Prey, once thought to be lost in the endless chasm of vaporware alongside Duke Nukem Forever, is finally but a few weeks away from release. We take a run through the recently released demo to gain an idea of whether or not it has truly been worth the wait.
I remember the very first glimpse I ever got of Prey. It was in a 1996 edition of the UK PC Gamer, during a review of the greatly anticipated Duke Nukem 3D. While it may have only been two very low-res screenshots accompanied by a small overview from 3D Realms big boy George Broussard, it was enough to spark my interest. What followed can only be described as ten years of confusion, turmoil and utter desperation as one of the most innovative looking games was consistently battered with delays, engine switches and numerous technical issues.
Eventually, many believed Prey to be lost completely.
At least, until 2005's E3, when it was revealed that Human Head Studios had been handed the project, as well as a license to the Doom 3 engine to build it on. A flurry of game play features, screenshots and in game videos followed, and the game quickly made it back onto every action fan's most wanted list.
Now with only a few weeks until release, Human Head has released a playable demo of the game, allowing everyone to experience it first hand. Does the Doom 3 engine still hold its own? Is there anything truly unique about Prey to make it stand out in a vastly overcrowded FPS market? Well..
I'll be honest. While the FPS has to be one of my favorite gaming genres, its target audience generally seems to hold a level of intelligence comparable to that of an Amoeba. Some of us have an unexplainable desire for something called 'innovative, non-bland game play'. In a genre where the key game play mechanics have always been 'look at something and shoot it', am I the only one struck by the irony of such a desire?
Fact - when it comes down to it, ALL FPS games are repetitive and bland, with ultimately 'minor' adjustments and variations on tried and tested mechanics.
What does make FPS games special then? For me it is the combination of the following three things (in regards to single player games):
- Simple but solid game play that is adaptable to different situations
- A well managed narrative (there is a big difference between a good story, and the good telling of a story)
- Consistent and relevant use of design
If you wish for proof, look no further than Half-Life 2. In terms of game play, when you're not just shooting things, you're throwing them around. This is an extremely simple premise, adapted to a wealth of situations with the utmost care and fine tweaking to ensure it remains engaging from start to finish. The story is nothing special, but the way it is paced and exposed creates an incredibly immersive experience. Finally, the locations are not vivid in comparison to other games, but they are detailed, consistent and impeccably well designed.
So what's this got to do with Prey?
In Prey, you take the role of a Native American named Tommy, who refuses to accept the beliefs of his people, discarding them as blind superstition. It seems his only goal is to leave the reservation he calls home with his less-than-enthusiastic girlfriend, Jen, whom we become quickly acquainted with in the opening section of the demo. Tommy's Grandfather also plays a minor role in the demo's opening. Despite a confrontation with a couple of drunks, the opening level is pretty nice, until Aliens sink from the sky, tearing the place to pieces and abducting everything and everyone within it. From this point on, Tommy faces a constant struggle to fight the aliens aboard this spaceship / planet / multigravitational homeworld, free Jen, and save the world.
Don't you just hate it when that happens?
The actual game play takes some of the tried and tested FPS conventions and quite literally turns them upside down. For example, there are the walkways that lead from the ground, up walls and across ceilings, allowing you to traverse the level along each dimension. These can also be turned off at will on occasion, giving me a strange sense of satisfaction while an enemy was standing upside down above me. While these walk ways are very linear in structure, there are also sections of the demo where gravity is very much a character-specific commodity. You might be standing on what seems to be the floor, while enemies shoot from above and around you. Sometimes gravity can even be alternated completely by shooting certain panels on the environment, flipping the universe onto a different axis.
Then there are the portals, which tear into the universe and allow transitions (for both you and enemies) from one place to another with seamless ease. These elements are not used every once in a while, they are the fundamental principles in the game. And while they do add some pretty bizarre twists to the game play, the general way in which they have been designed never results in them being a frustrating burden on the player's progress. The other major enhancement to the game play is Spirit Walking and the Afterlife. Tommy's spirit can leave his body entirely, allowing him to reach places his mortal confines would normally prohibit, and activate switches that would otherwise be unreachable. It also allows you to sneak up on and attack unknowing enemies, but be careful not to leave your body too long, as when you're in spirit mode your physical body is without defense. In the event that you die, you must fight dark spirits to win your soul back, and continue with the game from where you left off, much to the surprise of your enemies.
While I was impressed with how well the different techniques have been implemented into the game (and I have no doubt that this is but the tip of the ice berg), I would've liked to have seen more examples of puzzle elements. There are sections where you'll be using your noggin to work out how flipping the gravity will aid your progress, but nothing of particularly great depth. While I realize this is only a demo and games that have been built for the Doom 3 engine have in no way shape or form been loved for their puzzle qualities, I was hoping for maybe just a little insight into some of the game's more unique problem solving sections, such as the giant cube presented in some of the preview videos.
