This isn’t going to be a full review, because I haven’t finished it yet. Plus, the default screenshot format is TGA, which seems to be too esoteric for my current suite of applications that I would normally browse screenshots with. I’ll post again when I do finish.
The first couple hours are actually a bit tedious and predictable for the most part. I later realized that this is probably because the designers of Prey are not expecting most of their audience to be jumping in after having recently played a whole bunch of other First Person Shooters recently, like I have.
Like the Doom and Quake games, Prey starts out in a bunch of dimly lit semi-claustrophobic environments where there are monsters roaming around who want to kill you on sight. Well, actually there’s a neat prologue establishing the three main human characters (Tommy “you”, Tommy’s grandfather Enisi, and Tommy’s girlfriend Jen) by having them meet in Jen’s bar and giving the player an opportunity to get used to moving around and interacting with objects. Then our heroes and the bar are sucked up into an alien spacecraft full of monsters.
Tommy, Enisi, and Jen are all strapped to metal slabs moving along rails in an obvious rip- er, I mean tribute to the Citadel section for Half Life 2. Tommy manages to escape, and unfortunately Enisi is killed in a rather gruesome fashion (interesting note: you can cut out the swearing but not the gore), which leaves Tommy all alone on a hostile spacecraft to find Jen and somehow escape back to Earth.
The first weapon you get is the basic melee weapon: the wrench. You do also get a wrench in Half Life: Opposing Force, but it is quickly replaced by a knife. Tommy, however, has to make do with a simple wrench for the whole game. Well, actually: a wrench, and an aresenal of alien weapons. Also, after Tommy’s first post-mortem powwow with Enisi, Tommy gains the ability to temporarily leave his physical body and walk around in his spirit body. Tommy’s spirit form is immune to damage, can walk through force fields, and comes with it’s own spirit bow weapon, but cannot move through most physical objects or use Tommy’s regular weapons.
So far, it’s a lot like most FPSs. In fact, most of the weapons have direct analogs: the second weapon is just like a combination of a fully automatic automatic pistol and the crossbow in HL1/2(except it has bones and skin and a little eyestalk that twists around and looks at you sometimes). The second weapon is grenades (actually three-legged bugs crawling around that you grab and use as grenades). The third weapon is rather different: a multi-purpose “sprayer” that can hold napalm, lightning, or frost ammunition. The fifth weapon is more or less just like the HL2 machine gun (except it’s actually the still-twitching severed arm of a “centurion” alien). The sixth is a simple toxic-waste shotgun. The final weapon is a rocket launcher that’s alive(and you can see the “rockets” moving around through the clear chassis).
Most of the first few hours are basically boot-camp type areas that familiarize the player with the basics of the weapons and the essential environment features like the gravity-switches, wallwalks (walkways that twist around in different directions, but if you don’t fall or jump off, you stick to them), and portals. There are a few environmental puzzles and only occasional glimpses of possible allies. Most of the atmosphere is pretty grim, and the Prey designers don’t mind doing things like killing off kids and then siccing their ghosts on you (stinking crazy ghost-kids! I’m trying to save humanity here!). There is the occasional goofy moment like the time you get shrunk down and dropped onto a shrunk-down planetoid in the same room you were just in, but other than that, the first few hours are pretty grim and, well, Doom/Quake-like.
But then it gets fun. When the “training area” is finally done(and the exact point where it stops is not easy to point out, because the shift in tone is a bit gradual, but let’s say it happens after the second Enisi Powwow), the game throws twists and turns after twists and turns at you. You meet the human allies (which happen to be descended from native Americans), you rescue Jen once, only to have her snatched away again, the “Mother” organism starts talking to you (putting me in a very happy Portal/System Shock mood), and the plot finally gets started for real. Additionally, the environments open up, with some areas being bigger than any others I’ve ever played through in any other game. The shuttles are particularly extremely fun, because you can fly in any direction and grab enemies with the tractor beam, and they give you plenty of opportunities to use the shuttles. Also: tons of fun environmental puzzles and outright goofball moments like the giant puzzle cube that doesn’t even pretend to have any practical purpose(the forcefield puzzles make sense because they’re part of the spaceship’s security, but the giant puzzle cube is just there because it’s a giant puzzle cube).
One of the few criticisms I have at this point are: now I really understand why Gordon Freeman never talks. Tommy is rarely annoying, but the fact that he’s a game character with dialogue really made me wish I could choose some of the critical dialogue. Like when Tommy refuses further help from Enisi during their second Powwow because Tommy is too worried about Jen, I’m just thinking that Tommy is really acting like an idiot. The first time, Enisi unlocks Tommy spirit powers (which up until that point Tommy didn’t believe in) and effectively makes Tommy a semi-immortal super hero. And then the second time, Tommy is still being pushy and still doesn’t even want to hear Enisi’s advice? Tommy is no Star Wars fan, for sure, and I’ve got a bad feeling about “Unforseen Consequences” when the big showdown finally occurs. It would have been nice to give the player a choice about this kind of thing, considering the player controls all the combat aspects.
Incidentally, Prey had a very interesting history before it’s current incarnation: this page is very informative. I had forgotten that the makers of a number of games I like, including so many who ended up at Valve and Ion Storm, were on the teams of earlier incarnations of Prey. Duke Nukem (taking) Forever aside, 3D Realms seems to have some serious issues keeping development teams happy. Considering how many of those who left Prey teams went on to create successful games, it certainly looks to me like a failure on the part of management. But that’s just fanboy-speak and it’s now long after the fact, so don’t mind me.
I had also forgotten that the 1997-98 work-in-progress version of Prey was where I had first heard about William Scarborogh’s experimental “Portal Technology”. Portal’s portals are a very fun toy to play around with, but one past version of Prey was going to be based on some seriously crazy technology paradigms, of which portals were just a part. It would be interesting to see him or someone else try to push the envelope paradigm-wise instead of the continual foolish obsession with making everything prettier that most high-end developers seem obsessed with. Prey’s final incarnation ended up pretty neat even with preexisting technology that wasn’t designed for it (Doom 3), and I wonder how things might have been different if it had been released in it’s “Talon Brave” incarnation. On the other hand, among other things, Paypal might not be around(“Tom Pytel (Programmer) – One of the founders of Paypal” left that version of the team), so maybe it was for the best.