When The dust finally settled after the E3 videogames expo in May, it was obvious that one of the biggest hits of the show was Prey - a triumphant return for the sci-fi shooter that has now been in development on and off for nearly a decade.
We know that the Doom 3 engine is not very good at having lots and lots of creatures on screen at once," said CEO Tim Gerritsen, dropping a rather large bombshell. You can either fight that, or you can come up with ways to use it. We decided to focus on more entertaining combat, making creatures that are more interesting to fight, so they'll use the world around them - such as portals that can open up anywhere, allowing them to jump in around you."
Humans For Lunch
Prey's lead character is a Cherokee Native American called Tommy, who at the beginning of the game is stuck on a reservation in a dead-end job, and has turned his back on the ancient beliefs of his people. Tommy becomes the reluctant hero when his girlfriend Jenny is abducted by aliens bent on turning the human race into food and material for genetic experimentation. The action takes place in various dimensions, the main one being a massive spaceship called the Dyson Sphere, which is inhabited by a menagerie of nightmarish monsters.
The sphere is a living spaceship, explained Gerritsen. It harvests people and divides them up into those who actively want to work for it, food, and those to experiment with genetically. It's a mish-mash of all different races." You blast your way through creepy-looking, technologically advanced future-scapes, with some hugely innovative uses of 360-degree levels, including gravity . walkways (allowing you to , stomp up walls and across ceilings), and fiendish puzzles that require the use of gravity switches that flip the entire world instantly on its head.
In an amazing sequence, Gerritsen showed Tommy taking control of a 2001: A Space Odyssey-style pod, that you can manoeuvre around the open 3D space, grabbing hold of any nearby monsters with an energy beam and hurling them into oblivion. There'll be free-roaming areas where you can go anywhere you want with the vehicle and land on planetoids, for example. Also there are transporters, where you can fly your vehicle into a ring that locks you into it and takes you through some sections, before releasing you to free-roam again. We wanted to mix it up and constantly keep it interesting.
Spirit In The Sky
With the aid of his wise old grandfather, Tommy eventually learns several spiritual powers: Spirit Walk allows Tommy to leave his body for a short time to walk through force fields or past enemies and fire his Spirit Bow, while Death Walk is the ability to fight your way out of an eerie ethereal dimension that you are transported to if you get killed in the game. You also have a spirit totem, basically a hawk that sits on your shoulder and can also fly around the world to point out interesting things for you, translate indecipherable alien text and language, and even attack enemies.
As for weaponry, the only item Tommy can use from back home is a pipe wrench. He's basically a mechanic, and as the game progresses, he discovers the alien armoury - which consists of different types of organic weapons. There's a lot of fun to be had figuring out how they work," said Gerritsen. One such weapon is a creature with crab-like legs, that when pulled off, can be thrown and used as improvised grenades.
But what about Prey's multiplayer aspect? Gerritsen kept schtum about the specifics, but revealed that much of what is original about the single-player experience will be incorporated into the online modes. "The Doom 3 engine has its limitations in multiplayer, but you'll still see portals, you'll see gravity flipping, you'll see vehicles, and you'll see the localised gravity around the spheres." Expect a major hands-on feature on Prey very soon...
When You're Being abducted in-game, and (Don't Fear) The Reaper comes on the jukebox, it's a special moment. Especially considering that it wasn't on the bar's jukebox before the spaceship actually arrived. This can only lead to one conclusion: the last stage of preparation before the aliens' tractor beams are engaged, is to upload the Blue Oyster Cult to the abduction target's MP3 jukebox. That's why these aliens command respect - they're so much cooler than those aliens that post you a C90 of Prefab Sprout with a note to put it on at 'around half three please'.
Prey is increasingly anticipated as 'the game where you're a native American with a ghost bird who gets stolen by a giant space anus where he walks up the walls and that'. The longer version runs that you play as Tommy, a discontented mechanic at an Indian reservation casino. He's distanced from his culture and tormented by his unspoken love of Jenny, the soon-to-be-screaming barmaid. Early in the game, a vision of your recently mangled grandfather will force you to accept your heritage, and thereafter you're joined by Talon, your spirit guide, who'll fly around offering clues, translating the alien language and distracting the creatures of the spaceship.
'Spaceship' isn't quite the right word. It's actually a mini-Dyson Sphere, with its own rules of physics. Bluntly, it looks like MC Escher and William Burroughs took it in turns to pleasure a gigantic, hovering space womb. It's not just the wall-mounted arses, which regularly cough out a life-damaging brown spray and occasionally break through the floor like a visceral Oscar the Grouch. It's the foul, pulsating shininess of everything that lets you know you're fighting your way around a living, unhygienic intestine, populated by creatures designed to protect it (the Fodder, Hunters), work on it (the mechanically altered humans), and feed it (probably you).
It's not just people that are stolen in the abduction process - locations are, too. You'll soon stumble across your own liar, flipped over and stuck to a wall, and riddled with monsters and portals. And in a small but pleasing touch, space seems to have a generous effect on the Poker machine.
