Prototype 2 preview: can it beat inFamous 2?

Prototype 2 preview hands on gameplay

The original Prototype was a victim of its own hype – and the electric hands of a man named Cole MacGrath. Prototype scored a commendable 8/10 in these pages back in June 2009′s review but it ended up lost in the mix after Cole’s similarly killy free-roaming adventure, inFamous (which scored 9 in our review), arrived in the shops a month before it. In retrospect, the two titles were night and day, but events conspired so that their development cycles, marketing and coverage all melded together into one amorphous mass. On PS3 at least, Radical’s protégé suffered as a result, criticised for what it wasn’t almost as much as what it was. (You can also read our interview with Radical studio head Ken Rosen and Activision’s MacLean Marshall about their work on Prototype 2.)

Thankfully for the Vancouver-based developer, inFamous 2 has been and gone – clearing the runway for Prototype 2’s less bumpy descent to store shelves this time around. And an extended hands-on with the game followed by a sit-down with studio head Ken Rosman suggests that second time out, Prototype is on the verge of something very big indeed. Plus this time, there’s no obvious rival to throw lightning bolts in its way.

The sensational news is this: hoody-wearing anti-hero Alex Mercer is out (or, rather, recast in the mould of villain) and James Heller is in: a former US Marine with vengeance on his mutated mind. I was able to play two chunks of the new game: a sandbox mission sample and the aptly named Rampage, a mini-mode in which players attempt to rack up high scores by chaining carnage-packed combos.

Both play out in the Yellow Zone, a leafy, autumnal district that Rosman describes as a “caricature of Brooklyn and Staten Island”. It’s also the borough that sinister corporation Gentek has made its home, an overcrowded human petri dish of terrified civvies. A fearful undercurrent pervades, conveyed through some neat ambient dialogue, zealots preaching the evils of Blackwatch, scrawled graffiti on the walls – we even glimpsed one alarmed inhabitant diving into a dumpster.

Granted, we’re back in New York City, yet it’s a conurbation that feels significantly removed from Prototype 1’s bland depiction – remember that murky palette dominated by greys, browns and (ugh) rivers of red? Part of that transformation is narrative-driven – the city’s sectioning-off into three quarantine zones not only allows for distinct environments (Green is neon-lit, Yellow verdant, Red vertiginous), but also now helps to segment a story that previously felt way too disparate.

It’s a matter of resource management – the original Prototype’s tech overstretched both Radical’s talents and PS3’s hardware. There’s a firmer rein on ambition now and, while that might sound like a regression, it’s manifested in a considerably better-looking, more structured experience.

It’s a brave move to stick with New York, and an even braver one to switch Mercer to lead villain, but Rosman remains stoic. “To walk away from Alex with an incomplete storyline would have alienated our core audience, who were fanatical about Mercer,” he says. “Finishing up our business in NY will resolve Mercer’s narrative, finish the fiction.” Proof positive that the inevitable Prototype 3 will head out of state? Maybe.

Gameplay is as expected: riotous, bloody fun. Heller’s mission is to protect ally Father Garrett – or more specifically a church that’s taking some serious punishment from Blackwatch forces. Cue wave after wave of soldiers, tanks and choppers. Heller appears preposterously overpowered in this demo, and, despite the imposing enemy numbers thrown at him, carnage ensues. As startled civilians flee in droves, I get busy appropriating rocket-launchers by literally ripping them from tanks before turning them on Blackwatch choppers.