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Joystiq hands-on: two hours with Prototype

Kevin Kelly

Soon, Prototype will be shipping to stores for its June 9 launch, exactly one week after E3 kicks off. So how did Activision and Radical Entertainment decide to spend the intervening weeks between finishing and launching the game? By having a press event at the New York, New York hotel in Las Vegas, where one of the bars was done over in Prototype fashion: think New York covered in trash (including rats and crows), faux battle damage, zombie-fied go-go girls, dense fog, and even a model helicopter overhead.

Amidst all this (and some pulse-pounding techno music) there were game stations set up to distract us from the theme park environment. We managed to ignore the actual bizarre sights long enough to dive in and enjoy the virtual ones. Head past the break for our thoughts on the two hours spent with the upcoming action-adventure title (spoiler alert: it's fun).

Also be sure and check out the new images from the game and the event below, along with the new "Boss Battles" video at the end of the post.

Gallery: Prototype: 05/21/09 | 10 Photos

Gallery: Prototype: Las Vegas | 15 Photos

We quickly hopped onto one of the PS3 game stations (and, just so you couldn't accuse us of having a bias, we did pop over to the Xbox 360 version just to verify that the controls were the same and that the game looked similar). Don't sue is if every pixel isn't exactly the same, but for the most part, they look identical.

The game drops you into the gameplay in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed fashion. In that game, you're a fully amped Darth Vader, complete with all of his nasty dark side powers, before becoming the underpowered apprentice who learns as he goes. In Prototype, you're the extremely powerful (and scary) Alex Mercer who can take out tanks and helicopters with a couple of punches before you flash back to the start of the game where you wake up with minimal powers, 18 hours earlier. On a slab. In the morgue.

Flashback Alex is not nearly as powerful as Alex-to-be, and the game slowly takes you through your abilities, explaining how things like wall running and "consume" work. You also won't be taking down any tanks bare-knuckled for a while, and you'll have to find intermediary approaches to taking them out. Being able to pick up cars and hurl them like baseballs doesn't hurt things, however. Well, it does hurt ...

Whenever you consume someone in the game, you'll also absorb their memories.

You'll soon notice that while the city seemed to be populated entirely by zombies, in flashback mode everyone is relatively normal. Of course, that starts to change as you play through and see exactly what caused everything, and Alex is right in the middle of it. There's a lot of story here, and the game supplements that by adding in the Web of Intrigue: whenever you consume someone in the game, you'll also absorb their memories. You can watch those at any point in the start menu via a brain node interface that shows you how interconnected the memories are. You definitely don't have to watch them to play or understand the story in the game, but it's a nice addition.

Of course, consuming tends to attract attention from people. There's a meter in the lower right-hand corner of the screen that shows the "alert level" of the government authorities, normally seen as soldiers in the streets, although you'll also see the NYPD from time to time. The meter yellow when everything's normal, but it will fill up and turn red if you do anything suspicious, like running up the side of a building or consuming someone entirely. Pretty suspicious behavior, no?

Consuming people in general is extremely creepy, but very fun and satisfying. You walk up to any character you want, grab a hold of them, and then consume them with a simple button press. Once consumed, you have the option of "wearing" them as a disguise. Hitting left on the D-pad will switch Alex between his normal look and the last person consumed, so you can only have one disguise at a time.

If you're already in disguise, consuming someone new will automatically switch you into that disguise.

If you want to be sneaky about things in the future, you can upgrade your consume power (just like you can upgrade all the powers in the game) with a stealth option. With this enabled, you can slowly walk behind someone and hit R1 to grab them from behind and consume them quickly before anyone notices. Another neat feature: if you're already in disguise, consuming someone new will automatically switch you into that disguise. Some missions require stealth and disguise, and at one point we had to enter a locked down medical facility disguised as a military officer: there was no other way in.

It's easy to forget that you can also pick up any of the weapons in the game.

While Alex is equipped with strong melee attacks and his consume ability, it's easy to forget that you can also pick up any of the weapons in the game: machine guns, grenade launchers, rocket pods, and so on. One thing we noticed is that you can approach missions in entirely different ways. Case in point: we had to get an agent to exit an armored personnel carrier so we could consume him and use him as a disguise. One option was to find a rocket launcher and attack the APC, causing the agent to flee on foot, or you could consume a guard and issue an "all clear" order over the radio, letting the agent know it's safe to come out. Rockets attract a bunch of attention, so we went the radio route.

We played through a full two hours, and while we'd love to tell you what happens, we think you need to experience it on your own for the story elements. We spent a lot of time exploring New York on foot, both at ground level and from the rooftops, and there are plenty of side missions (think: foot races and so on) and other fun things to keep you distracted. We also dipped into the start menu quite a few times to check out things like the upgrade system and while we were there we noticed menu screens for helicopter and tank controls, which means you'll be driving them at some point (which is just fine with us).

Sprinting up the Empire State Building is pretty damned exciting.

Another great thing about Prototype: you can ignore 95% of the game and just have a blast running up the side of buildings, making super jumps high into the air, and gliding over downtown New York. Sure, there's a lot of fighting to be done, but we found ourselves racing past enemies (hold the R2 button to sprint, wallrun, and scale buildings at near Flash speeds) when we should have been kicking their butts.

There are a lot of animation details that make this even more impressive -- windows will crack, pieces of the masonry will fall off, and you'll leave debris trails behind you as you rocket up buildings. If you come to a small gap, Alex will cartwheel across it, and you can tap X for normal and hold it for charged jumps that will take you straight up whatever you're running on. If you need fine control, you can hit the circle button and Alex will pound a fist into the building to hold on, and you can use the left stick to crawl on the face of the building, a lot like a certain New York-based webslinger.

What we were playing was less that one third into the game, according to Radical president Kelly Zmak, and it wasn't until the end of our gameplay that we acquired the claws that you see Alex wielding in many of the pictures. He has several other hand "modes" like sword arm and club fists, but you pick those up along the way. Otherwise you can use the collected energy you get from downed baddies to increase your health and upgrade your powers via a cost-based system in the start menu. We bought the Glide ability pretty early on to enhance our parkour skills because, we'll be honest, soaring over a (mostly) faithful rendition of New York City triggers our inner Spider-Man.

Look for Prototype on the PS3 and Xbox 360 starting June 9th in North America, and June 5th in Europe.

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