In fact, 'walking up walls and that' isn't even approaching the half of it. The flexibility of the gravity means you need to lie aware of attacks from the walls and ceiling, and you need to change gravity by aiming at switches to reach some rooms and portals. And the portals... They're everywhere, and come from nowhere.
Shimmering rings (steady on) appear, dropping monsters in your path. A crate tumbles toward you, revealing a room inside the box from which a Fodder conies bulleting at you. Your brain will tilt uncomfortably as you try to figure out the implications of walking towards a box portal, only to see yourself disappearing into yet another box portal.
You'll discover a small rock in a glass case, and seconds later realise you're on the rock, being observed by a creature where YOU JUST WERE. The only cover you've got from the things he sends down to kill you is the horizon. If this constant barrage doesn't have you paddling your feet on the floor in a stupid private dance, then you need a new central nervous system, because yours is broken. All this isn't even mentioning the mystery of the posh English voice that narrates your progress .vith an ever more concerned sneer, or the what-the-hell of the glowing child who becomes possessed and slides her young ompanion's chest gently around a massive teel pole like a piece of delicious kofte. For inyone who's ever had to sit next to a creaming child in a restaurant, it's a true pleasure to watch.
It would feel negligent not to mention a single potential bad point. The death where you have a limited time to shoot restless souls in an astral plane to recover health and spirit doesn't really help the flow of gameplay, giving instead a feeling of interrupted immortality. But it doesn't affect the grim, filthy beauty of the game. In this jaded, thrill-numbed life, it's always a pleasure to have omething about which you can wax lappy. And with any luck, Prey will come Through with its promise to electrify our hairy knockers next month when we generously ladle an exclusive review and demo upon you.
As Far As lead characters in shooters go. Tommy isn't a happy Cherokee. His grandfather's on his case, nagging him about his spiritual heritage, and coming out with some portentous gibberish about "needing help to survive the night." Tommy wants to leave the reservation casino where he works his dead-end mechanic's job, but he can't convince the girl he loves, Jen, to go with him. He's even got to the stage where he's talking to himself in the mirror, bless.
You've seen movies before - your spidersense for plotlines is tingling. We've got a moody lead character stricken with wanderlust and suffering from clinical cynicism. So you'll be utterly certain Tommy's going to be taught a few serious lessons about how valuable the comforts of home can be. You're probably also thinking that he'll be proved wrong in his belief that the spiritual side of the Cherokee Indians is a bunch of superstitious rubbish, too.
Finally, you'll almost certainly be thinking that this will all happen either a) in a heart-warming comedy set in a pom-pom factory, or b) inside a mind-bending organic Dyson Sphere where gravity chuckles at words like 'down', portals hide in boxes and corrosive waste matter sprays into your face from every conceivable angle. Unfortunately for teenage girls but fortunately for the rest of us, it's the latter.
Over 11 years in the making, Prey's eventual release feels like the nervous hope and excited anticipation that you might experience at a safari park, when the man in the car in front gets out and punches a lion in the face. It's something you really want to see but things could go so wrong. Will the Doom 3 engine consign the game to a sensation of dark, corridor-ey sameness? Will the gravity and portal tricks amount to nothing more than gimmickry and smoke? Thankfully, the answer to both these questions is no. But does it deliver that all-important sense of, "Ooh, hello!"? The shorter answer is yes. It's a tricky concept that could have blown up in Human Head's face, but they've managed to create a game that'll get different parts of your body twitching for several distinct reasons. But this heartfelt recommendation comes with a couple of regrettable qualifications that prevent it from reaching Classic status.
Prey grabs you by the mouse wrist, and is incredibly keen not to let go - from the moment your casino bar dissolves in a green fizz, and the radio interference subsides as Don't Fear The Reaper starts, chosen by an inhuman dime in the jukebox. From the moment you and your loved ones are sucked into space (so that's why they call it a Dyson Sphere... I'll get my coat), you're not left wanting for action or variety. Human Head have clearly sunk both Ijalls into the honey of ideas.
There are claustrophobic, pulsating tunnels of slime-shiny flesh, littered with sphincters that can burst with a sodden sputter through the floor tiles. There are open clumbers where organs and stolen chunks of planet Earth overlap at unaccustomed angles. As you progress to the more civilised areas, the housekeeping's a little better and the flesh is contained in glass pipes filled with a heaving protein that glistens hypnotically with muscular sweat.
By now, you may have put down your Peperami - but we're not finished yet. There are also expansive mining areas with customary-in-these-situations views of a distant Earth. Oh, and then there's the mini-planetoids that you have to negotiate in shuttle and on foot, which have their own gravitational influence.
Ouvrez La Portal
Gravity, of course, is one of Prey's big pulls. Wall Walking's just one way of defying the stuff. Wall switches can be used to change its direction, though sometimes it just changes because that's what gravity does here. But it's only there when you need it, and is not really employed as a tactical weapon outside of the multiplayer. Portals, employed by the ship to aid work by its organic army, also do a fine job of lightly twisting your mind. They can be anywhere - just standing there, a bluerimmed rip in space, or in that box that just tumbled over and spat out a Feeder. As a rule of thumb - if you can see yourself walking sideways, chances are you're looking through a portal.
