Prey for Xbox 360 Review

Anyone who's familiar with 3D Realms will immediately "get" Prey, a game that is much a spiritual successor to the pseudo-3D first person shooter (FPS) classic "Duke Nukem 3D" as it is a standalone next-generation title aimed at squeaking away a bit of market share from similar titles such as F.E.A.R. (see my review) and Quake 4 (see my review). (Though both of those later titles are quite a bit darker in character than is Prey.) No, Prey doesn't feature the juvenile, wise-cracking super hero who graced (and some say ruined) Duke 3D. But it does include a lot of the general vibe of that game, including somewhat silly in-game mini-games, the requisite aliens, and plenty of good-natured cursing.

All in all, Prey is a decent shooter, sort of a "FPS for Dummies," if you will, and completely representative of the genre while offering just a few simple unique bits you won't see elsewhere. If you've found other FPS games to be too difficult, Prey is here for you. If you just can't get enough of the FPS genre (like me), and have exhausted the current lineup of superb Xbox 360 titles, such as Call of Duty 3 (see my review), Gears of War (see my review), and the aforementioned F.E.A.R., Prey is what you've been waiting for. It's absolutely competent, but never horrible or, conversely, truly magical. It is, in fact, a lot like most of the games 3D Realms have made over the years.

3D Realms, incidentally, started life as Apogee, which basically took the shareware concept and ran with it in the early 1990's, publishing a number of now-classic games, such as the Commander Keen series, the Duke Nukem series, Wolfenstein 3D, Rise of the Triad, Shadow Warrior, and Terminal Velocity. Yes, Apogee/3D Realms took up a lot of my time a decade ago, and while many of the best games the company published were actually made by the geniuses at Id Software, 3D Realms did go on to produce its own in-house classics, all of which featured a certain "something" that identified them quite quickly as 3D Realms titles. They were often absurd yet brilliant.

Prey, like the next chapter of the Duke Nukem saga (the ill-fated "Duke Nukem Forever," which 3D Realms insists is still going to happen), began life almost a decade ago. In 1997, 3D Realms announced that it would ship a game called Prey, and the company provided a demonstration of the game at the E3 trade show that year, stunning showgoers with its graphical realism and performance. Prey was set for a late 1998 release at the time. It resembled Unreal (not Unreal Tournament) at the time, at least to my eyes. It never shipped. This, too, will be familiar to long-time fans of 3D Realms.

A few years back, 3D Realms surprised everyone by announcing that Prey was back in business. The game that eventually surfaced bears absolutely no connection to the original game of the same name. And in a sign of the times, Prey as we now know it is actually based on Id Software's DOOM 3 engine (which also powers Quake 4). And you can see it in the graphics, which are generally excellent, though as in DOOM 3 and Quake 4, metallic surfaces often appear plastic-looking. But since this is 3D Realms we're talking about, Prey also includes some cute and typical 3D Realms touches, which I actually kind of appreciate. In fact, I never realized I had missed this stuff until I began working my way through the game.

Plot

In Prey, you play Tommy, a disenfranchised Native American who can't wait to get off of the reservation and start a new life with his girlfriend. Tommy, frankly, is a jerk, which makes him kind of a tough hero to rally around, and it isn't until very late in the game that he begins exhibiting anything even close to common sense. It's just hard to empathize with the guy. His girlfriend Jen works at a bar on the reservation and is quite happy to spend the rest of her life there, surrounded by her family and people. Another problem for Tommy is his grandfather, who wants Tommy to embrace his Indian heritage and the mystical powers it can grant him. Tommy wants nothing to do with this. He is, as I mentioned previously, a jerk.

The plot to Prey is simple and only takes minutes to kick off: Aliens come to Earth, looking for humans, which, yes, they use as food stuff and a power source. In fact, in the mythos of Prey, these aliens actually seeded the humans on Earth, as they did on countless other worlds, and they return regularly to cull from the herd. The reservation's bar is under one of the alien ships that comes to Earth and Tommy, his grandfather, and Jen are all captured and sucked up into the ship in your standard outtake from "The X-Files."

Once on the ship, Tommy's grandfather is killed, and Tommy escapes, vowing to find Jen and set her free. For most of the game, that's exactly the task he undertakes. There's just one problem: Grandfather keeps communicating with Tommy from the Spirit World, and he even occasionally brings Tommy over to the other side to provide guidance--which the ever-annoying Tommy generally spurns, much to Jen's detriment later in the game--and special powers which our pseudo-hero can use in the course of his quest.

Along the way, you'll run into a band of rebel humans that live on the ship and discover the true nature of the aliens who captured you. By the end of the game, the majority of which takes place on the alien ship, Tommy does eventually come around and embrace his Indian powers. That's good, because Tommy has a big decision to make as the game concludes. Needless to say, I'm surprised to see he does the right thing.

Game play

If you've played any first person shooter on the Xbox 360, you'll be able to get up and running with Prey immediately. The controls are intuitive and logical, with none of the weird learning curve that dogs Gears of War. There's precious little in the way of puzzle solving per se, but in the game's most obvious 3D Realms-ism, the alien ship is populated with fun and dizzying energy ramps that literally turn everything on its head: These ramps traverse the walls and ceilings, and when you're on them, you always appear to be standing upright, so the room swivels around you. The effect is incredible, and aliens often attack you, upside down, from the ceiling. Likewise, you can attack them that way as well.

