Prototype Exclusive Preview: Meet the Black Watch

proto_1.jpgYou may remember in early December, Vivendi sent us a nifty-looking email to promote a press event for the publisher’s recently announced title Prototype. That event was held today.

Prototype is being developed by Radical Entertainment, based in Vancouver, Canada. The company’s previous efforts include Scarface and The Incredible Hulk, so the open world nature of Prototype is as familiar to them as a pair of well-worn shorts with a hole in the crotch.

The game combines the superhuman elements of Hulk and blends them with a complex story fitting of Scarface. If you want another comparison, think Crackdown meets Assassin’s Creed.

Today’s event was a big affair for Vivendi and Radical – not only were we shown as-yet-unseen section of the game, we were introduced to a new faction – the Black Watch. And it wasn’t just Oz game press that got to see the goods – reps from Microsoft, Sony and various retailers were also present to inspect Prototype.

And Prototype really was the word – the build we saw was just 20% complete, a taste of things to come.

To help us through the presentation, Radical’s director of product globalisation, Chris Ansell, took the time to visit us from the developer’s Vancouver HQ. Not that Chris minded travelling out so far, being Australian himself. Before Radical, Chris was responsible for Blizzard’s marketing efforts over in Singapore. In fact, it was Chris who chaperoned me while I was in Anaheim, US for BlizzCon 2005.

According to Ansell, Prototype is just one of four games Radical is currently working on. Sadly, he didn’t go into any more detail about these other projects, which isn’t unusual considering Prototype is the title the developer is focused on.

We already have a fair idea about Alex Mercer, the game’s main protagonist. As far as we know, Mercer is some sort of genetic experiment – an organic super-weapon gone wrong. Mercer has no memory of his past, and the crux of the game’s story revolves around finding out exactly who – and what – he is.

Radical is calling the whole “memory recovery” section of the game the “Web of Intrigue”. It consists of 250+ story fragments – or nodes as they’re called. Each one has a hefty chunk of FMV, action and dialogue attached to them, and players who take the time to unlock them will be nicely rewarded for their efforts. Ansell says that Radical is aware that this has been done before (read: Assassin’s Creed), and the developer is stepping carefully to make sure its implementation is goodness-packed and original.

The game proper is set in New York City, 2008, and Radical has gone to the trouble of getting the city as accurate as possible – the team has taken over 1100 photos and recorded sounds from all over NYC to replicate the atmosphere. Ansell mentioned that the recreation is around 70-80% correct, with about 20% of creative wriggle room.

To kick start the story, Manhattan is infected with a deadly virus; the source of the outbreak is unknown. Mercer appears in time to see the city slowly transform from a bubbling population centre to a quarantined warzone. This transition can be controlled be the player, depending on how they interact with the various factions.

Speaking of factions, the game will feature three – the Military, the Infected and finally, the mysterious and uncompromising Black Watch. Today was the first time the Black Watch has been talked about in detail by Radical, so we were keen to find out everything about them.

Firstly, the Black Watch is serious business. You can’t negotiate with or placate them. The organisation has one objective, and that’s to wipe the city clean. The whole purpose of the Black Watch is to go in and exterminate all traces of infection, regardless of whether it’s man, woman, child or you.

Unlike the military, which no doubt will find itself completely unable to deal with the powerful Mercer, the Black Watch can keep pace. It’s old news to them. As the player learns new abilities and finds better weapons, the Black Watch with come out with more powerful technology to combat you. Ansell did not go into detail as to whether this is scripted or an organic method of balancing the game, but it sounds intriguing nonetheless.

Ansell also stressed that Radical was determined to “take the cuffs off” from the beginning of the game. Mercer will not start out as a wimp. Instead, he’ll be able to jump huge distances, run up walls, fall great heights and kill enemies in a single hit from the get-go. Details on how the player will grow in strength from this point were unclear, except that there are plenty of powers for Mercer to obtain throughout the game.

Ansell did mention that if you draw too much attention to yourself, the Black Watch will send out the “Specialist” to chase you down. He’s pretty hardcore apparently, and will really challenge the player despite Mercer’s impressive capabilities.

Mercer isn’t limited to using one power at a time – Radical wants to make sure the player always feels superhuman. As such, you can have up to four powers active at once. Powers themselves are categorised as defensive, offensive, sensory or disguise and Mercer can blend these together in any configuration.

For instance, in the demonstration we saw, Mercer activated a defensive ability that surrounded him in armour. Then, an offensive ability was triggered that granted Mercer giant clawed hands. Of course, both powers can be used by themselves, but together, Mercer becomes a hardened melee fighter. All powers can be accessed using the D-pad, with each direction acting as a toggle button.

We also saw Mercer coax a “ground spike” from the depths of the Earth to impale his enemies. All you have to do is target your unfortunate victim and punch the dirt. For those of you into more conventional armaments, Prototype will provide an assortment of pistols, rifles and other firearms.

You might even be forced to use bullets instead of claws and spikes at some points during the game, as Ansell mentioned that Black Watch choppers can dump a substance on you that restricts your abilities.

However, of Mercer’s powers, Devour is the most potent. Once killed, Mercer can absorb an enemy’s corpse. This transforms them into a series of bloody tendrils that are sucked into Mercer’s body. The player can then use their disguise ability to assume the shape of their foe and get access to their unique power. We only saw one power during our demo – that of the army captain’s airstrike, which was used to destroy a mission objective. From what we could tell though, this power could be used to wipe out grouped enemies or lay waste to whatever you feel like.

According to Ansell, Mercer can “remember” up to five different disguises, but this number could change before the final build.

Radical is also focused on providing a refined co-operative gaming experience. There will be no split-screen, but online is fully supported. Ansell was able to confirm that the co-op mode will let players charge through the entire single player story.

Players can even interact with each other in special ways. According to Ansell, one player can fly a helicopter while the second player sits on the wing. This player can then pry missiles out from under the wing and throw them at enemies. Not sure why the “Fire” button in the cockpit doesn’t suffice, but I can’t say I care much because it’s too darn awesome.

Ansell revealed a few other miscellaneous tidbits about the game, including the fact that it’ll be the first title to feature THX-certified 7.1 surround sound – for those of us who are lucky enough to have such a magnificent aural setup (not me!).

Visually, the game is looking solid, but still needs work – not unexpected considering it’s only 20% complete. The animation “floats” a bit when running at high speed and jumping around, and textures appear to be dumped when the view distance extends past a certain range. Plenty of time for these issues to be addressed however and I’m not at all concerned about them.

Vivendi’s local PR says that the game is on track for a release Q3 2008 on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC, and the build we were shown was demoed on Microsoft’s console. Although it should be released simultaneously on all platforms, Vivendi didn’t rule out a shift in dates.

I’m currently waiting for new screenshots to come through. As soon as I get them, you will too. There’s also a new video with a behind-the-scenes look of the new faction.

Update: The screenshots have arrived!


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