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 "Prey"

 With gaming becoming a multi-billion dollar business, high-level game creators feel a pressure to both create a widely appealing title and something "innovative" that keeps the veterans from complaining too loudly. One programmer told us recently that the industry is obsessed with topping itself, which explains the ballooning budgets, staffs, and development time that goes into crafting the last eye-popping adventure. In this context, it seems unusual that someone would resurrect a dormant idea -- Prey -- and bring it to the masses, instead of sticking to tried-and-true franchises and sequels. Yet after the E3 video came out last year, one's impressions changed drastically. What before looked like a game that didn't drift far from the Doom mold became something new, weird and enticing. And after adventuring our way from one end of the game to the other, we can say that the video was just a taste of things to come.

There's more to the story than cool-looking gates from one room to another. You can walk on the walls and ceilings; the ceilings becomes the walls and the floors. Sometimes you walk through a gate to change perspective, while other times you shoot a gun at a glowing pad, and everything moves. And it's not just small enclosures that experience this. Anything is game for Prey's gut-churning morphology. Add in local gravity wells, spirit walking, and a stream of puzzles that take all of these elements into account, and what you end up with is an environment that transcends its individual gimmicks.

I have to say, though, that your initiation into spirit walking is as simple as it gets (hint: you press the "E" key), and suddenly you're a dude who can leave his body at any time, indefinitely, and walk through force field and move around invisibly in the presence of the enemy. Your mentor's congratulatory talk feels a little silly. This is, however, one of the very few low points I can think of. Perhaps a more gradual increase in spirit walking abilities would have been better.

Still, the level design is not just flipping around and jumping through glowing hoops. The scale and visual ambition cranks up and up as you progress and you'll go from the usual corridors to planetoids --housed inside this already enormous, living space ship -- with their own gravity fields. You'll fly around in a little shuttle sometimes, and it has its own guns and a tractor beam, the latter of which you'll use to both remove obstacles and, if you like, grab enemies and fling them into the abyss, of which there is plenty.

If you have vertigo, Prey may not be for you. Sometimes the only thing keeping you from falling to your death is a precipitous walkway designed to make your feet stick onto it. In spirit form, you'll also be able to see key routes, marked by nearby icons, that may stretch over a gaping maw. You'll sometimes have to leave your body in strategic locations, like a moving platform, while you spirit walk over a spirit bridge so you can hit an otherwise inaccessible lever. Throw in a few portals and maybe a gravity pad, and the puzzles can get a little mind-bending, but in a refreshing way. You may have trouble with the Cube.

The enemy intelligence levels won't win any awards either, but the surrounding, shifting considerations make up for their relative lack of tactical awareness. They'll try to snipe you if you're far away, and they'll sidle up next to a door if you're hiding on the other side, and they'll sometimes use obstacles to avoid direct fire, but it's the level design that's the main opponent, not the creatures who populate it. There are also non-hostile creatures wandering around in some areas that give the place that creepy sensation we got when Captain Picard and his gang walked through their Borg-ified ship in First Contact. For extra chill factor, try a headshot and see what happens.

Talking about the enemies means talking about the weapons, and Prey also does a great job of balancing familiarity and newness. These are alien weapons, after all. Every one of them, except for your pipe wrench, which you'll only be using for the first few minutes anyway. You'll have an assault rifle that's one click away fro being a sniper rifle; a machine gun that fires organic grenades; an energy rifle that can be recharged at several different types of stations, giving the weapon different properties -- one is like the old Quake lightning gun, while another is reminiscent of Quake II's railgun, and yet another flavor is a freeze gun that turns enemies to ice.

A few of the weapons are essentially alien versions of a familiar arsenal, but Prey does at least break free of the usual weaponry. And the weapons are all obtained in fairly interesting manners -- they're not just lying on the ground. Well, not at first. It's too bad one of the options isn't an airline sickness bag.

Also of note is the music, courtesy of Jeremy Soule, who recently worked on Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. There are several key themes, from the ambient to the orchestral, and it's a wonder he's not signed up for Hollywood at this point. Also, the sound effects manage the task of bringing noises to creatures, weapons, devices, and locations that don't exist. You'll know who or what you're facing through key audio cues, whether it's a snarl and growl or a monstrous voice demanding you to stand down. And the visuals, as you've probably seen by now, don't follow the typical palette of Doom-like games. There's touches of neon, blinking lights, squishy organic stuff, blood and guts, holograms, and some truly enormous architecture, both in size and complexity.

Some of it really just has to be seen to be believed. And although it's the Doom 3 engine, it doesn't suffer from the same all-too-realistic lighting that sent players running for a mod that would permanently attach a flashlight to their weapons. Everything is well lit in Prey, although sometimes what's exposed may be better left in the dark. Technically, the game was rock-solid, with hardly a glitch or bug, but it doesn't play well with Windows task switching.

Closing Comments
You'll probably see a lot of talk about what happens when you die. Instead of reloading a save game, you get whisked away to a mini-game, where you must shoot flying creatures in a set amount of time. You gain health or spirit energy, depending on which type you hit. Then you come back right where you left off. Personally, I thought this was a much better device, as it manages to keep the narrative flow from grinding to halt. And there is a narrative here, fueled by good voice acting, animation, and characterization. The alien presence isn't merely "We've come to destroy earthlings, rawwrrrgghgh!" They have their reasons for coming to Earth, and it goes beyond mere plunder, enslavement, or occupation. With some truly imaginative level design, a compelling story with dramatic highlights, good voice acting and dialog, and more interesting weapons, Prey earns a spot on this shooter fan's hard drive. If you're not sold, I recommend checking out the demo.
Another Take
Being a predominantly console gameplayer, I view Humanhead's final product as an excellent, deep first-person shooter experience that, right now, is unrivaled on Xbox 360. There really is nothing quite like it. The selling points are many. The spirit feature doesn't, in fact, get too repetitive when you die. Instead, it prevents you from re-covering already well-tread ground. The wall and ceiling climbing may make some gamers motion sick, but for the most part the experience is really, really fun. It turns into a pretty heavy-duty multiplayer skill in the end, and though I like it, I think some folks might end up getting tired of it real quick. The wall and ceiling climbing is wild and fun, but combined with phenomenally cool level design, with some great puzzles and some rather iffy, illogical puzzles thrown in, a surprise enemy, and some really cool weapons, Prey finishes everything off with smart presentation, impressive graphics, and great sound. The game is a little shorter than I had hoped, and the graphics aren't quite as good on the Xbox 360 as they are on the PC, but this should be a slam dunk on Xbox Live. The multiplayer modes are sure to have gamers deeply involved over the next several months. The options, technical experience, and the amount and quality of online games are straightforward fun.