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Radical Redesign: Tim Bennison on Prototype

Time to take closer look at Prototype. After the jump we talk to one of Radical's key producers about what makes this game one of the more interesting action titles in 2008.

It might not have found its way to the PC, but Hulk: Ultimate Destruction remains one of our favourite games of recent years. It was a rough, tough attempt to bring the Angry Green Giant into a freeform game world in satisfyingly destructive way. Smashing stuff up in an urban environment, while /still/ getting dragged along by the overall story, was superbly engrossing. It delivered the comicbook concepts of leaping across the cityscape and brutalising your enemies (and nearby scenery) with enormously over-the-top superpowers in a way that few games have managed. (Although City Of Heroes had better super-leaping, arguably.) Ripping up lamposts to use as a bat or scrambling up the sides of buildings might not be a completely original idea, but it was joyously realised Ultimate Destruction. It's also the main reasons why we're so interested in Radical's next game: Prototype. Once again you're facing unlimited urban carnage, this time with all the physics and texturised prettiness than modern machines can handle. Executive producer on the project, Tim Bennison, was kind enough to take some time out and talk to us about the game at length.

The game is a third-person action title that taps into some of the zeitgeisty ideas like open cities and free-running, but it has a few idiosyncrasies attached too: your character is a killer shape-shifter called Alex Mercer. He's on the loose in contemporary New York City and he's taking people's identities from the DNA up. Prototype allows you to consume and then “be” almost anyone you encounter. It's a game of disguises, mutant violence, and sci-fi bio-weapons conspiracy.

“Prototype is, first and foremost, an open-world action game,” says Bennison. “Basically, we’re trying to show gamers something new in the open-world game space. Some games use the word ‘revolutionary game experience’ to describe what amounts to better looking water effects or improved motion of grass. That’s not what we think gamers want when it comes to new experiences.”

Radical are keen to stress that what their vision of this kind of games means is in finding new ways to tell stories to gamers. Part of this is in blending the story into the game itself, rather than having a linear path through cinematic explanations of the events you're embroiled in, as Bennison explains: “The story is delivered through a series of memory flashbacks that Alex experiences when consuming particular people in the city itself. The memories are effectively the building blocks to a ‘web of intrigue’ inside Alex’s mind, something only he can understand. It’s this mechanic that ultimately lets the player ‘solve’ the conspiracy unfolding around him. Rather than the traditional approach of having forty minutes of cut-scenes to explain everything, we wanted the story-telling process to be more organic and the pace to be dictated by the player.”

Of course this is all hinged on Mercer's predatory shapeshifting. We asked Bennison to explain a little about how this process would work in the game: “Alex Mercer operates under a system we call ‘Deceive or Destroy’. At any point, in any mission, we want the player to feel completely free when engaging enemies and situations. Through one of Alex’s shape-shifting abilities, which is to consume and become anyone in New York City, he gains their knowledge, appearance, memories and abilities almost instantly. Through this you get to mix-n-match how you play a mission and decide whether you want to unleash hell, via explosive violence, or use deception and shape-shifting to sneak your way into a scenario.”

Mixing up these elements has always been a tricky one for game designers, and it's going to be interesting to see how Radical manage it with Prototype. We know they can do bus-throwing, car-juggling hyper-violence, because they did it in Ultimate Destruction. But can they really come up to scratch with the whole sneak 'n' stealth angle?

Well, just maybe. And Radical aren't exactly keeping the sights low on making this work, with an online co-op feature throughout. “With co-op mode for two players online, the opportunity to totally improvise goes through the roof.” Players will be able to elect to use offensive or defensive play, depending on their taste. “Plus,” says Bennison. “We’ve really beefed up the concept of traditional power progression. The goal is to make players feel extremely powerful from the start of the game, while correctly balancing the enemy threat so that you’re always on edge. The devastation that any one of these powers can cause is pretty spectacular, this is not a Tekken-like one-on-one fight, this is one man taking out twenty elite soldiers with a single devastating move.”

Co-op seems like another obvious angle for a game like this to take. Where once developers moaned about how hard it was to create co-op games, now it's often the first thing they'll mention. What will Prototypes co-op do for gamers? “The short answer is, ‘Something they’ve never seen before,’” claims Bennison. “Online co-op is a key feature in Prototype. You’ll be able to have two completely free-moving Prototype characters in this open-world environment simultaneously. One of our favorite events that happened recently in co-op testing was pretty cool: We had one Prototype piloting an Apache chopper over Time Square, while our second Prototype back-flipped off an 80-story building and landed right onto the Apache’s wing. Once there, he began ripping Hellfire missiles off the firing rack and hurling them at elite units in tanks below. It was insane! When we say we want to bring new experiences to bear, that’s exactly what our designers have in mind. The entire game story can be played in co-op mode with a friend online, and the opportunity for player-driven improvisation on how you approach the missions together is mind-blowing.”

All of which certainly sounds spectacular. Yet initial discussions of Prototype have linked it with Assassin's Creed, which many gamers were rather underwhelmed by. Did Bennison think that this was fair to his game? “I think, from the perspective that both games are open-world experiences, it’s natural that they will be compared,” Bennison admits. “At Radical, we’ve been doing open-world games for a very long time and we see open-world as a medium for a huge variety of game experiences and story structures and we intend to show off a completely new open-world game style with Prototype.” A polite way of saying that any similarities with Assassin's Creed are going to be superficial. It is, after all, a game that's far more about comic-book style superpower than historical acrobatics.

As Bennison observes, Radical is a team steeped in ideas, especially from comics, graphics novels and film. “Our last game (Hulk: Ultimate Destruction) was the highest rated Super-Hero game ever, and so we think of ourselves as specialists in epic combat and movement in an open-world setting. Now we’re inventing our own IP and so we don’t have the limitations of a licensed property. Now we’ve got the chance to take off the handcuffs and really go nuts with all of our biggest ideas. We’ve got some big plans. So stay tuned.”

We surely will, Mr Bennison. And I should be able to report back to you lot on my first look at Prototype in action in a couple of weeks time.

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