Prototype 2: Gameplay, Heller & Powers Hands-On
Protoype 2 is insane. We’ve just lashed into the air with our hideously powerful Whipfist, tethering ourselves to the attack helicopter hovering above.
Grabbing onto it, we wrench off one of its weapons, a missile pod, firing it into the chopper as we drop, leaving an impact crater in the ruined Manhattan asphalt below.
The helicopter explodes above us, burning parts smashing into an advancing squad of Blackwatch troops. We lay into their panicked remains with our monstrous claws, ignoring bullets and ripping them to bloody ribbons before turning our attention to the approaching tank.
It fires, but we easily evade, pummelling it to scrap with our huge, mutated Hammerfists. As yet another group of troops attacks we consume one, using his essence to activate our Biobomb power.
We use it on a Blackwatch commander in the centre and he explodes in a seething mass of tentacles that sucks everything into it, including another nearby tank.
As it, in turn, goes up in a gout of flame and twisted metal, we leap away to the next battle, triumphant, near invincible and, most of all, powerful.
It’s taken three years, but playing Prototype 2 we’re finally starting to feel what Radical Entertainment’s Prototype promised in 2009 but never quite delivered – limitless power that we can actually control.
THIS. IS. AWESOME!
It’s a welcome evolution as Prototype, in which you played as Alex Mercer, scientist turned biological terrorist and superpowered monster by the horrific Blacklight virus, had its moments but was let down by clunky controls, a confusing narrative and a huge but lifeless open-world New York.
But no one was more aware of Prototype’s problems than Radical Entertainment. “I honestly feel there was very little in the last game we were completely happy with,” admits Matt Armstrong, design director on Prototype 2.
“As a creator, most of the time you tend to never feel you’ve quite reached that desired level of perfection. But I think there were certain parts of Prototype that were much weaker than we expected or wanted.”
That sentiment’s echoed by Radical studio head Ken Rosman: “I can tell you it was a very ambitious game but eventually in development you do run out of time. It’s an inevitability of game development.”
“We had a lot of lofty goals and on paper they all seemed achievable. Whenever you work on a game you want to conquer the world, and we did an admirable job but eventually ran out of time.”
Like most developers in these troubled times, Radical Entertainment is concentrating on one game, dropping projects like Scarface 2 and momentarily shelving the Crash Bandicoot franchise, a focus that’s benefited Prototype 2.
“I look at it this time around and think we’ve worked extremely hard to resolve a bunch of different issues,” says Armstrong. “There’s virtually nothing in Prototype 2 that has gone untouched this time because we’ve felt the need to improve in all areas.”
Radical is starting that overhaul with Prototype 2’s narrative, and using it to give it the structure and atmosphere that Prototype was missing.
A dark tale of power’s price
In Prototype 2, Alex Mercer has seemingly embraced his role as an all-powerful vector for the Blacklight virus, claiming the infected Manhattan as his own and declaring war on the Blackwatch military force.
He’s now antagonist to the game’s new hero, Sergeant James Heller, a returning Iraq War veteran who blames the infected scientist for the death of his wife and child – killed under mysterious circumstances during the Blacklight outbreak.
Driven by rage, grief and loss, Heller has constantly volunteered for dangerous missions in hellish Manhattan, hoping for death and the chance to take out Mercer.
It’s a bold step changing the lead in an established franchise, but according to Armstrong it works because neither Heller, Mercer nor any future human protagonist is really the star of the Prototype franchise – it’s the insidious Blacklight virus itself.
“It’s all about how the Blacklight virus affects not just the protagonist, but the rest of the world,” Armstrong explains. “People get mutated into monsters or die horrifically, or they generate superpowers and you get to see its impact in the world.”
“You see it in the monsters you’ll be fighting; you see it in how Blackwatch and Gentek have corrupted themselves and the human tragedy that has affected everyone, including our hero.”
