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Prey (2006) Review

The original Prey spent ten years as vaporware before finally dropping in 2006, where it received many critical accolade despite poor overall sales. Now, with a reboot on the horizon that throws out pretty much everything that made the original what it was, let's take the time to look back and see what, if anything, still makes this odd shooter so special.

Prey (2006)

Introduction

Long, long ago, in the ancient days of 1995, 3D Realms announced they were starting production on a game called Prey, a title that would run on cutting-edge software and serve a similar purpose to Unreal, in that it would showcase the power of both the hardware and software of the time. A number project leaders, including Tom Hall of id Software, came onto and dropped off of the project as it stumbled through development. A trailer released in 1998 implied a story with themes of alien abduction and Native American mythology, which given the increasingly weird direction shooters were taking at the time, wasn't really all that strange in retrospect. 
The project was repeatedly declared dead, only to be resurrected by 3D Realms over and over, with new features being tacked on with every iteration. Finally, after over a full decade in development hell, Prey made the final leap to store shelves in 2006, where it became successful enough to warrant a sequel that sadly didn't have the good fortune of its progenitor. Said successor managed to pump out some gorgeous screenshots, a few gameplay videos, and then promptly died without ever leaving the developers' hard-drives.

Prey promised to turn players' worlds upside-down, and boy did it deliver.
Since then, despite the ground-breaking technology the game introduced, it has faded into obscurity. Only recently has it garnered any real interest, with a 're-imagined' version of the franchise crafted by Arkane Studios set for release a mere month or so from this writing. Even then, the only connection this new installment seems to share with the original is its name and the theme of alien invasion. 

So what went wrong? What went right? And most of all, is this product of ten years of struggle still worth playing? All of these are questions I will seek to answer thoroughly. However, I should also mention that if my answers leave you feeling you'd like to try this title, you might be in for a bit of trouble. Prey is no longer available on Steam, and physical copies are all that's left. My best recommendation is to try Amazon, where you can find new and used copies starting at $19.95. That's where I got my original copy, and if you're lucky, your copy will have a retail CD code that is still valid, and which if entered online will automatically provide you the Steam version for free. You can read about how to do that here.

Story

Like most things about it, Prey's story went through a number of iterations, with different focuses and different elements being tried out. Ultimately, the result is a very strange collision of alien abduction themes and Cherokee myth. You play as Domasi Tawodi, a.k.a. 'Tommy', an ex-military Cherokee garage mechanic who feels trapped by his life on the reservation. He wants to leave, but at the same time he struggles with his feelings for his boyhood sweetheart Jen who runs the local bar, which keep him rooted despite his efforts. The game communicates all this beautifully, taking lessons from Half-Life that so many other shooters at the time strangely failed to learn. It spends the time to set up the plot and make us care about the characters, even Tommy's old grandfather Enisi, who is a staunch traditionalist and chides Tommy for rejecting his heritage.
The story begins on a rainy evening in Jen's bar. Business is slow, and the player gets a brief introduction to the key players and a bit of combat when two rowdy truckers who just won't take no for an answer try to lay hands on Jen. Then, suddenly, aliens. No, really; a giant spaceship shows up outside, and proceeds to abduct Tommy, Jen, the truckers, Enisi and the whole goddamn bar. It's quite jarring, and yet such a perfect beginning for what follows. Tommy awakens aboard a massive alien ship in orbit over Earth alongside everyone else, trapped in a strange mechanism unnervingly like an automated pig-line at a slaughterhouse that appears to be transporting him and dozens of other unfortunates to an unknown destination. Naturally, he escapes just in time, but his girlfriend and grandfather are not so lucky, and Tommy is forced to watch helplessly as Enisi is impaled, sucked dry, and then pulverized, apparently to feed the partially-organic alien craft he is now trapped on. 

Prey does a lot to shock and wow you in the first hour or so...including killing your fictional loved ones.
Normally this event would serve as the key 'motivation' to propel the player forward, but Prey's story is surprisingly more nuanced than all that. Despite being unable to prevent his grandfather's death, Tommy is able to spare Jen, though this only leads to him being forced to try and hunt her down as the killing line redirects her deeper into the colossal mothership. Not long into his journey, though, Tommy suffers a near-death experience, and suddenly comes face to face with Enisi once more, now dwelling in the Land of the Ancients, the Cherokee afterlife. From there things proceed to get REALLY weird, which should say something given how odd they already were.

