Reviews  |  PC


Prey
starstar

By Alex Birch / November 29, 2007


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Death in videogames is, for some reason, an issue that seems to be more controversial in first-person ones than anywhere else. On the one hand you've got the staccato tedium of quicksave- and quickload-happy PC shooters, where it's practically suicidal to walk more than a couple of steps without a prod of the F5 button, just in case the level designer saw fit to hide a swarm of fire-belching multi-limbed Boschian monstrosities inside the next cupboard. Probably while squealing "suck it up, loser" and taking out all the ammo. The bastard. On the other hand, you've got games like Metroid Prime, which (for all its many charms) unceremoniously dumps you back at your last save if you wander into a boss room unprepared, potentially erasing a good hour's play in one fell swoop.


So the death and return of the player in first-person games tends to be a bit contentious. Arguably, games like Halo have already got it right with a system of regularly-spaced checkpoints, but there's certainly room for a game to innovate.


Sadly, Prey -- Doom 3-engine-powered, gravity-flipping, ten-years-in-the-making, alien bio-ship-exploring FPS Prey -- is really, really not that game.


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Instead, the developers obviously thought it was a great idea to include what I've lovingly come to call the Revolving Door of Death. You see, the main character is a Native American, and is thus naturally able to travel to a magical, hovering space rock if anything kills him. Here, we're told, he must defeat the spirits of the unquiet dead (which, handily, come in health- and magic-filled flavours) to be allowed to return to his body. "Brilliant!", the developers must have said. "Here's a system that'll cut out quicksaves and prevent frustrating retreads all at once!" No, Human Head. No it doesn't. Instead, it means there's absolutely no motivation to avoid death whatsoever, and therefore no sense of danger in any of the enemies or locations in the game. The unquiet dead shooting gallery never gets any harder, or any more fraught -- you just stand there firing your magic Native American bow at translucent squid, and it's only ever a matter of seconds before you're sucked down the hole and deposited back in your body, with health near full, exactly where you left off (though sometimes you end up resurrecting in the middle of a firefight, getting disoriented, shot in the back and sent to yet another cephalopod rendezvous). It reduces every fight to a tedious battle of attrition (since there's no real reason to figure out strategies or tricks when you're functionally invincible), and actually turns suicide into a valid tactic. I can think of at least one occasion in which I jumped off a ledge when low on health with enemies approaching, so I could come back from the mystical land of the squid topped-up and unlikely to die. This is a game in which death is often actually beneficial.


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Even worse, the game's difficulty seems designed entirely with the Revolving Door of Death in mind. While it's certainly possible to play Prey as if enemy shots are actually dangerous, you're likely to rapidly find yourself in a situation where you can't reasonably avoid being killed at least once. The game loves to teleport enemies in behind you, force you to run multiple gauntlets of snipers when you only have one weapon capable of reaching them (and that one's out of ammo), and (on one memorable occasion) pit you against a boss whose lasers and mildly disconcerting bitey-crotch attacks might have been avoidable if the whole thing didn't take place in a rectangular room with nowhere to hide. But hey, you'll think as you ascend to the land of the squid yet again, it doesn't really matter. I'll be back in a second!


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Anyway, portal technology. It's moderately impressive to be able to see into and interact with a far-off room through a hole in space. It really is. It could've made for an excellent series of set-pieces. Sadly, Prey uses them like other games use doors, or, possibly, crates. In fact, there are some portals in crates. The ubiquity of the things completely destroys any sense of progress the game might have had. Imagine Half-Life 2 or Resident Evil 4 sending you through a teleporter to somewhere completely different roughly every three minutes. Wouldn't feel like quite as meaningful or tangible a journey, would it? Neither does Prey. It feels like a tech demo. This is hardly helped by the fact that every single corridor in the game looks exactly the same. I don't mean similar, by the way -- I mean identical. You could splice a chapter from the final section of the game into the beginning and I guarantee nobody would know the difference.


Then there are the weapons. It speaks volumes about the designers' imagination that of their vaunted assortment of squishy organic guns five out of seven do exactly the same thing as the weapons in any other shooter (rifle, grenade, machine gun, shotgun and grenade launcher), albeit with much less satisfying effects. And one of the others is a wrench. Admittedly, some credit is due to the four-in-one energy gun, which draws different elements in from recharging stations and can blast, freeze, electrocute or burn enemies depending on its charge, but the fact that the only other satisfying weapon is just a shotgun with a wacky model (and one which, comedically, appears to fire yellow paint) says it all.


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The same imagination and ambition deficit affects the whole game; we're told (in one of maybe ten lines of expository dialogue in the whole thing) there's an entire civilisation living inside the bio-ship, but all the player gets to see of it are identikit dark metal corridors and the occasional alien trying to shoot or eat them. The most biological this vast organism ever gets is the occasional room textured with something that wouldn't look out of place in Conker's Poo Land rather than gunmetal grey. There are just no awe-inspiring sights at all -- nothing to break up the slog through the hordes of enemies and miles of corridor. The nearest the game ever comes is a clone of the spinny thing from the movie Event Horizon (which contains yet another portal leading to -- yes! -- somewhere metallic and dark), and a series of three small, featureless planetoids near the end, each of which the player lands their laughably poorly-implemented mini-spaceship thing on, flips a switch and leaves again, and all of which look a lot like potatoes.


There are certainly some things to praise about the game -- the much-advertised gravity control makes for a few reasonable puzzles of the switch-pressing, button-shooting kind, as does the main character's ability to leave his body in a force-field-thwarting ghost form -- but as they're always bookended (and often interrupted) by the insubstantial, unimaginative and ultimately completely trivial combat, and take place in the same old identical locations, they can't do enough to significantly raise the experience.