Catching up on: Prey

Throughout my blog, I’ll be sprinkling reviews on stuff I’ve only just caught up with and I’m desperate to write about. Enjoy!

Reviewed for Xbox 360, Multiplayer not touched because I have too many games to play

Recently, Kotaku has been informing the wider gaming community that Prey 2 is probably going to be developed by Arkane Studios. That’s good news for a few reasons, the most selfish of which being that it makes this retrospective review of Prey a whole lot more relevant. I was fortunate enough to get it for just under £3 in a recent Xbox sale and approached it pretty clean. I knew it had guns, aliens and some portals and that like a few 3D Realms games of the modern era – insert incredibly tired reference to Duke Nukem Forever here- it had a protracted development. Outside of that, all Prey was to me was an early 360 title that would probably be worth than the £2.79 I had to shell out for it.

Taking place on the Sphere – an alien ship that houses creatures who have been abducting from Earth for reasons that are as grim as you would expect – Prey focuses on the desperate attempts of Tommy to save his abducted girlfriend Jen and throughout Prey’s 7-9 hour campaign, it’s hard to tell if Prey is a classic game or just simply a very good one that wears it’s influences well. From the opening bar scene that lets you fiddle with an assortment of frivolous items – an in-game jukebox as well as a depressingly realistic array of slot machines shine here – Prey immediately has a whiff of classic shooters Duke Nukem, Doom and Quake about it. The hellish creatures that haunt you early on and the areas of the sphere that are bathed in darkness share some surface values with Doom 3, but after a brisk introduction to a slightly familiar world, Prey cuts it’s own path.

That’s down to the novel gameplay that places equal value on exploration of space as well as blasting enemies in their lumpy faces. The Sphere is half spaceship, half planet and an environment that soon becomes Prey’s greatest asset. Portals are used frequently to move through this alien cesspit, whether as a cheeky way for the game to spawn enemies or as part of puzzles that have zipping across different parts of the Sphere, but it’s a testament to the design that they never feel intrusive or flashy, instead they form a key part of the game’s appeal as you hop through them – although time and Valve’s Portal series has almost certainly diluted their complexity.

But portals aren’t the only novel twist that Prey provide. There are gravity switches, magnetic walkways and even your “Spirit Walk”, an ability that lets your body and spirit separate, giving you a chance to sneak up on enemies and dispatch them with a bow and pass through force fields. On their own, they’re neat additions and add a bit of variety to the Sphere, turning it into a world you want to explore rather than a series of loosely connected rifle ranges. When mixed together properly, these elements turn Prey into something special, as you solve convoluted problems that never become too complicated and don’t distract from the main aim of the game – the shooting.

Which is a shame, because Prey’s gameplay in this respect is a shade less memorable. It’s small grouping of firearms is mixture between serviceable and stylish – just try not to fall in love with the gun that shoots acid – while enemies are varied enough to keep the action engaging . Yet, there are few moments where the gunplay is as satisfying as the exploration and it was quite rare to get the same sort of buzz that was present when progressing past a maze compared to blasting away at some poor human who has been genetically modified to still function without a head. That isn’t to say the combat isn’t enjoyable, but that Prey feels just that little bit more mundane in it’s firefights and that’s brought into sharper focus by it’s world.

If the gameplay flirts regularly with being a classic, the story manages to remove some of that goodwill. Stuck between moments of genuine horror and campy adventure, it never manages to produce a story worthy of the premise. It’s not helped by characters who have no depth or are just plain awful. Tommy’s Cherokee background makes him more interesting by virtue of not being a bald space marine, yet he is squandered by his surliness and idiocy. His grandfather is a token mystical elder type and his girlfriend Jen spends the entire gaming screaming  for Tommy, like any damsel in distress. Add in some illogical decisions by Tommy and a twist so obvious I was annoyed it didn’t happen early on and the narrative’s only use is as an example of how far storytelling has progressed this generation. Yet despite this, there are still moments where the game

 

But it’s to the games benefit that it rarely becomes a major issue. In many ways, Prey is as close to classic as an FPS can be with without actually being it. It’s gameplay is far more engaging because of it’s “gimmicks” and it has some set-pieces that  simply manage to transcend the story, with an opening that goes from gear to gear with the very clever use of a song that needed just a little more cowbell…

Prey after seven years still manages to stand up well and while Prey 2 is now undergoing the sort of stop-start development that will make fans of endless development cycles excited, it’s hard not to wonder what the series could have been with a bit more polish. 3D Realms and Human Head’s original game deserves a look back, as chances are, it’s sequel is going to try as hard as possible to pretend the original never happened. Even then, the original attempt looked like it was ditching Tommy for a new angle, as witnessed in the 2011 E3 trailer.

The original Prey might not leave much of a legacy, but for those who are willing to look back and give it a chance, there’s a forgotten great of this generation lurking within its rough story.

Have you played Prey? Do you want to after reading my look back at it? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

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