Rightly or wrongly hoodies have something of a bad rep, the wearers of the much-maligned garments being widely blamed for the majority of society's ills.
Thanks to Vivendi's forthcoming Prototype, that reputation is set to get a lot worse, as the baggy top sported by antihero Alex Mercer hides a lot more than the acne-ridden visage of a callow youth lurking outside an off-licence, spitting needlessly. While the craze of happy slapping has thrown up some appalling acts of immoral behaviour, we've yet to sec a clip where 15 people are sliced in half with a flick of the wrist. Yep, it's going to take more than an ASBO to stop Mercer, as he wages a one-man war across the streets of New York, taking on the full might of the military, along with hordes of bloodthirsty disease-ridden zombies.
Why? Who knows? Mercer doesn't even know himself, joining the (very) long list of amnesiac characters that start out with a mind blanker than a chegue, and gradually piece their past together over the course of the game. However, not for Alex the tried-and-tested method of asking around and seeing if anyone has heard anything. Instead, he joes straight to the source, by consuming people and absorbing their minds to create a composite of his restored memory. He doesn't eat them, but it's a pretty unpleasant process all the same, involving sticking his arm in their chest and turning them inside out.
As well as downloading their memories, Alex can also shapeshift into any person he consumes, thus putting into practice the first half of developer Radical Entertainment's so-called 'Deceive or Destroy' gameplay.
The 'Deceive' mechanic is not a new idea, and indeed older readers may recall PC cover game, Messiah, wherein a cherub called Bob climbed into the arses of his intended victims and possessed them. More innocent times perhaps, as today's equivalent involves a hoodiewearing killing machine, twisted innards and a gallon of blood. This is an effective trick all the same, letting Mercer gain entry to areas that would be inaccessible in sportswear, such as military bases.
These are dotted around the city, not simply as somewhere to sneak into, but as a pre-emptive measure against the thousands of feral zombies wandering the streets of Manhattan. As is probably apparent, something is rotten in the Big Apple, which has been struck down by a terrifying phenomenon, the scale of which has not been seen since the days of disco. The situation is so dangerous that the military has cordoned off parts of the city into Infected Zones.
While this continues, Alex Mercer is certainly not feeling himself, what with his newfound ability to shapeshift. That's not even the half of it though, as he has somehow transformed into a superhuman walking weapon capable of leaping tall buildings and tossing vehicles around like confetti. He's even picked up a bit of that 'free running' business that was fashionable about two years ago - around the time Prototype was conceived. Mercer is suddenly a dab hand at it, able to literally run up the side of a building at a jab at the keyboard. And given that he's bang in the middle of New York, he has plenty of opportunities to do so.
This sounds good on paper, but it's even better on a giant screen in front of hundreds of baying punters. Unveiled at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, adverts for the game were hard to miss, and the presentation drew a decent crowd, hosted by senior producer Tim Bennison and lead game designer Eric Holmes - a fiery Scot who impressively used the words 'fucking' and 'systemic' in the same sentence. Holmes explained that he was heavily inspired by the fact that he didn't know what was going on in the thriller film The Prestige, and that Alex Mercer would encompass the style of Darth Maul, the frustration and madness of Travis Bickle, and the calculating nuirderousness of Hannibal Lecter, all wrapped up in a plot scrawled in blood by the bastard son of Tom Clancy and Stephen King.
Following a somewhat inappropriate slide show of highly disturbing images, the assembled whoopers and hollerers were treated to an extensive action sequence. Evidently New York, the city, is densely populated with traffic and pedestrians, none of which Alex Mercer appears to have respect for.
We're shown an extensive gamut of his moves, including some weird claw thing, whereby he sticks his genetically modified hand in the ground, only for the sharpened prongs to pop up elsewhere, to the misfortune of anyone standing there. Mercer's parkour is an impressive feat, letting him scale tall buildings and then leap down with impunity, save for a large crack in the road. His antics quickly attract the attention of the military, and he admiringly responds by throwing taxis at their helicopters.
For showing off the game's high-adrenaline 'Destroy' gameplay, it's a well-chosen demo, recalling the most extravagant of Hollywood disaster movies, somewhere between Godzilla and Independence Day.
Prototype is being developed by the core team behind The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, blit despite the ostensibly similar action scenes, Radical are keen to stress that this is not a regular superhero game, and is a fully fledged PC release to boot (And probably, deep down, that it isn't as disappointing as Scarface was as well). Speaking exclusively to PC, Bennison explains: "We're not a first-person shooter or an RPG; we're something different from your average PC release, plus this thing runs best on the PC. But in terms of the story - it's a conspiracy, it's got layers, it's a mystery. You start out the game not even knowing your own name. The player character doesn't even know his own name, and the player - along with the player character - slowly expands their knowledge of what is really going on and what happened to Alex Mercer and how he got like this and how he's all wrapped up with what's going on in New York."
