I've spent the last few years staying away from First-Person Shooters (FPSs). They were fun for a while, but the genre is the most over-populated in the entire videogame spectrum. Quite frankly, I had a hard time telling one from another and it's only recently that I've been interested enough to see what's been going on in my absence. Of the stack that I've recently played through, Prey isn't the best, although it manages to incorporate a few unique elements and a surprisingly welcoming demeanor.
Telling the tale of a disenfranchised Cherokee named Tommy who's tired of reservation life, our leading man is soon abducted from his go-nowhere future into the guts of a biomechanical spaceship called the Sphere. This interstellar marauder is the size of a small planet, and strips worlds of their biology in order to refuel. Tommy takes on the task of saving his girlfriend who was also beamed up, killing aliens and checking off most of the boxes that FPSs ask players to check-- clearing out hallways, solving simple puzzles, collecting progressively larger guns, and so on.
To be frank, Prey is quite average in many ways. However, its notable features are twofold; one aspect (the unsuccessful one) is a blending of Native American mysticism with Sci-Fi heroics. The other part-- the one that worked-- was to experiment with level design by emphasizing gravity tricks and extraterrestrial room layouts. This two-pronged attempt was bold, but the results are decidedly mixed.
The first bit, Tommy's heritage, could have been interesting because Native American themes are rarely touched in games and Prey tries to show its main character as more than the standard cipher. Tommy acquires "spiritual" Cherokee abilities such as projecting his spirit outside his body and the ability to resurrect himself from the dead. I'm not at all knowledgeable about Native American myths, but I'm not satisfied with the way this content been handled. Instead of adding to the character or the gameplay, this side of Prey feels unfinished and superficial.
For example, as someone who's portrayed as a lifelong nonbeliever, Tommy is able to use these mythical powers instantly and rarely reflects on them. Granted, he's also onboard an alien ship battling monsters at the same time, but I still felt as though more could have been done to address this expansion of his belief system, or how the traditions and stories he's been ignoring his entire life affect him as a character.
Taking personal development out of the equation, Sending his soul outside his body is only good for letting Tommy pass through force fields, and resurrecting himself from the dead can be used without limit. (One reason why I said that Prey felt welcoming-- since there's no such thing as permanent death, there's no need to reload a save or go back over territory that was already covered.)
Although the resurrection aspect served a function I appreciated, the out-of-body was little more than a glorified key to get past doors, and neither had real weight or significance. In fact, the developers were never very consistent with use of the spirit world and how it coincided with the alien Sphere. It's not explained how Tommy's spirit form can interact physically with some objects and not others, nor is it explained why energy weapons can damage ghosts encountered along the way, or why these ghosts are even there in the first place. I'm sure the developers wanted the mystic aspect to give Prey depth, but it's not successfully integrated into the whole. If the spiritual side of Prey was completely excised (replacing magic with some type of appropriated technology), the game would have been just as enjoyable and might have made a little more sense.
Although the characterization and story elements were awkward misses, the rest of Prey serves to satisfy. I especially enjoyed the game's second twist, the use of gravity and alien level design. Since the Sphere is an entity that constructs itself from what it can scavenge, it makes perfect sense that its insides would be a jumbled, haphazard mess jury-rigged out of necessity with little regard for order. Although the levels are essentially laid out in a linear way to minimize player confusion, they were also very successful in conveying a non-human sense of architecture and an environment that felt utterly alien.
Modes of transportation within the Sphere like shifting gravity and teleportation portals reinforce the bizarre nature of the Sphere's interior. By using special walkways or hitting switches, Tommy can defy gravity or re-orient its pull. Floors become ceilings, walls become floors, and the brain becomes pleasantly dizzy trying to keep a struggling toehold on spatial orientation. The portals I mentioned are small shortcuts through the space-time continuum that connect to different areas together. Although they boiled down to being special-effect doors followed by drastic location changes, their function in enhancing the alien atmosphere was invaluable. I can't think of many games where only a few steps and a glowing orange circle separate a dank, metallic hallway and a wrecked 747 embedded in a piece of flesh the size of a football field.
Prey's marriage of scientific and spiritual might not be the best fit, but convincing environments, dynamic gravity, and mastery of genre basics assure its status as a pleasantly solid entry into a very crowded field. If the sequel mentioned at the end of the game can address the issues that need work, I'd be very willing to go on another journey with Tommy, spherical or otherwise.