You start off the game as a cynical sort but you're forced to maybe not accept but certainly use, your powers with an unplanned visit to the spirit world of the Clierokee. After an unavoidable death launches you into the afterlife, you're given your birthright. Hie extent of this inherited gift may come as a pleasant surprise to any Clierokee readers.
First, your childhood pet hawk and now spirit guide Talon can decipher the alien language, distract enemies, and has a habit of sitting somewhere useful. As a decoy. Talon is guite useful, although it's a shame he's controlled completely by the computer, leaving you to react to his instincts rattier than the other way round. But then tactical fighting against the creatures who man, guard and lord it over the space hoover isn't Prey's strongest card. They're frequently dropped from suddenly-opened portals into open areas without cover, making it a matter of 'oh GOD shoot it' rattier than 'let's try and outwit the monsters'. In short, don't expect ground-breaking Al of the Half-Life or Far Cry ilk. There's a time when the Hunters see you on the wallwalk, and turn it off. As you crash to the ground - if that is the ground - and frantically look for the creatures, it's an involving moment but it's a scripted moment, and it only happens once. In terms of fighting, Prey nuzzles much closer to the bosom of its Doom 3 engine mother.
Where Prey scores over Doom 3 and Quake 4 is by avoiding stretches of long, unnecessary darkness, and by some uncanny side effect of the portals, the feeling of linearity is subdued. The portals really do make it feel like you're being less guided by the nose along a progress bar. Like you'd probably expect from the engine's heritage, you'll spend a bit of time looking for the doors that aren't lit red, but unlike Quake 4 you won't find a room with eight doors, six of which don't open and never will.
Let's not forget this game is about killing things. The creatures you'll be killing start off with the humble workers, halfhuman fodder who ignore you until you get in the way. The main fun to be had from these guys is blowing off their head and both their arms before they die, then running away from them. The mutations get more bizarre, until you're fighting scuttle-legged Harvesters, who spring from - pardon my French - ladies' foo-foos in the walls and floors. See the screenshots littering these pages for the range of dirty monsters you'll be escorting to the door. The door of life.
I'd Love To Shoot You
As for the weapons, if you love watching TV shows called 'When Surgery Explodes', then you'll instantly agree tliat the weapons are fantastic. A straight repackaging of traditional weapons, maybe, but fantastic nonetheless. Hie scope is a succulent-looking appendage that slurps over your eyeball with a right-click. The shotgun translates to a yellow phial of what I can only assume is stomach acid. Scuttling, chirpy tripod fellows double up as grenades and mines - you prime them by pulling off a leg, and chuck it wherever the mood takes you. Hie pleasure to be gained from watching it scuttle nervously over a Keeper's body before shivering and exploding like a robot in love, well, it's a pleasing pleasure. And the rocket launcher? Well, from what I could see... I can't say for sure, but it looked a bit like a womb sac. I think I was shooting out exploding monster babies.
With all the imagination that went into your arsenal, it's a shame combat itself wasn't more thoughtfully executed. Don't get me wrong, it's by no means terrible - it's just lacking in the inspiration that pervades the rest of the game. Your melee weapon, a wrench, lacks the utility of the Half-Life crowbar and will lie forgotten after five minutes - ammo is too common to need it, and it's rubbish to Iroot.
The second of your Cherokee powers is the Spirit Walk. This allows you to leave your body to become an invisible scout and you can also pick off enemies if you have enough spirit. It's fairly obvious when you have to use the Spirit Walk - when you see force fields, or the eight-pointed symbol that normally appears in areas where there's no obvious way forward. None of the challenges are difficult or confusing - the Spirit Walk is more of an interesting addition in the multiplayer game, where you can hide your and go hunting for real Internet flesh. Speaking of the game's difficulty, the last power you gain from your ancestors, and the most cheering for native Americans, is unstoppable immortality. Death is no end for Tommy; he simply goes to a mystical plane, where he lias to shoot a number of colour-coded manta ray-like creatures to top up his health and spirit. A nice theoretical touch, the effect is fairly ambivalent. It renders quicksaves redundant, but also makes fighting skills and avoiding death simply a matter of time efficiency and personal pride, rather than a desperate attempt to complete a level having inadvertently passed a checkpoint with severely low health.
There's so much other stuff going on, I haven't got space to fit it all in. I haven't had a chance to talk about the resistance group who freed you from the monorail ride that started your abduction, but who now seem reluctant to hang around to talk to you. I haven't even got round to telling you about the Englishwoman who disparages you telepathically like an amused Penelope Keith. Or those strangely familiar ghosts who've flown through the ship since your arrival, causing a little girl to impale her friend on a 12-foot spike. Or, indeed, the fact you have to fight this girl, whose spirit seems as immortal as your own. She may not have the clenching tension of the young madam from F.E.A.R., but she has got some nice theme music.
