Prey Review

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Prey is a highly polished, attractive game, but it’s no work of art.  Granted, it’s perhaps unfair to have such lofty expectations for a first-person shooter, perhaps the most played-out and limited game genre out there.  Still, it almost seems that unless an FPS is truly inspired and original it’s not worth playing, as it’ll just end up feeling like the countless Doom clones you’ve played before.  That said, Prey does introduce more new concepts than any FPS in years – behold its twists on such familiar elements as gravity and 3D space.  Unfortunately, these innovations are mired in a game that feels by-the-numbers, otherwise.

 

…But let’s start at the beginning.  If you’ve played the free demo, which features about an hour’s worth of single-player gameplay, you already know that Prey is played from a first-person perspective.  The player is Tommy, a rather foul-mouthed mechanic with a generally poor attitude to more or less anything or anyone other than his girlfriend Jen.  He has nothing but contempt for his Native American heritage, and treats his grandfather Enisi dismissively, if not cruelly.  Quickly, Jen’s bar, and perhaps the entire reservation for all Tommy knows, is sucked in by a giant spherical alien ship/planet/thing.  Tommy escapes his restraints, Jen and Enisi do not, and it’s up to Tommy to save them, himself, and maybe a great deal more.

 

While the game never leaves the 1st-person perspective, and the player has control of Tommy’s movements ninety-nine percent of the time, Tommy does speak scripted lines without any player input, so his personality is very well-defined (a nice change from the annoyingly mute Gordon Freeman and Doom Marine Dude. Yes, I know, a main character that never speaks avoids forcing a personality onto the player, but I’d take the latter over a soulless flying camera any day.).  I didn’t really like Tommy as a character.  He has something of a character arc, I suppose, but it is a very obvious one that can be predicted a mile away.  He’s also overly earnest and humorless.  For that matter, all of the game’s characters are walking clichés, Enisi and the aliens included.  Prey’s two sci-fi/fantasy elements – the alien incursion and the Native American spiritual stuff – are also done in a rather rote fashion, as if the writer/s just didn’t have strong feelings on either subject.  That said, Prey avoids “sequelitis” and does tell a complete story which is always nice.  (That’s not to say there won’t be a sequel.) 

 


   

 

GAMEPLAY

 

The action in Prey is 75% shooting and 25% puzzles.  The combat is closer to a game like Doom 3 than Halo.  That is to say, Tommy can carry 9 weapons at a time, and the enemies he fights are pretty stupid.  Most weapons have alternate firing modes which are different enough from the corresponding primary modes to basically turn each weapon into an entirely different one.  The weapons look cool, and gross, but they’re not as inventive as they look.  For example, the rocket launcher may launch some sort of a slimy living projectile, but it’s still really just a rocket launcher.  The basic assault rifle’s sniper scope is a living tentacle that latches onto Tommy’s eye, but it’s still really just a sniper rifle for all intents and purposes.  Oh, and the grenades are living green spider thingies that crawl on the ground until one picks them up.  There is no single game-changing weapon like Half-Life 2’s gravity gun, and most weapons entirely lack little quirks to differentiate themselves from the norm.  Probably the coolest weapon is the Leecher the ammo for which, unlike for the other guns, isn’t found lying around but is rather present in the form of wall dispensers that can be “leeched” with the right mouse button.  The real quirk is that there are four kinds of ammo for the Leecher, turning the gun alternately into a machine gun, rail gun, freezer gun, or, well, the Kill-Anything-Really-Fast Gun.  It’s not the most ingenious weapon ever, but it does solve the design problem of how to provide ammo for boss battles: just stick some Leecher dispensers onto the walls, and problem solved.


"The weapons look cool, and gross, but they’re not as inventive as they look."

