As we approach the 18 month mark in the Xbox 360's lifespan, there's one thing I can say for certain: if you like shooters (first or third person, run-and-gun or squad-based) this is the system for you. Sure, the 360 has a few niche games (the oddly endearing Viva Pinata, Rockstar's Table Tennis), a smattering of RPGs (the western-styled Oblivion and the more traditional Enchanted Arms), and even the requisite Grand Theft Auto clone (Saint's Row), but at the end of the day, this is a system that seems to live and die by shooters. F.E.A.R, Gears of War, Rainbow 6: Vegas, Quake 4, Ghost Recon: Advance Warfighter, and the upcoming Halo 3…the list just goes on and on. I like these games-I really do-but I often find myself looking at the list of 360 releases and wishing there were just a bit more diversity in terms of genre. This looks like it will be changing in the months ahead (there are some RPGs on the horizon, including Blue Dragon, as well as some other interesting looking titles), but at the moment, a lot of the Xbox 360 library's gameplay revolves around shooting things. Take, for example, Prey.
A port of a PC first-person shooter (FPS), Prey is all about running around and blasting things with a number of different weapons and giggling at the aftermath as heads explode in fountains of blood, bone, and brains. Featuring a sci-fi setting (as opposed to the other standard of the genre-a historical war from human history), the title evokes memories of both Doom 3 and Half-Life. However, what sets the game apart is that unlike most games in this genre (and most games in general); the protagonist of Prey is a Native American. It's nice to see gaming reaching for more ethnic diversity in their characters-and rest assured that making the lead of Prey a Cherokee Indian isn't just lip service…it's vital to the story and the gameplay.
As the story opens, players will take control of Tommy, a young man living on a reservation. Tommy yearns to escape from the confines of his community (seemingly both physically and spiritually-he tells his grandfather numerous times that he doesn't believe in the mysticism of his people), but his girlfriend, Jen, has no real interest in leaving. Before this potential stalemate can reach critical mass, an alien ship abducts Tommy, Jen, and his grandfather. Trapped on the ship, Tommy gets free and sets out to save his loved ones while trying to eradicate the alien menace. During his adventure, he'll become more in-tune with his roots and learn that the alien presence isn't an invasion, but something much more sinister.
Most of Prey's ten-or-so hours of game time is spent guiding Tommy through the alien ship, known as The Sphere. Here, the game is like Doom 3 in that a lot of the environments are dimly lit metal corridors where aliens can pop out and launch a surprise attack at nearly every turn. What sets the game apart is a unique twist-since the environment is an alien ship, there are strange portals that warp players to other areas, magnetized strips that allow Tommy to walk up walls and across ceilings, and buttons that flip rooms, making the floor the ceiling and vice versa. Since Tommy is a Native American (which is a culture with a rich spiritual background), he learns early on how to "spirit walk"-which means leave his body and breach unpassable areas with his soul. While this initially seems mostly like a gimmick, Prey does eventually use all these cool elements as a vital component of the gameplay. Progressing past a puzzle or dead-end often involves using these environmental and spiritual factors. Is there a wall blocking Tommy's path? Look for a flip switch (you may have to spirit walk to get it), walk across the ceiling, then flip the room back to the original setting and proceed. Sometimes, the game even requires players to leave their body in just the right place so that their spirit can move them from one location to another with switches. It's all very cool.
The core of the game is focused squarely on running-and-gunning and it's mostly successful. Prey is a pretty standard affair in the world of FPS games, content to let players grab ammo and health replenishers at various points while switching between a number of different weapons. And while the game is on an alien ship, complete with guns unlike anything found on Earth, I was somewhat disappointed to find that the guns looked different but mostly acted like traditional human weapons. There's the basic rifle, which has a scope for sniping, an acid gun that's just a gussied up shotgun, a rocket launcher, a more powerful rifle with a secondary function of throwing grenades, and so on. The only truly alien piece of weaponry was the leech gun, which can be filled with either plasma, lightning, or frost ammo (and late in the game, sun ammo). Unfortunately, the ammo choices are mostly aesthetic since they're never used in puzzles or anything like that.
Late in the game, Prey does stray a bit from its "blast everything" gameplay, incorporating a small space ship that Tommy uses to reach higher levels in a tower. While this sounds cool in theory, I found these portions of the game lasted way longer than they should have and became incredibly tedious as time went on. It's nice to see developers trying to break up the routine-but these vehicle segments add little more than aggravation to what was already a solid gaming experience. Prey works best when it's got Tommy running around on foot dodging enemies, flipping rooms around, and dispatching aliens with extreme prejudice. These flight segments seem clunky and out of place-almost as if they belonged in another game entirely.
Conversely, an idea that does work is the lack of a save and reload system. Where most modern FPS games have implemented an autosave checkpoint system in their levels, Prey forgoes this in favor of something a little different. When Tommy dies, he's whisked off to a spirit world. Here, he engages in a mini-game where he must shoot red and blue birds with his bow. Red birds give him health, blue spirit energy. After a short time, he's pulled back to the land of the living in the same spot where he died. This is a nice feature because it never requires players to play through stuff they've already done (which is invariably what happens in other games when people die between checkpoints). Because of this, there's never a bogging down of the narrative. On the other hand, it does occasionally make the game a little too easy. Also, a variety of mini-games would have been nice. After shooting the birds for the 20th time, it gets a little old.
Visually, the game looks good. While some of the more recent 360 titles have started to take advantage of the hardware in ways that Prey didn't, this game still impresses with its graphics. Most of the ship is a series of corridors (which are nicely rendered), but occasionally things open up and Tommy can see more wide open areas. This generally happens in the flying segments, which aren't the most fun, but at least players are treated to some breathtaking vistas while working through the tedium.
Prey makes excellent use of the 360 controller with key functions laid out intuitively across all the buttons and triggers. The analog sticks are responsive (almost a little too responsive in sniper mode), the shoulder buttons cycle through weapons either backwards or forwards, and the trigger feels great when firing. My only real complaint here is that to open things or activate a switch (a very common occurrence in the game), players will have to press the right trigger-which is also the fire button. If Tommy isn't lined up properly, the gun shoots instead of hitting a button. Compounding this problem is that it's always Tommy's left hand that does the opening/button punching. Using the left trigger to do this would have seemed more intuitive. A minor quibble, for sure, but one that bugged me throughout.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent audio in the game. Prey features a really moody soundtrack from composer Jeremy Soule (of Elder Scrolls fame) and some very good voice acting. The main characters (Tommy, Jen, and his grandfather) are particularly good, sounding like genuine Native Americans without being caricatures. Also, radio host Art Bell lends his talents to the game-as himself. At various points of the narrative, Tommy will stumble across a transmitter that is broadcasting
In the pantheon of Xbox 360 shooters, Prey is one of those games that straddles the line between the A and B list. It's not a AAA experience like Gears of War, but it definitely does so many things right and well that it's deserving of being placed amongst the best the system has to offer-even if it pales a bit in comparison to most of its compatriots. While it doesn't do anything we haven't seen a few hundred times before (indeed-if you looked up "traditional FPS" in the gaming dictionary, there would almost assuredly be a picture of this game), it does almost everything competently and tells a pretty good story while doing it. On a console with less shooters, this would be a gem. Compared with the rest of the 360 shooter library, Prey has to settle for just being very good.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.