Long read: Who is qualified to make a world?

In search of the magic of maps.

If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.


Giger counter.

Summer's a rotten time for new game releases - we know this, but it's a good thing. It gives us a chance to, you know, go outdoors, see friends and family we've been "too busy" to see, not to mention indulge in an entire month's worth of football and the associated liver failure that goes with it.

But that's gone now, and unless you're indulging in a disgustingly long summer holiday (in which case, congratulations, enjoy it while it lasts) or have a stack of unfinished games to go back to, you're probably wondering whether Prey's good enough to rush out and buy. It's indicative of how quiet it is that so many people seems to be pinning their hopes on it being the next 360 killer app, but, yet again, it's one of those first-person shooters that threatens to do wow us with bold new ideas before treading the same old familiar path that's been etched into the FPS fabric since the late '90s.

To start with, it's promising enough. You assume the role of Tommy, a mid 20s Cherokee Indian who's never really been into all that spiritual mumbo-jumbo that his grandpa spouts. He prefers living a typical 'white man' life as a garage mechanic, and we join him in the toilet of his local diner. Before you ask, no he hasn't murdered anyone, but he soon finds himself making use of his handy wrench once some low down clientèle start disrespecting his barmaid girlfriend, Jen.

Come get some

Just as the fight's getting interesting, all hell breaks loose and Tommy finds himself abducted aboard an alien craft high above Earth's orbit, with his frightened friends and family screaming for help from their Giger-esque prison pods. Our reluctant hero quickly breaks free and finds himself roaming the confines of a biomechanical spaceship on a desperate mission to find his loved ones and to seek vengeance for their 'harvest'. Time to kick ass and chew bubblegum. Oops, wrong game.

Before long, Tommy's forced to accept the birthright of his long-dormant Cherokee spiritual powers in order to stand a chance of getting even with his deranged abductor. (Big) Chief of these is your ability to leave your body and go on a Spirit Walk - rather like the out-of-body ability present in the under-rated Psi-Ops, hitting Y at any time turns the screen a washed out blue and gives you a chance to wander straight through force fields and sneakily turn them off, not to mention disarm security systems, unlock doors and so on. Occasionally you also get to traverse otherwise impossible gaps via handily placed bridges that are only visible (and unusable) when you Spirit Walk, and you'll become aware of little sun symbols etched in floors and walls to remind you to use it. On the downside, you're limited to firing bows and can't open doors, so it's not all good.

Another rather useful ability is your Death Walk, which kicks in automatically as soon as your mortal body is 'killed'. Rather than be presented with a Game Over screen, you enter the Death World, and have 15 or so seconds in which to shoot red or blue Death Wraiths and steal the energy trapped within them. If you succeed, you're spirited back to the point where you were killed and given the chance to carry on - negating the need to rely on checkpoints or have to replay previously cleared sections. While it's definitely a bit of a cheating fudge to be able to do this (rather than rely on skill, you can just chip your way through via repeated Death Walks) it's preferable to quick-saving every time you turn a corner, or replaying long sections as with many FPSs.

For the majority of the time, though, you'll charge around in human form, blasting a fairly grisly but familiar selection of mutant enemies that appear to have been borrowed from any number of sci-fi shooters down the years. If Duke Nukem, Doom and Unreal all had a hot tub party in 1998, the chances are the monsters that populate Prey's space ship would have looked uncannily familiar to this particular cast list. The truth might not be all that far away from our glib assessment.

Deja Vu

But it's not just the inhabitants that feel familiar. The biomechanical constructs that you explore have more than a whiff of games gone by, albeit replete with the kind of gelatinous ooze, moody lighting and steamy ambience that affords next generation FPS engines in 2006. It's a suitably Alien environment and one that looks crisp and striking on an HDTV, but given the number of Giger-inspired games over the years it's not one that feels particularly strange, foreboding or unwelcoming. Heck, we don't feel at home in a sci-fi flavoured FPS if we're not clanking over metallic walkways while slick, spongy entrails snake their way through the gloom. Originality? Nil points.

To be entirely fair to Human Head and 3D Realms, the box marked 'new ideas' was largely reserved for how the levels themselves were constructed - and it's here that Prey does things a little differently from the FPS herd. Come see.

For example, Prey contrives to complicate otherwise standard level design via its occasional use of blue gravity switches that flip levels through 90 or 180 degrees if you shoot them - suddenly giving Tommy the ability to negotiate otherwise impassable obstacles and reach previously off-limits areas that, in turn, might grant you access to switches that allow you to make progress elsewhere.