In addition to these neat effects, you will jump through portals, transporting you to different places, or to the ceiling in the same room. Sometimes you shoot targets to manually swivel the room around. And sometimes, of course, you have to puzzle your way through a room in which you must alternatively walk on the ceiling, walls, and floor at different points, the game's only real nod to puzzle solving.

That this bizarre, M.C. Escher-type effect is Prey's sole major innovation doesn't mean it gets old. In fact, I was surprised to discover that 3D Realms somehow managed to keep things fresh, despite basically throwing different combinations of the same tricks at you again and again. The other cute new touch is Tommy's Spirit Walking ability, which lets you reach areas of the game that are off-limits to the physical character. While Spirit Walking, you take on a ghostly shape that traverse invisible bridges, trigger gates and other items, and jump back into your real body, and continue along.

The Spirit Walking stuff isn't quite as successful as the room spinning, because after a while you just realize that every single time you appear to be stuck, the trick is to Spirit Walk and look for the normally hidden bridge over that chasm, or whatever.

In addition to Spirit Walking, you'll occasionally pilot small ships that feature guns and tractor beams, both of which you'll need to use quite a bit. All of the weapons, except for the bow and arrow you'll use while Spirit Walking, are alien and quiet well-done. There are alien versions of pistols, rifles, nail guns, sniper guns, grenade launchers, a lightning gun, and so on, and the balance is as good as any first person shooter. The guns are semi-biological as well, so they often undulate or writhe in some way, which is visually interesting and occasionally comical.

One curious bit: Unlike other games, which feature either a health point system (like Quake 4, where health is measured on a scale from 0 to 100 or 125) or the ability to heal on the fly, you can't actually die in Prey. If your health hits zero, you're transported to the Spirit World, where you have a brief bit of time to target flying wraiths with your bow and arrow: The more you hit, the more health and spirit energy you'll have when you return to life. And return you will: You can't die. This is part of the reason I referred to Prey as "FPS for Dummies." There's nothing particularly wrong with this system, I guess, but it does take out some of the stress when you know you're going to jump right back to where you were every time your health zero's out. In Call of Duty 3, for example, dying often involves a painful backtrack to the beginning of a checkpoint. There's more at stake.

Another reason for the Dummies bit: Prey hands out Achievements like it's an Achievements Pez dispenser. You get an Achievement for every one of the short 22 levels in the game, for example, each of which is the equivalent of your typical Call of Duty 3 checkpoint. For newbies and those new to the FPS genre, that's good stuff: You really feel like you're accomplishing something as you move through the game. What's funny is that if you play through the freely downloadable demo version of Prey, you've accomplished the equivalent of four or five Achievements. That's gotta be a record.

True to the 3D Realms tradition, there's a lot of humor in the game. You routinely come across artifacts brought up to the ship from Earth, including some of the electronic gambling machines that were in Jen's bar. Humorously, you can play these games on the ship, and some of them even cough up in-game Achievements if you win. Silly, but fun.

Graphics and Sound

Graphically, Prey manages to be quite a bit brighter than both DOOM and Quake 4, proving that the DOOM engine isn't just good for dark, shadowy interiors. That said, almost all of Prey takes place in fairly constrained interior environments, though there are plenty of colored lights and other bright objects to keep things colorful. Compared to newer games like Gears of War, Prey isn't particularly leading edge from a graphical perspective, but I found it quite attractive and it provides a nice middle ground that balances fast moving performance with graphical excellence.

The sound, curiously, is spectacular. The music is incredible, and it's no surprise that 3D Realms actually sells the soundtrack to this title on CD. Check it out: It's as good as the soundtrack for many Hollywood movies, featuring both orchestral and Native American themes. The environmental sounds and voice acting are both top-notch as well, from Tommy's petulant (and seemingly never-ending) complaining to the alien squeaks and squawks you'll hear around the ship.

One nice touch is that the voice alien nut Art Bell is featured throughout the game, via in-game radio broadcasts that are relayed around the alien ship, providing a nice ongoing update about the doings back home. These broadcasts don't actually add anything to the game beyond a nice rest here and there with some excellent tongue-in-cheek dialog that advances the plot. It's easy to imagine that these broadcasts are exactly what Bell would provide where the Earth actually invaded. They're really well done.

Multiplayer

Prey's multiplayer component is also well-done, making good use of both the alien environments and the funky weapons you found in the single player version. Go figure, but I've had more success finding people online playing Prey than I've had with Call of Duty 3, which is newer and arguably more sought-after. It wouldn't surprise me to discover that Prey has surprising staying power thanks to its multiplayer functionality. And 3D Realms has already augmented the game with freely downloadable characters for you to play online. Smart.

Conclusions

Prey is a surprisingly good first person shooter, with enough in-game humor, ongoing plot and character development, and innovative hooks to keep even jaded gamers smiling. If you've never really understood what all the fuss was about with first person shooters, this is the place to start: It hits all the high points and works exactly the way it should. But Prey isn't just for beginners. The unique wall walking functionality, while somewhat dizzying (and thus not recommended for those who get motion sickness easily) never gets old, and most of the levels are quite interesting. Prey never really moves up to the level of a true classic like Gears of War, but it is so much more approachable. What's missing is replayability: I'll almost certainly never play through the single player experience again, though I intend to log more hours in multiplayer. I enjoyed Prey quite a bit, and I suspect you will as well.

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