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Preview: Prey 2

I'm very surprised. Good surprised, not bad surprised. Prey is not a game I feel anything about, to be completely honest. I know it has its fans, but for me it remains part of that mass of id Tech 4-based stodgy shooters which went heavy on bio-mechanical corridor-pounding gloss at the expense of play I found truly engaging, despite early-game experiments with big ideas. Prey 2? More corridors, more textbook murderous aliens, more blamblamblam, no thank you ma'am.

Except it's not. I was not expecting a game where you spend a significant time without a gun taking up half your screen. I was not expecting an open-world game, inspired more by the likes of Red Dead Redemption and STALKER than by Quake and Call of Duty. I was not expecting a game where your interaction with funny-headed aliens is as much about making moral judgements as it is shooting them. I'm surprised.

(Click these images for larger versions, by the way)

With crushing inevitability, watching a presentation which demonstrated just how different and ambitious Prey 2 was, how determined it is to veer away from the FPS crowd, was immediately followed by sneery questions about why the first game's Native American hero Tommy was no longer the star, and why portals were no longer involved. The same upset has been visible across the web, since the first details of the game slipped out. I have no idea, at this stage, whether Prey 2 will fulfil its lofty ambitions, but I simply cannot understand the mentality that demands a game stay the same instead of pursuing bold growth and change. Imagine how that must feel. Imagine showing your game full of ideas and creative risks and then just being told off for not repeating yourself.

I don't care about Tommy. I'm sorry. Yeah, I'm as bored of white, male game-heroes as the next guy, but it's pretty obvious that the switch to the ludicrously-named US Air Marshall Killian Samuels hasn't been made as a result over cold feet about making an ethnic minority the star. It's so the game's free to explore different places, different concepts. Tommy will, we're told, take a major but as-yet mysterious key role in Prey 2, but he won't be playable. Maybe it's a betrayal, but I'll take a Blade Runner-inspired open world over more spirit-walking pseudo-mysticism any day.

And portals? There's a perfectly good game about portals coming out this week. Better to also have a game about free-running bounty-hunting in a massively vertical sci-fi city instead of two portal games, thanks.

Killian Samuels, then. He's a US AIr Marshall, who was aboard a plane back when the alien invasion of Earth in Prey 1 ocurred. The game opens with him the apparent lone survivor of the resulting crash, staggering to his feet amidst the wreckage of his plane. But he's not on Earth. The ground is organic, pustulent. Drawing his military pistol, he wanders forward. It's not long before he finds life, but it's not human. It's one of the Prey 1 aliens. Shooting ensues. You know the drill. On the run, hunted by monsters, blasting your way to freedom.

Except Samuels doesn't find freedom. He finds a brutal punch in the face, and unconsciousness.

Years later. Samuels is working as a bounty hunter on the planet Exodus, a metropolitan hive of scum and villainy, occupied by multiple races living in relative peace, everyone finding some way to make a living. He's not being hunted. In fact, he's a hunter - a bounty hunter forever in search of the next paid contract.

Clearly, there are many questions. How did he get here? Why wasn't he killed/harvested? Where are those evil aliens from Prey 1? Are there any other humans here? We'll find out in due course, but for now it's all about the Benjamins.

Exodus is described as 'alien noir', with Blade Runner a screamingly clear influence. There's some Mass Effect in there too - multiple alien races and an air of ubiquitous criminality. The area Samuels is currently turning a buck in is the Bowery, a down-at-heel zone dominated by ne'er-do-wells. It's the red light district, the crime lord district, the drugs district. It's perhaps leaning towards the wrong side of dystopic sci-fi stereotype, but again - I'll take the hovercars, vast, odd-angled skyscrapers and seedy neon over corridor-pounding any day.

When Samuels takes a contract, he's assigned a target. How he kills or captures that target is your choice. Direct action has its merits, but if you barge into a nightclub and start spraying bullets everywhere you're going to end up with a lot of heat - both from your target's allies and potentially from Exodus' security. So you could try stealth - using an Assassin's Creed-esque parkour system to clamber over roofs and through windows. Or you could simply try threats, frightening your target into surrender or into fleeing to a less populous area. In Prey 2, you choose whether or not you hold a gun when you approach people. Maybe it'll help. Maybe it'll just raise hell. Your call.

A target running away is a good thing, at least as far as being a player is concerned. It results in a dramatic free-running and wall-climbing chase around Exodus, and delving into a utility belt full of absurd gadgetry. While shooting plays its part, your guns are frankly the least of your tools; anti-gravity waves, shoulder-mounted homing rockets, bolas, hover-boots and in the region of 15 further gadgets are the stars of this show. 'Prey' doesn't here refer to being the hunted - it refers to being the hunter. The Predator, in fact. The inclusion of climbing, electronically-assisted vision modes and shoulder-mounted weapons is not coincidental. There's more than a trace element of Deus Ex here too, but far more openly action-orientated. The chase is dynamic, crazed, desperate, but the gadgets means the odds are in Samuels' favour.

(This time, at least. A later chase results in the arrival of a target's vengeful brother, a hulking, bus-sized brute of an alien spitting firepower from every limb. For all the freeform elements, this doesn't shy away from setpieces.)

The contract missions, some of which are scripted and story-progressing but the bulk of which are simply scanning for local opportunities, are just one way to make a living. Samuels can also look for ambient encounters, such as intervening in a scuffle and hoping for a reward from whichever alien was getting duffed up. Or he could wait for the fight to resolve itself and loot the resulting bodies. Or he could comb the city, searching its nooks and crannies for cash and for hidden missions such as trashing one cartel's communication infrastructure.

He could even head off on a crime spree himself, mugging passers-by, extorting cash and discounts from traders and informants, or sadistically pushing civilians from the high streets to their death. This is likely to draw the attention of the floating security drones. You can take those out, but doing so may bring about harsher measures from whoever's in charge of Exodus. While Prey 2 avoids moral judgments, a GTA-style heat system does mean that being a total bastard won't result in an easy ride.

The moral judgements, or lack thereof, extends to the contracts themselves too. A target you're chasing might realise the writing's on the wall, and promise you a bigger pay packet if you let him go. That's more money (to be spent on gadget upgrades and ammo) for you, but it might mean you're letting a bad man go free. Or the target might claim his innocence, leaving the choice as to whether they or your employer are telling the truth to you. Everyone's probably lying about something; question is, do you try to do the right thing or accept that the whole situation's pretty messed up anyway and thus make the (financial) best of it?

Whether this openness of both approach and morality can sustain itself across a slew of encounters both scripted and procedural remains to be seen (for instance, at what point does interrupting a beat-down on the streets stop being atmosphere-building and become an all-too-familiar repetion?), but I'm entirely excited about the prospect of constructing my own bounty hunter/bussinessman fantasy life, and only pursuing the story missions when I'm good and ready.

STALKER as alien noir? Clearly, this is a whole lot more mainstream than that (and dodgy style stuff like aliens hissing 'ssssson of a bittttch' in silly reptile voices doesn't do the atmosphere too many favours), but when a game that had the option to be just another gloosy manshoot decides to even begin treading the sandbox path, I damn well sit up and pay attention. Tommy? Portals? I really do not give a monkey's. I'm the freelance police Predator.

Prey 2 is due for release in 2012. We'll have an interview with the devs up later this week.

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