Last year was all about the battle of the band games, as Rock Band went head-to-head with Guitar Hero. Things will be different in 2009 - unless Activision decides to release a Rolling Stones game, but that's another story. This year, it's time for a superhero showdown as Radical's Prototype takes on inFamous, a PS3 exclusive from Sucker Punch.
The context is different, as there's no history of franchise-swapping here. However, the content is remarkably similar. inFamous stars a white male hero in his twenties, who wakes up to find the big US city he lives in has descended into chaos. He also learns he's acquired some mysterious superpowers. In Prototype, set in a big US city that recently descended into chaos, the hero, who is white, male and about 25, awakens to learn he has acquired some superpowers, which are mysterious.
We got the chance to play Prototype last month, and now it's time for a hands-on session with inFamous at the Game Developers Conference. The first level available appears to be the first level of the game, as it's all tutorially. The on-screen text states that it's "Day 14 of the quarantine". Our hero, Cole, is hanging about on the roof of a tall building with a fat bloke in a tracksuit called Zeke.
There's a broken telly on the roof, along with a load of power generators. Zeke asks you to charge them up, and the on-screen instructions tell you how - press L1 to target, then R1 to release a blast of electricity. This is your default weapon and puzzle solver, and you're always able to use it even if you've emptied the meter showing how much electric energy you have stored.
You'll need to fill it up if you want to pull off Cole's more advanced moves. To help with this there's a "ping" manoeuvre you can use to identify any objects supplying electricity in the vicinity - then it's a matter of pressing L2 to get the juice from them. You can also suck power from your enemies. As you explore each level you'll come across hidden items called Blast Shards, and if you collect five of these your power meter will increase by one extra segment.
So what are the moves you're storing up all this energy for? That will depend on how you choose to play the game. There's the option to be kind and helpful by healing injured civilians, caring about who gets caught in your crossfire and so on. Or you might decide to go round smashing up everything in your path and stealing energy from everyone around you.
There are also specific moments where you get to make moral choices. In the first level, for example, food parcels are dropped into the city. You can either let the people scrambling for a share grab it all, or shoot the lot of them with your crazy electrofists and nick the food for yourself.
Citizens will react to Cole differently depending on how you behave, and you'll rack up good or bad karma as you go. This affects how the powers you earn play out. For example if you've taken the good path, your electromagic grenades will only stun whoever they hit. You can then hog-tie enemies if you don't want to kill them, and send civilians on their way. If you've been bad, however, the grenades will cause widespread and indiscriminate devastation.
It's hard to believe anyone would bother tying up dizzy people rather than just blowing them to bits with massive balls of lightning. But according to Sucker Punch, playtesters often choose the path of righteousness, as there are distinct benefits. For example, being evil gives you access to the Sadistic Shot move, which increases the radius of your electric explosions. If you behave yourself, however, you can acquire the Righteous Blow, which gives you a small energy boost each time you hit an enemy.
There are no weapons in the game as such. Although the nice man doing the demo refers to "grenades" and "rocket launchers", it's really just different formations of energy bursts. But while inFamous might not look like a shooter, it feels like one to play; square for grenades, triangle for rockets, circle to take cover, L1 to target and right stick to move the camera... Familiar stuff.
You'll need to master it all the same to succeed at inFamous's boss battles. The first of those on show at GDC is set in an underground lair. It's home to a nutty lady called Sasha who has similar powers to your own. You realise she's bonkers as soon as you arrive, as there's some cheesy banter where she acts like you're late home for dinner: "Darling, what took you so long? I told you not to take the bridge, traffic's terrible..."
The lair is full of weird red neon light and there's black goo on the floor which drains your energy on contact, so you'll need to leap between the rocks littered about while Sasha fires bolts of energy at you. Victory involves pulling out the strange plug-like objects attached to her torso. Grabbing her cues a close-up animation where you can see Sasha's glowing red eyes and a dozen sharp scarlet tongues waggling out of her mouth. It's more comic book in tone than say, Prototype, with all its gory realism. As a result the effect is unnerving rather than horrifying.
The final level we got to play begins in the grounds of a prison and is extremely hard. You face off with a giant monster made out of trash, along with hordes of his minions. There's a constantly charged electrical grid you can stand on to keep your power meter topped up. All the same, it seems impossible to defeat the endless waves of enemies with just the grenade and rocket launcher moves to choose from. The nice demo man assures us there's still work to be done with regards to the difficulty level, and said 80 per cent of the QA team are also unable to finish this particular boss off. But he's probably just being nice.
inFamous isn't out for a few months yet so there's time to fiddle with the difficulty, and with some of the other elements that might need tweaking. The physics system, for example, could do with a bit more work. For the most part, objects explode, shatter, burn and scatter as you'd expect them to, but there are some inconsistencies. Firing a blast of energy at Zeke's table on the rooftop scattered all the objects except a carton of Chinese food, and firing another blast just made it vanish suddenly. The table and chairs exploded satisfyingly into pieces when firing directly at them, but again, the pieces just vanished.
In addition, the visual style seems inconsistent at some points. It's partly down to the over-the-top lighting, as seen in Sasha's lair. It suggests the design team has gone for a comic book look, but the high level of detail in the environments and the elements of gritty realism don't look so good under brightly coloured lighting. The cut-scenes, however, are highly impressive, perhaps because they feature stylised images that could be straight from the pages of a graphic novel and simple colour palettes.
Sucker Punch has got until June to tweak and polish inFamous. Prototype is also out in June, funnily enough. It's clear they have a lot in common, but even having played both, it's too soon to pick a winner. The success or failure of each game will depend greatly on the mechanics of their open worlds. It will also be determined by the character development systems and how well they work. Sucker Punch's history of platform games has also yet to come out in demos, but we know Cole's itching to haul himself up the side of those skyscrapers, take to the rooftops and go a bit Crackdown - something that could be decisive.
Until we've had the chance to fully test out these elements, it's impossible to call. At least it's sure to be an interesting fight.