Review: Prey (XB360)


Prey
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Human Head Studios/3D Realms
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: 7/11/06

Prey is certainly an odd bird. If you KNEW about the game at all, you pretty much assumed you’d never see it; it was originally announced in the late 90’s, back when FPS titles were all the rage, and after being hyped up as the next big thing… it vanished. The game was canned not too far afterward, and for a great many years, pretty much everyone forgot about it.

Until it popped up again sometime last year as a PC/Xbox 360 title, and pretty much everyone laughed, myself included. Prey, that’s funny. Sure.

Well, I’m not laughing now, so points for that, I suppose.

The question that immediately comes up, I’d wager, is “Is this decade old game any good”, to which I can firmly say yes, yes it is. But the harder questions to answer are “Is it worth the ten years we waited” and “Is it worth my $60 as a 360 owner”, to which I’d have to say… uh, well, maybe. No more lead in, let’s get to work.


1. STORY


You spend the entirety of Prey in the lead role of Domasi, AKA Tommy, which we will call him as that’s what pretty much everyone calls him. Tommy is a Cherokee Indian of presumably pure heritage (we’re not told as such, but it’s fairly obvious) who absolutely despises his heritage and his life on the reservation. He sees the reservation not as sacred land, but as a prison that he means to escape, hopefully with his girlfriend Jen in tow. Says I, I wouldn’t mind living in a casino all the time, but apparently Tommy’s family wasn’t that ambitious. And yes, I just went there; I’m part Cherokee, piss off.

Anyway, after his grandfather, Enisi, pays him a visit to dispense cryptic warnings… oh yeah, and Tommy beats some drunks to death (don’t ask)… aliens come and take him, Enisi, and Jen off to outer space, to do all sorts of nefarious things to their anatomy, one would assume. Humanoid rescuers come to Tommy’s aid, and he ends up somewhere in the bowels of the spaceship, with nothing but a wrench and a lighter to help him in his quest to save his girlfriend and his grandfath-uh, make that his girlfriend.

The major problem with Prey’s plot is that it’s a complete also-ran stereotype. I mean, here’s the gist: you’re stuck on an alien ship, trying to save your girlfriend, denying your heritage the whole way, while the aliens pick up lots and lots of people to serve their own nefarious ends. Every single plot development you could expect from such a concept comes to pass, and whether or not they’re well-written or well developed (hint: they’re not) isn’t really relevant; what is relevant is that you’ve seen them all. Hell, let’s be honest: you’ve seen MOST of them in the two games this game takes its’ engine from, Doom 3 and Quake 4. Nothing plot-wise here is anything you haven’t seen before, and while some of the presentation is neat, the concepts said presentation is based on is pretty well-worn territory. Also, the plot leaves way too many questions unanswered, especially at the end, where you’re left with a crapload of questions that the writers just didn’t feel the need to answer for one reason or another, and you get the feeling that those answers won’t be coming any time soon, if ever (notwithstanding the fact that the ending was just kind of bland, to be honest). For those that wonder what I mean, here’s a simple example: in the earlier parts of the game (and you see this in the demo as well, for those that have played that), malicious spirits turn up and start to do nasty things. They eventually turn against Tommy in a few parts, and the evil alien overlord makes the observation that it had nothing to do with these things running around. We expect that some sort of explanation will be provided for WHY these things are running around and what, if anything, they mean, but after a couple of harrowing battles with the spirits, we rarely see them again, and they’re never brought up afterward. I have no idea why this is, but I suspect the writers simply got bored with them and decided to move on to other things. Regardless, there’s no resolution to this plot point, and I suspect there never will be.

