Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Human Head Studios/Venom Games
Release Date: July 11, 2006
Say what you will about 3DRealm's "when it's done" policy on releasing games. Sure, it makes a mockery of the very concept of release dates, but it does seem to work.
Before Prey, the only title they've produced that proved the theory was Remedy's excellent Max Payne. But Prey's here now, and so they're two for two. While it may not justify a decade-long wait (hey, most people don't wait that long for marriage, let alone a video game), it certainly goes out of its way to make you forget its storied past; Prey is a wholly modern, self-confident bit of work.
Take its introductory moments as an example. Within the first 10 minutes of Prey, you'll experience a personal dilemma, a cryptic conversation, a lovers' quarrel, a bar brawl, an alien abduction, and the musical styling of Blue Oyster Cult. The next 10 minutes are a grotesque rail ride showcasing the Doom 3 engine at its scintillating best. It's a start that grabs you by the jugular and shakes you around, and it leaves a great first impression for the events that follow.
What follows is, with only a few caveats, a great shooting experience. Shooters are a dime a dozen these days, but Prey differentiates itself in one key way: drumming its fingers on the player's concept of space. There are walkways that cling to you like flypaper, allowing you to walk on the ceiling or the walls without issue. There are portals everywhere, and while some move you only slightly, some take you clean across the hundreds of miles of floating mothership, or to a completely different dimension. There are buttons that change the orientation of gravity, effectively flipping whole rooms. It sounds complicated and nauseating, but the level design is so smart and clean that getting lost is an exceptional occurrence. This allows for full enjoyment of the spatial effects, and there's a special pleasure that comes with shooting at enemies on the walls and watching them fall up. It makes for some killer set piece battles, though it pays a price in puzzle difficulty. There isn't any, but at least you're not getting sick while solving them.
The rest of the title is pretty standard first-person shooter fare, which isn't to say that it's bad. It's actually very well put-together; weapons are balanced and never made obsolete by their successors, and each piece in the arsenal has a tactile punch that gives them a real feeling of power. Then there's the token vehicular combat mode, and even though this is comprised of a single spacecraft with a single weapon, it's used sparingly enough to provide a nice change of pace. The action also comes fast and furious courtesy of the "Deathwalk," a shooting gallery mini-game that occurs in lieu of death whenever you run out of health. Every target hit is a little bit of health or spirit power that you'll have when you reenter the fray. Naturally, the consequence of using this method to accelerate the pace is the bite it takes out of the game's difficulty. Since you'll never actually die, there isn't any problem with hurting an enemy, dying, and then coming back to finish the job. The intensity of the firefights helps to make up for the lack of tension that comes from immortality, but it's still an issue.
Part of that standard first-person shooter formula is cutting-edge graphics, and in this regard, Prey once against shows its merit. While its human characters are relatively awkward and lack detail when compared to titles like Quake 4, it shows up the rest of the genre with its wonderful environments. The Doom 3 engine seems to be best at recreating the glint of metal and the sheen of slime, and the bio-mechanical ship on which the game takes place plays to both of these strengths. There's a fantastic level of detail and strong amount of interactivity in almost everything; it's a pleasure to play in.
It's when we look at the game from an artistic standpoint that Prey begins to show some problems, though the complaints in this area are still fairly few. Sound direction is great – the best example of this is the use of licensed music, which is very occasional but adds buckets of ambience when it is. The art direction of the environments is also fairly good, with the generic sci-fi spaceship intermingled with creepy organic walls, complete with "doors" that are just grotesquely realistic bodily orifices. The aliens that populate this ship, however, lack originality; while they certainly are scary, almost all of them look like they were culled right from the book of id, tweaked only slightly. They still fit the game's world, but they feel a little bit too familiar.
There are other weak elements as well. There's "Spiritwalk," an interesting ability that lets your soul leave your body to access physically inaccessible areas, but the stealth attacks it provides aren't particularly useful, and it doesn't bring much complexity to the puzzles, so it's not a strong addition to the formula. The game's pacing, while it exceeds most of its competition, still could use a bit more polish; the beginning is brilliant and the ending feels conclusive, but the middle gets bogged down by too many battles with too little context. The multiplayer lacks the breadth of competitive games as well – it only sports deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, and here the basic but solid shooter elements work against the title by making it feel generic. That there are some cool battles where rivals are shooting from every wall helps, but the total result is still unimpressive.
No, Prey needs its gameplay to be in a storyline setting to really show off its stuff. Thus it's a wonderful single-player game, full of fascinating Cherokee flavor, well-made sci-fi trimmings and a suitably cheesy plot. It looks good and plays well and proves without doubt that Human Head are the most underrated developer in the genre. To shooter fans, it may still be a light snack of a game – it's fairly short and fairly easy, after all – but that relative ease, combined with excellent aesthetics, should make it a welcome addition into any collection.
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