Prey

Review

posted 7/26/2006 by Cyril Lachel
other articles by Cyril Lachel

When a game is cancelled it's usually safe to say that you'll never see it on the store shelves.  Yet Prey is one of those rare exceptions to the rule.  It's a game that was cancelled back in the late 1990s and recently resurrected as a next generation PC and Xbox 360 game.  But now that the shock and amazement has warn off we're left with a game that is solid … but probably not worth the decade-long wait.

Proving that not every story has been told in a first-person perspective, Prey introduces us to a misguided Cherokee Indian named Tommy who finds himself at the wrong place and the wrong time.  Tommy isn't much for this "faith" thing; he's had enough of the ways of his ancestors and just wants to leave with his girlfriend, Jen.  But before he can convince her to tag along they are both sucked into a giant alien spaceship and forced to fight their way out.  Somehow Tommy breaks free of the alien's trap and finds himself on an adventure killing aliens in hopes of saving Jen and (wait for it) keeping Earth safe from the impending alien onslaught.

For the most part Prey plays like your normal first-person shooter, you have plenty of cool alien weapons and a whole lot of corridors to explore.  But it doesn't take long before you see some of the new elements that make Prey unique.  For example, Prey features portals that you (and the aliens) jump in and out of.  These portals allow you to warp from one part of the ship to another; you can even see (and shoot) into the portal before you take the leap.  These portals can work against you, too.  From time to time you will see aliens jump out of the portals and attack you, giving you an uneasy feeling that you could get into a fight at nearly any moment.

The portals aren't the only innovation found in Prey.  As you progress through the game you will find a number of walls that you can walk on, allowing Tommy to literally walk on the ceiling and fire at enemies in an upside down state.  You can also alter gravity in some parts of the spaceship, which can be both disconcerting and highly amusing.  Prey uses all of these elements in unique ways, often making you think about how to solve a puzzle using these new game play gimmicks.

Although there is a lot of combat to be found in Prey, much of the game requires you to solve puzzles before you can make your way to the next area.  Don't worry, though, you aren't going to be forced to go through Myst-style brain teasers, most of the puzzles found in Prey are nothing more than figuring out how to open doors and turn on the walls you can walk on.  A few might give you a short pause, but by and large these puzzles aren't very difficult and the average gamer will blaze right through them without much fuss.

Early into the game Tommy is teleported into a spirit world where he meets up with his dead grandfather, a character that teaches him all about something called spirit walking.  Although Tommy has turned his back on his ancestors he quickly realizes that it's a good thing his ancestors haven't turned their backs to him.  Spirit walking allows Tommy to literally leave his body and explore the world in a ghost-like state.  This mode even gives you a new weapon (a bow and arrow) which allows you to kill many enemies in only one shot.  But that's not the only advantage to spirit walking, you will also be able to walk through certain force fields and obstacles that the corporeal Tommy can't.  As you might imagine, spirit walking is used to solve more than a few puzzles scattered throughout Prey.

But spirit walking isn't the only tool Tommy's grandfather gives him, you also learn that when you die you aren't really dead … you just go to a half-way world that allows you to shoot at wraiths for a short amount of time.  This is something of a mini-game; all you need to do is hit the wraiths flying around you to gain health (red wraiths) and spirit energy (blue wraiths).  After a short amount of time (15 seconds or so) you will be sucked through a big hole in the middle of the arena and you're right back where you died.  This means that no matter how many times you die you will always have another chance to take out the enemies and solve the puzzles.

While this spirit area is a unique idea it also has a way of making this game feel very, very easy.  You never really have to worry about losing all of your health because you know that you'll just come back refilled and ready to avenge your death.  Even with the bosses you don't have to worry about dying, regardless of what happened you will still come back and they will still have all of the damage you inflicted prior to your death.  You will never see a game over screen, you just simply have to suffer through the monotonous spirit mini-game and you're back where you were.  This means that you will never have to replay a part of the game because you died and don't worry about being stealthy, there are no consequences for just running and gunning your way to victory.



This spirit area isn't the only thing that makes Prey seem too easy, the enemies themselves are usually no trouble at all.  For one thing you rarely have to fight too many enemies at once; there are usually only one or two enemies to deal with at a time.  And to make things even easier, the enemies tend to engage you with weak weapons that just aren't that effective.  The game gives you control over a number of powerful weapons, so this battle feels pretty uneven (to the point where you almost feel back for being so much stronger than the aliens you are attacking).

Speaking of weapons, Prey gives you control over seven different alien weapons.  Actually, it's only six alien weapons and the trusty crowbar you pick up at the bar at the beginning of the game.  While the weapons all have a funky alien look to them, you will be dealing with a lot of guns you've used before in other first-person shooters.  For example, there's a shotgun-like weapon that shoots out acid (and is especially effective up close).  You will also get an alien missile launcher that controls exactly like the human variety.  There's an automatic rifle that also doubles as a sniper rifle, which even goes as far as to highlight your targets.  Perhaps the most unique weapon in the game is a leech gun that allows you to suck various elements out of the alien spaceship, including fire, ice, electricity, and so on.  The weapons are effective, but considering that we're dealing with alien technology I was a little disappointed that they weren't more over-the-top.