To be fair, however, two elements of the plot do stand out. Tommy as a disinterested Cherokee Indian is a good, solid plot concept, and it’s a good contrast to the various ethnic storylines we as gamers have seen across the years. Tommy is portrayed as a real person with real motivations, as opposed to being a flat character who only does what he does out of loyalty to his tribe and people, and it’s fairly refreshing to see that Human Head didn’t go in that direction just because they chose to cast Tommy as Native American. Also, it’s good to see a character with purely selfish motivations pop up in a game now and again (see also Kratos from God of War), as characters who are either virtuous by default or who become virtuous over time are becoming played out. You can certainly empathize with Tommy’s plight, because while concepts like saving the world and beating back an alien threat might be a touch foreign, concepts like love and revenge are entirely relatable, and in the case of Prey, they’re well done.

So, in the end, you have a solid, reasonable main character in a flat, stereotypical storyline that asks more questions than it answers and does nothing new. Is the plot the reason you’re going to play a game like this? Probably not. COULD it have been the reason? Absolutely, but not in this case. Prey’s plot yields a memorable main character in a forgettable experience, which might bode well for a sequel (and I think, aside from the ending of Brave Fencer Musashi and Run Like Hell, this might have been the only time the suggestion of a sequel by the game’s ending made me ill), but does nothing here and now.

Story Rating: 5/10


2. GRAPHICS


One thing that absolutely can be said about Prey is that it’s visually awesome. The various characters look and animate well, as do the various enemies you encounter throughout the game. The presentation of the various enemies is also good, as most of your various foes are appropriately hideous and grotesque (though they don’t respond nearly as well as I’d like to, say, being shot in the face). The game also features a distinct sense of life, from the most meager enemies to the weapons (watch your first gun and note the eyeball that stretches out of the side of it on occasion… ick) to the very backgrounds, and it lends well to the ambience of the game world. Environments are highly detailed and appropriately convey the vision of the designers. The various gravity and portal effects are also very impressive, especially the portal effects, which feature the air warping around the sides of the portals as you circle around them, to indicate (I’m guessing) a rip in reality itself. And when the developers needed to employ such things, scale is extremely well implemented, and the implementation of such is put to very solid use. In short, Prey is a very pretty game.

But it’s not perfect. The game makes use of the Doom 3 engine for its visuals, and while it does some things far better than Doom 3 itself did, other things aren’t done nearly as well. For instance, I don’t know about you, but when I want to use things like a faucet or a toilet, I don’t feel the need to slap the hell out of them to make them work (yeah, okay, that’s not something that pops up often in the game, but D3 implemented such things to far better effect than Prey does, and it’s still kind of lazy). Also, enemies don’t react very noticeably when shot, except in death, and after having played various FPS titles where the enemies noticeably react to being attacked (several such titles were even played on this very system), I find that to be kind of lame. And while the game DOES present scale very well visually, eighty percent of your game experience will be spent in corridors, hallways, and small rooms, many of which look the same after a while, which just seems like a stylistic waste. Overall, these are small concerns, admittedly, and they didn’t take me so far out of the game as to ruin the experience, but they are there. These nitpickings aside, Prey is yet another visually impressive title on a system full of them, and you’ll be hard pressed to find too many games that look better than this.

Graphics Rating: 9/10


3. SOUND

The music in Prey is okay, for the most part, as it’s appropriately ambient and reasonably well put together, but it’s not really anything that stands out. It should be noted that Prey is compatible with the custom soundtrack feature, but as the normal in-game music is set at lower, ambient tones, so will your soundtrack have to be if you want to hear half of the in-game dialogue. Also, there ARE licensed tracks, but you’ll only hear them in the roadhouse in the beginning of the game and one or two times afterward, which is kind of a shame. On the other hand, unless you’re the sort of person that wants to blow away aliens to Heart or Ted Nugent, maybe you won’t mind so much.