So effectively, the person playing the game knows as much as Prototype's lead character.
"As the character learns, yon learn," confirms Bennison. It was really important to us. A TV series like Lost, it's not the same tone obviously at all, but you watch it every week because they're going to peel back a layer and they're going to peel back another layer and hint at another layer and 'Oh my God you've got to watch next week.' You answer a guestion but you pose two more. So that's the structure of our game. That's another thing about our game in terms of the open-world space. It isn't a superhero game, or an urban crime become-the-kingpin thing: it's a thriller, it's a mystery." The lead character is also something of a mystery, and not just because his face is obscured by an item of chav-wear.
"You're an antihero," says Bennison. "An antihero is somebody who is adept at what they do, which is kill people usually, but is so good that you actually root for them. And sometimes they may have a moral code or some redeeming quality. We're playing into that. Even in testing, even at a concept level, people found that interesting, that Mercer wasn't just a black-and-white evil guy or a black-and-white superhero."
While the main GDC demo was undeniably impressive, it was largely one-paced (although at one stage it did waver between frantic and frenzied). Clearly the wow factor was to please the slack-jawed onlookers, but behind closed doors I am privy to a shift in emphasis.
"The player really controls the pace," explains Holmes. 1 guess what you saw there was 11 on the dial. We also have a bunch of disguise mechanics, where you can get the units to start wiping each other out by becoming a member of them and then confusing them as to which one you are."
"It's called the Patsy Mechanic," adds Bennison. "Basically you're in a squad, in disguise, and if you do a special move on another character, they'll think that character is you and they'll go after that other character. You can cause them to self-destruct basically. It's very important to us to deliver a game that has player-controlled pacing through the disguise mechanic. What disguise gives is the ability to recon a situation. You walk up, they don't know who you are, you can check out a base for example, see where all the defences are, and then take it apart by using your disguise.
"The point is that we wanted this player-controlled pacing so that you're not always in the moment of our previous console game, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, where you're this 12-foot high green guy, eyeryone knows who you are, they're firing missiles at yon the whole time, and it's fun but it's one-dimensional. "This game is not like that at all, although we did show those kinds of moments. We have another dimension to the game which is really cool."
Apropos of nothing, Holmes explains: "I did a degree in psychology and there was an interesting question of profiling. One of the questions for psychopaths was Would you like people to fear you?' and I think that in this game we've kind of proved that's a fun thing to tap into.
The Web of Intrigue system we have, these conspirators around the world, when you find one of these guys, lie's going to be begging for his life, trying to get out any way he can. You're going to be like a cat with a mouse, patting it around and there's definitely a sense of fun and power. It's much more low key - the guy's not going to be flying a helicopter gunship at you with a squadron of F-35s, it's more like one guy who darts into an alleyway, running for his life and you can find the way you want to take him down."
The disguise mechanic appears to work effectively, but as the old adage maintains, you can't put toothpaste back in the tube. Once your cover is blown, all shades of shit kick off, although if you're quick you can skulk into an alley and shapeshift into your previous form as if nothing has happened.
While Mercer becomes more powerful as the game goes on, there are still forfeits for misbehaviour.
"There's punishment in the sense that when you create mayhem, says Holmes, the military are going to hear about it, they're going to see it, and they're going to send in strike teams to find you.
You can play the game however you want explains Bennison. "The point is there's no moral code, but we do have a response system. Halfway through the game, if you harm a pedestrian and a cop car drives by while you're doing it, the cops can't do anything to you, but you know what they have? A radio. And the radio's connected to the military and the big guys will come after you in a second.
"We don't have this arbitrary star system where some god is watching you play the game, but it effectively does work that way."
Continuing the theme of player freedom, Holmes expands: ''It's really important to us that if a player wants to do something in the game he can do it. Something that frustrated me in the EA Superman game - the first thing I did was grab a pedestrian, fly straight up as high as I can, and you want to drop him right? But Superman won't do it. That guy was created for comic books, to sell a wholesome moral vision of what his creators thought this guy was and what his values were.
"Superman's a cool character, I grew up with him, I loved him. He's a fantastic movie character, but put him in a videogame and it's hard because you either have to go against the character or say to the player, 'No.' And our game is based around telling the player, 'Yes you can, and here's why you should.."'
So that's Prototype', a new game in which you play a New York-based amnesiac antihero in a hoodie who can shapeshift, run up buildings, cut people in half and throw cars at helicopters. And swear like an angry 12 year-old in a bus shelter.
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode