The lads at Radical are pretty excited about Prototype 2, and the reason for that is simple: they didn't really expect to be making a sequel. Of course, Prototype shipped two million units, which isn't half bad for a new IP centred around the most boring protagonist ever, with gameplay that can only really be described as a cross between a mass murder simulator and an amalgamation of some seriously cool superpowers. It was fundamentally flawed in a number of ways, but that didn't stop it occupying a place in our hearts, useful as it was for letting off steam after a particularly hard day. And we weren't the only ones. 'We got a Penny Arcade strip,' said head honcho Ken Rosman. 'That was a validation in itself.'
So a sequel was always going to be something of an inevitability after that all happened, but where to begin? Well, the team began by being brutally honest with themselves. They pored over reviews and fan feedback from the first game and looked at both positives and negatives, attempting to ascertain what it was at the very core that made Prototype such a successful new IP.
'It was all about power fantasy and catharsis,' said design director Matt Armstrong, 'or at least that was the idea.' For the most part, he said, the team was very proud of what they'd achieved, but there was certainly room for improvement...and that started with Alex Mercer. By bringing in James Hller - a man forced to become that which he hates to save the city he loves; a man who has lost everything at the hands of this virus; and a man who holds Alex Mercer personally responsible - Radical have allowed for a few changes.
'Alex Mercer was always kind of at odds with his own powers,' said Armstrong. 'Heller embraces the power a little more in his quest for justice and vengeance.' He's quick to note too, that Mercer wasn't always his own man, that Heller is a far more solitary figure. 'Mercer was always taking orders from his ex or his sister. That's not empowering, particularly. I can get that at home!'
We rather wish people would stop setting games in New York. We get it. It's a pretty cool city...the first fifty times you dick around in it. But things do start wearing thin after a little while. It makes sense for Prototype 2 to be set in the Big Apple, but even so. This NYC, however, has become NYZ - New York Zero. The city is now split into three distinct sections: the soiled urban jungle of Manhattan, filled with derelict skyscrapers; the refugee zone, swamped with fleeing denizens; and the Black Watch militarised zone, ruled with impunity, where the bullets start flying if any civilian thinks about stepping out of line.
The demo we were treated to started off with a riot in the quarantined zone, an infected corpse mysteriously found inside had agitated a large crowd who were getting restless...until the Black Watch soldiers on guard decided that crowds weren't cool and massacred the lot of them just to stop the noise. 'This creature was born here!' said a scientist cryptically and Heller was tasked with consuming the scientist to digest what he knows.
A diversion was required, which gave us the perfect opportunity to view the new Biobomb in action. Hopping down to ground level, Heller snuck past one guard and shoved his fist into the other's neck before walking away. A few moments later and the poor guard exploded, sending spikes and tendrils everywhere and killing everyone in the near vicinity.
As Heller continued on with his mission, we got to see a bit of the new hunting mechanic. Heller can now stalk his prey with a sonar like system, sending an echo or pulse out to find his target. It's a little like eagle vision in Assassin's Creed. On top of that, he now has the ability to hack government information and comms vehicles, and doing so will reveal story clues, more potential targets, hidden missions and so on.
Of course, mixing it up on the ground and in the air was the main draw of Prototype, and that's fed into the sequel. You can now rip the weapons off of vehicles and turn cannons on the tanks from which they came or miniguns back onto their parent choppers. Enemies will telegraph their attacks a little more to allow for combat that remains challenging but won't cheaply punish you, and Heller's new tactical dodge allows for evasive manoeuvres and acrobatically violent counter attacks. As we saw during part of the game where Heller went to check out a Lair, the game will always make a big deal of making the player aware of the most dangerous foe onscreen - in this case marauding spiked brawlers and, later on, fat Juggernauts, pregnant with disease. No, literally! The demo ended with a glimpse of 'Tiny', an enormous 50-foot tall behemoth with a huge rock-like shield arm, a terrifying dash attack and a laughably small head. We were told that mutations and upgrades will be spread across a vast web of interconnecting options, that my James Heller might well play very differently to your James Heller, with play styles and various strengths and weaknesses all down to player choice.
There's no doubt that Prototype 2 looks a lot like its progenitor, and the graphics haven't been improved that much - which is a shame as the original was hardly easy on the eye. It looks somewhat less chaotic than the first game, which is definitely a good thing, with multiple unbreakable combos from ones enemies reportedly a thing of the past. Note I said chaotic, there are still some fast-paced battles against multiple foes, they're just a bit easier to manage this time around thanks to improved mechanics. As for Heller, well we'll have to reserve judgement as we've not seen too much of how his losses and his military background will bleed into the story. We know Mercer will play a pivotal role - his 'iconic' look adopted by Heller because the dev team were keen not to distance themselves from the original too much - but there are no details as yet.
We're not quite sold on Prototype 2 just yet. To be honest, I'm not convinced it has enough extra features to warrant a purchase if you own the original at the moment, if all you're looking for is a bit of stress relief. But we'll be keeping our ears to the door just in case. More as we know it.