The sound effects in Prey are also fairly solid, but they tend to lack the sort of punch one would expect from an FPS. The various weapons sound appropriate, but lack for any sort of oomph in their various rapports, and this takes you out of the experience a bit. The aliens all largely sound creepy and… uh, alien, with the exception of the Hunters, who start speaking in English about a quarter of the way through the game. I found this to be acceptable, because we’d seen such a thing in the Halo franchise, but it probably would’ve been cooler if the aliens spoke in unintelligible gibberish, if only to add to the setting. The normal voice acting is pretty solid, especially from Tommy, who sounded very convincing and believable… well, as believable as anyone voice acting the savior of the world could be, I guess. None of the voice actors turns in a bad performance in the least, honestly, and even the smallest parts are handled well. It’s not good enough to salvage the aural experience completely, but hey, it does bring it up well above average, so you’ll definitely find yourself on the receiving end of what is a pretty good aural presentation.

Sound Rating: 7/10


4. CONTROL/GAMEPLAY


The good news is that if you’ve played an FPS, you’ve played Prey, and will therefore be able to acclimate to it right away. The controls are easy to get down; left stick moves, right stick aims, right trigger fires primary, left trigger enables a weapon’s secondary characteristics. You have a jump and a duck, weapon switching on the fly is a snap, indeed, it’s pretty much everything you’ve come to expect from the genre. One nice change made by Prey is that while Tommy has a light source (his Zippo or some likeness thereof), similar to Doom 3 and Quake 4, he can enable it at ANY time, not simply with certain weapons. Prey compensates for this wonderfully implemented change that fans of the prior two titles desired by… um… asking you to use the lighter a sum total of twenty minutes throughout the course of the game. Oh well.

There are a few things that Prey does do differently, however, and they’re interesting enough that they deserve separate mention. The first is the “Spirit Walk”, which basically lets you walk around as a spirit outside of Tommy’s body to accomplish tasks. This allows you to cross certain spirit bridges that you wouldn’t have access to in physical form, as well as bypass force fields and electric eye traps with no problem. In spirit form, you’re also armed with a bow and arrow that can kill many enemies in one shot, at the cost of some of your spirit energy (which can be replenished by killing more enemies), so as not to leave you defenseless. Unfortunately, it seems as though more could be done with the idea, as the only real reason to USE the ability in the first place is to solve puzzles presented by the aforementioned laser eyes and force fields. It’s a neat idea, but seems woefully lacking in terms of actual execution.

There are also some neat gameplay concepts in play as far as gravity is concerned. Various walkways exist that allow you to walk along walls and ceilings (so long as they’re powered up), which is not only a visually cool idea, but is also pretty neat in terms of gameplay dynamics (being able to snipe at enemies from the ceiling, for instance). Various puzzles also implement changing gravity by requiring you to shoot panels in the floors/walls/ceilings that change the gravitational orientation of the area you’re in, which is pretty amusing the first few times you do it (especially when Tommy pukes all over himself), though you’ll probably get used to it quickly.

The bad news is that, well, if you’ve played an FPS, you’ve played Prey, and won’t find too much that’s dramatically different. Aside from the gravity tricks and Spirit Walking, the only really new gameplay trick up Prey’s sleeve is Death Walking, which is ultimately more bad than good. When you die in Prey, instead of simply being forced to start over, you’re transported to the spirit realm and, bow in hand, offered various flying red and blue spirits to shoot at (red equals health, blue equals spirit energy). After a set period of time, you’re thrust back into the physical world with your bars replenished with whatever energy you received from killing those enemies. In theory, this allows you a chance to try again in case you bite it, but in practice, all this ends up doing is taking the excitement out of the game. Firefights are no longer tense, white knuckle affairs, even on the highest difficulty setting, as you can simply return from death to wage war in about a minute (unless you’re a pitiful shot, and if you are, there’s no point in playing Prey anyway) thanks to the Death Walk. This also lends to the developers simply sticking you in giant rooms filled to capacity with heavy hitting enemies because instead of death being the end, here it’s merely an inconvenience. On the plus side, if this is your first FPS, this could be a boon; otherwise, it removes the challenge from the experience, which isn’t a good thing.

