen border on insane. Furthermore, Mercer is brilliantly animated, which makes the parkour, the combat, the shape-shifting, and especially the gliding between rooftops all the more satisfying.
That's a word that can be used to describe almost every aspect of Prototype, and although there's no multiplayer component, you're free to remain in Manhattan long after you've beaten the story or, if you prefer, go through it a second time while retaining all of the powers that you already unlocked. Prototype is good enough that you'll almost certainly want to keep playing either way, and even if you don't, there's more than enough fun to be had here in a single play through for us to recommend the game without hesitation.