Blast from the Past view
No, not that Prey, the original Prey. FBT replays the 2006 classic like it's 1996.
I have no recollection of Prey, beyond anti-gravity and aliens. I’m not even sure I finished it. That it was finished at all was a miracle. Announced in 1995 by 3D Realms, the shareware publisher who unleashed id’s Doom, Prey was at the very epicentre of the FPS explosion. 3DR had cut their shooter teeth on 1994’s Rise of the Triad and their forthcoming Duke Nukem 3D had everyone frothing but it was Prey, developed by ex-id founder Tom Hall on a ground-breaking engine that seemed to be a serious contender for the ‘Doom Killer’ title. But instead, Hall, frustrated by the engine’s slow progress, left to create Ion Storm with ex-id cohort Romero. 3DR brought in the legendary Corrinne Yu to get the engine started but three development teams later and despite acclaimed appearances at E3, by 1999 Prey still wasn’t released and as the golden era of FPS waned, it joined stablemate Duke Nukem Forever as Vapourware. Finally 3DR called old pals id; Prey was restarted on Doom 3’s idT4 engine at Human Head Studios. It took them five more years. Eventually Prey was released in 2006, 11 years after the announcement. Doom was long dead.
You’d have expected Prey to be at best a throwback; at worst, another Diakatana. But Prey was critically well received - and successful enough for a sequel to be announced; which true to form, went through an even more painful development than its predecessor, while Prey was eventually overwhelmed by other heavy hitters released in 2006 and disappeared. It wasn’t until the 2017 Reboot trailer was released I even thought about the original Prey. I couldn’t recall anything which seemed unfair to a game born in those halcyon days. It may have been released in 2006 but its a nineties game; it was from 3DR, built by ex-Raven developers (Heretic, Jedi Knight II) and conceived by Tom Hall. That’s classic FPS pedigree. Time to jump back to 1995 meets 2006 and see what took them so long.
Still a Blast?
As the menu and opening load up, I suddenly remember Prey’s lead was a clichéd Native American called Tommy. I wonder how well that’s aged. I also recalled his reason for blasting through levels; a girlfriend who was abducted by aliens. The loading screen of a giant malevolent-looking globe, which looked like Pinhead’s holiday home recalled horrible twisted levels to battle through. And that’s it. But what more did I expect from what’s in reality a Doom-era shooter?
There was a lot more it turns out. The opening shows Tommy having a word with himself in a mirror. He looks more like Billy from Predator, just a regular dude who happens to be Native American. Guess that was just my memory playing racist tricks. The mirror is in the toilet in a bar in the reservation, which Tommy hopes Jen his girlfriend will leave with him. I spend a bit of time trying to trick the mirror, turning Tommy away then back but it’s an almost perfect reflection. Even modern games avoid reflective surfaces, showing mirrors as broken or misty – odd considering they often popped up in mid-nineties games; Duke, Wang and Caleb admired themselves in mirrors and it’s interesting to ponder why modern games avoid it, what graphical shortcut denied us our gamer narcissism? Anyway, Tommy dosses about in the toilet for a bit then heads into the bar.
Prey looks really good, it’s detailed and interactive. I can select songs from a jukebox, switch TV channels and play video games (including Runeman, a play on a previous HHS game) before eventually being cornered by the clichéd ‘Red Indian’ I remember.
It’s my Gramps, dressed and behaving so typically I’m surprised he doesn’t have one of those huge feather headsets. We have a little argument about my lack of respect for their culture and desire to get off the reservation, then I find Jen and have the same argument with her. Angered, I take it out on two biker boys, beating them with a handy wrench which becomes my melee weapon. Before Gramps or Jen can be react to this expression of just how much Tommy wants to leave the reservation, he gets his wish; aliens arrive and beam us into space. This far enough away from the reservation, Tommy?
We don’t get to see much of the Sphere from the outside but inside, Jen, Gramps and I are stuck in a Clive Barker wet dream. We can hear screams and shouts, and then see what they’re screaming and shouting about. We’re being processed through an abattoir; Machines are rending and mangling abductees, reforming them into the very sphere itself. The sphere is people! Hey look, there’s the two bikers. At least they surviv-oh. Huge bulging tubes process the meat, the walls are skin sown together, there’s flesh and blood everywhere and all around us bikers scream. Quake 4 had some similar nastiness to it, but this really is a sickening place. Helpless and terrified as I approach a machine I just saw suck out someone’s innards, I’m mysteriously set free but it’s too late for Gramps. I watch him turned into mincemeat then chase after Jen, deeper into the bowels of the sphere. Or it might be the lower intestines. I hope the exit isn’t where I think it is.