Also, while there are a great number of weapons, none of them are dramatically different from anything you’ve seen in other FPS titles. Aside from the rocket launcher’s goop shield (that totally eliminates incoming enemy fire), every weapon you see in the game, while they are PRESENTED in an interesting fashion, works like pretty much every weapon you’ve ever seen in an FPS. Shotgun, machine gun, chaingun, they’re all here and they’re all about as interesting as you’d expect. The game works off of the idea that everything in the game world is bio-mechanical in origin, so some weaponry that took advantage of this idea would have been neat, but alas, none exists.

And as far as multiprey… er, multiplay is concerned, it’s limited. You can basically screw around in your now standard deathmatch and team deathmatch variants, and the game manages to be fairly fun in multiplayer, but for someone who’s been playing, say, Perfect Dark Zero since the 360’s launch, the experience is woefully lacking. It’s not that it’s not good or fun (it is), it’s that the experience is meager compared to other titles, especially those that exist on the console already.

All told, Prey controls well, plays well, feels pretty good, and overall delivers a solid play experience. But… that’s about it. The single player mode offers little variety and virtually no reason to return to it after one go around, and multiplayer lacks the depth or substance it would need to keep the game in your rotation. Most of what the game offers feels rehashed or underdeveloped, and while none of it is truly BAD, most of it is pretty mediocre.

Control/Gameplay Rating: 6/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

Depends. If you’re looking for the next Half-Life 2, score it a 1; the single player campaign lacks the challenge to be worth playing through, and the storyline isn’t compelling enough to experience again. There’s no impetus on the player to do even remotely well, and there’s not a single white-knuckle battle to bring yourself back to.

If you’re looking for some same-console multi-player, score it a 1 as well; there is none.

But if you’re looking for some online deathmatch, there’s some decent fun to be had with Prey, as the portals and gravity trickery come into play in online maps nicely, and it makes for an experience you’ve probably not had so far. That said, there’s nothing to really bring you back to Prey beyond, say, Perfect Dark, Call of Duty, or any of the other FPS’ on the console. You’ll find some replay value here, but not enough to justify $60. So, call it a 6.

Replayability Rating: 4/10


6. BALANCE

There’s an interesting dynamic at work in Prey: on one hand, there are multiple difficulty levels to choose from (two to start, and a third once you’ve beaten the game under Cherokee difficulty), each catering to a different skill level, and even on the easiest skill level, challenges pop up from time. On the other hand, death is pretty much temporary unless you’re really pitiful at the game, and the fact that you can save at pretty much any time removes what little challenge the game would otherwise present. The puzzles are mildly challenging (more due to the perception of gravity as a constant in games than anything else), but combat will never pose much of an issue because hey, even if you die, you’ll be back in about thirty seconds. In short, beating Prey on even the most difficult settings is purely a matter of determination and will rather than any sort of skill, which is kind of depressing.

Multiplayer deathmatches are a good bit more balanced than the single player campaign, as would be expected, but the fact that the primary gun doubles as a sniper rifle, to me, is a little unbalanced, and probably should have been taken into consideration. Otherwise, so long as you’re not hideously out-matched by your opponents, online play should provide a far more balanced experience than the campaign can offer.

Balance Rating: 6/10


7. ORIGINALITY

There are some novel touches here and there that liven Prey up a bit in the originality department (ripping the leg off of a little green alien and throwing it at an enemy as a grenade is amusing and different), but by and large the game is nothing you haven’t seen before. The portals are neat the first couple of times, and the gravity tricks are definitely special, but the game itself is ultimately an FPS with three gimmicks (portals, gravity tricks, and the Spirit Walk), all of which are neat, but none of which really feel like they were well fleshed out. It borrows heavily from more than a few places, and while parts of the execution are novel, the entire game as a whole can be expressed in the following equation:

Doom 3 + Quake 4 + The Last of the Mohicans + Star Wars = Prey.

That about sums it up.