That came across in the game’s opening, showing Heller’s transformation from grief-stricken human to raging super mutant at Mercer’s hands. It opened with a grim-faced Heller in the back of an APC, patrolling the Red Zone with a squad of nervous soldiers as they come under sudden attack.
Thrown out of the demolished vehicle as the only survivor, Heller spots the reason for the destruction: Alex Mercer. The enraged veteran gives chase, armed with just a knife, fleeing huge monsters and dodging hazards like a helicopter Mercer smashes out of the sky in a section played through various QTEs as you pursue the tantalising figure ahead.
Heller is kicking ass and taking names.
This unusual start both effectively introduces Prototype 2’s protagonist and the game’s core theme of ‘murder your maker’ – foreshadowing the life-and-death struggle between the two men sure to come.
Its climax comes as Heller reaches Mercer and savagely cuts his throat, but Mercer shows how far past humanity he’s evolved, shrugging off the attack and brutally infecting Heller with the Blacklight virus.
As the stricken ex-soldier writhes on the ground, Mercer claims that Heller shouldn’t blame him for his family’s deaths – after all, it was Blackwatch and Gentek that released the virus.
Watching Heller scream as the virus transforms him, Mercer says he can now uncover the truth about Blackwatch – if he has the courage to look. As Mercer vanishes, Blackwatch troops arrive and drag Heller away – but not to aid him.
Gentek, it turns out, has been experimenting on the infected, and Heller is the perfect candidate for its next batch of experiments… Right from the get go, then, Prototype 2 promises to really establish its characters’ motivations and engage the player emotionally – a key aim this time, claims Armstrong.
“I’d say a really pivotal area we’ve tried to address has been characterisation,” he explains, “and not just with the main character, but with all of the entities and people he engages with in the world.”
Radical admits that Prototype’s tale of an amnesiac Mercer uncovering a murky conspiracy lacked coherence and was difficult to empathise with, a fate from which the stoic good guy Heller’s emotional quest for the truth won’t suffer.
“We’ve brought in a new writing team to this project,” Armstrong explains. “They’ve brought in new ideas and new ways of thinking.” There’s been, he says, a huge effort to give Prototype 2 a more cohesive, coherent and engaging narrative.
A living, breathing New York City
Radical’s drive for greater narrative coherence has influenced the make-up, gameplay structure and general ambiance in Prototype 2. The New York City of the first game was a huge urban sprawl, but nothing in it really impacted upon the story as it should have.
“We’re not the first people to set a game in New York, and if we were going to go back we needed to really deliver in a way that was unique to Prototype 2,” says Armstrong. This time New York City’s divided into three zones: Green, Yellow and Red.
The Green Zone on the outer edge of the city is unaffected by the virus but is a fascistic suburban nightmare, locked down by jackbooted Blackwatch troops on every corner.
The Yellow Zone is a crowded quarantine zone, with people who might be infected crammed into a dilapidated cityscape, guarded by troops and scientists.
“We used the movie Children Of Men, which was full of shanty towns with all the foreign immigrants holed up in them as a touchstone,” explains producer Jonathan Lim, “to give it that desperate, refugee feeling of being on the edge.”
Most of our demo took place in the Yellow Zone – we stumbled, half-dead, into it after escaping a holding facility where Gentek scientists pitted us against other infected specimens before trying to burn us to death – and it showcases how Radical is bringing its dystopian New York to life.
This isn’t just a sandbox shell in which Heller must learn to master the amazing powers of the Blacklight virus, but a struggling ruin of a city. “In my view the world in Prototype wasn’t very alive,” admits Radical VP and former technical director Dave Fracchia.
Trouble with choppers? No problem.
“I don’t want to say everything looked bland, but it was very similar all the way through. There was really no character to its New York, so this time we really worked on revamping the game’s ambiance system to give it variety.”
That really comes across on Yellow Zone streets as people constantly chatter, sit dejectedly, comfort each other in hushed tones, cry piteously while locked like animals in ‘quarantine’ cages, or fearfully shy away from you if you use your ‘Disguise’ ability to morph into a Blackwatch soldier.