Although you are stuck in the alien spaceship for most of the game the areas keep changing and stay interesting for the most part.  There are a lot of little touches that keep the corridors unique, including a few effects early on that will keep you glued to your television for the rest of the journey.  You'll see young kids die, school busses that used to be in better shape, and even an airplane crash.  And it's not just the extra bits, the enemies themselves are really fun to look at and gun down.  While there are more than a few giant creatures you'll have to slay, my favorites were the smaller enemies that continued to attack you long after you've shot their heads off.  The aliens are very creepy, and along with the amazing effects around the levels, they go a long way to set the atmosphere.

Unfortunately this is all over too quickly.  The game is split up into 22 different levels, but not all of those stages are very long (some are only a couple minutes long) and chances are you will blast through the game in under ten hours.  While ten hours is about the average for this type of game, the fact that you never die makes this adventure seem too easy and much shorter.  Another problem is that there isn't a lot of story packed into the ten hours, throughout the whole thing there's really no more than ten or fifteen minutes worth of story, and even then it's not that interesting.  Most of the game is you listening to Tommy refuse to believe in the ways of his ancestors … even after those ways have saved his butt from certain death.

Like most first-person shooters, after you've defeated the aliens and saved the world you can take the guns online and go up against real players.  Prey allows up to eight players to join a room and fight it out in either a deathmatch or team deathmatch mode.  Eight players seems awfully small considering that most of the last generation first-person shooters were giving us the ability to play with sixteen different gamers, but the levels are small and perfect for the player count.

When it's good the online mode of Prey is a lot of fun, maybe even more fun than the single player adventure.  Each of the levels feature the various innovations you saw in the single player game, such as portals and gravity manipulation.  In that regard Prey is unlike anything you've ever played before on a console, there are a lot of spots where you will be upside down shooting at people under you and on the walls.  You will also be able to use Prey's one vehicle, a smaller spaceship that forms around you (and offers some of the worst controls I have ever seen).  These online games really stand out and show the potential of a game like this.

But that's the problem; all you get here is the potential.  While the levels are unique and offer a lot of cool ideas, there aren't that many of them.  Prey comes packaged with only eight areas to play online, and several of them look and feel the same (thanks in large part to the backgrounds graphics they seem to recycle).  It's also a shame that there aren't more game types; it's hard to believe that Prey doesn't come with some sort of Capture the Flag variation.  I can only imagine how cool some of those different game types would have been given the addition of portals, gravity tricks, and spirit walking.  With only the two basic modes this online game just feels barebones, a real disappointment when you consider all of the innovations the game includes in the single player portions.



Perhaps the biggest problem I found online was that a lot of the rooms were overrun with terrible lag issues.  While lag is nothing new to online games, there were some rooms that were practically unplayable.  I found myself forced to be selective on which rooms I entered, going into a room with an orange or red connection was the difference between a good time and extreme frustration.  While not all of the rooms have this problem I found myself having to exit about half of the rooms I entered because it just wasn't fun to jump around and have no accuracy what so ever.  Hopefully this issue will be fixed with future updates.

The game itself looks pretty good, although it's a little rough around the edges for a next generation game.  When the game is showing off its cool effects there's no denying how good it looks, but most of the time you'll be running around similar corridors fighting the same enemies over and over.  All of this is highly detailed, but at the same time it's dark and gloomy and nothing really stands out about the visuals.  The same can be said about your weapons, although there are a few cool guns to try out, none of them will give you that "wow" feeling you hope for from a next generation first-person shooter.  Early on the game's visuals will likely impress, but the more you play it the less exciting it all seems.  It's fun to look through the portals and see everything from a different perspective, but even that starts to get old after three or four hours.

The audio also failed to do much for me.  The game has a nice score with some genuinely creepy incidental music, but it wasn't all that memorable and wasn't much different from the type of music I've heard in countless other games.  Oddly enough the game features some licensed songs that play in the jukebox early in the game … but after the alien abduction you rarely hear those tunes (and even when you do it's only for a few seconds).  I'm actually a bit confused why the licensed music is there in the first place, considering that you hear it for only a few minutes (not even long enough to hear all of the songs) it makes me wonder if it was worth the added expense.  Either way, Heart's Barracuda is about the best song you get in the soundtrack of Prey.

All in all Prey is a solid first-person shooter with a lot of exciting action and some cool puzzles to solve.  Unfortunately the quality of the product is weighed down by a single player game that is extremely easy and over too soon.  It's great that we are finally able to explore the portals imagined a decade ago, but there are more than a few problems keeping this adventure from becoming the must-own game everybody was hoping for.  It's still a lot of fun to play online and off, but due to its difficulty this may not be the game you were hoping for all this time.  Fans of the genre should still give it a shot, just be ready for a game that comes close but never quite fulfills its true potential.






B-
Prey is a solid first-person shooter that tries out a few new ideas and offers a compelling single-player story. But now that the shock and amazement of finally getting to play it has warn off we're left with a game that is a lot of fun … but probably not worth the decade-long wait.