They call it “vaporware”: software that is announced amid much fanfare, then for one reason or another is never released. Sometimes funding dries up, or the development cycle outlasts the lifespan of the hardware. Most times it’s a mercy killing. Surprising, then, to see Prey released more than 10 years after gaming rags published its first screenshots. Downright shocking that it actually brings something new to the first-person-shooter genre.
THE SPHERE: is that rare new experience you have to play through for yourself.
Given the number of development teams that have come and gone from the project, it’s amazing how similar the end product is to its original concept. You play as a Native American who has been abducted by aliens and tries to fight his way out of their grotesque space vessel. The character is a little different — originally, he was to be a franchise character called “Talon Brave.” This is back when game developers thought nothing of having you play as a Chinese guy named “Lo Wang.” Now, though, you’re Tommy, an angry, alienated young Cherokee who wants nothing more than to get off the reservation for good.
He gets his wish in a virtuoso opening sequence. The game begins in a run-down Cherokee bar, with a few lonely video poker machines in the corner. It’s an unexpected start, particularly when the roof is torn off the place and bright green tractor beams drag Tommy, his girlfriend, and his grandfather toward a UFO. It’s one of the better “crossing the threshold” scenes in recent memory, but nothing compared to what you find on board the ship.
So many games plop you into sterile industrial settings, maybe tossing in a laboratory or a bathroom for variety. Prey has its share of metal catwalks and wall-mounted computer consoles, but they’re integrated into — and often swallowed by — an organic monstrosity called the Sphere. Navigating corridors feels more like slogging through some beast’s innards than the umpteenth imitation of a Star Destroyer. It is truly alien. There’s a jarring juxtaposition when you come across receivers picking up radio signals from Earth. None other than famed AM talk-show host Art Bell shows up as himself, hosting calls from people reporting alien activity all over the planet.
HOT TIP: Pay attention to Talon — your spirit guide provides hints to solving puzzles
But the real hook is the portal system. Throughout the ship there are holes in spacetime that transport you to another area entirely. This presents no shortage of Escher-esque mindfucks, as peering through a portal in a tiny room reveals a cavernous space. Or you’ll see yourself from a different angle. Or change size.
The shooting doesn’t stack up to the environment. I might have preferred a point-and-click adventure game set in the world of Prey, so I could have had more time and reason to explore. Sure, you pick up crazy alien weapons, but it doesn’t take more than a couple of shots to realize that they’re identical to every generic assault rifle and shotgun in every first-person shooter that’s come out in the past 10 years. Enemy AI is abysmal, but going on-line for a deathmatch diminishes the impact of the setting. Fortunately, the portals and zero-gravity walking paths breathe a little life into on-line play. It’s a new thrill to blast an opponent to bits and watch his corpse fall up.