Rewind Review: Enough gravity-defying alien blasting to turn the most jaded stomachs
Prey spent as many as eleven years in production through three major iterations and major team refactorings. When it was finally released in 2006, it won generally good reviews and earned a Metacritic score of eighty-three out of one hundred possible points. But now, less than a year and a half after its July 2006 release, it has pretty much slipped off most gamers' radar and into the bargain bin, with a price at or near single digits. So the question is, should gamers who missed Prey the first time around pick it up now that they have a second chance?
Prey offers an ambitious single-player storyline centered around the character Domasi "Tommy" Tawodi, a mechanic, former soldier, and Cherokee with a taste for four-letter words that helped give Prey its "M" rating. In fact, Prey's storyline seems to aim squarely at a more mature audience. Tommy wrestles with his identity and heritage as a Cherokee, faces relationship problems with his girlfriend Jen, and confronts racism against Native Americans. And all of that happens in the game's first scene! Pretty soon, as often happens in these action stories, Tommy is faced with protecting everything he once questioned or even held in contempt. Along with thousands of other people, he is abducted by an ancient alien race and brought to an enormous alien spacecraft called The Sphere, where humans are being probed, prodded, and generally mistreated as they are turned into food for Mother, the being in control of the ship. The story and levels feel particularly linear, with no real choices beyond deciding what weapon to use when. Even during the final confrontation with Mother, when Tommy is given a Deus-ex style choice to join and lead his enemies, the game makes the decision, not the player. Prey offers next to no replay value in its story. As a bargain title, though, this isn't a problem, since one playthrough of the single-player campaign is well worth the current asking price. Of course Tommy quickly gets his hands on some fancy weaponry and sets out to save Jen and the rest of humanity. Unfortunately, as soon as the bullets start flying, the story drops into low gear. Nothing is made of the racism in the opening and Tommy's problems with Jen are forgotten as soon as she becomes a damsel in distress. And I'm no expert on the Cherokee culture, but it seems like it's used mostly as a backdrop for the magic powers that the developers want to give Tommy. It is worth noting, though, that Native Peoples magazine published an article that called Prey "worthy of its Native roots."
What Prey really offers is a smorgasbord of wild and frightening alien technology and beasts that borrows from sources like the Alien films and Doom games while mixing in original ideas to surpass just about anything gamers have seen before. Prey is built on the Doom 3 engine and certainly puts it to good use as it doles out a series of tortured human and animal bodies twisted and combined with machines to create a variety of alien adversaries, each a bit more shocking than the last. And of course, each is tougher and better armed than the last. The only problem is, they're rarely presented as anything but targets?there's no character to these bad guys. At first, they shout in their alien language in angry, guttural barks that add to the confusion and strangeness of the alien ship. Soon, though, their words are translated into English and are revealed as the same generic stuff from any other shooter: "There he is! Get him!" and so on. The game might be more interesting if it gave a little more motivation to why we want to mow down dozens of these guys at a time.
The game's landscape is just as visually impressive as its characters. The interior of the sphere is an evil combination of biological and technological space that's enough to make a guy want to change clothes and take a shower. Imagine corridors and rooms that are part organic and part machine and you have some idea of the Prey setting. And since this is an older game and engine, it's likely that many gamers will be able to crank up the video settings for the maximum visual experience. There are great interior levels with some huge open spaces that really give the feel of being inside a massive spacecraft, including some impressive views of Earth through a series of windows that can only be called ginormous. At the other end of the scale, one of the small details that really makes the alien technology look more realistic is the extensive and skillful use of bump mapping. Bump mapping technology allows designers to add detail and texture to 3d models without the performance hit that the improved look might normally give. In Prey, it's used to add all sorts of ridges and lines to things like doors and walls and other objects so that supporting spines and add-on panels have a feeling of added depth. It may not sound like much, but it really makes the surfaces fell more real than without it. Add to all that graphical goodness plenty of free play with a little thing called gravity, and you've got yourself a unique alien landscape. The sphere contains huge spaces and the occasional asteroid, each with its own gravitational field. Running around the surface of an asteroid blasting Hunters (the most common of the alien bad guys) as the rest of the ship rotates around you with its own gravitational rules is more that a bit disorienting even as it feels very new. Negotiating these spaces alone is worth the price of admission. The alien technology also includes the ability to manipulate gravity in certain areas and turn a room upside down so that the old ceiling becomes the new floor.
