Prey, while a suitably ominous singular word title that fits the game’s storyline, doesn’t really seem to best capture the feeling of the game. Prey sort of gives the impression that either you are being hunted or doing the hunting, but what the game Prey is actually about is firing awesome organic weapons while walking on the walls through teleportation portals and sending your soul out to fire spirit arrows at unsuspecting aliens. Perhaps going with a simple title was better than trying to roll that insanity into one descriptive name, but don’t let Prey pass you by just because its name and boxart don’t reach out and grab you.
Prey is a first-person shooter that pushes the envelope with its many twists to its gameplay design. Rather than just being about shooting aliens while aboard their massive spaceship, Prey has added in utterly alien ways of navigation to make battles feel different from other games in the shooting genre. The most heavily utilized change are the teleportation portals, these gateways serving as a way for enemies to appear on the battlefield in an instant. Careful approaches to a gunfight are necessary when you know that empty room ahead might soon be swarming with alien soldiers, but they’re not the only ones who can use them. While you can’t place down portals yourself, some will be left open for you to pass through, adding not only to your battle tactics as you can flee from one side of the room to the other in an instant, but also opening up the game to navigation puzzles. Prey does an excellent job of switching between tense combat and simple but interesting puzzles, combining the two quite often but mostly making sure that the challenges have enough going on in them that there’s no need for extra fluff to make the challenge compelling.
Perhaps the bigger contribution to the navigation puzzles and a gimmick I would have liked to see more often in the game was the ability to walk on the walls and ceiling. Specialized floors can be used to traverse any surface, and while the camera flipping can be a bit nauseating at first, it’s worth fighting through to see the interesting ways it interacts with combat. Fighting enemies while you’re upside down above them, shooting other enemies on the walls and watching them fall to the floor below… gravity mechanics aren’t always executed the best in video games, often making up for a lack of creativity with a flashy visual trick, but Prey uses them purposefully. It appears enough to keep them interesting, but sadly it does not indulge in them as frequent as it should and doesn’t try any crazy twists with it. It does have a mechanic where you can shoot glowing pads to shift the gravity of the entire room though, so it’s not an entirely underexplored mechanic. It just ends up being that the game isn’t long enough for it to completely reach its full potential.
The final major component of the game outside of the shooting would have to be the spiritual skills you get a little bit into the game. At any time, you may have your spirit step out of your body and head off on its own, your soul wielding a bow and arrow that is usually strong enough to take down any foes you might find. Firing a shot does expend some spiritual energy though, and your body is left vulnerable while you are doing this, but the Spirit Step still finds many uses since it can pass through barriers, move around somewhat stealthily, and is a great way of scouting ahead to clear some foes without risking your health. If you do die however, rather than being sent to a continue screen or setting you back to a checkpoint, your body is thrown into a spiritual realm where you must shoot down wraiths with your bow to recover health and spirit power. This does mean that death isn’t too punishing, but I think its far preferable to retreading the same ground from some prescribed point of revival. It’s not too interesting to fire at the wraiths, but it is a pretty good place to practice your accuracy I suppose. The last real spiritual skill is your spirit guide Talon who follows you around and does his own thing, but he still helps in a few ways, distracting enemies, translating alien text, and guiding you to points of interest in the environment. While the game is mostly straightforward, it’s nice to have the little bird pointing you at important devices during puzzles and keeping a foe busy in hectic gunfights.
While the shooting controls are on par for what you would expect in an Xbox 360 game, the weapons available are a step above your standard fare, the weapons given organic alien forms that let them fulfill more than one function. While the selection of weapons you acquire is pretty small, their design is economical, many of them fulfilling multiple purposes. Your machine gun, for example, also doubles as an effective sniper rifle with heat vision, you have a gun that can absorb elements to change the effects of its ammo, and even the simpler weapons feel satisfying to use. Rather than going for a bog-standard shotgun, the game introduces a weapon that sprays corrosive acid in a burst that feels a lot more satisfying than a bullet spray. Ammo is handed out pretty evenly as well, rare enough that you will find reason to switch between weapons often but not so rare that you’ll be aching for ammunition. Enemies will usually be using the same weapons against you, but there is variety in the actual biology of the aliens to keep your enemies interesting. One area the game didn’t do the best at though is whenever you hop into the little spacecrafts and fly around. The weapons on it are weak and barely give any feedback to show they’re doing damage, the tractor beam is finicky, and the flight controls oddly restrict you to an unknowable range of motion in specific directons, and since you can move the spaceship in any direction including upside down, it’s far too easy to hit the unknowable movement barriers when you’ve accidentally moved as far up as the game will allow. Of all the gimmicks in the game (save a weird jumping turret portion that would have been better off completely excised) this one feels like the only one that wasn’t put together well, and while the gravity and portals had more room to be developed, the spaceship piloting just doesn’t really feel fun to use at all.