Normally this is the point where most people would simply quit for the sheer corniness of the ideas they're being forced to swallow, but Prey is a master of presentation, and everything flows together so well that I found myself accepting all of it without question. I won't spoil it, but for all its psychedelic nonsense, there is a definite method to the madness. Prey manages to tell a heartfelt story at the same time it's taking you on a mind-bending adventure, and it does it so well that any cliches I encountered that might've made me yawn and turn my head were easily glossed over. 

Prey's 'Least Interesting Character' award goes to this lady, who's part of the plot for like...an hour.
Granted, it's not perfect. The lengthy development cycle shows in the form of a few loose threads, the biggest of which is a bizarre subplot involving abducted children getting possessed by angry spirits bleeding over thanks to Tommy's contact with the hereafter. Normally there'd be a really good reason for the player being forced to kill children, even if they're evil devil-children out to murder the living, but this never really gets resolved, and it ends up feeling like it was inserted for shock value more than anything else. It's a big detractor for many people, but I was able to ignore it for the sake of the skill with which the main narrative is delivered.

Gameplay

Prey's gameplay is very much the standard shooter fare, with some cool ideas layered on. Like most games of it's time, it has a very linear progression, though its level design can often make you feel otherwise. Ultimately though, when taken in with a critical eye, the overall sensation I got was 'unfinished'. That's not the same thing as bad, but it is kind of disappointing. One of the big selling points was the revolutionary technology behind its inclusion of portals. Unfortunately, while the game does include these and they are still very cool, with hindsight, it's easy to see how little Human Head Studios actually did with the things. There are a few 'WOW!' moments where they really put the things to good use, like an Antichamber-style set of spatially-looped identical corridors, but I kept finding myself why they didn't do more. 

Another cool aspect that felt squandered was Tommy's ability to spirit-walk, letting him enter a ghost-like state while leaving his body behind. This lets him pass through force-fields, traverse otherwise-invisible bridges, and press buttons he might not otherwise reach. There's a definite element of stealth to the mechanic that didn't get the attention it deserves, especially since they give you a bow and arrow while ghost-walking and see to it that enemies generally don't notice you when you pass by them in your astral form. 

Prey has plenty of things to find while spirit-walking, such as these ancestral snot-bridges allowing you to go where you otherwise couldn't.

This power also ties into another pioneering idea that Prey was among the first to introduce, which was making it impossible for the protagonist to die. If Tommy runs out of health, he's transported to the astral plane where he can use his bow to shoot down the wraiths of the dishonored dead, whose energies restore his bow's ammo and his HP, before he's automatically thrust back into the land of the living. It's a great concept, and it really lays the groundwork for the death and revival system that would later become such a huge part of big titles like Demon's Souls. Unfortunately the reason those other titles handled the idea better is because they probably learned from Prey's mistake, in that it doesn't seem to attach much weight to the constant death and rebirth. Granted, you can get killed pretty quick if you're not careful, but it doesn't have as much impact when you know you're never going to get a 'GAME OVER'. You die and revive, die and revive, and there's never any real consequence to discourage you from just rushing into battle head-first.


Part of the reason for the incorporation of this mechanic might've been because at the time of Prey's creation, there were no such things as checkpoints apart from the auto-save at the start of every level. Having to reload the game certainly is a challenge, but at the same time, making them immortal seems like it sucks a lot of the danger out of the experience. Perhaps it would've been better if there were consequences for too many consecutive deaths, like reduced maximum health, which would require use of an alien health station or some-such to fix. It's all about risk versus reward, and when there is no risk, there's not much reward.

Prey doesn't shirk at its use of gravity-bending to spice up gunfights.
As for the actual fighting, Tommy's arsenal in the real world is pretty creative. There's not many different actual weapons, with your basic grenades, assault rifle, etc., but they all come with an alien look and spin, thanks to alternative fire modes. One unique entry into the player's armory is the Leech Gun, a nifty device that recovers ammo by drawing power from nodes spread around the ship. These nodes come in different types, and depending on which one you recharge your gun with, you can blast, freeze, electrocute or even vaporize your foes. It hearkens back to how F.E.A.R. managed to keep my interest by introducing a slew of cool novelty weapons, except in this case they're all condensed into a single instrument of death. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but again, I kept thinking to myself that a lot more could've been done with the idea.

The game itself also offers enough variety in the enemies to prompt some experimentation. The best parts are generally further into the story, when you get a good mix of tough enemies coming at you from all sides, and I do mean ALL sides. Prey isn't cheeky about using its portals to drop enemies on you from every direction. Unfortunately the terror of being ambushed wore off after a while thanks chiefly to Tommy's immortality, further proving it was a system that could've used more work.