The game is built on Doom technology, which doesn't take a mastermind to work out, as it bares more than a passing resemblance to Doom 3 and Quake 4. No one with at least 20% of their eye sight intact can deny that there is a signiture Doom feel to everything, the art and design of Prey can easily stand up in its own right. The game takes place in a living planet \ space ship, which is comprised of both organic and mechanical elements. These two styles actually blend together very well. Walls may suddenly burst open as clouds of blood and vomit spew fourth from mouth-like orificies, tentacles will attack you left, right, and center and steel corridors gradually merge into slimy, goo-swelling walls of flesh. The plastic sheen from past Doom 3 engine games is still an issue, which some may complain about, but I can't help but like. The ship is excessive, but you cannot deny the fact that the whole thing looks disgusting as a result.
While the bulk of the demo takes place onboard the alien space....thing, it is refreshing to see the Doom 3 engine used for something completely different as well. During one section of the game, you find yourself standing on a mountain side (think something similar to the "Truth and Reconciliation" level from Halo, but set in daylight). This is a pretty brave step, as many people might consider a huge stylistic change like this to be disjointed and not of the same quality. I was actually surprised by how well they pulled it off. Quake 4's outdoor levels never impressed me, as even the smaller sections seemed to stutter greatly and weren't of the same quality as the indoor areas, but Prey managed to pull this off with ease. Admittedly, this was a very brief and small section of the game, and seems to be an accurate reflection of the final product. I certainly hope not, because this was a great leap to make in an otherwise die-hard science fiction setting, but perhaps the key to implementing such an asset is careful use.
Only time will tell.
[page=Design and Graphics]
The actual weapon concepts are interesting and work well with the rest of the environment, but are rather disappointing. With the exception of your wrench, all of the weapons and organic and fit with the environment, such as bugs you can pick up, tear the legs off of, and use as a hard grenade. This could have been used to great effect, but it is really just your standard, generic FPS weaponry in gooey alien clothing. It would've been nice to see the same level of imagination that was applied to the levels used on the guns as well. One neat trick is the leech gun, which sucks power from different environmental areas to be used as ammunition. What is then fired from the gun depends entirely on what the last ammunition source was, so what was once a flame thrower can quickly evolve to freeze your enemies. However, this is more of an exception than a common principle, that will hopefully be mixed up a bit in the full game.
Your enemies are also on the generic side, as far as aliens go. Most are humanoid but made to look gross, though they fit in extremely well with the style of the game, moreso than the weapons do. Later enemies also seem to integrate well with the design ethics of Prey better than those in the demo. The A.I., however, doesn't seem much to be anything to write home about. Enemies run, shoot, press buttons, and use cover, which is more than can be said for Doom 3. It doesn't really push the bar for what we as players can expect, especially after F.E.A.R., but it remains to be seen whether this is a real issue or not.
There's also very little that can be said for the game's musical score. There's nothing wrong with it per-say, but it doesn't hit with the same sort of memorable impact as the scores of games like Halo or Oblivion. But again, this is only the demo, and for a soundtrack to really become memorable you need time. Doom 3 used sound incredibly well to add an atmospheric backdrop to the game, which created this sense of claustrophobia and dread that never really seemed to go away. Prey achieves this too, blending the mechanical and organic sounds together in a similar way to its visual aspects that further enhances this alien world.
One thing that I'm pretty sure will make or break the game in many peoples estimation is the use of narration from protagonist Tommy. Those who played Duke Nukem 3D, Blood or Shadow Warrior will no doubt feel a huge bite of nostalgia as he reels off numerous one liners throughout the game. This is a pretty big risk for Human Head Studios to take, because whereas I find this feature a nice addition that adds a deeper sense of character to Tommy, there are many who will just find it annoying. At the very least it would be nice if this feature was optional, as I can imagine it being the definitive asset that decides whether or not someone buys the game for many.
Then there is the multiplayer, or "multipreyer," as it has been dubbed. The very same mechanics (wall walking, spirit walking, etc.) available in the single player campaign are available here, which makes for some very interesting death matches on either of the two maps that come with the demo. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to experience this as much as it seems to suffer from lag far more than the likes of Half-Life 2 or UT2K4. This might be a personal problem, but others seem to be suffering similar issues.
Overall, Prey looks to do the impossible: bringing back a once-dead title almost eight years after its original conception. The target audience for first person shooters are very keen on specific tastes, which can be both a blessing and a curse when the style and theme of a game is as specific as Prey's looms into view. How well people will react to it remains to be seen, but in the meantime, the game seems to be shaping up well, and if Human Head's claim that this build only scratches the surface of the final is true, I think there is a lot to be excited about in the future.