Prototype (Radical Entertainment, $60, Xbox 360/PS3) is 28 Days Later meets Grand Theft Auto, offering players a front-row seat as New York City succumbs to a monster-spawning plague.
Though predominantly a hack-'n'-slash superhero game mashed together with sandbox-style gameplay, Prototype makes surprisingly effective use of flashbacks. It starts with the game's opening scenes, in which you're introduced to a post-infection New York City and a protagonist named Alex Mercer, who's somehow mastered the virus. After teasing you with a taste of the godlike powers you'll acquire later on, Prototype jumps back to the start of the outbreak.
It's 18 days earlier, and Alex has just woken in the morgue. His body's been infected with a virus that lets him manipulate his own DNA, turning his hands into organic claws, letting him shapeshift into other identities and granting the ability to run up skyscrapers.
It's also robbed him of his memories, and your goal is to win them back. Moments after waking, you seize control of Alex, sending him running, leaping and jumping through Manhattan using a third-person perspective. As you complete missions (and defeat the inevitable virus-created monstrosities), you gain evolution points, which you spend to buy new powers.
You also gain memories. Acquired by absorbing your enemy's DNA, these memories trigger short flashbacks that reveal parts of the larger story, as well as new skills, identities and the powers.
The sandbox aspects consist mostly of GTA-style mini-games, like racing through preset rooftop courses, hunting down military targets and going on rampage-style killing sprees. The side quests are a nice diversion from the main storyline, but there's nothing particularly memorable about them. They're a good way to earn EPs when you need them to defeat a particularly tough monster, and that's about it.
Many will welcome the diversity of offensive and defensive powers Alex can acquire, especially when coupled with individual upgrades and unlockable combos. Be warned, though: While powers are easy enough to manage early on, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember which sequence lets you summon ground-penetrating spikes and which transforms your hands into oversized, armor-smashing fists.
Visually, the game works best when it's offering long views of Manhattan, preferably when you're standing atop a skyscraper. While there are a few signature locations—Central Park, Times Square—most of the island's buildings and people are overly generic, rarely reaching the level of detail found in Grand Theft Auto. Then again, GTA never let you throw a car at a passing helicopter.
The AI's intelligence is adequate, but not inspiring; Alex's superpowers make it easy to evade strike teams, and most of the zombie hybrid battles are a question of quantity, not quality. Ultimately, Prototype is the video-game equivalent of a summer B movie: entertaining enough to keep you occupied, flawed enough to keep you looking forward to what's coming out this fall.