There's also the radio broadcasts being picked up from Earth, which give a third angle on proceedings via Art Bell's phone-in show. He's being swamped by calls from an increasingly savvy procession of witnesses, psychics and strange-ologists, keeping the plot revelations coming through during the occasional lulls between organic butchery.
Amidst all this cheerful wonderment, the saddest thing about Prey is that it feels incomplete. It could be longer, only snaffling around ten hours of your life - but then Max Payne 2 is just as short and that's brilliant The main chafe comes from the uncomfortably loose ends, and hints that more was, at one point, intended. When Tommy's cynicism finally succumbs to fury, and he demands his final training, your grandfather refers to seven trials - that never happen. Whereas the main plot reaches a strong and satisfying conclusion, my favourite sub-strand - the collision and overlap of the Earth, Sphere, and Spirit worlds and how it came to happen - isn't even acknowledged.
I'm only grumbling because the bloody game made me care. Beyond the portals, gravity and endemic arseholes, there's a good story being told. I can only hope that the (fantastically) cheesy post-credits setup for a sequel will offer some explanation. After all. there's coy storytelling, and there's sheer forgetfulness.
The fact that the single-player game is quite short will cause some people to turn an accusing eye towards the multiplayer side of things. And here, Prey makes excellent use of the features that make it unique. Maps have you flipping from wall to wall, flying around and Spirit Walking. Be warned, though - the Daz-bright white of the Cherokee spirit makes for an obvious target, and you'd be wise to leave your human body somewhere discreet. Otherwise, you're likely to get sucked back into your noil-spirit eyeballs pretty abruptly, just in time to see the acid gun that's trained on your face. The multiplayer is good enough fun to add substantial life to the game, especially if more maps are created - there are only seven available at this stage.
In summary, Prey is brilliance tinged with disappointment. Artistically. I love it -if the developers were renting their brains. I'd want a flat with a balcony On the other hand, combat is far from ground-breaking and doesn't engage you as ferociously as it could. Then again, that could equally be down to the distancing effect of your immortality. After all, it's less important to play with style when God mode's turned on On the other hand, and you may need a friend for this hand, the gimmicks feel right, and strike a near-perfect balance of disorientation without ever feeling hopelessly lost. On the final hand, you leave the game with your satisfaction tainted by unappeased curiosity.
That such a good game is capable of any disappointment demonstrates the high hopes held out for it Despite any reservations I've mentioned, playing through Prey was a fine, exciting bunch of hours. It's so pregnant with ideas and beautiful moments that you'd be a sad fool to deprive yourself of the experience. If the sequel is longer, a bit more difficult, and plays slightly more intelligently, then I can't imagine it being anything other than a Classic.
Human head's physicsbending portal-strewn shooter had a rickety ride to release. It was 11 years from brave theory to shop shelf - and who in 1995 would have imagined that the final game would feature ghost-on-child murders, tiny planets, vomiters coughing rejected limbs into your face, and thick pipes pumping around what might be muscle, or could well be excrement?
It's time to catch up with Human Head's CEO, Tim Gerritsen, and co-founder Chris Rhinehart, to find out what's happening with the folk who kicked off the portal revolution...
Rhinehart: "The level of interactivity in the initial scene in the bar had always been a major part of the storyline. We wanted to firmly entrench the real-world Earth aspect to the game, to give you reason to understand what Tommy's situation was and how he got into the situation he was in. Originally, we were going to make it less linear - you'd start the game with all of you being abducted, and you'd move back to the bar in a flashback sequence. In the end, we decided it was best to go the linear approach."
Jennifer Oh Jenny:
Rhinehart: "Will you see her again? Well, you see her at the end of the game. She's like the ultimate annoying girlfriend; she can come back spiritually like Obi-Wan. You can be hitting on a new girl, and all of a sudden she'll show up. Selfishly, I hope that Jenny's back in the sequel, because I want to hang with Crystal Lightning again - she's the voice actress who played Jenny. I definitely wouldn't mind seeing her again."
Gerritsen: "Art got it right away. Myself and Ed Lima, the audio director, had contacted him to see if he'd be interested. Being games developers, we tend to be up late at night, so a lot of us had listened to Coast To Coast AM and thought it would be a nice touch to get it in there. When we contacted him, he was all for it right from the get-go. He's receptive to the idea of aliens, but at the same time lie's sceptical enough to make it fun to listen to. We took him the initial scripts and told him to make them his own - it was completely natural to him. He's this crazy, consummate professional, and he did everything in one take."
Rhinehart: "Getting the ship to look like it did involved a lot of people. We had this core idea that we wanted the ship to be alive, like you're crawling through this thing that's utterly alive. We split off into different teams, and made sure the texture artists had to build gross, gloopy walls, and the level designers had to work with this flesh feel in mind as well. We always wanted something moving in your view - tentacles, vomiters that spew out stuff. It was also really important to get this atmospheric feel, to give everything this misty feel. It took us a while to figure out how to get that from the engine though -at its basic level, the engine wasn't suited to our look."