They’ll run screaming or dive into dumpsters if you use your powers violently in a firefight or an infected suddenly appears, and the zone feels like a desperate, dirty refugee camp. The final zone, the Red Zone, is the former Manhattan Island, now a hellscape of ruined buildings covered in infection forms and monster-filled streets – a place of pure death.
“By separating New York into the three zones, we can give them each their own unique feel and different architecture,” says Lim, explaining that each zone is ‘graded’ for difficulty.
“Like GTA or even Red Dead, you’ll start locked in one zone and get a feel for it. You’re free to wander between zones later in the game, but we introduce each first and that creates a great contrast for when you move into a different zone.”
Towards the end of the game, Heller will have some crazy methods of locomotion – including the ability to propel himself through the air at speed, and jump amazing heights – but his initial powers are more limited. The Green and Yellow areas, with their lower buildings will help players master their abilities before they’re let loose on the Red Zone’s skyscrapers.
The path to power
That desire not overwhelm players has led to a similarly considered, more narrative-led approach to how you gain other powers in Prototype 2; many complained that Prototype unlocked swaths at a time but often didn’t explain any of them.
“This time around, we give the core powers to the player on a narrative schedule,” promises Lim. “You get a new power, you get the chance to play with it and really understand it before we give you another.”
You’ll end up with a plethora of world-smashing powers, many of which we played with during a brief showing of the Red Zone – but you’ll both earn and learn them first in Prototype 2.
We started with the basics in the Yellow Zone, like the ability to consume people and take their form to regain health, run up walls and glide through the air from building to building. This was enough for us to tackle the first batch of missions, with the guidance of a local priest called Father Gurrta, who shelters Heller.
Anti-Blackwatch insurgents like him aren’t the only source of missions and intel; Heller can also tap into the Blackwatch data network via a series of satellite trucks dotted around the city.
Infiltrating the area around one isn’t easy, and it saw us either absorbing troops for disguise or using our brute strength to clear them before legging it up skyscrapers to escape dangerous reinforcements – even at this early stage, you’ve plenty of choices for mayhem. Having discovered on the Blackwatch network that we needed to absorb the memories of two commanders with vital info, we were introduced to Heller’s new hunting sense, a kind of organic sonar.
It sends a pulse out from Heller, giving the world a dark red cast so you can see where the bright return ‘ping’ is coming from. It allowed us to clamber skyscrapers and visually pinpoint where our targets were to track them down.
This new ‘Virus Sense’ also drives Prototype 2’s new ‘awareness’ stealth system. Heller can stealthily consume enemies, but must do it unseen. Your hunting pulse shows you who’s being watched in red, and who isn’t – and is therefore eligible for stealthy absorption – in white.
Whip it. Whip it good.
It made for interesting stealth puzzle play as we infiltrated a Blackwatch base and carefully absorbed all the soldiers and scientists around a head scientist to get a computer access card from him. But what’s looking interesting in Prototype 2 is the amount of freedom there is to tackle problems in your own way.
Our mission to enter the base saw us absorb an officer marked by our sonar and use his ID to enter the base, before solving the puzzle of absorbing the head scientist, but was just one way to start that mission.
“You’ll get to a point where it says: ‘Get into a disguise, and use that on a hand scanner to open the gate and get into the base,’” explains Fraccia, “but it’s just a gate, so I can jump over it!”
“So I grabbed a different soldier, absorbed him, went over to a tall building and jumped into the base. As I did that, the game’s objective changed because it recognised the objective was to get into the base – how I did it was entirely up to me.”
The refinement of ambiance and stealth mechanics has allowed for a wider variety of missions, but Radical hasn’t neglected Prototype 2’s bread-and-butter combat.
We’d got to grips with combat basics in our lab escape, with its simple but intuitive combo system based around dodging, grabbing and throwing enemies or objects like cars, and consuming people to regain health or take their appearance.
