We’re bored of parkour. Yes, it's very impressive, all that dedication and skill and hours spent doing forward rolls in car parks. But now it's everywhere, from James Bond films to poor quality videogames, and what was once edgy and exciting is now dull. It's like when Madonna started doing krump in her videos, or Mr T started selling Snickers, or Riverdance appeared on Eurovision.
So when Radical Entertainment begins a demo of its new game by explaining it's all done in a "hyper-parkour style", it's hard to get excited. Until, that is, we're shown the main character running up 100-storey Manhattan buildings and bounding across rooftops as if they're trampolines. Taking a slow motion dive back to earth, he circuits Times Square by leaping from car roof to car roof, the action unfolding at an incredible pace. It's a lot more exciting than watching someone do a handstand on a bannister.
This is Prototype, the upcoming third-person action adventure from the studio behind The Simpsons: Hit and Run and Scarface. An original brand set in New York, Prototype stars Alex Mercer, a man left with the aforementioned wall-running and rooftop-jumping skills, among others, from a viral infection not even Lemsip Max could remedy.
Of course, it's not the first time a videogame character has been able to do this sort of thing. In Crackdown you could leap buildings in a single bound, for example. Prototype also shares Crackdown and GTA’s free-roaming structure, including the ability to commandeer vehicles. Obviously mindful of similarities to its accomplished peers, Radical’s seeking to differentiate its baby by also allowing the player to commandeer characters. By eating them.
The technical term is "consuming DNA", apparently. This means you absorb all the memories of your unfortunate lunch, helping you solve the mysterious riddle of the mysterious origins of your mysterious virus. More interestingly, you can also morph your physical appearance to look like the person you've just consumed. Best of all, you acquire all their knowledge and skills.
To demonstrate this, we're shown how you can use one of your super-jumps to leap into a helicopter. You climb into the cockpit, kick one pilot out and eat the other, acquiring the ability to fly. You can then zoom freely round the city taking potshots at enemies below.
Or you might consume the DNA of a commanding officer. Adopt their appearance and, providing you don't do anything that might make people suspicious such as running up a skyscraper, the officer's colleagues won't spot the difference. You can then do anything the officer could - like ordering an air strike on a military base - with no questions asked.
Alex’s shape-shifting abilities extend beyond adopting the appearance of others, as the virus also gives victims the power to mutate their own bodies. You can morph your forearms into giant claws or hammers, for example. There are also defensive morphs, such as full body armour in the form of armadillo-like plates.
Each morph has a subset of special moves attached. We're shown how slamming a giant claw onto the ground will send huge spikes shooting upwards, impaling enemies and sending vehicles flying into the air. There's a slot system which lets you combine powers so you can use offensive and defensive morphs simultaneously.
Brawl or nothing
Naturally, these super-human abilities give you an advantage over the army, although helicopters and tanks are definitely a force to be reckoned with. Humans are the least of your worries, unfortunately. Brawlers are creatures who have also been infected by the virus so, like Alex, they can run at high speeds, perform huge jumps and destroy with ease. They can't control the virus, they're extremely aggressive and they’re everywhere.
What with the brawlers, the army and you, there's a three-way war going on in New York. Brawlers release tension by smashing everything to pieces. The army’s fighting to get them under control, and is becoming increasingly alarmed at Alex’s penchant for eating people. Top all that with your mission to find out where the virus originated, and you’re all set up for what could be a very promising stab at citywide eating/murdering/adventuring.
The environment knits it all together. Alex affects Prototype’s persistent world with his actions, but can also turn its organic nature to his advantage. For example, if you're under attack by brawlers you can lead them to the army and the two sides might attack each other. The distraction could leave you free to escape.
The "living, breathing" world concept is also key to Prototype's online co-op mode. As in Crackdown, you and your partner don't have to be within sight of each other during play, or even in the same part of the city. One of you might be flying helicopters in the north while the other takes out tanks in the south. Acting together does bring distinct advantages, however, as you can combine powers to perform special moves.
We're not shown the co-op mode during the demo, but it's possible to get a sense of the environment’s nature when we see Alex positioned atop a Times Square skyscraper. From here he has an amazing view of both the city and the carnage in the streets. Dozens of battles are being fought, smoke and explosions are everywhere, people are running round screaming while brawlers hurl cars into the air and army helicopters fire rockets. It's highly impressive.
Even more so when you consider that Prototype isn't out until next summer, and, according to Radical, it's only 20 per cent complete. It's rare to see a game looking this good at such an early stage. We’d like to know more, such as how the mission structure works, how many more powers Alex has and how the game will balance them against your enemies, but we’re out of time. We do know parkour would be a lot more interesting if it involved eating people. If only all prototypes were this promising.