Gerritsen: "A combination of things influenced what we had on the jukebox. We originally wanted it to be full of old Roadhouse music, with what we Americans call 'shit-kicker music'. Just the kind of stuff you'd hear in a typical backwater bar in the States. That's what we were going for, but then we were told we could have some modern acts as well. So our audio director worked with the guys at 2K and tried to figure out what we could get hold of. We picked the old classics, but the newer tracks came towards the end. If you hang around and listen in the later scene where the aliens are in your bar, you can hear one of the Hunters say, 'I love that song'!"
Gerritsen: "The Death Walk wasn't in our original design - it came out about a year or two into the development. We were trying to work out ways to maintain immersion into the game, 4 and one of the ideas to keep the immersion was that when you died, instead of being put back to a checkpoint you went to an underworld. We went through a bunch of different versions before settling on the one in the game. Basically, we just wanted people to be able to complete the game. That's not to say that we wanted to make it easy, we just wanted people to enjoy playing. Some people say that it takes away the fear of death, but that's no different to quick-saving. We never set out to 'get' the player. It's a story, a movie, an interactive fiction that we wanted everyone to enjoy."
Rhinehart: ''We're discussing a lot of cool new ideas for Prey 2, but we can't really talk about them. There's the simple dynamic stuff, developing the Portal system and the improving the way the alien Al uses the portals. Plus, there's already a mod out there that gives you a portal wrench, just the same as in Portal. \Ne don't want to give away some of the cooler new stuff at this stage. We have some ideas that are way beyond how far we went in the first game that we want to explore pretty extensively - we'll definitely be taking things in a different direction next time.
A Challenge: name a game connected with 3D Realms that hasn't been bathed in brilliance by gaming angels. Extreme PaintBrawr?" Erm, OK. William Shatner's TekWart" OK, OK, yes you've proved your point. Plus Duke Nukem Forever is an aeon overdue, and that Prey game that was announced back in 1996 never saw the light of day due to engine problems and development snarl-ups." Ahah! Well that's where you're wrong! Look up at the top of this page! Cripes. You got my number." The greatest comeback since Lazarus? Well, we won't get out the hallelujahs until we've had a fiddle with the code, but the guys at Human Head (previously engaged with Rune) have taken the once-canned progeny of 3D Realms, mixed in a dollop of the Doom 3 engine and created something rather enticing. And looking quite a lot like Doom 3.
You're promised something other than the relentless march of badness of its engine-mate though, primarily a decent stab at emotionally involving the gamer.
You play as Tommy, a man of Native American descent who's grown disillusioned with his roots and the reservation he lives on. This maudlin introspection is soon curtailed, however, when aliens turn up, wreck his grandad's bar, abduct his girlfriend Jenny and leave him stranded in the bowels of an invading flotilla of extraterrestrial spacecraft. Just another day in videogame land then, folks!
Tommy comes packaged with some ancient Cherokee mythology and superpowers, and god knows why he wants to give it all up. If you had a spectral hawk called Talon who could read alien languages, would you pack him off in exchange for a career in accountancy? He can also spirit-walk, death-walk and moon-walk. The first has you scouting out territory through a hazy mist a la Psi Ops. the second means you get to hunt spectral animals after your demise to build up enough life force to reanimate yourself, and the third doesn't really happen at all - I just thought it sounded funny.
So then, it's 15-20 hours of emotional shooting in space with some really neat touches. On your quest to recover your alien-napped girlfriend you come across many other abductees, not all of them friendly. There are even some possessed six-years-old girls for you to shoot -blonde, tiny and pretty much homicidal. Add in a ton of spectacle to wrap your eyes around as well as these flying pigtail ragdolls, notably a flaming jumbo jet snatched from the sky and placed in suspended animation by the invading forces, and it's a recipe hard to dislike. Prey is back, and in fine fettle. All we need now is Nukem for the complete set.
Hang On, Rewind. Did you just say that was called a 'sphinct-door'? "Yes, that's right." So called because it's a door with an uncanny similarity to a puckered-up sphincter? Because it looks like an arse? "Exactly." Really? "Yup." Really, really?
Creating a game that features doors that look like bums has clearly long since lost its novelty value on Timothy Gerritsen, the human head of Human Head Studios, but lie at least seems aware that it'll be something for the grandkids to be proud of. He even manages to keep a relatively straight face as he takes Prey's hero Tommy past a series of gashes in an alien wall that look suspiciously like lady-bits. A straight face that refuses to crack even when a malformed creature flops onto the floor out of one of them, gets shot about a bit and then attempts to fold back its previous home's meaty curtains with an avowed intent of nestling inside its moist innards to regenerate. Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls (of ages of 18 and over)! Welcome to the wacky world of Prey!
