We're well into the Summer Blockbuster movie season, and Prey seemingly wants in on the action. Much like the mixed opinions on the majority of summer blockbusters, there'll be people who claim Prey is the greatest game ever to grace a video game system, and there'll be others that can't actually see past the fact that it's not what the other people are saying it is. The truth (in my opinion) is that Prey is a game high on fun, packed with action, but not without a number of infuriating problems.
As far as opening sequences go, Prey pretty much nails it. If you haven't already played the demo and don't know what happens, I won't spoil it, but the gist is that Tommy (a Cherokee man), his girlfriend Jen, and his grandfather, are taken to an alien colony. In typical sci-fi story fashion, these aliens harvest humans for food, so when grandfather bites the dust (not as big a spoiler as you might think) and you're separated from Jen, you're in somewhat of hurry to rescue her before the inevitable pulverising.
What plays out would be a pretty simple 'good guy versus aliens' FPS, but things are shaken up by the 'clever' use of gravity, portals, and the ability to 'Spirit Walk'. For some reason that's completely unknown, these aliens live in a place where gravity can be manipulated at will. Walkways that let you scale walls, and gravity switches that simply change the direction of gravity's pull are featured throughout the adventure. It's certainly a neat gimmick, and throws up some insane level designs and a few tricky puzzles, but it doesn't make for the gaming nirvana that we'd been led to believe.
The problem, and one that can be passed over if you're simply out to have a blast, is that none of it makes sense. As the hero in this quest to save your girlfriend and planet earth, you need to believe that this place could really function like it does, and for the most part you really can't. Rooms that feature numerous gravity switches, walkways that seem to have no real purpose, and puzzles that seem forced rather than simply being part of the environment, don't make for a believable game world. Is it fun? Yes. Does it feel forced for the sake of being something original? Completely.
Much has been made of the 'Portal' technology seen in Prey, and to be fair it's pretty damn cool - at least for the first few hours. They're basically one-sided doors suspended in air that take you to another part of the level. This is actually much cooler than it sounds, as you can peer into these portals, seeing the area you'll be teleported to, and even see enemies launch an attack through the portal door. As neat as these are, I never got the sense that they'd been used to their full extent. You get a few "Ooooh, clever," moments, but for the most part they're used to ship in another wave of enemies, or as a device for a puzzle.
From an early stage in the game Tommy is given the ability to Spirit Walk. You can take control of his spirit (while his body hangs motionless in the air) and in this alternate world you can see and use things that aren't in the mortal world. Armed with a bow and arrow, you also have the potential to cause a lot of damage, but you'll need to return to Tommy's body in order to make your way through the majority of the levels. Nearly every puzzle in the game uses the spirit walking ability, and by the end it's all a bit predictable: Spirit walk through a force field, deactivate force field, re-enter body and move onto the next area. There are a few clever puzzles here and there, but at times you'll wonder why it's necessary to continually repeat the same set of actions.
While the pros and cons of the portals, changing gravity and spirit walking can be argued, the weapon selection is top drawer and nicely varied. The current trend to limit weapons you can carry is gladly nowhere to be seen, so after a while you'll be carrying a sack load of guns, all deserving their place in your arsenal. Each weapon also includes a secondary mode, with everything from a grenade launcher for your machine gun-like weapon, to a recharge tool for the rather excellent Leech gun, capable of using numerous energy types as ammo. At times you will be faced with so many enemies that your more powerful weapons run dry, so you'll be forced to fall back on your standard Hunter Rifle. Thankfully this never runs out of ammo and can double as a very handy sniper rifle. At various points you'll hop into a small spaceship, equipped with a tractor beam and a gun. Because you can move around in all directions within the 3D space the controls become awkward at times, but on the whole the vehicle sections break up the gameplay quite nicely and the powerful weapon lets you dispose of enemies without much trouble.
