You can ask any PC gamer to weave you a story about Prey. Oh, they'll have stories to tell you, alright; over a decade's worth of tales of intrigue, anticipation, confusion and disappointment. Originally announced by Duke Nukem guys 3D Realms in 1995, the Prey that sits before us today is unrecognisable in every way from the original concept, which starred a human wired up to a biotech suit (think an angry Megaman), pitted against warriors from other planets at the behest of extraterrestrial overlords. Problems with Prey began early on in development; a mass exodus of the Prey development team from 3D Realms in the summer of '96 was just the beginning of the game's woes. Two more developmental teams had a crack at Prey over the next few years, during which time it bizarrely picked up a Native American main character called Talon Brave, and the focus shifted to Prey's special portal technology - which enabled players to leap from one part of a map to another in a heartbeat. It looked promising, but as time rolled on, 3D Realms' faith in the specially-developed game engine's ability to handle the logistics of the gameworld's portals gradually weakened, and by 2000 all mentions of Prey were stripped from the company's website. The technology available couldn't do justice to the developers' lofty ambitions. Prey was officially dead.
JUST TO MAKE IT TODAY
But for all the features that have been implemented and stripped out from the title over its life cycle, one thing has remained constant: the sheer weight of Prey's aspirations. It was always intended to be cutting-edge, as a July 1996 preview in our sister magazine PC Gamer confirms: "This is a true 3D graphics engine, letting designers create levels with multiple floors, elevated walkways, and other architectural treats that earlier game engines didn't allow". This, along with a proud boast that the game will run at 20 frames per second, speaks volumes about the rapid progress FPS' have made: any delay in development and you're going to be out of date before you hit the shops: no wonder that Prey's former stablemate Duke Nukem Forever is the only game in the world to incorporate its release date into its title. But Prey is different. With its complex gravity-shifting physics, Prey wanted to do what neither PC nor console at the time could do - so many an eyebrow hit the ceiling some years later when it was announced that Human Head and Venom Games were resurrecting the game for a release on Xbox 360. And now, after so long in nowhere, it's finally done: the game we thought we would never see has gone gold.
We hoped you enjoyed the history lesson, readers (next month perhaps we'll do the long and eventful history of Activision). Sorry to go on, but to understand where Prey is at, we have to understand where it's been. The designer of the original Game Engine stated after the original attempt flopped that "in hindsight, portal tricks such as these should be used as tricks, not as an engine paradigm". But in six short years, we've reached the stage where Microsoft's 360 can deal with Prey's tricks with ease - and the end result will leave you feeling like a sock in a washing machine.
For Prey to arrive in 2006 feeling as fresh and innovative as it does is testament to how far ahead of the field the original concept really was - even if not every aspect of the game comes out of it smelling of roses. The plot, perhaps reflecting Prey's numerous overhauls, is fractured and confused and one incredible plot twist aside, never really goes anywhere. Worse, it never gives you reason to care about the characters - main man Tommy is fundamentally a bit of a nob. Luckily, the premise does more than enough to keep you plugged in: Prey takes place in an organic spaceship that has sucked you, your missus and, indeed, your entire bar up from their resting spot in Oklahoma and it's now scattered across the craft. The laws of gravity don't necessarily apply on Planet Prey: you'll encounter sticky walkways that enable you to dance on the ceiling, these topsy-turvy passages lead you on a merry dance around the catacombs of the organic ship, leaving you constantly evaluating how to get to the next platform. The moment you jump off - or more, likely, get thwacked off - the catwalks lose their gravity-defying pull and you'll go spinning off in whichever direction Newton's laws deem appropriate. Elsewhere, the twists keep on coming, with gun-activated switches that alter the centre of the planet's gravity altogether, sending you tumbling around at a rate of knots, and then there are portals and wormholes in the atmosphere that move you from one end of the ship to another in nanoseconds.