The tribe has spoken.
3D Realms has been hard at work on a ground-breaking first-person shooter. You’ve read about this sucker for years. It’s teased you at E3. It’s the one meant to unify all the best qualities of the genre, the perfect harmony of style, substance and skill.
It’s called Duke Nukem Forever.
Wait, whoops, that’s just vaporware, right? Whatever they say about their punchline of a product, 3D Realms is proving that they don’t really care about it after all, since their long awaited comeback turns out to be the slightly less fake but just as overdeveloped Prey.
[image1]As is so often the case with this sort of thing, Prey isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. Yes, it’s a decent shooter, and yes, the Doom 3 engine looks better here than just about anywhere else. But despite ages in development, Prey is saddled with a tragically unlikable lead character and a tepid story, refuses to follow through on its most interesting features, and delivers an oddly standard multiplayer game.
The hero is Tommy, a Native American who, against the advice of his grandfather, wants to leave the reserve and take his girlfriend Jen with him. Even as Tommy and Jen argue about traditional values versus future endeavors, aliens lift Jen’s entire bar into the sky, where it’s torn up and processed by a massive mothership called the Sphere. Those poor Native Americans just can’t catch a break.
Most of what passes for a story in Prey involves Tommy exclaiming at the strangeness of his new surroundings and shouting over and over about how he must find Jen. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Tommy is a prick. Even when his grandfather shows him mystical secrets like the spirit walk — which saves his ass from death — he denies that Native mysticism has any use. Dude, see that glowing blue bird that flies around, showing you what to do? Mysticism! Wake. The hell. Up!
Anyway, once onboard the Sphere, Tommy does what most heroes do: he shoots stuff. That, naturally, requires the extensive use of alien weaponry which, despite being off-putting in a Vaseline-drenched sort of way, can intuitively be used by a guy whose only other demonstrated mechanical ability is swinging a wrench. At least some of the guns are cool, from rather typical rail-guns to weird alien tech like the Leech Gun, which can draw one of four types of energy from stations conveniently sprinkled throughout the Sphere.
Convenient is also an accurate description of the level design. The primary path is almost always made perfectly clear, and exploration gets you nothing. The stringently linear design relies on standard shooter mechanics that were etched in stone as soon as id Software opened its doors. You’ll crawl corridors, open doors, shoot stuff, work some switches…er, sorry. Drowsed off for a moment.
[image2]Linearity aside, there are some pretty nifty design elements at work here. The Hunters pursuing Tommy can open portals from one point to another, allowing them to appear anywhere, and you can essentially walk through walls. Then there are paths allowing you to walk on walls and switches to change gravity’s orientation. This leads to all sorts of groovy, confusing directional issues as you run up onto the ceiling and shoot down at bad guys. It’s the shooter Escher always wanted to play, but once you learn how to get your bearings, it’s not all that mind-bending. And if you’ve seen the tech demo for Valve’s Portal, you’ve already seen the best parts of Prey put to much better use (you can’t for example, blast open portals yourself.)
Tommy’s ability to Spirit Walk factors into the game’s light puzzles, but does little to change the basic shooter dynamic. At the press of a button you’ll step into a ghostly (and slightly better-lit) version of reality, armed with a bow that shoots arrows drawn from your spirit life meter. While Tommy’s body floats in mid-air, he can walk through force fields, traverse weird ghost bridges and occasionally kill in silence. But the ability turns out to be as routine as the rest of the action, and the ‘puzzles’ it occasionally helps you solve aren’t challenging at all.
Contributing to the short play time (around eight hours) is a bog-standard enemy A.I. Once you learn that portals might open on any surface — wall, ceiling, floor — to issue new enemies, it’s becomes more a matter of listening for the audio cue, then demolishing the hunters before they take a few steps. There’s no mass thought or squad A.I., and you’ll almost never be charged or flanked. In close quarters, the only tactic is to rely on whatever series of weapons you prefer best, while at long range sniping handles the dirty work.
[image3]And oh, you can’t die. When Tommy’s health dips to zero, he’s transported to the Astral Plane, where instead of coffee with Dr. Strange he gets to shoot his spirit bow at the spirit wraiths of his fallen enemies. Shoot the red ones, please, since they give your physical form more health. Though more obstacles dot this metaphysical duck-shoot as time goes on, the mechanic never changes. Even the series of creature rushes late in the game never pose much of a terrifying threat, since you know you’ll just shoot some red wraiths and be back in it.
All these features should make for some compelling multiplayer, but all you get here is Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch on a handful of decent maps. Prey‘s weapons are much better suited for close combat than long range — the rocket launcher in particular is quite weak — making for a mediocre combat experience online. If you simply can’t get enough of portals and the Leech gun, multiplayer will keep you going; otherwise, come find me in GRAW.
It all looks, great at least. Prey is utterly gorgeous, with the sort of bio-mechanical design we haven’t seen since sitting in on that Robocop autopsy back in 1989. (Though the less said about health-dispensing sphincters and the female genitals from which issue spider creatures, the better.) It’s smooth and gross and hypnotically weird.
It’s also a little smoother on the PC, but that’s no surprise. Nor is the fact that the Xbox 360 version costs ten bucks more for precisely zero new content, so if you have the option, you might as well save the dough and play it on your desktop instead of the couch.
The last frames of the game promise a sequel, and with some significant changes this could be a really challenging, interesting shooter. But that’s not the case yet, as it presently seems content merely treading ground already covered in Half-Life 2, Doom 3 and Quake 4. Despite its lofty intentions, this brave’s promise of innovation is as empty as the tears of a fake Indian chief.