As you're no doubt fully aware, Prey is the reincarnated Ixxlfellow of one Duke Nukemover at the formidable (if perpetually tardy) towers of 3D Realms. Once canned, now revived in vamped-up Doom-3-Engine-o-vision, it's yet another FPS treatment of an extremely familiar question. The question in hand being: 'What exactly happens if a Native American mechanic is beamed aboard the mothership of an alien invasion with a bird of prey (who's actually a ghost), while supernatural ancestral powers are kicking off inside him at the behest of the spirit of his grandfather?' The answer? Easily the most intriguing and original single-player experience of the year. And the first game to have arseholes as corridor furniture.
Here comes the science part Prey takes place within a Dyson Sphere. Which is a mass of collated material that hangs around a moving star due to gravity, physics, science and complicated things. For purposes of non-massiveness. Human Head has made its sphere as big as a substantial asteroid, which in Borg fashion drifts through space as an amalgam of technology and living biological matter (hence the fannies), with mischief and bloody sustenance on its mind.
"The Sphere goes from planet to planet sucking people up and turning them either into food, workers or experiments that attempt to create a better breed of worker," explains Gerritsen, about ten minutes post-sphinct-door hilarity. "You meet survivors from these different worlds as well as creatures who've become parasites - some things will attack anything, some things will come to you for aid, some things are just automatons working in the Sphere, while other creatures are actively working fertile sphere."
So essentially, the Sphere is presented as a dynamic ecosystem, with its own foodchains, parasites, workers and hunters - yet also with a sentient voice (a Shodan-style female cut-glass Brit accent) who reacts to you as you progress through the game and go from one of many, many stranded abductees all the way through to a fully-fledged, felly-armed nuisance. Turn a comer and you may come across Fodder, small turtle-like creatures who creep out of the walls and maintain the endless bio-corridors of the Sphere, following interesting Al routines that might lead them to do things like scrap over a human limb that's been left littering a corridor.
Alternatively, you might come across Hunters (essentially the antibodies of the system), blasting away above their heads at one of the jellyfish-like creatures who float around the sphere - gnawing at it with their acidic gastric juices. It's a lot like being inside the giant world-eating Unicron (as voiced by Orson Welles, fact-fans) in The Transformers: The Movie. The Human Head mission is to make you believe that you're one insignificant soul lost in a mammoth organism - although of course, you won't be entirely alone.
Can You See Me?
As well as the humans and aliens being fanned Strogg/Borg-style for batteries and new careers as ceaselessly working, wordless automatons (who, like the Star Trek residents of techno-beehive cubes will often ignore you unless you've made your presence known), there will be several races of creatures, whose planets have previously met unhappy ends, attempting to eke out a living in the Sphere. One group are called Hiders (because they're hiding -Human Head says what it sees) and will become a key part of Tommy's somewhat reluctant foray into world-saving and girlfriend-rescuing.
Whereas lesser games just nick the buggies from Halo for vehicle sections, Human Head instead provides flying spheres dogfighting around an asteroid (that you can get out and walk around on if you so wish), plucking enemies from their personal gravitational pull with a tractor beam and chucking them into space.
What Coes Up...
Gravity too, recently seen going downwards in the majority of recent releases, is being rethought Massive barrier in the way? Simply approach a nearby console and invert gravity, or walk up one of the many Metroid-style walkways that allow you to sprint up walls and start dancing on the ceiling in the manner of Lionel Richie.
In practice, it may feel much like the (shit) Alien bits in the (good) Alien Vs Predator games, but here it creates all manner of (not shit) bizarre instances. You could be upside down, firing at a Hunter who's standing at 90-degrees to you on a nearby wall -after which you could invert gravity, but forget that while you're attached to a ceiling-based wallwalk panel, the large collection of heavy crates above your head on the floor certainly aren't Perhaps leading to yet another exciting trip through the afterlife through the medium of crushed Indian.
Surprisingly, another game whose spirit this madness evokes is that of Descent - the much-loved 360-degree shooting-robots-in-a-mine-game of yesteryear; a game whose greatness was only tempered by the times in which you'd spend hours circling in bafflement having become well and truly lost in its labyrinthine caverns. Any such fears for Prey?
"That was one of the biggest issues we had," explains Tim Gerritsen. "With all of the gravity puzzles and the fact that we do mess witfl your mind quite a bit in the game, we were afraid that people were going to get completely lost So we spent quite a bit of time refining the look of the game - you never get so far off the track that you don't know where you're supposed to be. There'll be lighting, lay-out signs and we've also thrown in things like dripping water so you can say, 'hey, that water's falling up, so 1 must be walking on the ceiling right now'."
So it'll be fine and dandy for whoever's playing, but I assure you that any spectators will sport a worried expression usually reserved for dogs who're in trouble (yet are unsure of exactly what they've done wrong). This is because any attempt to follow the action on-screen when you're not playing yourself ends in befuddlement.
"We were thinking about putting in a spectator vomit tag, jokes Gerritsen as he enters a cavernous hall with enough mind-bending wallwalks and three-dimensional antics to bring memories of David Bowie's Escher-styled halls in Labyrinth firmly home to roost.
