First-person shooters don’t come any darker, or stranger, than Prey. It tells the story of Tommy, a Native American car mechanic guilty of turning his back on his people, his reservation and, more significantly, his culture.
The game kicks off with a brief cut sequence with our hero bemoaning life, his grandfather wandering about giving cryptic messages about dark nights and impending doom, and his girlfriend getting some lip from two unpleasant bikers who you dispatch with your trusty monkey wrench. Then, strange green lights appear, and the next thing you know you’ve been abducted and taken aboard an alien ship. Your one objective: save the girl and rescue grandad on the way. This initial sequence feels more than a little Half-Life-esque, but the characteristically dark, gothic look immediately lets you know that the Doom 3 engine is powering the game.
The lone hero battling alien hordes is hardly a new concept in the first-person genre. Within a few minutes, though, you realise this isn’t your standard FPS in space. For starters, you’re treated to the spectacle of grandad’s demise. The processing technique involves a multitude of pipes, tubes and a giant hydraulic ram as he’s eviscerated before your very eyes.
And that’s just for starters; the game has an 18 rating for good reason. Blood and guts are flung with wild abandon and strong language flows free, yet it never feels gratuitous. After all, you’re being held against your will on a sentient alien vessel whose sole purpose in life seems to be travelling the galaxy harvesting the life from other planets. Yes, it’s packed full of suspense and horror, but while games like Manhunt were nasty for the sake of it, in Prey the violence is justified. You’re on the edge of your seat and you’ll wince on occasion, but you’ll never once think that it’s gratuitously over the top.
Of course, there’s more to it than just an adult theme and interesting plot. Since the game’s played in space, the developers have let their imaginations run riot when it comes to creating puzzles and traps. The main slant is playing footloose and free with the laws of gravity: many rooms have switches activated by the judicial use of a bullet that will rotate the entire playing environment through 90 or 180 degrees. Hey presto, a wall becomes the floor or the ceiling a basement. There are times when it feels like an Escher illustration and it takes some getting used to, but adds an entertaining element.
Talking of dimensions, there’s another aspect to the game we’ve not yet mentioned: death. Your grandad may be dead, but his spirit lives on and the first time you die you’re treated to a walk round an Indian village while he explains how to commune with the ancestors and rejoin your mortal body once more. You do this by shooting dishonoured spirits with your bow – in essence, little more than skeet shooting. But it does mean that rather than reloading a saved game, you’re thrown back into the mix. It’s by far the best way we’ve seen a game deal with the whole nuisance of getting killed.
Ideally, though, you want to avoid being toasted and to this end you have an impressive arsenal of weapons to choose from. However, you’re on an alien spaceship, so you’re going to have to work out what they do yourself. While some are straightforward, such as the pulse gun that serves as a general-purpose rifle, others (such as crawlers that can be thrown like grenades or stuck onto walls to act as proximity mines) are less obvious. And, as an extra twist, you can revert to the spirit form your grandad taught you and use an ancient bow, which is also rather handy for getting past force fields and activating otherwise inaccessible switches.