Prey Review

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Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Human Head Studios, Venom Games

Platforms: Xbox 360 and PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360

Tommy is a troubled auto mechanic and war veteran, convinced that if only he can escape the Cherokee reservation he can turn his life around. Fortunately for Earth, Tommy is in the right place at the right time. That place just happens to be a bar on the reservation. Tommy is busy arguing with his grandfather and defending his girlfriend Jen from a pair of angry drunks at last call, when aliens abduct the entire bar.

Kyle Ackerman

Prey's mix of overpowered weapons, Doom-esque horrors and metallic surroundings grafted to organic parts aren't enough to make it a unique first-person shooter. What makes Prey both unique and so much damn fun is they way it toys with gravity, using portals that warp space to make an otherwise linear game into a desperate, mind-bending, wall-crawling dash to escape the horrifying, colossal alien vessel.

Tommy is one of the first humans to be brought onto the Sphere in this season of the Dark Harvest, a process that has been terrorizing worlds for millennia. Long ago, the Sphere seeded organic life on many promising worlds, and now makes brief stops on these worlds to harvest some of that life for food and slave labor. Apparently, the Sphere prefers the indigenous people of North America, since it abducted the Anasazi from the Four Corners region a few hundred years ago, and descendents of the Mohawk people are living on the Sphere, battling its dark masters in a quest to return home.

The Dark Harvest produces some incredibly disturbing vistas and brilliant level design. An airliner has been plucked from the sky and appears to be stuck in the middle of a digestive process, just as a school bus has been ripped from its route and robbed of its passengers. Most abductees are being processed for their nutrients or transformed into mindless slaves, but some have been shaken loose and are cowering in the dark niches of the Sphere, gibbering in terror. The corridors of the sphere include metal walkways supporting pulsating organic matter, and quivering conduits of digesting meat. The number one rule of life in the Sphere: Stay away from sphincters!

There is an Afterlife, and it's Filled With Red and Blue Flying Things

Tommy is the only man with the ability to end the Dark Harvest and save his planet, and it's because he can return from the dead. Tommy can be killed, and he is ... a lot. It's just that he can replenish his body and spirit with a little target practice in the afterlife, and return to continue whittling away at otherwise insurmountable odds.

I've never before enjoyed a game that made me do something in the afterlife or other-worldly space before throwing me back into the game, but Prey does two things when you die that make this system work. First, it only drops you into the spirit world for a few seconds of action before throwing you (usually) right where you died, so that you're never broken out of the flow and it's easy to keep going. This may not make the game as long as if the designers forced everyone to restart whole areas every death, but it makes the game a lot more fun. Also, when you return to the Sphere, you're often somewhere the enemies don't expect, making death just another way to get the drop on your foes.

You Want Me to Pull Its Leg Off and Throw It?

Tommy's grandfather is killed early in the game, but continues to aid Tommy as a spiritual presence in the afterlife. And this aid is key. It is what allows Tommy to return from the dead and leave his body to pass through and deactivate energy shields and security systems. At first, Tommy tries to reject his heritage and his grandfather's mysticism. Tommy shrugs off the help, saying, "The Army trained me to kill." Enisi, Tommy's grandfather, responds "You fought in the white man's war, with the white man's weapons."

As irritating as the whole "noble savage" thing can be, Enisi has a point. Prey will not be fought with the white man's weapons. It will be fought with disgustingly organic weapons designed by aliens who traverse the universe in a Dyson sphere, consuming all sentient life as nourishment. These weapons are vividly gross, with unique functions that still act enough like the usual weapon templates from most games that their functions are obvious. For example, there's an acid sprayer that works (mostly) like a shotgun, and a leech gun that fulfils the role of several heavy weapons, able to steal different types of energy from nodes and hurl it at mutated enemies. Even the grenades are living things, and all weapons have organic bits that twitch and drip when not in use.

Down Isn't Always Down

The biggest thing that sets Prey apart from the competition is its ability to warp your perception of space. Walkways with localized gravity wind their way around walls and ceilings, giving players the ability to flank enemies from high up on a nearby wall or distant ceiling. Portals that allow instantaneous transport can be a fast mode of escape – or can suddenly spawn enemies. The coolest puzzles, though, involve switches that change the direction of gravity (strangely reminiscent of the PC adventure game Obsidian). Bottomless chasms can be crossed by switching gravity and simply walking on the ceiling. If that's not enough, Tommy will sometimes need to venture onto tiny planetoids with their own gravitational influence and fight battles on these spheres using enormous low-gravity jumps and dealing with a nearby horizon.

Beyond just warping gravity and space/time, by assuming spirit form, Tommy can cross gaps and pass through spaces that would not admit his mortal coil. Using a combination of the Sphere's influence over gravity and Tommy's ability to spirit walk, Tommy will make it all the way to the Sphere's core and conquer the alien threat. These abilities make for some fascinating puzzles of other-worldly logic, without actually being particularly difficult.

If the game has flaws, it's with the graphics and multiplayer. It's not that the graphics are poor – they're a big step up from the Xbox, but this is clearly an early game for the Xbox 360, and the graphics, particularly Tommy's spirit guide, seem blockier than they should be, given the technology. Also, the multiplayer should be incredible given the strange, space-warping nature of the Prey multiplayer levels. Unfortunately, it's hard to have a decent game, given the choppiness that as few as six or eight players can generate.

Despite the fact that the game could be better honed for the Xbox 360 platform, Prey's ambitious action is more than enough to recommend the game to any Xbox 360 owner. Go ahead, ambush mutated soldiers from above, stuck on the ceiling by wayward gravity.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 3, 2007 7:33 PM.

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