Bound for tragedy, the nine year old title has made it to stores this summer triumphant, albeit the interminable delay from first showcasing in 1997 to shelves circa 2006 has resulted in much confusion, hence the less-than-stellar critical reactions you may see elsewhere.
For Prey is being bunched with the on-going, and oft exhilarating, slew of first person shooters, still in vogue and dominating proceedings, particularly on the PC. However, it isn't one such game despite following the genre's visual conventions. In fact, it has more in common with 80's pioneers Cinemaware, whose glorious and ignominious interactive movies on the Amiga were cast aside, like Prey accused of low difficulty levels and pre-scripted events.
Of course quite easy and pre-scripted, because Prey doesn't wish to come across hard to get or sophisticated, but, lo and behold, simply fun. It is one of the smoothest games we've seen in recent years, compelling players along not by hardened challenge but rather sheer pleasure and a desire to see what's in store next.
It is also an amazingly stable game, suffering none of the encumbrances known to occur with alarming regularity in other titles. To that extent, Prey resembles last year's Area 51, another roller coaster ride crucified by industry and players for being too timid and lacking the simple press power of its Doom, Half-Life and FEAR siblings.
Forget all that: Prey is a masterpiece, putting fun and superlative storytelling first. A big boon is the maturity of the tale, with a lot of good language, real gore and even fighting against wicked children.
Reasonably enjoyable action and quite attractive visuals help, but above all else it's the game's consideration of players that wins us over. It's never too hard or frustrating, and gives you those vital ingredients somehow often missing in other releases.
For starters, the way it all begins, at a remote reservation bar on a dark, stormy night. Protagonist Tommy, considered Cherokee by his grandfather Anisi and girlfriend Jen, but really eager to shed that identity and look for a new one. This scene introduces characters and play mechanics well, preparing Tommy for the fight ahead, as an unknown force kidnaps him and his loved ones, forcing the reluctant hero on a path of discovery and courage.
But here we also glimpse Prey's professionalism: jukeboxes come with a host of full rock tracks, clocks animate and change in real time, rain falls outside in rhythm, and Don't Fear the Reaper plays just at the right moment. Beautiful.
The cavalcade of neat touches doesn't not stop there, with the unfolding alien environment into which Tommy is cast feeling real and consistent. There's cyborg weapons that move and squirm as you hold them, cool snippets of radio host Art Bell's UFO-centric late night show Coast to Coast AM, memorable alien propaganda and even wacky perspective changes. That's among Prey's chief innovations, enabling players to walk on walls and traverse portals that zip one among locations, a feature generating more than a few fun puzzles.
Opponents, most twisted and delectably incorrect in the political department, deploy excellent animation, and while obviously inspired by those from the aforementioned shooter franchises and even the Matrix movies, are engrossing in engagement and leave a lasting, entertaining impression. None are overly challenging or intelligent, and in fact the AI can't do much more than move around or take random cover, but it wouldn't matter anyway, since you can't die.
That's right, not only does the game allow saves anytime, players are also technically invincible courtesy of Tommy's Spritiwalk ability, an alternate game mode akin to Area 51's mutant switch. Learned in the beautifully-realized Land of the Ancients realm, Spiritwalk opens up areas off-limits to the physical body, granting Tommy a mythical bow weapon that's frankly of little use. Importantly, when the material shell dies, the spirit lives on, ultimately allowing for a return to almost the exact spot where Tommy died. No restarting levels and that kind of shinola here.
That's the crux of it: you're not supposed to win, beat or conquer Prey, but kick back and relish the ride, just like a truly good movie. Therefore, its cinematography is definitely up to spec, Human Head's penchant for detail and drama paying dividends as gamers witness moments of shock, horror and suspense.
The Doom-derived engine produces pleasing visuals, but they won't blow you away for technical achievement. Instead, it's the design that matters, even though Prey boils down to another corridor crawl when all's said and done. They're nice, atmospheric corridors, though, thus rarely repetitive, and Prey also avoids Doom 3's problematic love of dark spaces, something it references in one of several humorous moments.
The minimalist, but oh-so appropriate soundtrack shines, delivering psychedelic refrains, sci-fi mood-pieces and addictive rock just where they count. Effects contribute their fair share, and you'll soon be quipping one liners provided by Tommy's prolific adversaries, the Hunters. Weapons and other contraptions sound great, and the Spiritwalk portion comes with chanting voices that get into one's head easy. Do note the top-notch voice acting, making everyone come off as champions of their respective roles, in particular the sinister enemy bosses.
Prey does its literary and cinematic sources of inspiration proud. Stuff like the Alien universe, Shyamalan's Signs, 80's series V, the X Files, Independence Day and classic invasion novel Footfall all find a home here, as do players who appreciate a tight, comprehensive package that simply makes you feel good about being a gamer.
Rating: * * * * 1/2