Long before rebooting was a cultural phenomenon, it wasn’t uncommon for videogame names to be reused by several company’s on projects that had nothing to do with the source material. A good example comes from id Software, who procured the Wolfenstein name for themselves – despite there already being two titles in that series.. So As Bethesda push out the demo to their upcoming Prey game, I find myself reminiscing slightly about the title that used to occupy that name. That game was a wonderfully confused beast that had no idea what it wanted to be – and it was glorious.
Prey might be much forgotten now but back when it released, there was a huge fuss created about the game. People remember Duke Nukem Forever’s long arrival time, but the original Prey had an equally long trek to release. Sat in development hell for eleven years, 3D Realms eventually decided to offload the rights to their game so they could focus on Forever (Oh the hilarity of this). Human Head Studios stepped up to the challenge and took over development, eventually launching the game in July of 2006.
The game puts you in the role of Domasi Tawodi (We’ll call him Tommy for the rest of this review). He’s frustrated at his life and wants to move away from his Cherokee roots – taking his girlfriend Jen with him. However just as their drama comes to a head, a giant Sphere arrives to abduct the entire family. Tommy’s Grandfather is killed in gruesome fashion and the remainder of the game sees Tommy chasing after Jen through the alien craft. To assist him, his grandfather bestows him spiritual powers that allows Tommy to leave his body and interact with the world and solve puzzles. Eventually he finds a group of humans aboard The Sphere called ‘The Hidden’ – who seek to destroy the ship and return to Earth.
Rather ambitiously, the title sees extensive use of portals – long before Valve made that their thing. You don’t get to place these, but they do shoot you across large distances in the blink of an eye – allowing you to explore huge section of the Sphere. The game also has some of the best use of space altering of any game, as you shift between being huge to tiny in the space of second. It leads to some of the games better cinematic moments, as aliens gawp down at your tiny self. Even dying is an experience, as you’re forced to fight to get your health back. It’s little touches like this that set the game apart.
The game also makes strong use of variable gravity, allowing the gamer to walk up walls and combat with aliens on various plains. This can be shifted with buttons and various levers – allowing you to manipulate it to your needs. You’ll be wanting to master this as quickly as possible – as later puzzles require extensive use of this.
As for the combat that underpins everything, it’s all standard fare for a mid-2000’s shooter. You’ll encounter waves of enemies, who’ll need to be dispatched before you’re able to continue on your way. Puzzles are littered throughout, but usually don’t require too much in the way of thought. Just keep enough ammo to hand and you’ll race right through everything on offer. Enemies come in various sizes and forms, but most of them can be downed with enough rounds from your human (or alien) weapons.
There are also some really great set-piece moments littered throughout the game. For all my hatred of cinematic overuse in FPS’s, Prey manages to toe the line by showing you some fun moments that stick in the mind. One in particular was seeing a jumbo jet fly past within the Sphere that’s a cool “What the actual heck” moment.
For all this praise though, it’s hard to really put a finger on why the original Prey was so hard to enjoy. There’s a lot of good things in the game, and they all work to the benefit of the overall package. But there’s a huge sense that Prey could have been more – and really should have been. This isn’t helped by a central story that feels like one long cliche. The journey to the centre of the Sphere is largely predictable, and I never really found it to be all that memorable. It isn’t helped by Tommy’s granddad, who keeps pulling you out of the main game to dump exposition on you. It’s a bit awkward at times, and really runs against the pacing that the game is trying to deliver.
There’s also the fact that Prey looks bland as heck. One of the drawbacks to the use of ID Tech 4 (The same engine that powered DOOM 3 and Quake 4) is that all the game’s interiors look the same. Everything is either dark or grey – and there’s not much variation throughout the game. Even back in 2006, I found huge sections of the games middle sections to be laughably bland and it doesn’t translate all that well. From one level to the next, you’ll find yourself wondering where the next big story push is coming from.
Speaking of the games middle section – the game suffers quite badly from second act syndrome. The game loses some of its initial momentum as you wander through corridors and battle countless aliens. Most of the rooms look the same, only adding to the sense of blur throughout. Once Tommy bumps into ‘The Hidden’, the story kind of stops as you become their lacky and ultimately work to bring down The Sphere. I’m not a huge fan of their use throughout, as they seem to exist purely to drive you towards the end-game.
The original Prey was an interesting title, if very forgettable. It sadly came out at a time when other games were more noteworthy. There was so much potential here and with the huge tease of a sequel – it seemed as though Human Head were on the first steps to creating a memorable franchise. As it happens, Bethesda have no intention of using any of that for their game. Which is a shame really, as the original Prey is more deserving of love for its ideas. It tried some new things that, at the time, were very different. It’s just a shame those ideas never got the chance to be expanded on.