Prey's primary claim to fame?and presumably one of the main reasons it took so long to release?is its portal system. It's a sort of teleport setup that allows a character to instantly transport from one place to another through high-tech "gates" that alter the fabric of space. Sound familiar? Valve's sleeper hit Portal did much the same thing when it gave the player a "portal gun" that allowed the player the freedom to shoot portals around the landscape as she tried to solve a series of obstacle puzzles. In between bouts of alien-blasting, Prey offers puzzles something like those of Portal: the player has to make their way from Point A to Point B with the help of the energy portals. The difference is that Prey places these gates for the player without allowing any experimentation by the player. Even with the portal innovation, the puzzles are pretty conventional, since they usually involve the player figuring out how to switch on the portal or how to use it once it is on. Generally this means finding a four-digit code number in the vicinity of a locked door, entering the code, and moving on. Sometimes, though, the player will need Tommy's "Spirit Walk" ability to pass through force fields in order to flip a switch that drops the forcefield, opens a portal, or moves a platform that allows Tommy to continue his journey toward saving Jen and battling Mother. When Tommy Spirit Walks, the world takes on a hazy, ethereal glow, while chanting voices and beating drums complete the mystical effect. It's cool, and some of the puzzles rely on its use, but most of them aren't all that challenging. The largest part of the puzzles is of the "couldn't-be-more-obvious" variety, while the few head-scratchers tend to be an annoying "I-know-it's-here-somewhere" kind of thing.
Still, if the puzzles won't show up on the next Mensa exam, they're fun enough and don't take away from the essential Prey experience, that is, shooting stuff. Prey is a solid shooter with plenty of tough bad guys to mow down in interesting and varied ways. The Fodder and Hounds are a couple of the low-level beasts that tend to come out of nowhere and rush Tommy when all seems quiet. They're more animal than anything else and not too bright when in a fight?it's best to blast them quick and get it over with. The Hunters are the alien grunts and the ones that Tommy encounters most frequently. They're well-armed and Tommy can get some decent weaponry from them, but unfortunately their AI doesn't quite give them the kind of smarts that would make them worthy adversaries. They're quick on the draw, but they tend to stand in place and not use any available cover, making them pretty easy targets. Even so, the game throws enough of these and other bad guys at the player so that there are some pretty intense firefights, especially since the game quickly arms Tommy with an inventory of increasingly powerful weapons capable of tearing through a platoon of the things practically like butter. Among the selection of BFGs is the Leech Gun, a weapon that behaves differently based on the ammo its loaded with. The most impressive is a continuous energy bolt that deals massive damage and knocks down Hunters like so many bowling pins. Each of the big guns is fun to wield and feels satisfyingly powerful, and each has an extremely detailed model with neat loading animations that compliment the rest of the eye candy. Even if the bad guys aren't really bringing their A game, the guns make for great shooter fun as you plow through level after level.
As far as audio is concerned, Prey just about sweeps every category. There are tons of eerie little sound effects that complement the wild alien environment and help build the atmosphere. The weapons sound satisfyingly rich and potent. Plus there's a selection of licensed rock music that includes tracks from Ted Nugent, Judas Priest, and Blue ?yster Cult. Like some other elements of Prey, though, it's great material poorly used in game: these songs appear in the Roadhouse jukebox from the game's first scene, and then they never appear again. The player can play any song from the jukebox during that scene, but that's it. There's no chance to revisit any of these tunes during the action on the alien ship. And there's no reason to hang around in the Roadhouse unless you want to play video poker or a decent Pac-Man clone on a couple of arcade machines there. The rest of the game has an original score that's good in itself, but a whole lot more orchestral than "You Got Another Thing Coming." Even though the soundtrack has been released as a two-disk set, it's a bit forgettable?the game might have been better served by extending the rock and roll soundtrack out to the rest of the action.
At this point in the game's life, the multiplayer is nonexistent. There are a few servers still scattered across Eastern Europe, but no players have appeared there over the past few weeks. It's unfortunate, since the MultiPrey, as they call it, looks like it has the makings of a great frag fest. Not only are all those great guns and graphics present, but it also has the gravity play of the single-player campaign. Like the single-player game, there are shootable "buttons" that invert a room's gravity on demand, an effect that would cause plenty of havoc in on-line matches. The multiplayer maps include another feature from the single-player experience: an alien technology called wallwalking. Wallwalking is pretty much an artificial gravity path that can circle walls, ceilings and more that allows players to basically ignore the gravity in the room. A character could run across the ceiling of a room and fire down at enemies on the floor. Jump off the wallwalk path and you're again subject to normal gravity. All of this should add up to a compelling multiplayer experience, but if you're hoping to set it up, you'll have to do some work getting some players together.