See The Light
But it's not just all these shiny new spins on FPS-ery that have grabljed our magpie-like attention - the game is packed with little details that show a great deal of lateral thinking on behalf of the developer.
For example, the old chestnut of the self-extinguishing light source (as seen in F.E.A.R. and Doom 3 with torches that mysteriously have to recharge every 30 seconds despite being in the hands of a player so technologically marvellous that they have guns that can strip flesh from bone in under two) is tackled with ingenious aplomb. For instance, in Prey Tommy carries a lighter that may flicker beautifully in the many sgnelcliy corridors he traverses, but also gets really hot and means that he can't hold it lit for too long. Simple stuff, bitt also clever and effective.
It's not just that though: the aiming reticule that nips up from your sniper rifle and attaches itself directly to your retina; the lumps of processed flesh that you and your enemies use as cover until disintegrating into fleshly chunks; the distinct lack of ladders; the gooey pustules that bounce around levels and act as organic explosive barrels... Everything does a familiar FPS job, but has a wonderfully organic tinge - the template is what we've seen a thousand times before, but Human Head has gone to massive lengths to blur the edges and make everything feel alien and mysterious. As mentioned earlier, Freud would have lots to say about whoever designed the doors.
And Violence Too
It's also remarkably grim. As you potter around the Sphere, you come across little lumps of human influence - a discarded poker machine here, a flaming passenger jet flying through space there, a busload of eight-year-olds going nutsand impaling each other on spikes... You know the drill.
"There's already guite a bit of discussion on the Internet about the scene we released in the demo, of the kid being impaled on the spike, nods Gerritsen sagely. "But the thing is that it's all contextual, you're not impaling a kid on a spike yourself. They've all been sucked up with you and there are these parasite creatures called wraiths that live on a ship and they possess people and turn them bad. So, in that particular scene, one of the kids gets assessed and starts doing damage to the other kids. You come across this horrific scene and you're powerless to aid her. We want to reinforce the fact to the player that there's bad things going on -onboard this ship, and that you as a hero need to act or you'll end up like them." Or indeed like the automatons keeping the Sphere ticking over, or 'the bondage borg' as we like to think of them...
This is a Human Head game, but we don't doubt the importance of this being a 3D Realms project either, who may be victim to many a savage witticism over the perennial non-appearance of Mr Nukem, but still remain the godfather of interactivity on the PC. Prey bears all such hallmarks: a chatty lead character with a booming voice, a sense of the need for variety, an array of intricate and well-thought out weapons and the ability to flush any toilet that happens to come your way. In the second level, the famed bar scene that has you strut around your girlfriend's pub before it all gets sucked up into the vacuum of space, you can fiddle with everything and anything: the jukebox has licensed music, the taps work, the arcade machines can be played, there's even a goddamn condom machine in there. It's a pub so realistic that you fully expect all the locks of the toilet doors to have been kicked off and there to be cigarette butts in the urinal that you can chase to the drain should you need to relieve yourself.
In key with the off-kilter approach to the ever self-replicating art form of the shooter, the weapons don't quite fit the usual 'melee, pistol, shotgun, little machine gun, big machine gun, grenade launcher, repeat to fade' mentality either. Sure, it's not far off the mark - but the alien overtones provides bugs that can be thrown as grenades (or flipped over and used as sticky mines), guns that fire the gastric bug-goo over friend or foe, rocket launchers that can also use their invertebrate ammo to create protective shields of gas and a gun that can be charged up with electricity or other such destructive power from terminals you find dotted about the innards of the Dyson Spliere. In short, no-one will be complaining about Prey being yet another unoriginal machine-gun foray into offices, warehouses and Hong Kong docklands.
Out On Its Own
In fact, towards the end of my time with Prey, I realised something. In my line of work I get to see a lot of games, and they invariably lay all their cards out on the table. All the Unique Selling Points in a pretty little marketable row. On the several occasions I saw Quake 4. it was always balls-out "Look, vehicles! Look, Strogg! Wow, gun emplacement sections! Man, how cool!". And it was. It was all there on the table for me to see and recount But with Prey... Well, Prey is acting remarkably coy. I've seen a great deal of its manifold innovations, but I can't delineate more clearly the absolutely whacking amount of it that's intended to be shrouded in 3D Realms mystery (ever the masters of secrecy) until the day you play it.
