Prey has all of the markings of a summer blockbuster. Itâ€™s loud, itâ€™s bold, itâ€™s in your face. It has a few twists here and there but mostly adheres to a singular formula: be a rigidly linear corridor shooter with a lousy narrative and mundane AI. You control Tommy, an Indian dude living life on a reservation somewhere, which he really wants to leave with his girlfriend Jen. He also dismisses his grandfather for holding onto those Native American beliefs, one of which is apparently a love of fire water, since Pops sidles up to the bar and pounds a cold one after your opening conversation.
After a short intro scene where Tommy gets to beat up some rowdy patrons, aliens show up looking for some grub and abduct Tommy, his grandfather, and his girlfriend. This scenario is supposed to be Tommyâ€™s chance to gain redemption and to attempt to connect with his Native American voodoo heritage and save his people. All it really shows is his narcissism. Throughout the game, he only cares about his own needs. He wants to find his girlfriend and he wants vengeance (in that order). He has little concern for anyone else in this alien world, even though theyâ€™re clearly suffering.
Fortunately, the narrative is offset by the superb gameplay. Its formulaic parts are buffed to near-perfection; its twists are clever and interesting. It uses â€œportals,â€ which add an interesting twist to standard levels. They allow monsters to â€œwarpâ€ into areas. Unlike the heavily criticized monster closets of DOOM 3, itâ€™s an internally consistent contrivanceâ€”aliens can make portals, so of course theyâ€™ll warp to your location. More often, the portals let developer Human Head create â€œimpossibleâ€ levels where you can change the laws of physics.
The technology used throughout Prey is superb. The DOOM 3 engine is as shiny as ever, and it retains the obsessive attention to detail of id Softwareâ€™s original game. Prey certainly isnâ€™t â€œprettyâ€ in any conventional sense. Everything from the levels themselves to the weapons found on the spaceship is consistently organic and alien looking. In fact, everything is downright disgusting. Squishy, even. The walls ooze; creatures emerge from vagina-like slits; sphincters spew out explosive balls of organic material or projectile vomit all sorts of unknown waste products. Yes, this is an M-rated game. The sound also does a terrific job of conveying just how gross this place isâ€”it makes you want to shower after extended play session.
More impressive is the way all this technology is used to create some fantastic places to play in. While Prey doesnâ€™t have the epic set pieces of Half-Life 2, most of the levels are interesting. They also have actual puzzles. You often find yourself figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B, and it never involves platforming. You go through these complex environments without being led through them. In most cases, you navigate the environments either by altering a roomâ€™s gravity, causing it to spin around, or by turning on machines that allow you to walk on walls in certain areas.
You never lose your orientation, because the game does a brilliant job of using visual cuesâ€”like airflows, visible debris, and relatively â€œnormalâ€ environmentsâ€”to help orient the player. There are some areas where you need to have â€œout of bodyâ€ Native American experiences in order to manipulate objects; in some instances, you leave your body on a platform, flip a switch, and watch as youâ€™re carried off to another location. Thereâ€™s even a 3D version of a sliding tile puzzle (kind of). To Preyâ€™s considerable credit, these are actually smart puzzles that give some needed pause to the brainless action. They donâ€™t break up the action; if anything, they serve as buffers between shooting segments.
In fact, itâ€™s too bad there arenâ€™t more of them. Two-thirds of the single-player game is fantastic, but the other third throws out much of the cool stuff and replaces it with totally conventional, repetitive, and dull combat and boss fights. (Lots of designers must worship Star Castle, because itâ€™s the go-to game for these big battles.) At least Human Head and 3D Realms nail the difficulty, so itâ€™s never frustrating. This is a game you will finish because it (optionally) scales its difficulty level to your ability. If you die, you can either reload or â€œfightâ€ your way back to life in its â€œdeath walkingâ€ mode.
* * *
Actually, you donâ€™t need to fight, as you can just sit there and eventually return to the game; however, if you shoot more of the â€œspiritsâ€ (or whatever they are), you recover more health. Itâ€™s a clever mechanic. For one thing, if you are dumb enough to quicksave yourself into a corner by pressing F5 during a firefight, when you’re very low on health, then you can simply engage in this minigame and still have a fighting chance. Prey never really lets up. Even in its slower moments, youâ€™re doing something interesting or wallowing in something disgusting.
Itâ€™s exactly like one of those big-budget Hollywood summer blockbusters: You wish it gave your brain as much of a work-out as your finger, but thereâ€™s no question that its superb action, terrific pacing, and actual puzzles combine to make Prey the best singleplayer first-person shooter since Half-Life 2.
System Requirements: Pentium IV 1.5 Ghz, 512 MB RAM, 128 MB Video, 1.61 GB HDD, WinXP