Prey really does look good, in its horrible way and I’m deeply, unsettlingly immersed in the world. You can imagine the stench, the squelch under foot; idT4 was built for Doom 3’s spookiness but HHS wrangled and mangled a ton of horror and gore out of it. I’d best find my barings.
No sooner have I got my barings than Tommy dies. But instead of a load screen, we’re transported to the ‘land of the ancients’. Seems the afterlife is real and we meet a pre-mangled Gramps, who now makes like a Jedi Spirit and explains I have a special power; Tommy can shadow-walk, which allows him to sneak unseen but also be corporal enough to fire spirit arrows and interact with the tech found around the ship. We also get Talon, Tommy’s childhood pet, a spirit hawk that accompanies him back to the Sphere. Talon comes in handy, distracting the bad guys and perching on things we should take a look at. He flies in the direction you need to take, so he’s a handy mission marker too. We are returned to Tommy’s body and press onwards. And upside down.
Within the sphere, gravity isn’t a hindrance. Throughout there’s tracks that allow Tommy to walk on ceilings and walls and around obstacles, while gravity wells reverse the room and portals allow him to transport around. Those, combined with Tommy’s spirit walk all add up to an alternative take on the shooter genre, and it’s easy to see why 3DR were so keen to crack this element back in 1995; this would have been Doom-killingly cool.
As I go, I find various other folks from earth who’ve also got free but unlike Tommy, they’re cowering and terrified. Especially after I accidently clobber one with my wrench. Will you put that thing down, Tommy. I do this a lot, anything interactive is triggered with your trigger finger and if you’re off by a pixel you’ll shoot it instead. And you have a lot to shoot with. There are five main weapons each with an alt. fire, they’re half hardware and half some unfortunate reconstituted creature; they move, quiver and breathe as I go. The rifle has a leech-like appendage that leaps out and sticks to my eye for a zoom and when idle, it takes an interest in what’s going on around us, sometimes unnervingly looking back at me. The other weapons are similarly icky; I’m pretty sure the grenade launcher is an anus but I’m not looking at that in a mirror. You can imagine what they feel like to hold.
The creatures you can fire at are plentiful too. You’re never far from a firefight and they’re aggressive, fast and have no sense of humour; Appropriately grotesque, the main bullet-catchers are the Hunters, designed to track any creature that escapes the processing but elsewhere we encounter Harvesters which leap in and out of fleshy pockets in the walls to grab wanderers; If you shoot one they’ll jump back in and you can hear them clattering around between openings and it’s panic-inducing trying to guess which it’ll leap back out of. Reconstituted humans do drone work, skinned wolf-like creatures stalk you, the list goes horribly on and you never feel safe. Mini-bosses like the Centurion and Creature X become new high-end opponents - there’s a lot here that can and will kill you. But dying is no big deal. Just before death, Tommy is transported back to the land of the ancients to fight his evil spirts. Tommy has a short amount of time to use his spirit bow and the more you kill the better your heath once back in your body. A little like Borderlands’ second wind, it’s a nice little way to stay in the game rather than reload or get checkpointed.
After a while though, those gravity dynamics, which seemed exhilarating at first are revealed as typically 90s linear - they’re scripted and always necessary; if there’s a walkway you’ll need to use it, the Portals are basically just doors and the gravity wells are rarely used to upend the bad guys or gain an edge, they’re there to get past an obstacle or puzzle. By 2006 you’d have expected to have those at your disposal and use them to turn battles to your advantage – or expose yourself - but they’re pre-planned events that quickly turn into gimmicks. When you’re not excited about walking upside down you know something’s up. Another aspect betraying Prey’s 1990s DNA is the level design. While an incredible setting, it doesn’t evolve or change in any great way; there’s only so long I can stay uncomfortable sneaking through Sphere’s guts; later levels are industrial and bleak but they’re very samey and unoriginal; it feels like Doom 3 or as if they just ran out of ideas. The one exception is when we pilot an anti-grav moped for some zero-g aerial fighting. The biggest let down though is Spirit-walk. Spirit-walking should be like Max Payne’s bulletime; a superpower you utilise but it’s just a puzzle-solver. Got stuck? There will be a convenient ghost-only route and it’s a shame you don’t really use it to get an edge. All of that would have been accepted in a 1990s game and that’s where Prey is firmly planted at its core; but this was released in 2006 and it should have some of that decade’s sensibility, that freedom. It’s also ironic that those innovations were a key reason for Prey’s delays yet now date it, and it’s truly compelling aspects - a great main character, setting, storyline and a solid goal were lacking in Prey’s 90s contemporaries. Maybe they came along later, but Prey could have been a Doom Killer on an emotional level rather than wow factor.