Being swamped by enemies isn't a prevalent problem, but as the action heats up towards the tail end of the game, it does occasionally verge on overkill. Thankfully you can't actually die, not in the traditional 'game over' sense anyway. When you 'die' Tommy is taken to the Death World. Here you'll be in spirit form and must take down as many wraiths as possible, replenishing your health and spirit gauges as much as possible before being returned to the real world. This could very easily be seen as a cop-out by Human Head, implemented in order to side-step choke points within the game, but it works. Rather than tearing your hair out over a seemingly impassable section, you know that you'll get another shot at it straight away. It does make the game pretty simple, but at least gives everyone a chance to make it through to the end. It's worth noting that the Xbox 360 version doesn't feature the same quick save option that the PC game does, but you can still exit to a menu to save your progress, and the game auto saves at the start of each new level.
How quickly you reach the end is another bone of contention. Modern games aren't very long. I think that by now we're beyond the point where ten hours is considered short, as it really is the norm for action oriented titles, but Prey can be completed in a few hours less than that. Mileage will vary depending on how quickly you crack the puzzles (on occasion merely finding the exit is a challenge in itself), but the end is in sight pretty early on, and most people will get there in little more than seven hours. It doesn't feel rushed, but even so, with a next-gen price tag forced upon Xbox 360 players, it'll be a disappointment for many people. What's more, the harder difficulty setting isn't available on your first run through, which could have made the experience last a few hours more.
The Doom 3 Engine isn't exactly new technology (Doom 3 ran on the Xbox), and there is more than a slight resemblance in Prey's appearance to that of Doom 3 and Quake 4, but the game is still very good looking. The environments and enemy models look great, the lighting works well without ever being overly dark, and the portals look superb. What isn't so great is how well the game runs on the Xbox 360. PC owners can achieve good performance on a moderately powered system, but 360 owners will have to suffer a somewhat sluggish frame rate. It's nowhere near as horrific as that seen in the port of Quake 4, but it's far from silky smooth. Texture detail also takes a hit in the Xbox 360 game, with the high-end PC version looking noticeably sharper if compared side by side. It's a great looking game no matter how you play it, but it's a shame Xbox 360 owners didn't get a slightly more polished product.
One area that really doesn't disappoint is the audio. The soundtrack is the star of the show, with some brilliant tunes and a collection of great licensed tracks that crop up from time to time, although perhaps not often enough. Weapon effects are solid, and while the aliens don't really say much, they sound great and never irritate due to overuse of certain sayings. Tommy can often be heard shouting amusing swear-filled sentences as things happen in the game, and the voice acting across the board has been handled well. At various points you'll hear radio broadcasts picked up by the alien equipment, often featuring amusing stories on what's happening on earth involving the alien invasion. It's all integrated seamlessly and really ads to the atmosphere and sense that the human race is being monitored.
After the disappointing end of the game is reached (do any games end well these days?) there is more to do. Full online Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch play is included, and it has a rather unique Prey twist. Game modes are pretty standard, but it's the way the maps are designed that makes online Prey a completely different experience to what you'll be accustomed to. Walls can be walked on, players are running around all over the place, above, below and beside you, and it's utter chaos. Spirit walking is also available, but your spirit gauge will gradually run out over time, meaning you'll have limited time to make a kill.
It might be a little too insane for players that prefer traditional Quake and Unreal Tournament gameplay, but it's great to play something that's not a carbon copy of every other online game on the market. Sadly, at least for the time being, Xbox 360 owners aren't going to have the same amount of fun as PC players. Both versions are limited to eight players, but there are some serious lag issues with the Xbox 360 game. Problems depend on connection quality, but finding a smooth game was far from easy. These online issues, slightly inferior visuals, and a higher price tag make the PC game the one to go for if you've got the choice, unless of course you're addicted to achievement points on the Xbox 360 or your PC is showing its age.
If you pick up Prey, even as a rental, you'll have a good time. The unique gravity and portal mechanics bolted onto the fairly traditional FPS gameplay make for a fun ride, and something that you can blast through over a weekend. Whether or not it's good value for money is debateable, but the online component has the potential to become very popular. A sequel is definitely coming (it even says so in the game), and the foundation has been set for a strong series, but as a true contender to the FPS crown Prey falls a fair way short.