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Interview: Prototype's Tim Bennison


Prototype's been under the news community's watchful eye since Games Convention 2007. The Radical action game spiked interest at the German show with what looked to be a promising mix of super-mutant, gore and open world, leaving those privy to the showing with Prototype highly-placed on Christmas 2008 wish-lists.

This year hasn't been quite so kind to the project, however. First came news in March that multiplayer had been axed, with confirmation of a slip into 2009 following in early May.

The game's surface temperature may have dipped a little, but the core's still hot. Prototype's executive producer, Tim Bennison, took time out to detail what makes his title special, reveal that multiplay still may make it and explain why Alex Mercer's bloody fight is one of the most progressive third-person free-roamers in development today.

VG247: How's the game structured? Is it level- or mission-based, or something different?

Tim Bennison: Prototype is first and foremost an open-world action game, offering players the chance to be a lethal shape-shifter called Alex Mercer. Set in New York City in the present day, Prototype is a game that lets players consume and become anyone, and unleash a hundred new ways to kick ass that you’ve never seen before, against some pretty relentless enemy forces. And underlying it all is a deeply-layered conspiracy storyline, presented in a completely new way.

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. We're really pushing hard to redefine the boundaries of what the term 'action' means with this game.

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 - which ultimately lets the player solve the conspiracy unfolding around him. Rather than the traditional approach of having 40 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.

Prototype will deliver a wide spectrum of gameplay experiences throughout the story or missions. Because Alex can use either his shape-shifting powers at any moment in any mission, players will be able to choose how they wish to complete any mission. There are also side missions we call the Web of Intrigue, that accompany the key storyline missions. We’ll be releasing more info on these in the future.

The whole third-person action genre seems to be looking for bit of a breakthrough at the moment, what with games like Dark Sector and Damnation popping up fairly regularly. Do you think Prototype's going to offer something genuinely new?

One of the key aspects we've focused on getting right with Prototype is the locomotion and agility of Alex Mercer. When you have ultra-aggressive, fast-moving enemies steamrolling towards you in an open-world recreation of New York City, you simply need to move fast and be very agile. Through a combination of AI and animation technology, we're extremely happy with our progress on making Alex move with a kind of 'hyper-Parkour' grace. Unlike other games that force you to choose the individual brick or tile that you wish to climb onto whilst in a chase, we put the focus on simultaneous high speed manoeuvring and agile combat.

Simplifying the control mechanic whilst maximising the volume of interesting combat scenarios is a key goal. It’s just the right balance between automated response and interactive control. So if you wanted to jump off an 80-story building in Times Square, do a back flip over an Apache gunship and shape-shift into a military commander just before you land on an Abrams tank, you can. That’s something we can’t wait to show off to gamers as something totally new to open-world gaming. Plus, our boss fights are going to be pretty amazing. There’s a reason we needed to build a gameplay area as vast as Manhattan, though more on that stuff later.

What do you see as being the next big step for the genre as a whole?

A couple of things. First, developers are starting to explore new kinds of stories and new ways to tell those stories in ways unique to our interactive medium. I’m not talking about more cut-scenes, I’m talking about ideas like our Web of Intrigue in which the player pulls together the story by interacting with the game world and characters. Second, the power of our current consoles allows us to create a lot more high fidelity simulation systems executing at the same time - people, vehicles, weather, ambience, audio, physics - on much larger and denser scales. Applied creatively, this can lead to new kinds of game experiences.

How difficult is it to maintain a fast pace of play in an expansive environment? What factors do you have to consider in terms of preventing the player from slowing down too much?

If there is one problem Prototype does not have, it’s the pace of the action. With our engine and game design, we can ratchet up the intensity of action to insane levels. Sometimes we pull back from the edge, sometimes we even go over the edge. We do vary the pace however, so that you’ll have high action moments intercut with sequences where you’re going to have to recon a situation, think at a tactical and strategic level, formulate a plan and then take action.

It sounds as though you've got some interesting AI features going with the various factions. Can you explain how the game's characters interact with each other?

The game is set up as a three-way war. You have the military trying to contain the viral outbreak in NYC, you have the Infected overrunning the city, and you have Alex Mercer caught in the middle, pursued by both sides and somehow connected to what’s happening. This is interesting from a gameplay point of view because at various points in the story, Alex can be an ally or an adversary of either the military or the Infected in order to further his own goals. The player can even use one of the factions against the other, or cause a particular unit within the enemy to self-destruct.

We have to ask: do you think the removal of Prototype's multiplayer will damage the game's chances?

We’re trying to create the best possible single-player experience. It’s an origin story and if we are successful, we’re hoping it’s the start of a franchise. But to do this, you’ve got to establish a great core single player experience. Having said that, we are still evaluating multiplayer to see if we can make it work in our development schedule.

Finally, sell Prototype to our readers. Why should they want to play it?

It’s intense, it’s different and it’s incredibly compulsive.

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