Playing through the opening minutes of Prototype is a bit of a blur, and not just because it's one of roughly 600,000 titles Activision is presenting in a rammed pre-E3 press event in the middle of London. Prototype would probably be a bit of a blur if you were dipping into it after a fifteen-hour snooze in a four-poster bed, with your own personal demo pod set up in the ballroom of Sandringham Palace, the Dalai Lama on hand to show you the controls, and members of Hansard fluttering nearby to note down even the most fleeting of your impressions. Prototype seems like a blur because that's how the game plays: from the very start, it's hectic, bloody, rollicking, and a little unhinged. Take away the present-day setting, and it's the kind of thing a syphilitic pirate might hallucinate, laid up in bed with a high fever.
An open-world superhero game set in New York City, Prototype's mission statement appears to involve getting the player punching things and jumping around rooftops as quickly as possible. This is an enjoyable proposition, given the frustrating absence - as far as we can tell - of a Crackdown 2, and it's one that doesn't appear to be overly burdening developers Radical Entertainment with the labours of storytelling. The plot can be explained in a few breathless gasps of cliché: amnesia...strange new powers...deadly virus...look out, Tank! What's vividly clear, however, in amongst the crushing spleens, pulped brains, and shattered military hardware, is that when swine flu finally does knock it up a notch and the streets of Europe are filled with sneezing zombies, Prototype's lead hoodie, Alex Mercer, is certainly somebody you wouldn't mind having in your camp.
Not only could Alex speedily outrun any airborne pathogens with a gentle squeeze of the right trigger, the man's a kind of offal-coated human penknife, capable of sprouting all manner of deadly appendages whenever the need arises (and often when it doesn't and you're just bored at some traffic lights). Giant blade for an arm? No problem. Massive fist for taking out lorries? Can do, comrade! Ground-pounding skills to make weird spikes shoot out of the tarmac and gore any nearby enemies? Who isn't doing that in '09?
That's fully-powered, of course, as the game begins in Metroid mode, booting you right into a rubble-strewn post-apocalyptic Times Square on a weirdly balmy summer afternoon, with every conceivable skill a morally-ambiguous walking god might desire lying the mere push of the bumper away. Powers dictate pace, just as clearly as kills used to mean skills, as you set about doling out violence in Jackson Pollock tangles of blood and brain: most enemies are mere flies, so Radical sends swarms after you, and soon the shattered streets of New York are filled with huddled groups of soldiers, and rampaging mobs of raw-skinned mutants.
During the subsequent few minutes of entirely deranged slaughter, you're smacking tanks around, punching army types' heads off, and running up the sides of buildings with a distinctly bittersweet sensation. Why? Because this is all too much fun: it's too fast, too chaotic, and you know that the Windy Apple can't take much more of it. Surely, in a quarter of an hour or so, after you've learnt how to target enemies (it's with the left trigger, just like Zelda and Crackdown) and follow simple way-markers to your next splodge of gooey carnage, the developer's going to take it all away, and dump you back to the true beginning of the game, leaving you with all the skills and attack force of a neurotic eight-year-old with a high temperature and glue ear.
That's half true. Inevitably, the moment arises when there are simply no more tanks to be thrown around, no more mutants to be pummelled into the sidewalk, and no more frightened onlookers to accidentally slice to pieces, and so you're shuttled back in time to an evening a few days prior to the end of civilisation. The rubble and chaos has gone, yellow cabs zip past headed up town rather than rusting in sad piles halfway out of the window of a health food store, and the streets are filled with couples dashing back and forth, unaware that a distinctly unstable Alex Mercer has just woken up in a nearby morgue, and is about to turn their city into the urban equivalent of hamster bedding.
But the good news is that, although your arm blades and rock fists are MIA for the time being, when it comes to movement, even at your very weakest you can still expect to leap over buses and race down Fifth Avenue faster than a speeding pigeon. It feels utterly fantastic, with the game obligingly hopping you over oncoming traffic when you sprint across the road, and sending you running right up the wall and to the top of any building you point yourself at, as crunchy clouds of brick dust waft about in your wake. Once on a rooftop, and with some handy attack helicopters to practice on (even at this early stage, mysterious Blackwatch paramilitary folk are eager to have a word), you'll find you can also rip giant air conditioning units out of the ground and fling them halfway across town, taking out any flying enemies in a sad spiral of flames.
Prototype begins, in other words, roughly where Crackdown ends, and as the demo concludes, it's a proposition that's both exciting and worrying. Radical Entertainment's previous title, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, gave you so many toys in the first few minutes that the game struggled to really go anywhere after that, and, with even a hobbled Mercer being able to get around Manhattan in a matter of minutes, and give baddies a comprehensive shoeing before he's even caught his first EXP boost, it could potentially be rather tricky to deliver long-term on such a high level of excitement. With a handy targeting arrow and such effortlessly exhilarating traversal, every route between missions could easily become a straight line from one fight to the next: has the developer got anything planned to tempt you off-road?
Radical is confident it has tricks up its sleeve, of course, not least with the gradual return of all those gory powers. Then there's the - as yet, largely unexplored - mechanics of consuming certain NPCs to learn their skills and assume their shape (John Carpenter's Kirby!), which hints at both gentle puzzles and the odd stealth pace-changer to follow.
Whatever happens, however, Prototype looks to be at the very least a fundamentally brilliant laboratory for some much-needed research into mindless time-wasting. Just like Pacific City, this is shaping up to be an arcadey platform world you'll be happy to burn untold hours in, even if all you're really doing is leaping from one skyscraper to the next, and dropkicking buskers up and down the length of Lexington Avenue. A half-hour with the controller is enough to suggest that Prototype has the excessive nature needed to make a great open-world experience. Pretty soon we'll know whether it has the necessary restraint to carve the ensuing madness into something approaching a recognisable structure, for those who like their chaos mixed with coherency.