Prey began life as an ambitious new project for Duke Nukem creator, 3D Realms, way back in 1997. Since then, changes in personel and limitations of existing hardware meant that the seeds of promise couldn’t come to fruition. In 2005, however, with Human Head Studios handling the development and with 3D Realms overseeing the project, technology finally caught up with the creative demands and Prey was released as an Xbox 360 launch game to critical acclaim. So, what was the fuss about?
In the game you play Tommy, a lowly garage mechanic of Cherokee descent who dreams of escaping the dead-end reservation he inhabits and making a mark in the big wide world. Things take a turn for the bizarre when, frequenting the local watering hole, a passing extra terrestrial mothership terrorises the town. The game opens with a spectacular abduction that is a giddy mix of The Matrix, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and an industrial strength Dyson vacuum cleaner. Looking out of the bar windows, you catch sight of people and cars being sucked up when, amidst much ground trembling, the roof is suddenly ripped from the rafters and everything and everyone from inside – including you – is absorbed into the alien ether. What follows is an incredible journey through the craft’s colossal confines, as Tommy first tries to save mankind from certain annihilation.
Taking the Doom III engine and bouncing it around like a tennis ball, Prey enables gamers to traverse ground, walls, etc thanks to ‘gravity paths’ which are inherent in the technology of the alien vessel Tommy’s trapped within. You never quite know which way is up and which is down, helping to convey the sense that you’re rattling around in surrounds which are not entirely of this world. Another key aspect of Prey’s gameplay are the portals. You are initially fooled into thinking that these are mere space rips that alien adversaries emerge from to hunt you down. While this is true – they could appear any time, any place, anywhere – closer inspection reveals them to be gateways to other areas within the ship. However, what lies beyond may not necessarily share the same perspective as the area you’re in and you could be looking at a new, completely upside down domain. Walk through the portal and it’s like you’ve just dropped down into a manhole. Confused? …imagine how Tommy feels!
The ship itself is a Dyson Sphere, essentially a hollow ball with a small sun in the centre. It is also totally organic – pulsating, swelling and growing around the various structures created by the inhabitants within. Inhabitants who have a symbiotic relationship with the ship, providing it with food in return for sanctuary and who would kill on a whim to protect it.
Before Tommy can set about saving his people and mankind itself, he must first get reacquainted with his spiritual powers – those from his long-forgotten birthright that have become as rusty as the wielded wrenches. It is these powers, drawing basis from authentic Cherokee mythology – that put another spin on Prey.
When Tommy inevitably reaches a seemingly non-passable point, his ‘hoya-ha-ha-hoya’ heritage comes into play. With access denied to his physical form, Tommy can unleash an ethereal spirit to breach the barrier and find a means beyond bypassing the obstacle. While it’s true to say that the game’s baron years in development hell have stifled the impact of such innovations (soul-casting puzzle-solving certainly couldn’t be construed as being cutting-edge now), it’s the style and panache in which such feats are executed that makes it seem fresh. Momentarily leaving his physical form (preferably not out in the open where his body is still susceptible to enemy bombardment), Tommy’s spirit can ghost, stealth-like, behind camped-out enemies and take them down with a well-aimed arrow from his longbow. While in this see-through state, he can also trigger switches to make alternate escape routes accessible. His physical body is constantly at risk from alien beings that pop out from anywhere in seemingly random fashion, so you’re forced to constantly weigh up the risks of going all-out in the open or shadow-dance stealthily in the spirit world.
So, does Prey deliver nearly a decade’s worth of expectations? Absolutely. The locations, weaponry (most of which is living) and fusion of frenetic firing action and puzzle-solving, all set at a pulsating pace with an everpresent accompanying sense of paranoia, make this game the perfect tonic to a Mac-gaming marketplace dominated by strategy games. You only have to watch the game’s disorientating pivotal abduction sequence to know that Prey means business. It’s big scale, high-drama and undoubtedly what Steven Spielberg would’ve liked to have done in Close Encounters, had his budget stretched further than a wind machine and a few dozen torches. Essential.