Prototype Preview

Prototype: Not just a copy.

Radical Entertainment, developers of The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and Scarface: The World Is Yours, began its session at the 2008 Game Developers Conference on the open-world design for their new IP, Prototype, by asserting that it was unique. Like The Prestige, they declared. Not like anything else.

[image1]Words like “MORE” and “BETTER” and “OWD” (Open-World Design) filled the Powerpoint presentation. Supposedly, when “better” is mapped against “time” in the game industry, it’s some kind of curve that reaches an asymptotic plateau. But even at its current pre-alpha stage, Prototype was in line to be as revolutionary as Goldeneye 007, Grand Theft Auto 3, and Call of Duty 4. Geez… they forgot to compare it to their obviously spectacular shlong, too.

Manly claims aside, there’s nothing wrong with saying that an innovative game is a cross between two or more titles. In fact, between tiresome remarks like “Systems interacting = Fun”, Radical drops its “more special than cerebral palsy Timmy” attitude and starts giving credit to its sources of inspiration. And I’ll add to that – while recounting the only part of the session that really mattered: a twelve-minute demo.

Prototype is like Grand Theft Auto 3 smashed into Assassin’s Creed in a modern setting – more precisely, New York City. In just the first shot, Alex Mercer – a white-hooded man whose eyes are covered Altaïr-style and who sports a grey padded vest and blue jeans – leaps off a skyscraper into the hustle and bustle of Times Square. He’s a badass armed with shape-shifting abilities but without any memories of his past, which only makes him hungrier to find the heart of the conspiracy that created him.

[image2]And no one and no thing can really stop him. Within five seconds of landing knee first into the street (bad pothole maker!) and wreaking havoc on oncoming traffic, he charges into an unsuspecting man, mounts him, and punches his face into the now bloody pavement. Then he moves onto a woman. All this for no real reason except to give the audience a shock.

But his sadistic nature (which I’m sure some media pundits will call “a simulation for New York City terrorists”) soon reveals its purpose. The objective? To find and eliminate a nearby military base and kill any rampaging mutant beasts that are after him. Why all the wonton destruction? Well, for the same reason some players put on infinite health in Grand Theft Auto 3, but whether there is an incentive to leave innocents out of harm’s way has yet to be revealed. Of course, everyone needs to taste super-powered savagery at least once.

Alex can leap from one building to another with ease, without any Spiderman strings attached. Sprinting up the glass and cement of towering skyscrapers, he can flip off into the air, double jump, and glide to the next building like a not-so-stealthy ninja.

[image3]Even though he can use his shaft-shifting abilities for infiltration, he’s not shy about showing everyone’s whose boss. Soldier in your way? Just grab his body by the face and launch him into the nearest billboard. Tank? Just flick off the lid, slaughter the pests inside, and take it over. Helicopter? Leap onto the hood, smile at the pilots, and have fun with them. Poor defenders of justice; they’re just ammunition.

Radical calls Alex Mercer (a name that if derived from “mercy”, is ironic) an amnesiac with the dangerous and calculating personality of Hannibal Lector and Darth Maul, a product out of “Tom Clancy meets Stephen King”. To find his identity, he must gain back his memories by killing and absorbing the minds of others.

This includes stealing their appearances as well, either for power or as a disguise. You can shift into a claw humanoid, ala Spike from the X-Men Evolution TV series, and fire long-range bio-daggers or just claw through enemies Wolverine-style. The latter Mystique-like use of this power, though, isn’t too appealing, given the ability to transform into an unstoppable beast to eradicate fools in the most visceral way possible. How the combat makes stealth by disguise as thrilling as simple slaughter is yet to be seen, but being a “stem cell” human adds a distinctive element to Prototype.

[image4]Just witnessing the carnage continue to cascade through the city is tempting. Aside from the uncanny number of full-white U-Haul-looking trucks filling the streets (it’s still pre-alpha so let’s hope that the variety of vehicles is spiked up a bit more), the realism and familiarity of the New York City environment is unsettling – sprinting across a street basketball court or a baseball diamond on the playground. Car accidents pile up and don’t reset if you just go away for a moment. Screams, explosions, and bullets continue to spread panic. Like the virus infecting the human populace in the game, harm spreads.

Prototype gives you the chance to wreck society from the inside out while you watch your vindictive “kill someone, take his stuff” escapades ripple into complete mayhem. More than that, it embodies the question of what one man can do in a ridiculous world where nothing seems to solve anything. Alex Mercer, behind his superpowers, is just like everyone else.

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