​Prey offers a decent variety of foes. These guys can spray a cloud of vaporized acid that hangs in the air to block incoming projectiles.​​​

Ultimately, Prey's chief weakness is that it had a lot of great ideas and not enough space to fit them all in. The  various gimmicks are light-years ahead of their time, but they've all been done better by other game released afterwards, chiefly because they picked one particular gimmick to build themselves around. Prey on the other hand tries hard to do everything all at once, and unfortunately it suffers for it. I honestly couldn't help but wonder if a remake incorporating more modern interpretations of its various ideas would actually be good. Frankly, I think Prey could've learned a lot of lessons from Tron 2.0 in regards to player power and progression. 

Sound and Design

Despite all its shortcomings, Prey's overall look is definitely unique. It combines the best bits of what I liked about Quake 4's obsession with body-horror with a smooth, shiny pseudo-industrial look that really hammers home the metaphor of your being trapped inside a giant death machine. The alien ship, the Sphere as it's called by its inhabitants, is vast, and you're constantly exposed to enormous vistas that help reinforce how you're lost in a huge, HUGE place, and being hunted at every turn. Combined with the repulsive organic sections, which seem to bleed through the metal architecture everywhere you look, and you also get the sense that you're in the belly of a beast, a microbe that's being tracked for extermination. It's a very good visual metaphor, though I could've done without some of the sections that force you to fly around in a zero-gravity maintenance craft to get from place to place. It quickly felt all too much like filler around the third time I encountered one.

Prey doesn't skimp on big set-pieces. The sheer scale of the Sphere never fails to impress.
I was also impressed to learn during my research that they chose actual Native American actors to play the key roles, and it warmed my heart to read about the seriousness with which their opinions and perspective were taken during the development process. Ultimately, I think the game turned out better for it, as while the incorporation of Native American myth isn't a huge part of the game, when it does turn up it's at least treated with respect. More importantly though, the characters don't come of as raging stereotypes, which is good because the original name for the protagonist was 'Talon Brave'. Tommy is a big step up, and to this date, I've yet to see a more developed and interesting Native American character in a game, which is a  total shame.

The sound design of the game is average for its time period, but Prey truly shines in its soundtrack, which is sweeping and orchestral, and could easily be applied in a full feature film, like most of Jeremy Soule's work in the early 2000's. Its main theme really stuck with me, and to this day I enjoy hearing it simply for the skill with which it was composed. Like Halo: Combat Evolved, it takes setting and atmosphere very seriously. It has the hallmarks of the days when game music was more than just a thing to keep the ear occupied beyond explosions, something which I hope will soon be back in style, given the impact DOOM 4's soundtrack had. I'd love to return to that, because music is as much part of a game's story as it is a movie's. A good song can make or break a scene depending on whether or not it fits.

Final Verdict

Prey certainly isn't perfect, and was ragged around the edges even on release, but it was a game made to showcase new things and pioneer new ideas, and it did a pretty good job, given how many of its mechanics went on to turn up in other titles. Gravity-shifting, portals, cool minority protagonists; all of these and more were explored as features, and amazingly enough, they held together well enough to provide a good, solid game overall, rather than coming off as a tech demo. Granted, I can't say they served the game well in terms of physical longevity. The multiplayer component (Multi-Prey) is long dead, and after a brief jaunt through its maps, I can only imagine how confusing and jarring it must've been for those that tried it.

Prey's sequel would've featured a new protagonist on an alien planet while keeping us tied to the plot of the original.
Also, there's the sad story of the cancelled sequel that would've featured playing a bounty-hunter on a planet with an alien-noir vibe. The idea had much to recommend it in terms of uniqueness, as did the gorgeous art-style, but alas, as previously mentioned, the project was cancelled by Bethesda Softworks despite mountains of gameplay and screenshots already having been released. I can only assume they weren't satisfied with the final product, though given some rumors that the game would've used the infamous BRINK parkour engine, it might've been for the best. Still, it is my hope that someday the project gets recycled into something else…or at least that we'll get an art book. You can read my thoughts about the big re-imagining of the franchise by Arkane Studios here.

Overall, Prey is a product of its time, while simultaneously being a visionary whose ideas were never fully appreciated until more fully applied by others. I still feel it's worth playing now and then, if only to see how far we've come. If you're a fan of older shooters like me, then I totally recommend picking it up if you can. If not, well that's your choice. Still, it's a shooter definitely worthy of respect, and it is my hope that someday, somehow, Prey truly will continue and Domasi Tawodi will return to kick alien ass once more.

PROSCONS
+ A good, classic shooter.– Unresolved plot threads.
+ Lots of nifty gimmicks to keep you interested.– Lots of underdeveloped ideas.
+ Very strong storytelling.

8.1
Great

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