 

Tommy’s enemies come in a few varieties.  There are the Hunters, which are ostensibly intelligent biped alien types.  They don’t actually take cover or show any kind of tactics, but it doesn’t matter since they can only take a shot or two from the weakest gun before keeling over.  In addition to the Hunters, the later game introduces a few of the freakier, more powerful aliens, some of whom can fly.  So can Tommy, though, with help of the Shuttle vehicle that’s available at special terminals throughout the game.  Like the on-foot combat, the shuttle gameplay is fairly one-dimensional but it does provide extra variety.

 

Prey is at its coolest when it takes basic 3D game mechanics that we no longer even think about and twists them.  The engine supports gravity in arbitrary directions.  The levels are full of special surfaces that let Tommy walk on walls or ceilings, sometimes fighting enemies that are positioned on surfaces at odd angles to his own.  Some rooms are equipped with switches that can be shot to completely switch the gravity direction in those locations.  The alien sphere is a truly giant structure, so there are even weirder gravitational phenomena within it, such as asteroids with their own spherical gravitational fields.  While Prey does more with gravity than any other game I can think of, the sequel can probably do more to make it a part of the combat rather than mostly just a mind-bending twist on environment exploration.

 

Prey also has portals, which are glowing rings in space (or on the sides of certain crates, for some reason) which are basically just glorified doors.  Again, these can be rather mind-bending – for example, one can shoot into a portal and see the bullet come out sideways out of a totally different part of the room – but, usually, the portal is not a particularly exciting way to teleport Tommy from place to place.  It’s cool, but it doesn’t change the gameplay too much compared to any number of shooters.  There is a 20-second-long sequence in a cramped corridor maze which offers a glimpse of something cooler with its “Spacial Anomaly,” as the sign at the entrance helpfully announces, but it’s a tease more than anything else.

 

Finally, Prey gives us one more gameplay mechanic to spice up the FPS experience somewhat.  Tommy can “spirit walk,” wherein his spiritual body separates from his physical one (which can be seen hanging helplessly in the air).  The spiritual body can pass through force fields, which the normal body cannot, as well as press buttons and shoot the Spirit Bow.  A typical puzzle will see Spirit Tommy pass through a couple of force fields, then press a button that activates a remote elevator that transports Real Tommy wherever.  There are no difficult puzzles here, but the whole concept is pretty cool.

 

Overall, Prey is a fun game, but it’s rather average – which makes sense, since the average FPS is rather fun.  It’s also really easy because – get this – Tommy has the ability to resurrect himself in the event of death with no loss of progress whatever.  The game is full of checkpoints and allows to Quicksave, but I am not exaggerating when I say that I never had to reload throughout the game, even though I died quite a few times.  Some will say the game is too easy, and they’ll probably be right.  Nevertheless, the gravitational/portal tricks, as well as the spirit puzzles, do make Prey more exciting that the average first-person shooter. 7.5/10

 


   

 

GRAPHICS

 

Running on id Software’s groundbreaking Doom 3 engine, Prey looks fantastic.  Anything to do with the environment looks stunning.  For some reason, the engine is really great at making shiny, slimy things look appropriately shiny and slimy, which is good for Prey, since it takes place almost entirely inside the metallic alien fortress, which is overgrown with gross, slimy organic matter and pretty, shiny monitors.  The corridors of Prey are also full of cool-looking distorting surfaces like force fields.  All the explosions and projectiles look great, too.  Speaking of corridors, Prey unfortunately has far too many of them.  On the other hand, when the level design allows for a wide-open area, it tends to be a highly imaginative one, especially when the shuttle is involved.  The same, unfortunately, can’t be said of the rest of the art design, which is basically that of a better-lit Doom 3, but quite a bit more generic (lacking the stuff that filled out that game’s world, like the left-behind voice diaries of various Mars base staff members).  Prey also fails to use Doom 3’s dynamic shadow technology to the full extent; while D3 was needlessly dark all of the time, it did show off its engine in all its cool lighting glory.  Prey goes to the other extreme: everything is super well-lit, so some of the engine’s strengths are left untapped.  On the plus side, Prey runs well on 2-year-old hardware, and our review computer, which is admittedly high-end, ran it at the absolute highest settings, at 1600x1200, at a constant 60fps – a far cry from what, say, Oblivion or Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter can do.  The review PC used a 7900GTX card with 2GB of RAM and an Athlon 64 3800+ AM2 processor.

