To say that Prey has had an interesting development cycle would be on par with saying that gas prices are kind of high right now. Originally conceived as a showcase for new portal technology the game was originally supposed to be on shelves nearly a decade ago. After a few years in development the game was shelved and nearly forgotten. Last year at E3, 3D Realms and Human Head shocked the industry by announcing that they were pulling the game off the shelf and finishing for release in 2006. The FPS genre has changed a lot since the game’s initial conception especially when you consider that Valve has released two Half Life games and some expansion packs in the time it has taken 3D Realms to release this first installment in the Prey franchise.
The plot of the game is your standard one guy saves the planet from invading alien hordes with a few tweaks based on Cherokee mythos. You play Tommy a Cherokee mechanic who longs to get move away and start a new life away from the reservation. He’s held on the reservation by his girlfriend Jen and his grandfather. Both Jen and his grandfather are proud of their Indian heritage and don’t want to leave the reservation. That all changes though when the aliens descend and abduct Tommy, Jen, Grandfather, and Jen’s entire bar. It’s a pretty good sequence and the best use of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” since ABC used it in the opening sequence of “The Stand” mini-series a few years back.
The plot of the game while semi generic does have a few decent twists along the way. Prey does defy some of the standard clichés along the way but there are a few loose plotlines along the way. There is a decent horror subplot developed early on in the game and then abandoned which is a shame as it was something that probably had a little mileage on it. The game is also hurt by the fact that Tommy isn’t an ideal protagonist. To put it bluntly Tommy is something of a whiney bitch. Constantly complaining about the situation and ignoring the sage advice of his grandfather Tommy is really kind of a prick. Tommy also likes to curse a lot and whine during the game and while you may be in agreement with him a few times, Tommy is a bit of a hard character to like (not unlike Harry Potter in Order of the Phoenix).
With that aside Prey does features some of the most innovative level design ever to grace a FPS. Since you are one a space ship the concept of gravity has a little more flexibility than it does when you are on Earth. This freedom allowed the folks at Human Head to have a little fun at your expense. This is done in two unique ways. The first is that there are certain rooms where gravity can be changed by hitting a switch on a wall. This allows for some inventive puzzles where you have to switch gravity in order to traverse a room or use the gravity to move objects from one area to the next. This gives the level designers the ability to come up with some cool level designs that will have you looking in every direction for ways to solve a particular puzzle.
The next fun mechanism is the addition of magnetized walking wall panels which allow you to walk up walls and on the ceiling. This paired with the changing gravity will actually have you going from ceiling to floor to wall in a couple of rooms and adds that extra little bit of disorientation to some of the games. The fact that you usually end up fighting enemies while you are upside down doesn’t help much as they will also spawn on the ceiling with you and on the floor.
Of course I haven’t even touched on the big feature of the original game, the portal system which allows you to see one area of the game from another. Not only can you see from one area of the map to another you can shoot weapons through them and take out bad guys on the other side of the portal. While this has been done in games before, Prey does a good job of leveraging this in a few new ways.
The final last new game play feature is that Tommy can “Spirit walk”. This allows Tommy to leave his body and explore the world in a spirit form. The keen thing about spirits is that they can walk through force fields and can push buttons…and that’s pretty much what you’re going to be doing 90% of the time you are in spirit mode. That said the other 10% has you killing certain monsters that can only be killed by the bow and arrows that the spirit form has and there are certain puzzles that force you to use the mode. Some of these do get a bit repetitive at times but the game does change them up a bit as you go along which helps alleviate the feeling that you’re beating the same horse to death.
Prey does feature some limited vehicular action as well. During certain parts of the game you will gain access to a flying exosuit which you can use to get around certain levels. The flying levels do break up the game a bit and do add a few new design twists. They are fairly well done and not overly long.
Combat is is one area where the game does experience a bit of a let down. I’m not sure if it’s a limitation of the Doom 3 engine but the combat is a little on the generic side. There’s a lot of dodging and weaving but the combat isn’t exactly breaking any new ground. Maybe that’s just me being spoiled by F.E.A.R. but the combat wasn’t something that I’d write home about. It’s not that the combat is bad but I felt like I’ve done some of it before.
With the critique of the combat system aside the game does feature something cool when you fail at the combat portion of the game. Rather than stopping the game and forcing you to reload from a previous start you go into the death walk mode. In this you are taken to a remote area where you have to shoot wraiths that are circling you. There are two colored wraiths, red representing health and blue representing spirit energy. By shooting a wraith Tommy reclaims a bit of that attribute so that when he comes back to life he has more than a spare bit of health. While this seems a bit cheesy and repetitive it really helps move the pace of the game along as you never have to stop and reload a save game when you die. Sure you may die a lot in the game but you are never really pulled out of the game.
The problem is that while this speeds you through the game there isn’t a lot of game to get through. I managed to get through the game in a little over seven hours. This wouldn’t be bad if it wasn’t for the recent released of Half Life 2: Episode 1 and Sin Episodes: Emergence which provided about five to six hours of game play for $20. At around $50 for the regular edition and $60 for the collector’s edition you do have to wonder about paying that much more money for only seven to ten hours of game play. Is it a fair comparison?
With that out of the way the game does look gorgeous. Based on the Doom 3 engine the folks at Human Head really seemed to squeeze a lot of new things out of the engine. From some large scale open areas to small bio-organic corridors there is a good mix of environments in the game. Enemies are fairly unique although some follow the alien-human hybrid model that has been used before.
The sounds are fairly solid and most of the weapons and enemies sound like what you would expect. The only real problem I had with the sound is that Spirit mode has its own soundtrack which gets overlaid on top of what ever else you are doing. This means that on occasion it will occasionally drown out the excellent musical score. There are also portions of the game where you are required to “Spirit Walk” a lot and since the music loops you will start to get a bit annoyed by it after a while.
Controls are what you would expect out a FPS with the Human Head using the standard WASD setup. My only gripe with the controls is that the default setup has the use key sharing the same setup as the fire button which can lead to some nasty accidents if you are trying to open a door and slide out of the use zone before hitting the button.
I did spend a little bit of time with the game’s multiplayer modes which are composed of both standard and team deathmatch. The levels do take advantage of some of Prey’s unique game play features but unless you are really into fast run and gun multiplayer it’s nothing to write home about. It’s something that will probably be a lot of fun at a LAN party but as a die hard Battlefield 2 fan it’s not something that I would want to spend a lot of time on. That said, this type of gameplay does appeal to some people and if you fit in that demographic you are in for a bit of a treat.
While on the short side Prey is a good start to a new FPS franchise. The game does show off a lot of new innovations and you can tell that a lot of thought went into the design and execution of the game. While I’m not a big fan of the type of multiplayer action found in the game those looking for fast and furious deathmatch style games may also want to look into this as the level design of the game adds a host of new challenges for the genre. Hopefully the folks at 3D Realms and Human Head make enough for a second game in this series that makes Tommy a little more likable and is a little longer, and that it doesn’t take quite as long to create.
Companies: 2K Games
A solid FPS with some innovative level design and new technology that helps evolve the genre a bit. While the game features some new innovation that we’ll be seeing in upcoming games you do have to wonder about the value the game brings as the single player side of the game is a bit on the short side and the multiplayer is a bit on the generic side.