There's plenty of obvious stuff a games studio is likely to stick on the To Do list when it first rolls-up sleeves to start work on a sequel. Changing the main protagonist, it's safe to say, isn't one of them.
That, though, is the drastic step Radical Entertainment has taken for the follow-up to 2009's Prototype. Alex Mercer, the morally confused anti-hero of the original, becomes the sequel's villain, his previous role filled by Sergeant James Heller, a character bent on revenge over Mercer for causing the death of his wife and child.
After the avoidable knots Sucker Punch tied itself in over the leading man in inFamous 2 – Prototype 2's very own nemesis – Radical's solution certainly seems a little cleaner. But then, a simple makeover was unlikely to have been enough for Mercer.
"There were a bunch of different things we wanted to correct," says design director Matt Armstrong. "We had a main character in Alex Mercer who wasn't always as aligned with his powers as we would have hoped. And also we had a story that tended to be very involved and convoluted, and was difficult to follow for players."
Where Mercer was passive, his motives oddly muddied and muddled, Heller is a single-minded avenger, wholly reconciled to the deadly potential of his superpowers.
While the bloke you'll be running riot with is the headline change, it isn't the only one. Indeed, the hands-off presentation of the game at Activision's pre-E3 showcase begins almost apologetically, with studio head Ken Rosman confessing: "[Prototype] polarised people. We took stock of all the feedback - the things that the reviewers saw were the same things we saw."
What we saw specifically, in awarding Prototype a creditable seven out of ten, was "a game of riotous, gore-splattering ultraviolence, and one that does a solid, and often spectacular job. The victims may be plot, atmosphere and the difficulty curve, but then great power always comes at a cost."
With over 2 million copies of Prototype sold and the full backing of a publisher not exactly famed for its indulgence, Radical ought to be brimming with self-confidence. But a sensitive ear and open mind to feedback are to be welcomed – so long as that doesn't dilute the studio's own vision for the game.
Happily, at this early stage (the code, we're told, is pre-alpha, with the game not out until next year), everything looks well on track. The very fact the studio feels relaxed enough to demo the game to journalists on the same bill as some of 2011's grandest titles is an encouraging indicator of that.
"From the outset we knew that we were working with something that was really solid," says Armstrong. "The first game we felt was something that we're really proud of, a diamond in the rough. So much about it that was really cool but it just had these edges that were never quite right, and so in Prototype 2 we're addressing them from the outset. We really started to understand what we had to execute on and everything started coming together very, very quickly so we're totally excited about this."
Set 14 years after the original, the game's setting of New York Zero is divided into three distinct zones: Red is overrun with the Blacklight virus that broke out in the first game, its buildings collapsed into ruins; Yellow is quarantine for those escaping the virus, a festering, overcrowded refugee camp; and Green is Black Watch territory, ruled under the iron fist of martial law.
The demo begins in the latter. Heller is perched on a rooftop, silently watching soldiers open fire on a crowd of civilians below, gathered around an unfamiliar breed of mutant. Heller must create a distraction. Shape-shifting into the guise of a Black Watch goon, he stealth-grapples another, turns him into a human bomb, and casually strolls away with the camera rotated to peep expectantly over his shoulder as chaos explodes in his wake.
Moments later, we see Mercer hack into Blacknet, the military's communication network (how topical!), using its data to track a nearby target via a sonar-like visualisation. These sequences have been chosen to illustrate the variety of pacing and gameplay the experience will offer. The orgy of violence that defined the original at its cathartic best hasn't been dialled down: you can still paint the town red in a spectacular maelstrom of gore, it's just no longer a case of maul or nothing.
A new element that promises to have the most dramatic and enjoyable impact on this part of the action experience is tendrils. "They're the thing I think is exciting about the game," enthuses Armstrong. "The physics reactions, the emergent properties of it, the way you can string so many things up and have them either pulled apart or slam into each other. Because of this you're never getting the same result twice."
As Armstrong suggests, Heller can shoot tendrils from his arms and attach them to nearby objects – not unlike Spider-Man's web-slinging ability. In practice, the springy, stretchy physics underpinning the tendrils look like enormous fun to muck around with; stringing up a soldier limb-by-limb to roadside trees and lampposts, then stretching him out until he tears in half is just one way to exploit their power.
The studio saves the most eye-catching part of the demo for last, a boss battle against the enormous and gruesome Behemoth, which hurls cars at you with its giant hammer hands. In isolation, it's an undoubtedly spectacular set-piece highlighting the noticeable visual facelift the sequel is undergoing. But we're at a stage in the current-gen cycle where gamers have been spoiled by screen-filling, multi-storey monsters in action games, and games must now work that much harder to inspire awe.
The recently released inFamous 2, for example, pulled off a similar trick in its opening ten minutes, setting a bar that Prototype 2 must rise to as the comparisons between the two series begin all over again. Last time out for both inFamous and Prototype, the pair had so much in common they were often confused with each other. "The first InFamous was really cool and the second seems to be shaping up really well," says Armstrong, when asked about the competition, "From our point of view we offer something completely different and there's space in the market for both games."
Ah, the non-committal diplomacy of PR; but how does Radical differentiate its experience? "There's no other game out there that gives you this vast combination – the extreme over the top locomotion, the ability to run up the side of a skyscraper, leap across several city blocks and do a hammer-fist elbow drop on a tank and take it apart."
Now that's more like it. "There's a whole level of empowerment there you just don't get anywhere else," Armstrong concludes. And with potentially well over a year of development time left, the studio is certainly well placed to make good on its assertions.
At this stage, the question is whether what's been revealed so far will be enough to ensure another multi-million seller in 2012. This year, Sucker Punch had its own radical idea, bringing user-generated content to an open-world action game. Radical hasn't yet shown its full hand, and it may yet have some aces of its own, promising "some cool stuff coming down the pipe" it won't talk about just yet. Suffice to say, Mercer isn't the only foe Heller needs to worry about.