One of the most impressive sessions I was able to attend at GDC was the discussion of Open Worlds in the context of the development of Prototype, as hosted by Tim Bennison and Eric Holmes of Radical Entertainment. Much of the presentation was focused around the nature of developing open world environments and the way in which systems interconnect to provide options for players within those kinds of game worlds. Interesting stuff, if spider-diagrams of game systems and possible player actions are the kind of thing that draw you in.
The showpiece of the session, however, and the reason many of us were there, was to watch Holmes play through a large slice of the game. And, well, I think my interest in this game has now been validated.
Holmes travelled across New York, both roaming free, bouncing across the roofs of moving trucks and cars, and triggering a number of scripted events. By the end of the sequence he was plunged into a three-way battle between hideously mutated gorilla-lion things called “brawlers”, special forces soldiers and helicopters and, well, the protagonist himself. Alex Mercer is superpowered, in the most brutal and explosive sense. Hurling trucks, consuming people's corpses, tearing the lids of tanks and liquidising the occupants... that sort of thing.
The sequence we saw contained some shocking violence. I had expected Prototype to be gory, but Alex Mercer's second victim, a hapless screaming woman, was worn into bloody pieces by his tendrilous, corpse-eating, altered anatomy, and some of the GDC crowd gasped (and I think someone whooped). A third victim was beaten to death on the pavement... this was seriously bloody stuff. I'm not going to make any judgment on that, except to say that it seems like Radical want this game to be taken seriously, perhaps in the way that the horror movie aficionado wants his collection to be taken seriously... Holmes and Bennison's presentation touched on the idea that “players want to do bad things” in open worlds, which I'm not entirely convinced by, but that aside, it was a pretty savage statement of purpose for the budding action game.
Let's not dwell on the violence – Holmes didn't. He was soon leaping across rooftops, scrambling at ninety degrees up the side of skyscrapers, slamming into the asphalt after a hundred foot drop. It was fast, probably faster and certainly more intense than Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. The two games clearly have strong connections, but Prototype is carved from dark material, and rendered in ugly detail. Mercer's progress across the city was filled with brutal set-pieces, such as his leaping onto the side of an attack helicopter, climbing inside, hurling out the gunner and then crushing the pilot against the inside of the window.
Yet still it was movement that really capture what Prototype was all about. During one ludicrously chaotic battle Holmes was able to dance Mercer across the tops of a number of crashed cars and then run along the side of a tumbling truck as it was blasted from the battle – a free-running moment of impressive fluidity that acted as a momentary bridge to the side of the building from where he would vault back into the destruction.
I've no doubt that Prototype will be in some way flawed, because I can't see how such an ambitious project can arrive on our gaming systems unscathed. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe it'll really deliver an entire game of the kind of absurd carnage we saw at that presentation. If so, it'll be the kind of game we'll put on to show off to our friends. You remember when GTA3 first turned up and we put it on just to let people steal cars and go on meaningless rampages? Yeah, it's /that/ kind of game. Perhaps all the fragmented, memory-collecting non-linear story stuff will work too, maybe not. Maybe it won't even matter. Whatever, this one's on The List.