It must take some nuts, showing off your brand new openworld game the week before the biggest openworld game in history launches. You know, the one that's set in a fictional version of New York, and features hundreds of optional side quests alongside a linear narrative, and revolves around a mysterious anti-hero who follows his own moral code.
Radical Entertainment's Chris Ansell has some nuts. He's presenting Prototype, an openworld game set in a fictional version of New York featuring hundreds of optional side quests, a linear narrative and a mysterious anti-hero etc. But as the demo gets underway it becomes apparent there are plenty of new ideas here, and enough key differences to suggest Prototype isn't just another GTA clone.
For starters, this version of New York has a lot more in common with the real thing than Liberty City. The different areas go by their proper names. Times Square looks like Times Square. There are no amusing parodies of familiar brands; there's a real advert for Nokia. But the biggest difference is that, unlike Liberty City, this New York is populated by enormous marauding mutants, homicidal maniacs infected by a mysterious virus, ruthless military operatives from an extra-special branch of the Special Forces and an awful lot of tanks.
In the middle of it all stands Alex Mercer. Like so many of his fellow citizens he's been infected by a virus, but this particular strain has given him special shapeshifting powers. He can "consume" other people and take on their appearance and abilities. He can turn his body into a weapon - transforming his arm into a giant claw, for example, or causing huge spikes to burst out of the ground and impale anyone standing in the wrong place. And he has parkour-style movement skills, including the ability to run up buildings, jump between skyscrapers, glide for short distances and, best of all, skid along streets using dead bodies as human surfboards.
All this might be quite a laugh if Alex wasn't being hunted down by Blackwatch, the military force established especially to deal with the effects of the virus. And if he could remember who he was, and knew where his missing sister was, and why and by whom he's been infected. To find the answers Alex must consume people, thereby gaining access to their memories.
Ansell explains that when the game starts out New York is relatively peaceful and Alex has only learned to use a few powers. Later on martial law is introduced, and by the time you're into the third act it's a three-way war between you, the military and the infected. By now Alex should racked up enough evolution points to unlock a host of special abilities. These points are awarded for attacking enemies - you get nothing for killing the innocent, though there's always the option.
"It's an incentive system. If you go after the real enemies of the game, the military and the infected, you'll get evolution points," says Ansell. "But you can be bad if you want. With this game we're trying to create an anti-hero, someone who's not black or white. It's up to the user to determine the shade of grey. This is not a morality play; it's a power fantasy."
But lots of games claim to be about forcing the player to face ethical dilemmas, and many of them offer choices no more complex than whether to give the beggar a quid or shoot his face off. How is Radical going to avoid such polarisation in Prototype? "By making every mission have way more choices," says Ansell. "Every minute there's the opportunity to choose left or right, as opposed to that big one moment every so often."
There's also plenty of choice when it comes to how you explore the gameworld and complete your missions. Prototype isn't a stealth game, Ansell says (several times), but you can focus on achieving objectives by disguising yourself as other characters. Take on the form of a military commander, for example, and you can walk amongst other soldiers untroubled, silently taking out each one out when the others aren't looking. Alternatively you can go bonkers, murdering everyone in plain sight and nicking helicopters and blowing everything up and not giving a toss who sees - playing the game as an all-action run-and-gun shooter, essentially. "Kind of like Dead Rising on crack," suggests Ansell.
Whichever style you adopt, you're bound to end up completing side missions as well as the main narrative quests. Bound to because even if you're the type of player who'd rather stick to the story, the side missions will come and find you. "From the moment you start playing the game, you can go anywhere. There are no invisible barriers or cubes of doom to lock you in. But obviously the missions are linear, so we gently push you to doing missions in certain areas. There's a linear progression," Ansell confirms.
"However, we want people to go and explore the full world as much as possible, so we've built a bunch of things we're calling events. These are little gameplay experiences that come to you. For example, you might be randomly walking through Central Park in between missions, and we'll script an event to come to you. You might be asked if you want to help the military round up three hunters, for example, and there will be specific benefits for doing that."
In addition to these events there are more than 200 target characters you can hunt down to find out more about Alex's backstory. This is another element of the game you can ignore, and once again the storyline's conclusion won't be affected by such decisions. "We do direct the story. We're trying to make it almost like a rollercoaster that's directed. We control the ending, but how you get there, how much you go and explore, how rich you make the story is up to you," explains Ansell. "That smorgasbord of choice is pretty important."
Ansell reckons the core story will take you about 10 hours to complete, with another 10 hours of secondary missions available. You'll be doing it all on your own as Radical has abandoned plans for a co-op mode. "We were excited about the idea, and still are, but we decided to put all our effort into single-player," says Ansell. "Games like Mass Effect and BioShock have had great success with solid single-player, and we'd like to emulate that to make an amazing single-player game."
Will Prototype be amazing? It's certainly intriguing. The full range of Alex's powers has yet to be revealed and without going hands-on, it's hard to tell just how much freedom of movement you'll have as a player. Prototype's not going to outsell GTA IV, but then neither would a game about Jade Raymond lezzing up with Jessica Alba and Jet out of Gladiators. What's clear is that as far as openworld games set in fictional versions of New York go, Prototype is shaping up rather well.
Prototype is out on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 this summer.