Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Prey Review

Prey, developed by Human Head Studios, produced by 3D Realms, and published by 2K Games.
The Good: Interesting and gross setting, stunning graphics and exceptionally detailed environments, the “walks” (wall, spirit, and death) are nice gimmicks, occasionally decent AI, Native Americans kickin’ ass
The Not So Good: Uninspired multiplayer, typical core weaponry
What say you? A first person shooter that tries hard to be unique and mostly succeeds: 7/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
Did you know that Prey was announced over ten years ago (well, you are if you've read any other reviews of the game: EVERYONE seems to bring it up, myself included)? Like some other project at 3D Realms, Prey seemed to vanish from existence, only to be resurrected again and actually released. Of course, a lot has changed since 1995, so Prey incorporates the crazy ideas from long ago with newer technology and is guided by the developers of Rune. I’m all for a first person shooter offering new concepts to the genre, which Prey has in bunches. Plus, the game box warns of “partial nudity.” Count me in!

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Prey uses a modified version of the Doom 3 engine, and the game looks damn good. The game is full of specular highlights as if they were going out of style: almost everything in the game, from the weapons to the aliens, has a bumpy sheen to it. Add in some bump maps, shaders, and detailed environments, and you’ve got one sweet looking game. The only bad part I’ve seen with the graphics is that some of the human faces look a little off. But this is a very minor complaint in a game that features some awesome graphics. Of course, these graphics come at a steep price: you’ll need much better than the recommended system requirements to run at high detail and high (1280x1024) resolution. My new system worked quite smoothly in Half-Life 2: Episode One, but I had to lower the resolution to make it playable for Prey. I should also note that changing the detail from “low” to “high” didn’t seem to do anything, unless you went in and manually changed each setting. The sound of Prey continues the high quality of the graphics. The voice acting is very well done and realistic. There is a lot of bad language in the game, but it’s generally pretty funny instead of being gratuitous for shock value. The aliens seem to speak English, which is kind of weird considering their consoles are written in some extraterrestrial language. The game is chock full of gross sound effects, such as when the alien ship craps human remains (seriously). When an alien door opens for the first time and Tommy says, “gross,” it is gross. The weapon effects are also believable considering the alien technology used. The background music is also appropriately great for this type of game. My only real complain about the sound is that the death cry during multiplayer matches gets really annoying after a while. The combination of the graphics and sound in Prey makes the game feel more like a movie and less like a video game, which speaks to its realistic nature in an unrealistic setting.

FEATURES
Prey features the single player story where you follow Tommy on his crusade against his alien abductors (involving “partial nudity”). This campaign is lengthy enough for a first person shooter, especially these days with games tending towards shorter, more action packed adventures. The game’s levels are so detailed that I’m willing to forgive a shorter campaign (around 10 hours) in exchange for more believable environments. You won’t see any square, metallic hallways in Prey like in Half-Life 2: Episode One. The multiplayer of Prey (also known as MultiPrey....aren't they clever?) fits somewhere between Half-Life 2 Deathmatch (meh) and Unreal Tournament (good): it's O.K., but with the alien setting it has more potential. There are only options for deathmatch and team deathmatch. I thought we were beyond this in first person shooters: you must add something different for a little variety. Capture the flag? Domination? Something (gasp!) original? Prey does add some original elements to multiplayer, such as changing gravity (which is great fun and the best part about the multiplayer), adapting spirit walk from the campaign, and color-coding hit enemy players according to their health level. The multiplay is frenetic and pretty enjoyable at its peak, when players are shooting from the ceiling and the walls at each other. The game uses some bad spawn locations: about half the time you spawn right next to someone with a more powerful gun without time to react, while other games will spawn you away from the action. Prey averages out to be essentially the same as every other FPS you own in terms of multiplayer, but the gravity elements make it slightly more original than the majority of the crop.

GAMEPLAY
Prey plays like almost every other first person shooter, but the game adds a lot of different elements to the game to make it stand out. The first is death: once your health reaches zero, you’ll enter a mini-game where you must shoot flying objects to gain health back before the timer runs out. You’ll then return right where you left off. I like this concept: most players will reload the game from the last point anyway when they die, so really you can’t permanently die in other first person shooters. Prey just replaces reloading with a mini-game. Prey also adds some Native American inspired spirit walking: you can leave your body, access restricted areas, and sneak up on unsuspecting foes. The energy required to spirit walk is taken from the souls of fallen enemies. Sure, it’s a gimmick, but at least it’s different. The game will usually prompt you when to use the spirit walk with an emblem on the ground, and spirit walking is used infrequent enough to not make it excessively annoying.

The weaponry of Prey may look different, but they actually behave the same as classic weapons. The weapon models do look really good, a combination of alien organics and technology with pleasing blood splatter, but there are no real original weapons here. The leech gun is the pulse gun from Unreal Tournament. The wrench is the crowbar from Half-Life. The acid sprayer is a modified shotgun. And the rest are just standard weapons (sniper rifle, grenades, rocket launcher, machine gun). You’d think that will all of this technology, the aliens would develop some truly original weapons (a black hole generator or Carnie Wilson, for example), but this is not the case.

Prey features some fairly standard AI: they will use cover and throw grenades and can do some advanced moves on occasion, like rolling towards cover. But the computer opponents will rarely use team tactics and when they spawn in open areas, will tend to shoot first and look for cover later. Prey suffers from some spontaneous enemy generation, where enemies will magically appear in front of you. Of course, this is explained through the use of warp portals, but it’s still kind of annoying. Speaking of the warp portals, they are pretty cool, as they show what’s on the other side of the portal before you enter. Plus, they can make for some interesting level design, or just allow for the designers to make a quick exit.

Another important part of Prey is the use of gravity. The game includes both wall walking, where glowing paths will anchor yourself to them, no matter which direction they travel, and gravity switches, that can essentially rotate the room. This results in some interesting and disorientating levels in the game (especially in multiplayer), where you can be shooting from (or get shot from) strange locations, like the ceiling. This makes for some interesting battles where arriving fire can be coming from several different directions. You usually don’t have to worry about the ceiling in first person shooters, but Prey makes you cover all possible entry paths. The game tries to automatically reorient your view when you climb up the walls, but it just makes for more confusion, especially when you’re moving and trying to see what’s up ahead while the game is changing your view. Some of the paths are not intuitive due to the strange nature of the game: things that are bombs don’t look like bombs, and passageways you’re supposed to go through don’t look like passageways; both of these things tend to confuse simple-minded players such as myself. Still, Prey is one of the more straightforward first person shooters, as you receive some guidance in the game in the form of a ghost bird that lands on key objects. You can also enter spirit mode to see hints scattered along the ground. People who have a tough time figuring out exactly what the developers want you to do in a game (such as myself) will appreciate these subtle hints.

IN CLOSING
At its core, Prey is a standard first person shooter, but the game adds enough extras to the formula to make it a unique title. The overall theme of the game is consistent, and although most of the game takes place inside an Alien spaceship, the game never suffers from boring levels of metallic corridors. The graphics and the sound are both top notch, utilizing the power of the PC to its full potential. The game’s AI offers are decent challenge, and with the automatically adjusting difficulty and death walk, you can’t really ever die or get stuck in the game (except for the puzzles). The spirit walking and gravity elements of Prey make for some original gameplay, although the weapons are derivative of other games, despite their appearances. Prey feels genuinely dramatic, unlike other first person shooters that feel like games trying to be movies. If the multiplayer of Prey could have been more complete, the overall game would have benefited and been truly special. In all, Prey is an excellent, albeit short, single player experience with some wasted potential in multiplayer.