It has been only a couple of months since we last saw Prototype, but Radical Entertainment's take on the sprawling open-world gameplay genre has made leaps and bounds forward, continuing to impress us at every development milestone.
Set in current-day New York, the game places you in the role of comic-book-style antihero Alex Mercer, a guy who wakes up suffering from amnesia and, unsurprisingly, has no idea what's going on. Your job is to use the many physical forms and abilities at Mercer's disposal to find your way through the world in search of answers. This much we know thus far: Alex was--or perhaps still is--involved in some kind of government conspiracy regarding top-secret biological research. It looks like someone put more than a spoonful of anger in the recipe, and now Alex is out to pay it back in spades.
Our hands-off demo of the game at Sierra's recent press event in San Francisco joins the story a little way into the action, and showcases many of the abilities that you'll unlock throughout Prototype's story.
Our guide began at street level, with Alex jogging along through wide and detailed New York streets and surrounded by cars ripe for tossing around. We broke into a run, and at a reasonable clip we hurtled past street blocks quickly, although that was only a glimpse of the character's superpowers. Rounding a corner, we found ourselves facing a large, disorganized crowd of mutants with their sights firmly set on taking us down. Think an angry, clumping group of zombies from 28 Days Later stuck in a giant cement gauntlet. Rather than stay and fight, we ploughed through the crowd, pushing bodies out of our way as we went, and throwing the odd punch just in case any of them got any funny ideas. After stopping in the middle of the street at a spot with some breathing room, we picked up an abandoned car and lobbed it effortlessly into the masses. Content with the amount of destruction and ruckus we had caused, we took off, jumping high into the air and running along a building's external walls parkour style, and scampering onto a rooftop out of sight.
We've mentioned it several times before, but it's worth noting again simply because it plays such a pivotal role in the way that you interact with the gameworld: Like in any other open-world game with even basic artificial intelligence, the "deceive or destroy" mechanic in Prototype will determine not only your relationship with the environment, and how much it bites back, but also your level of success in completing challenges. Obeying the laws of the land will keep you alive. We were shown several examples that showcased the system, the first of which saw us attempting to destroy 12 "virus sniffer" towers on rooftops scattered around the city. The first few were cakewalks, easily taken out without raising suspicion by simply locating and attacking them. Subsequent sniffers were more heavily guarded by soldiers and required us to stealthily "consume" military personnel without being spotted. The first was easy, given that the target was not in the line of sight of the other characters. Simply sidling up, attacking, and stepping through them consumes their biomass, and best of all, there are no messy corpses to be found later.
However, another patrol saw us consume the second soldier. This group opened fire and forced us to go from stealthy to seditious in seconds, lashing out violently to neutralize the situation before others could be informed. Taking on more than one soldier was a bit much, and because the action was too hot for us, we needed to escape. We bounded across rooftops, weaving through structures and strafing through incoming helicopter fire until we could drop quietly into a back alley to reduce our threat level. The work-in-progress version of the game that we saw included a circular, colored ring to indicate our aggro level, similar to the wanted or suspicion meters in the Grand Theft Auto games or Assassin's Creed. White lets you go about your business unnoticed; yellow shows potential risk; orange indicates a local risk that can be solved by killing all of the witnesses in the immediate proximity; and red tells you that your cover is blown and it's time to bug out, kill, or be killed.
Consuming has many functions. First and foremost, it provides you with health, and seeing as how you won't find first-aid kits with giant, glowing red plus signs scattered around the city, you'll need to take on the biomass of your foes to keep going. Consuming also helps you unlock Alex's past; devouring characters not only replenishes you, but also bestows on you their memories, further driving the game's story and unlocking the secret behind what's happening. Eating people also powers up your energy bar, which lets you unleash devastating moves such as launching exploding tentacles from your body that impale those around you.
One of the most unique abilities at Alex's disposal is shape-shifting. Consuming someone lets you assume the form of your target, so you can pass yourself off as a lowly grunt or a superior officer, each with his own access level to military data and abilities. Soldiers won't bat an eyelid when an officer commandeers a tank, but your cover starts to slip when you begin attacking your army comrades. Although we didn't have a chance to see any examples for ourselves, the Radical representatives did explain that in some cases, preserving your cover will be of the utmost importance. For instance, one mission will require you to steal a Black Hawk chopper and to complete the mission using your false pilot identity before returning to base. Once there, you'll receive a confidential briefing to which you would otherwise not have been privy.
The gameworld is described by the developers as "persistent-ish," which means that battles will continue to rage between mutants and the army even while you're not present. This means that it's not uncommon to come across action in midstride, and as a result, to end up keeping your nose clean where normally either faction would have attacked you on sight. Given the flexibility of the gameplay style, you may decide that you're not in a peaceful mood, in which case you can break out the tentacles, grab the nearest officer, jump into a tank, or call in an air strike to play the two sides against one another. Thinning out the ranks--before you go about doing whatever it is you're there for--is a viable tactic and can make things a lot easier. After all, you're a one-man army, even if you do have superpowers.
Even with several months of development time left ahead of the game's as-yet-unannounced third-quarter 2008 release date, Prototype is already looking great. We'll be following the game all the way to the finish line when it busts its way onto the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC platforms.