Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Human Head Studios
Genres: 3D Shooter / First-Person Shooter
Release Date: July 11, 2006
Game Modes: Singleplayer / Multiplayer

1Prey has all of the markings of a summer blockbuster. It’s loud, it’s bold, it’s in your face, and subtle it ain’t. It has a few twists here and there but mostly adheres to a singular formula: It’s a rigidly linear corridor shooter with a lousy narrative and mundane AI. You control Tommy, an Indian dude living life on a reservation somewhere, which he really wants to leave with his girlfriend Jen. He also dismisses his grandfather for holding onto those Native American beliefs, one of which is apparently a love of fire water, since Pops sidles up to the bar and pounds a cold one after your opening conversation.

After a short intro scene where Tommy gets to beat up some rowdy patrons, aliens show up looking for some grub and abduct Tommy, his grandfather, and his girlfriend. This scenario is supposed to be Tommy’s chance to gain redemption and to attempt to connect with his Native American voodoo heritage and save his people. All it really shows is his narcissism. Throughout the game, he only cares about his own needs. He wants to find his girlfriend and he wants vengeance (in that order). He has little concern for anyone else in this alien world, even though they’re clearly suffering.

Fortunately, the narrative is offset by the superb gameplay. Its formulaic parts are buffed to near-perfection; its twists are clever and interesting. It uses “portals,” which add an interesting twist to standard levels. They allow monsters to “warp” into areas. Unlike the heavily criticized monster closets of DOOM 3, it’s an internally consistent contrivance—aliens can make portals, so of course they’ll warp to your location. More often, the portals let developer Human Head create “impossible” levels where you can change the laws of physics.

The technology used throughout Prey is superb. The DOOM 3 engine is as shiny as ever, and it retains the obsessive attention to detail of id Software’s original game. Prey certainly isn’t “pretty” in any conventional sense. Everything from the levels themselves to the weapons found on the spaceship is consistently organic and alien looking. In fact, everything is downright disgusting. Squishy, even. The walls ooze; creatures emerge from vagina-like slits; sphincters spew out explosive balls of organic material or projectile vomit all sorts of unknown waste products. Yes, this is an M-rated game. The sound also does a terrific job of conveying just how gross this place is—it makes you want to shower after extended play session.

3More impressive is the way all this technology is used to create some fantastic places to play in. While Prey doesn’t have the epic set pieces of Half-Life 2, most of the levels are interesting. They also have actual puzzles. You often find yourself figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B, and it never involves platforming. You go through these complex environments without being led through them. In most cases, you navigate the environments either by altering a room’s gravity, causing it to spin around, or by turning on machines that allow you to walk on walls in certain areas.

You never lose your orientation, because the game does a brilliant job of using visual cues—like airflows, visible debris, and relatively “normal” environments—to help orient the player. There are some areas where you need to have “out of body” Native American experiences in order to manipulate objects; in some instances, you leave your body on a platform, flip a switch, and watch as you’re carried off to another location. There’s even a 3D version of a sliding tile puzzle (kind of). To Prey’s considerable credit, these are actually smart puzzles that give some needed pause to the brainless action. They don’t break up the action; if anything, they serve as buffers between shooting segments.

In fact, it’s too bad there aren’t more of them. Two-thirds of the single-player game is fantastic, but the other third throws out much of the cool stuff and replaces it with totally conventional, repetitive, and dull combat and boss fights. (Lots of designers must worship Star Castle, because it’s the go-to game for these big battles.) At least Human Head and 3D Realms nail the difficulty, so it’s never frustrating. This is a game you will finish because it (optionally) scales its difficulty level to your ability. If you die, you can either reload or “fight” your way back to life in its “death walking” mode.

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2Actually, you don’t need to fight, as you can just sit there and eventually return to the game; however, if you shoot more of the “spirits” (or whatever they are), you recover more health. It’s a clever mechanic. For one thing, if you are dumb enough to quicksave yourself into a corner by pressing F5 during a firefight, when you’re very low on health, then you can simply engage in this minigame and still have a fighting chance. Prey never really lets up. Even in its slower moments, you’re doing something interesting or wallowing in something disgusting.

It’s exactly like one of those big-budget Hollywood summer blockbusters: You wish it gave your brain as much of a work-out as your finger, but there’s no question that its superb action, terrific pacing, and actual puzzles combine to make Prey the best singleplayer first-person shooter since Half-Life 2.

System Requirements: Pentium IV 1.5 Ghz, 512 MB RAM, 128 MB Video, 1.61 GB HDD, WinXP

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