Originality Rating: 3/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS


Prey isn’t so much addictive in the sense that one would actively desire to play through it voluntarily so much as they would complete it by sheer force of will. There’s little challenge to the single player campaign, so unless you’re absolutely miserable at FPS titles, the game is an experience in pushing not against the challenge of your opponents, but rather against your own apathy. To be fair, the first half (and one or two segments of the second half) of the game treats you to some effects and presentation elements you haven’t seen before, but the closer you get towards completing the game, the more rote the game becomes. Earlier parts of the game will wow you with the portals and the gravity tricks, and you’ll draw interest in the alien technology and such, but there’s little variety to the game, and after a while everything seems to blend into everything else. By the time you come to the point where you’re hit with the various plot twists that make up the ending, you’ll either be so completely hooked on the story that you won’t mind the next several hours of repetitive battles, or you’ll simply force yourself to complete the game because hey, you’ve gotten this far.

There’s also really nothing to get you into the game if you’ve played at least two FPS titles in the past two years, as Prey does little its contemporaries don’t do. Unless you’re heavily addicted to shooting things in the face, you won’t find anything here to keep you interested beyond the first few hours. Those first few hours are pretty awesome, to be fair, but Prey’s ultimately a single stunt equine, and while the show is cool the first time, by the tenth time you’re about ready to ship it to the glue factory.

Addictiveness Rating: 5/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

Well, Prey is an oddity in that it’s a cancelled game that came back, so hey, that’s gotta call out to someone. Beyond that, it’s an FPS with some interesting tricks up its sleeve, some interesting storyline concepts, and it’s available for a console that has a game selection that the word “dearth” could be considered a kind description of. As a first-gen title in a slow period, you’ll definitely find something worth PLAYING here, but I don’t know that you’d find something worth OWNING unless you’re seriously hard-up for some FPS action.

Appeal Rating: 7/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS

Prey does a lot of stylistic things very, very right, and it does the core elements perfectly fine. That in and of itself puts it head and shoulders above a lot of other games in the genre. But it really fails to do anything dramatically interesting with its new concepts, and the things it rehashes are old and stale to the point that one never need really play them again. The special effects are neat and the design concepts are interesting, but there’s only so many meat-crapping wall-mounted assholes, ceiling-mounted vaginal tunnel entryways, and goofy gravity puzzles one can be expected to work with before one desires something more substantial.

That’s not to say that Prey isn’t fun (it is) or that it isn’t good (it is). It’s simply not fun more than once, and not great. It’s technically sound, conceptually interesting, and does enough to merit its own existence, but it’s not a blowaway title or “Game of the Year”. That’s not a knock against it; most games aren’t. That Prey came out at all is amazing enough; that it isn’t a bomb is doubly so. I certainly can’t recommend purchasing it, but I can say it’s definitely worth playing at least once.

It should be noted that I’ve seen several reports of the game locking up infrequently on the 360, but as I never experienced it, I can’t say it’s a notable problem. Be on your toes with the saves, but don’t expect it to lock up. Also, I’m probably in the minority here, but I honestly felt like the game was entirely too long, especially towards the end, but your mileage may vary.

Miscellaneous Rating: 6/10

The Scores:
Story: 5/10
Graphics: 9/10
Sound: 7/10
Control/Gameplay: 6/10
Replayability: 4/10
Balance: 6/10
Originality: 3/10
Addictiveness: 5/10
Appeal: 7/10
Miscellaneous: 6/10

Overall Score: 5.8/10
Final Score: 6.0 (FAIR).

Short Attention Span Summary
Prey is an above average shooter on a console that has plenty of other above average shooters available. If you’re jonesing for a new FPS or a new 360 game, you could certainly do a lot worse than Prey, but if you’re looking for a great new game, Prey is worth a rental, but not too much else. The limited multiplayer and generally okay single player experiences mesh together to make the game one that does some neat new things, but doesn’t do them so well that the underlying product becomes great in return. Still, Prey is worth a look, and maybe a sequel will do something with the otherwise interesting concepts that are here.