Prey’s story is a bit of a wash. The main character is a Cherokee Indian called Tommy who is disillusioned with his life on the reservation and wants to take his girlfriend and head off to somewhere new… but little did he expect that he’d get his wish suddenly and abruptly when aliens begin their plan to abduct humans from all over the globe, plucking him and his loved ones into their enormous spaceship for a harvest. Tommy’s goal is, of course, to immediately get back to Earth along with his girlfriend Jen, but the whole game ends up being about Tommy’s singular goal of reclaiming Jen from the aliens and heading home. Even as he learns of the higher stakes, the fates of others who have been abducted, and sees the horrors the aliens are committing, his focus remains only on saving Jen and going back to Earth. You’d expect some advancement of character or at least him integrating his desire to save Jen into the greater goal of foiling the alien plans, but he just remains the same throughout, and he’s not all that likeable to begin with. It made it a bit annoying any time the story resurfaced during gameplay, but there were a few nice touches that didn’t make the plot a complete write-off. There is nothing too complicated or unexpected in the plot, most cutscenes focusing on information that progresses things rather than adding any extra color. You can find moments of translated alien language that give you a small glimpse at the lives of the alien species you’re fighting, but it’s subtle and doesn’t drag on like the long collectible files found in other games. It doesn’t focus on building up these aliens more than it needs to, although it does have moments where you can listen in to a radio broadcast about the alien abductions all around the globe… that, while serving no real purpose to the plot, at least were interesting to listen to. Prey’s story manages to be unobtrusive but sacrifices any potential it had with its interesting mix of sci-fi and spirtuality.
Prey is at its best as a single-player FPS game, and while it did once have a multiplayer component, finding people to play with on Xbox Live now would require scheduling a time and rounding up interested individuals. It’s a shame too, as the portal and gravity mechanics are present in the multiplayer and could make for a unique gunfight. The developers only put in two modes though, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, and didn’t include any offline version to play with your friends in person, so this side of the game is as good as dead. It seems like the multiplayer wasn’t pushed to the limits of what it could be anyway, with the game in need of some more variety in game modes to support the variety in gameplay approach.
THE VERDICT: With an interesting blend of Native American spirituality and extraterrestrial science fiction, Prey pushes first-person shooters into a new domain where battles are more than just shooting at whoever is front of you. Unique navigation makes for interesting gunfights and puzzles even if it is only allowed to happen in prescribed areas, but the well-designed weapons back up those moments and help the game truly shine. The core mechanics are certainly strong, but they’re supplemented by a few weak elements that keep Prey from being all that it could be.
And so, I give Prey for Xbox 360…
A GREAT rating. When it’s focused on the three pillars of gravity, portals, and spirit powers, Prey has a uniquely engaging first-person shooting experience, but these mechanics are sometimes made to step aside for less well-thought out designs. The spaceships stole time away from integrating more clever situations for the three pillars and the plot certainly could have used a more likeable character to at least made it easier to ignore it in favor of the gunplay. Fleshing out the multiplayer would have also added an extra layer to the game that could have pushed it that much closer to being amazing, but as it is, Prey is an excellent single-player experience that keeps you going on the strength of its level arrangements and some satisfying weaponry.
The Prey reboot made by Bethesda seems to have gone an entirely different direction, so the likelihood of a first-person shooter refining the elements of this 2006 title seem slim. Still, while it’s not as refined as it should have been, Prey still explores some compelling design elements that make it a welcome reprieve from your everyday shooter.