Built with the Doom 3 engine and touting numerous innovations on the First Person Shooter genre, Prey is a study in contradictions. While it delivers on many interesting twists and environmental elements, the low difficulty and hackneyed character design drains some of the novelty from the experience. Despite frustratingly similar corridors and brain-dead enemies, the quality of the innovation somehow combines with the touchstones of retro-gaming to create that ephemeral quality: fun. Much better than Doom 3, and with the new-car smell that Quake 4 was lacking, Prey is a fully functional refit of the corridor-shooter genre. Read on for my impressions of Human Head's latest.
A reader of 2003's Masters of Doom would already know that id software was based, briefly, out of Madison, Wisconsin. The inclement weather sent Carmack and co. packing for balmier climes, but there are still fingerprints on the city from that brief period. Raven Software is probably the best-known developer in town, with hits like Jedi Knight II to their name. Human Head is a smaller developer, but no less talented. They are a combination table-top gaming and computer gaming studio, and their completion of Prey some nine years after it was first shown to the gaming press is nothing short of extraordinary. While staying true to the thin gameplay elements shown those many years ago, Prey carries an obvious vision from its new handlers. Prey promises a lot in the way of unique experiences and subtle tweaks on classic genre tropes. It's a shooter where you kill aliens - but instead of a tough-as-nails marine you're a young ex-army guy from a Native American reservation. Snatched from a bar with your grandfather and girlfriend, you don't care about saving the world; you just want to free her and go home. You haven't undergone genetic engineering or cybernetic enhancement to gain your special powers: you tap into the spiritual reservoir your grandfather reveals to you. 'Portal' technology moves you seamlessly from place to place, and the laws of gravity are subject to negotiation.
- Title: Prey
- Publisher: 2K Games
- Developer: Human Head Studios
- System: PC (360)
Instead of the protagonist's racial background being a footnote, or something you only find in the manual, Human Head brings a version of Native American spirituality to the fore by tying it directly into gameplay elements. Tough-guy Tommy doesn't believe in 'that crap' when the game starts, but soon enough he's leaving his body to walk about as a being of pure spirit (which comes in mighty handy around auto-turrets). This 'out of body' experience means that, for all intents and purposes, Tommy can't die. When you do deplete your health bar, instead of reloading the game you're taken to a grim-looking plateau and given the chance to fight for your life. Your spirit-bow is quite adept at taking out the bad spirits surrounding the place, and every one you destroy returns a little health or spirit energy. After a set time span, you're sucked back down and out into the living world to face your foes again. It was great not having to worry about saving and reloading, but after the third or fourth time the simple shoot-the-spirits game got a little old. It would have been great if the spirit world had become a tougher place further into the game. And while the occasional chat with your dead grandfather was enjoyable from a plot perspective, the lack of gameyness to your trips into ancient New Mexico disappointed. The designers took us on an in-game spiritual journey, but there was very little to actually 'do' as that journey progressed.
While there are spirits in the game, most of the shiny comes from alien technology. Portals are a great tweak to time and space, and already look like they're going to be a permanent fixture in FPS gaming. Opponents and some simple switches can throw open oval passageways to 'someplace else'. Not just a loading gimmick or gag, the portals physically link areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Early in the game they do a bit of showing off by walking you past a glass box with a small rock in it. You're left wondering what exactly it is, as it has no obvious purpose. Just a few moments later, though, you're stepping through a portal onto a rocky spheroid inside a glassy enclosure. It's a cheap trick, but effective at getting across the technology's potential. The gravity flipping trick is a more straightforward puzzle element, requiring you to alternate the orientation of 'down' in order to gain access to various surfaces in a room. In most cases it's fairly simple to see what's going on, but there are several great Escher-esque moments that require you to exercise your three dimensional thinking skills. The 'undying protagonist', gravity-flipping, and already adopted-portals are all great gimmicks, and I find myself actually hoping that I'll be seeing copycat game mechanics in future FPS titles.
Unfortunately, the overall vision of the game falls somewhat short of the greatness it was striving for. The techno-organic (read: drawn on a trapper-keeper) motif that your surroundings and enemies display begins to look exactly like every other game made with the Doom 3 engine after you've killed your tenth identical bad guy. So far, every game we've seen made with this technology have been visually arresting, but more or less artistically bankrupt. Prey, at least, takes the gooey look to its fullest; many of your weapons are actually alive, and some were formerly pieces of enemies. As you're walking along, your weapon might hiss at you menacingly. This little touch is so clever and appreciated that it makes the boring sameness of the enemies and corridors that much more drab. Even more frustrating is the ease with which most veteran FPS players will complete this title on 'Regular' mode. There's a solid fifteen hours or so of gameplay here, but for the first half of the game you're probably going to find yourself trying to remember what the spirit world looks like. The second half is more challenging, but only at a level the first half should have ramped up to. That said, I would far and away rather games be too easy than too hard; it's a lot of fun to finish a game and I think a lot of modern titles don't keep that in mind when gauging difficulty. The challenge level felt as though they were purposefully teaching you as you went; the integration of new elements into your knowledge of the game world was accomplished at a brisk but digestible pace. Just the same, once the game really got rocking I found myself hoping for more intelligent baddies to fight; not every bad guy can be from F.E.A.R., I guess.
Visually, Prey acquits itself well against its contemporaries. The Doom 3 engine is still a solid platform to wrap a game around, and the dark-n-moody atmosphere it fosters was fairly appropriate considering the setting. The 'generic alien squishiness' did get old after a while, though. Even more annoyingly, the alien designs felt uninspired on first brush and just kept hanging around throughout the game. There just aren't that many types of baddies to face in this title. While I'm not looking for a menagerie to start hunting me down, I would have liked a little more variety; the ground-level grunt was particularly boring. The spiritual children, at least, were interesting from a background standpoint. Encountered in a few choice areas, their creepy appearance and haunting laughter was one of the few genuine chill-inducing elements of the game. Aurally, there wasn't much beyond those laughing children to look forward to. Forgettable music and fairly standard moans and groans from your enemies dog your steps through the game. Weapons sounds were serviceable; while not anything amazing, they did lend a passable feeling of weight and power to your arsenal. My favorite audio element was actually the occasionally overheard snippets of radio broadcasts from Earth. Quiet moments could be spent preparing for your next run by listening to (real-life radio host) Art Bell receive calls from bewildered humans experiencing the alien invasion on the ground. The only real humour in the game, the vignettes were well written and produced, and well worth the time it took to listen.
Prey, with its retro-inspired corridor shooting and tired alien antagonists, could have fallen victim to retread gameplay and genre boredom. Instead, Human Head has managed to lift the simple shooter out of mundanity by give us some new things to see and do while we're mowing down generic baddies. A serviceable plot and a spiritual twist, on top of new-tech portals and gravity flipping, is just enough to make everything old seem somehow a little bit new. The 'classic' shooter is something I'm starting to get tired of, but with Prey at least one more title has made aiming and shooting fun enough to recommend. If you're a fan of the FPS genre, especially the early work of id software, you're going to have fun with the new toys given to us by Human Head Studios.