And that's the beauty of it - its real joy will be in discovery, in working out its nuances and clever riffs on the genre on your tod, without the hype machine having filled you up to the brim with prior knowledge first This, for me, was what made the 3D Realms masterpiece Duke Nukem 3D such a truly wonderful game - and is what I believe will put Prey (and, for that matter, Duke Nukem Forever) in such good stead when its time comes. There's nothing in a game quite like being surprised, and if it isn't a surprise, then Prey doesn't seem to be interested,
For an enihraling few hour out-there first-person shooter Prey blew my mind. The opens with some edgy extratrials abducting your ass and dropping you into their organic, pulsating, Death Star-sized ship, which houses a bevy of awesomely otherworldly rules. To wit: Rooms with multiple gravitational fields create M.C. Escher-esque scenes, as enemies walk on walls while you stand on a different floor. Your ghostlike spirit lets you both spirit walk (leaving your body behind as you sneak through force fields and pick off enemies) and death walk (in which, upon dying, you head to a trippy shooting gallery and take potshots for health before popping back where you left off). Finally, both you and enemies can see, shoot, and hop through portals to reach other parts of the ship all quicklike. After this multihour undertaking of discovery, though, it seems an creativity gets sucked away. The level design sevolves into the straightforward, corridor-based layouts you'd find in any generic FPS, and each innovation stumbles to some degree (as the other guys will point out). Prey's atmosphere and creativity deliver it's the uneven execution (especially with the portals) and multiplayer (just deathmatch and team DM, plus lag) that holds it back.
Spend a couple hours globe-trotting Prey's extraterrestrial fun house and witness your mind turn to mush as it soaks in all the bizarre gimmicks portals, walking on walls, immortality that help the game stand out from other ho-hum shooters. Well, at least until the wackiness wears thin. After that, the game is about as interesting as any game involving fugly demons and a balls-out hero (i.e., any first-person shooter from the '90s). Being immortal (thanks to death walking) is cool, but once you realize you can't die, the challenge goes down the crapper. Bosses? Who cares about 'em if you're a wiseass Cherokee god? And while the multiplayer does its duty, having only two play options is pretty pathetic not to mention that the action suffers from nasty lag if slow-connected users join your game.
Wow, I remember the days when Prey was billed as the first-person shooter that would change (PC) gaming. That was a decade ago (I'm not kidding). The intervening years have made portal-hop-ping and wall-walking no less unique, but a retrotastic residue remains. Mowing down biomechanical aliens and fragging online elicits the involuntary Hell yeah! old id games did (like Doom) If only it stepped past that. But the story misses a chance to elevate the game further (think Half-Life), instead delivering a narrative that amounts to nothing more than a reason for the hero's cool supernatural powers.
3D Realms' latest project continues to shape up into one of the most gorgeous corridor shooters ever. As Talon Brave, a Native American abducted by aliens, players will have to free themselves and--what else?--save the world.
A brand-new engine will power Prey's explosive action, and the game will only run on PCs with 3D accelerator cards installed. Expect hi-res graphics, cool lighting effects, and levels that change while you're exploring them (for instance, structures can collapse). Based on these mostly environmental screens, we can't wait to see more of the enemies. And with Quake II, Hexen II, and Unreal waiting in the wings, Prey will have to be worth its lengthy wait.
More often than not, I find myself conflicted. Games are usually a combination of many different design concepts, tossed together like a good salad. This means you can usually find something to love about any given game, and just as easily something to despise. If that didn't make much sense, rely on this: Prey is a fun romp, an enjoyable FPS ride that introduces some really entertaining new game features, original ideas that haven't been played with before. Yet for all of its development, all of its vaunted hype, it rarely climbs above the heights of mediocrity.
First, I did enjoy playing Prey. It was by no means a bad game. I also happened to have beaten it in just over five and a half hours. I'm a fan of shorter FPS titles, as I don't really like a slog through endless repetitive combat, but I insist on getting my interesting and varied gameplay. Much like my experience with Doom 3, Prey is set inside a banal bio-organic environment, something that's designed to look creepy, disgusting, and all-around not very inviting. I wouldn't complain about it if there were something more to look at than a claustrophobic bloodstained environment, but this entire game feels like one giant corridor, even when you're set loose into some of the more movement freeing sections.
The storyline is equally boring, standing out only in its use of a Native American as the main character. It wouldn't be so bad if the game writers had considered adding more characters, plot, and exposition to the game, but at least they didn't seem to marginalize Tommy, your character, considering his nationality.
Rounding out the experience are the three major gameplay improvements that Prey has introduced. Taking full advantage of the nature of a digital environment, you can wall-walk with certain floors in the game, completely reorient the gravity in certain scenes, and coolest of all, open portals that let you move about the game in completely weird and surreal ways. Although they didn't put much work into using these elements to their fullest in the single player campaign (portals make for a slightly different take on linear gameplay), they make for great additions to the multiplayer experience.
Visually, the game looks good, but as I've said, the environments offered little variation. I was happiest to learn about the soundtrack, composed by Jeremy Soule. He's the composer responsible for such great game soundtracks as Total Annihilation, Icewind Dale, Guild Wars, and Oblivion. For my musical tastes (as video games go) there's this guy, and then there's the guy that did Halo, and that's about it. I'm sure Tommy Tallarico factors in there somewhere, but he didn't do the Total Annihilation soundtrack.
All in all, I can sum this up with one tired phrase. Been there, done that. There's a little bit here that's new, and the game looks great (and just like Doom 3), but this is really just covering the same old ground.