Unlike Mercer, Heller can release people he’s grabbed rather than consuming them, intimidating those around him. Towards the end of the Yellow Zone demo, those abilities were pushed to the limit as Blackwatch released a savage mutant ‘Brawler’ into the zone.
By the time we arrived, it was already ripping terrified civilians to bloody shreds, and Heller jumped in to save the day. It required real timing to use Heller’s dodge ability to avoid the Brawler’s monstrous claws, but a combination of our attacks, heavy objects thrown at it, and weapons like rifles and rocket launchers commandeered from interfering Blackwatch troops saw us whittle down the beast’s health.
Chances are Heller caused that explosion.
Staggering the monster let us perform a brutal finisher on it, ripping it apart and absorbing a new power: huge, razor-sharp claws. We’re told many of your abilities are gained contextually in missions this way, and claws are only the beginning.
Heller’s offensive arsenal eventually includes a Whipfist tentacle for dragging down choppers, Tendrils that rip foes apart, and huge Hammerfists that can even pummel tanks to pieces.
His spiky organic shields develop to the point where they can deflect missile attacks, and your dodge puts Spider-Man’s to shame. Equally impressive are Prototype 2’s new support powers like Pack Leader, which lets you send a pack of Brawlers into battle for you; or the Biobomb, which explodes and absorbs foes like a reverse grenade.
There’s a new Mass meter to govern these special abilities, and it needs to be filled by absorbing different enemies, bringing a tactical element to the chaos of battles.
Your uber-powerful Devastator attacks also make a return, with Heller able to blast deadly tendrils in all directions or leap into the air to Hammerfist the ground, killing hordes of foes with shockwaves.
The Prototype 2 sandbox is extremely versatile; later in the game you can even rip secondary weapons off tanks and helicopters and use them to devastating effect. All of these abilities will be slowly upgraded as you move through the story until Heller’s powers become truly epic.
“Prototype 2 is the ultimate power fantasy, and near the end of the game Heller seems almost god-like,” says Lim. “It isn’t easy to make enemies threatening, but we do it with scale – early on, one helicopter and one tank are quite threatening, but by the end of the game you’re taking on two or three helicopters and tanks, Brawlers and hordes of smaller foes at the same time.”
We got a taste of that in the final part of our demo in the Red Zone that we started this feature with. Using a fully powered Heller is chaotic and very bloody fun as you battle crowds of enemies, but even in the limited time we had, using our powers was intuitive and we never felt overwhelmed.
There promises to be a joy in the ultimate destruction you can unleash in Prototype 2, and that’s largely because you can lose yourself in this power fantasy but still feel in control.
“We’ve tried to retain what was great about Prototype’s combat and give players that epic sense of chaos, while putting them totally in control,” Armstrong explains. “We want to give them greater agency on the battlefield and allow them to read it better.”
Standing out in such a competitive genre is rarely easy, but, according to Ken Rosman, open-world fans will find plenty to love in Prototype 2. “I think what all open-world games have in common is a sense of player freedom, and Prototype 2 owns its own version of that.”
“Here, not only do you get that freedom but you get the choice by being intrinsically uber-powerful. In other games, you extrinsically grab something – a weapon or a vehicle – that makes you feel powerful and awesome. In Prototype 2, everything is in you with your various powers – and I think that’s pretty cool.”
Just as importantly, Prototype 2’s New York as looking like an exciting, varied world in which to use that freedom and promises to better match its gameplay.
“It’s about producing an experience from start to finish feels like it’s self-supporting,” explains Armstrong, “and that all of the different pieces are feeding back into that central gameplay core and providing a richer, deeper experience.”
It remains to be seen if Prototype 2 will finally come together as intended, but the promise is there, and Radical’s enthusiasm for its game is certainly infectious, leaving us looking forward to seeing how Prototype 2 further evolves before its release April 24th 2012.