What's your idea of a fun day out in New York? Strolling down Fifth Avenue? Taking a carriage ride through Central Park? Visiting all the places you've seen in the movies? Or running up the side of a skyscraper, elbow-dropping a giant mutant from 50 storeys up, consuming the DNA of a helicopter pilot and punching a tank?
There's a lot of tank-punching in Prototype. There's also a lot of skyscraper-scaling, elbow-dropping, DNA-consuming, sprinting, leaping, climbing, gliding, grabbing, throwing, smashing, punching, stabbing, strangling, shooting, slicing people in half and using corpses as surfboards. At no point do you get to visit the Seinfeld diner or Ross's apartment.
But you do get to see New York as you've never seen it before, or at least since you last saw I Am Legend. "It's a really interesting and unique story," says Activision brand manager Steve Fuller. No it isn't. It's about a young male protagonist who wakes up in a research institute with no idea how he got there, who he is or why he has loads of nutty powers all of a sudden.
He sets about exploring a post-apocalyptic American city which has become infected by a mysterious virus, overrun with homicidal mutants and ruled by ruthless military operatives. As our hero battles to discover the truth about his origins, he begins to uncover a mysterious consipiracy about the mysterious figure who holds the mysterious key to the mystery of the mysterious virus. This story will need a really big twist to make it interesting and unique. Like, it turns out the virus can be cured by eating Soleros, or the mysterious mastermind is Greg Evigan from My Two Dads.
We'll have to wait for the finished game to see if Radical Entertainment has managed to work in either of those twists. In the meantime, the nice man from Activision who can't have seen many films or played a lot of videogames is here to guide us through a playable demo of Prototype.
The excerpt we're about to play, he explains, is taken from a point about three-quarters of the way through the story. At this point there are a huge number of mutants, or "infected" as they're officially known, causing havoc in the city. There are also plenty of Black Watch operatives knocking about. Luckily our hero, Alex Mercer, has by now developed his mysterious powers to a significant degree.
From the moment the demo begins, the scene is one of absolute chaos. Dozens of civilians stream across Times Square, running, screaming and frequently bleeding. Big fleshy monsters roar and bellow as they attempt to smash up, tear down, rip apart and/or eat everything in the immediate vicinity. Soldiers clad in black uniforms blast away with massive guns, failing to show concern for who gets caught in the crossfire. Tanks rumble, helicopters whirr, smoke billows, fire rages and great scarlet jets of blood spray in every direction.
In the midst of all this disarray and devastation, you can just make out the spot where Carrie and Mr Big had the fight about the hat. But more importantly, there stands Alex Mercer. Controlling him takes a little getting used to - not because it's fiddly, but because Alex is able to move around with more speed, ease and freedom you might be used to from your average most third-person action-adventure hero.
Much has already been made of the fact Prototype takes inspiration from parkour. It's not the first game to do so, but that inspiration is manifested here in quite a different way. There's no worrying about the environmental context or trying to judge precisely how much of a run-up you need or ensuring you get the timing of jumps exactly right. Press the right trigger and Alex runs. The longer you hold it down, the faster he runs. He runs over cars. He runs along walls. He runs over houses, across roofs and right the way up the sides of ginormous skyscrapers. Whatever direction you send him in, whatever obstacles he comes up against, he just keeps on running.
If Mirror's Edge is the Project Gotham Racing of action-adventure games, all precision timing and meticulous button-pressing, Prototype is Burnout. It doesn't matter if you're going so fast you end up swerving a bit or scraping up against something. The best part is racing up the sides of those skyscrapers. There's no fear of suddenly plummeting back down at any given moment because you've run out of steam, or hit a curved surface, or come up against the wrong kind of window. You just keep on running and next thing you know you're on the roof, surveying the city from the best vantage point possible.
So how do you get down again? Naturally, there are a range of options available here too. You can just jump, with no fear of Alex's super-human frame suffering any damage on impact. With a single button-press you can turn that jump into an elbow drop, taking out any civilian, soldier, mutant or tank below. You can spread your arms and glide. Or, if there's a helicopter in the vicinity, you can leap onto it, sling the pilot out of the cockpit and start playing with its heat-seeking missiles.
You can also hijack helicopters if you're on the ground. Alex can jump extremely high, depending on how long you hold down the button to charge it up. It's great fun to work out just how high you can go, bouncing up and down like you're on a concrete trampoline, then grab a helicopter in mid-air. Or if you're feeling lazy, you can turn your arm into a grappling hook, pluck one out of the sky and winch it in towards you.
Alex's arm can also be transformed into a giant blade, a super-resilient shield, a bouquet of razor-sharp spikes and a huge hammer for punching tanks, amongst other things. Then there are his other powers, like thermal vision, the ability to generate his own suit of armour and super-strength that allows him to pick up and throw vehicles. But the most intriguing ability is what Radical's referring to as "consume and become". This is Alex's power to ingest people, as illustrated by a nicely gory animation, and acquire their physical appearance, skills and memories. A bit like Kirby.
So Alex might consume and become a soldier then call in an air strike or sneak into a military base, that sort of thing. But Fuller shows us a less obvious example of how this power can be used. Having consumed a Black Watch operative, he raises an arm, points a finger and accuses another soldier of being Alex Mercer in disguise - "That's him, right there!" The soldier pleads innocence but within seconds all his comrades have turned on him. While they're busy blasting him to bits, the real Alex walks calmly away in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, we can't try this out for ourselves - it features in the code Fuller is showing off to us, but not in the demo we're allowed to play. Nor does the demo include the mechanism for switching between powers. Nor are we allowed to experiment with upgrading his abilities.
It's these elements which will determine just how good a game Prototype is. Yes, running up skyscrapers, punching tanks and so on is brilliant, but the novelty will wear off, and the more fundamental structures of the game will be what matters. If switching between your hammer and your grappling hook isn't seamless and intuitive, frustration will set in. If poor AI means enemies are thick anyway, there won't be any satisfaction in tricking them.
Plus, without having been allowed to play with the upgrade system, it's impossible to judge how much control over you have over the development of Alex's powers. Will you be forced to choose between speed and strength, for example? Will you have to spend hours fiddling about with upgrade menus and Evolution points? Just how many side-quests will you have to complete before Alex is as powerful as he is in the demo?
At least what we've seen so far of Prototype is promising enough to make these questions worth asking. And the answers are likely to be more interesting than who unleashed the mysterious virus, who Alex Mercer really is, why he only owns jumpers with hoods attached etc. Let's just hope they're the right ones.
Prototype is due for release on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC this June.