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Prey 2006: A giant pile of ideas abandoned in a heap on the floor

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2006’s original Prey came a full eleven years after 3D Realms began its production. Eventually completed by Human Head Studios, although using some of the original concepts (primarily the portal tech), it was released to rave reviews. Which is odd, because it’s a colossal pile of shit.

I have never played Prey before. It passed me by a decade ago, and has since entirely disappeared from sale. (Extraordinarily, it’s no longer on sale on Steam because 2K ran out of copies.) I managed to get hold of a copy (Steam key reseller if you must know, ew, not something I’m pleased to have resorted to), and have since completed it. And gosh, it’s really bloody awful. Packed with brilliant ideas that go nowhere, fascinating potential that’s never realised, and some truly dreadful combat. I am utterly mystified at how it was allowed to pass in a year as late as 2006.

Prey stands out as an FPS that rather boldly doesn’t feature a grisly muscly white dude as its main character. You are, in fact, Domasi Tawodi – a Cherokee garage mechanic and former soldier (read grisly muscly Native American dude) – who sees his grandfather and not-quite-girlfriend get captured by aliens from their bar. Swiftly captured after them, the bulk of the rest of the game takes place on a miles-high spaceship as Tawodi (known as Tommy) attempts to kill absolutely everything on board while shouting about how cross he is.

But we should back up, because before the aliens show up, Prey starts brilliantly. It gets right what Half-Life got right, and so few games since have – it remembers to be ordinary before it’s extraordinary. You begin in the backrooms of the bar, wander about, speak to your companions, play on the poker machine, then beat the shit out of some customers with a spanner. Usual stuff. (Actually, I’m flippant, but this rather large overreaction to some unpleasant types is a coherent reason why you’re carrying a bludgeoning weapon when you arrive on board the USS Aliens.) It gives you a brief moment of normality to ground your character before he begins his adventures, and it’s something the vast majority of games forget to do to their significant detriment. Then it does even better with a lovely on-rails section on the ship, introducing you to the scale of the threat, the harvesting of humans.

Once you’re on the ship, it immediately starts being clever. I can see why, I guess, journalists over-excited to finally have their hands on this hilariously delayed game – bordering on a reputation of the likes of Duke Nukem – got worked up at this point. A strong opening, and then a peculiar environment of portals, boxes that when walked into exit you somewhere else, and a setting where any wall can potentially become the floor. It feels bursting with neat ideas, elaborated on further when you begin your inevitable journey into the spiritual, gaining a spirit form that can walk through barriers and press buttons, leaving your corporeal form dangling the other side.

So it’s quite extraordinary that absolute nothing clever is done with any of it. That spirit form is, I think, the clearest example. Early on you use it to pass through forcefields or turret-triggering laser beams, pressing a button on the other side, so when returning to your body you can pass through. Later in the game this is used for passing through forcefields or turret-triggering laser beams, pressing a button on the other side, so when returning to your body you can pass through. Nearer the end of the game, this special skill affords you the ability to pass through forcefields or turret-triggering laser beams, pressing a button on the other side, so when returning to your body you can pass through.

The same abandoning of any conceptual development applies to the portals (they appear, you walk through them), and the delightful teleporting crates are simply forgotten about! There is however the nice idea of shooting at switches on walls and ceilings to flip gravity around to make them into the floor, which begins as just a simple way to carry on down a corridor, but eventually becomes – oh no, wait, sorry – it just stays a way to carry on down a corridor.

It is absolutely deserving of note that the portals are uncannily similar to those that would appear in Portal a year later. Same shape, same blue/orange colouring. That’s kind of weird. It’s odd there wasn’t more calling out of that in 2007. But it’s pretty essential to note that while sporting all the potential of that technology (right to the point of having it working to show Tommy visible through overlapping portal lines of sight), they don’t even try to do a single interesting thing with it.

Interlude

On with the show

But this is all as nothing when compared to the combat. Here is where I’m most bemused by the generous pass the game received on release. Enemies don’t react to getting shot! They don’t differentiate headshots. They just calmly get on with their leaden animations as you fire the required number of blasts toward them before they lie down/explode. It looks like something from one of those knock-off Steam releases that get excitable corpulent YouTubers overly worked up. The same dreadfully dreary backdrops dominating the 6-8 hour campaign, filled with unreactive, AI-free enemies, none doing anything novel or interesting, reminded me more of Galactic Hitman than any genre classic.

The results in the peculiar confusion of a giant pile of great ideas, left in a woefully unrealised heap on the dull, grey floor. Yes, you escape the purgatory of the same corridor fighting the same enemies for brief moments of spirit cave doodahs, where your stampy-footed manbaby of a protagonist whinges and whines about being given magic powers, but these are tiny blips in its monotone monotony.

Strangest of all is the child murder. Which aren’t words you get to write often in this business. There is of course a trend for people to moan when you can’t kill kids in games like Fallout, whether because they’re mysteriously invincible, or simply never let near a player with a gun, but it’s invariably for a really good reason. Pretending to kill children is awful! Prey limits this to an absolutely horrible scene in which you are asked to watch one child brutally murder another, and then just aimlessly shooting at the ghosts of former youngsters. Both are incredibly uncomfortable, but, I assumed, there for a good reason. The game begins to wordlessly introduce some other storyline about children being possessed back on Earth, and some peculiarity about their ghosts haunting the ship. And the ghosts of weird bird things. They sporadically appear, their threat a little ambiguous. And this all builds up to… er, nothing.

They’re just completely forgotten! So much effort put into whatever the hell it was meant to be, and it turns out for no reason whatsoever. Which is, to be fair, impressively against the mold. Most games shy away from killing kids – Prey puts it in there for literally no purpose!

It is such a strange thing, deeply anachronistic – not for 2017, but for 2006 – and unutterably repetitive. (It’s noteworthy that its brevity was an issue in those days – today it feels like it outrageously outstays its welcome.) Its eleven year development hell is no doubt a huge contributory factor to the murky messy result, and this of course provides us with a parable for 2017’s Prey release.

Already you’ll have seen certain sites and magazines presenting the game they’ve not yet played as the year’s second coming, accompanied by a reader backlash accusing the press of setting it up for a fall they’ll report equally as gleefully. History has directly repeated itself, a sequel to Prey in development for another eleven years, taken from one developer (this time from Human Head) and given to another (Arkane), possibly finally out in the first half of this year. My hope is that it’s brill, because I love playing brill games. But if it’s not-so-brill, I equally hope we won’t be seeing a lot of very positive reviews that’ll look peculiar to someone writing a retro in another eleven years time.

Oh, and the vaginas.

Prey is genuinely not available anywhere, with even eBay copies mostly listed as having spent their Steam code. You will find it via key resellers, but whether you’re willing to support them is up to you. Prey 2006 is certainly not the game to drive you toward a decision.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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