 

Unfortunately, Prey doesn’t look great in every facet.  A banal art design aside, all the human/demi-human characters look really bad, at least compared to some of the games that have come out recently.  Skin doesn’t look right, at all, and hair looks like stiff plastic.  In general, all humans look and move like dolls… low-polygon dolls.  Even some of the more grotesque character models, such as the mutilated humans lack impact.  If you think about it, the mutilated guys are quite sickening, given that their eyes are replaced by metallic tentacles, and their guts are collected in sacks hanging out of their stomachs.  One would think it’d be easy to make this look really disturbing, but in Prey one has to look very closely to notice. 8.5/10

 

SOUND

 

The sound in Prey is utterly average in every way.  There’s some symphonic music, which is pretty good.  Tommy talks quite a bit; his acting is reasonable given what the actor has to work with.  What he has to work with is okay as long as he’s just profanely reacting to the horrible, bloody things he sees – but it’s when he’s in his “reluctant hero” mode that the script falls down and dies a terrible death.  It’s like the writers decided to take the worst possible lines out of every cheesy action B-movie ever made and stick them into this game.  Notice I’m not complaining about the game’s premise; Half-Life shows it’s quite possible to write affecting dialogue in a game based on the preposterously unrealistic premise of an alien invasion.  I think Human Head simply had the game developers writing the dialogue, and it shows.


"It’s like the writers decided to take the worst possible lines out of every cheesy action B-movie ever made and stick them into this game."

 

The rest of the sound work is not bad, but not good, either.  Aliens speak English, which would have been okay if they were as funny as the aliens in Halo; instead, they content themselves with growling things and calling Tommy “human” as an insult.  The Hunters are the only ones that speak, which begs the question of what they are, exactly, and what that language is that’s seen on the monitors throughout the sphere.  Not much of this is explained, so the aliens’ English speaking appears fairly arbitrary, as does much of the game’s sci-fi background. 7/10

 

MULTIPLAYER

 

Prey has no cooperative multiplayer mode, but it does have deathmatch and team deathmatch.  As far as DM goes, Prey’s is as good as it can be, since it actually adds gravity and portals to the now-stale formula.  Unfortunately, DM is also only as good as its weapons, and Prey’s feel fairly unsatisfying.  If you think this multiplayer section of the review is short, that gives you an idea of how important “MultiPrey” is to the overall Prey experience.   In general, I don’t think deathmatch will contain much of this game’s appeal, but it’s good for a few more hours of replay value. 7/10

 

REPLAY VALUE

 

I believe Prey holds the new record in gameplay length per dollar – a record in the wrong direction.  This is a $50 game that ends in less than 8 hours and gets repetitive far before then.  There are no reasons to replay the game, given its as-linear-as-humanly-possible nature and the fact that simply beating the game on a tougher difficulty level just isn’t very rewarding.  As mentioned above, multiplayer adds a bit of replay value, but not enough to really change the fact that this game isn’t worth its price.  Even Tomb Raider: Legend, one of the shortest games in years, at least offered some incentives with extra unlockable content and cost only $10 less. 6/10

 


   


OVERALL

 

Reading over the rest of the review, I fear it might come off as more negative than was my intention.  Prey is a good game, but I think it will underwhelm people’s expectations because those expectations were astronomically high.  Prey had promise, as evidenced by others’ and my own glowing E3 impressions, but perhaps that promise was squandered in making the D3 engine and gravity/portal technology work properly, to the point where imaginative level design and script writing were relative afterthoughts, which is sort of the opposite of the ideal setup.  Big FPS fans may want to give it a shot for $50; the rest of us are probably better off waiting until its price drops at least in half. 7.6/10


"Prey is a good game, but I think it will underwhelm people’s expectations..."

 


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