Jonathan Fingas On June 22, 2006 at 6:51 pm

The launch of the Prey demo is an event that almost didn’t happen. Prey was initially supposed to be 3D Realms’ next-generation powerhouse of the late 1990s. But as time went on, it became increasingly apparent that this would-be shining star was fading into obscurity as development stalled out. Thankfully, 3D Realms decided that it was an interesting concept worth preserving and handed the bulk of development to Human Head Studios a few years ago. Here in 2006, we finally have a chance to try Prey for ourselves.

The demo gives every indication that 3D Realms made the right decision. While the concept is no longer as fresh as it was when the game was originally announced (we’ve seen portals in simpler forms since Quake 3 Arena), it’s apparent that the execution benefits tremendously from the extra development time. The story shows signs of sophistication that likely wouldn’t have been possible for technical reasons in the late 1990s. The main character, Tommy, literally has to look himself in the mirror; the game is as much a psychological battle for self-respect as it is a fight against aliens. And when the alien siege begins, there’s a real sense of urgency thanks to the sheer amount of chaos: buildings are torn apart and people are broken mentally as well as physically. The Prey demo offers more motivation through an hour’s worth of plot than most complete games could hope for; this is no mean feat given that Human Head’s best-known game is a Viking hack-and-slash.

Actual gameplay has a few familiar elements, but there are so many additions and changes to the standard first-person shooter formula that the experience is extremely refreshing. What could have been a gimmick becomes a rethinking of what shooters can do. In the Prey demo you can’t make too many assumptions, as seemingly every new area has an unfamiliar aspect to it. Enemies come at you from the walls and ceiling; there are all kinds of sometimes just reaching the other end of a room requires puzzle-solving you’ve probably never done before. You barely have a point of reference for gameplay by the time the demo ends, and you’re certainly eager for more.

Multiplayer action (or rather, MultiPrey) doesn’t quite have the earth-shaking impact of the solo game, but it’s still a fairly unique take on the idea of deathmatch. You can’t remain at all complacent in an online Prey battle. Opponents gleefully take advantage of wall-walking and spirit walking. They’ll punish you if you don’t keep your virtual head on a swivel. The included maps reward daring and intelligent weapon choice in addition to quick reflexes. What puts a damper on proceedings is the apparent caution of the game designers. Moreso than in the single-player mode, multiplayer reveals similarities between Prey’s weapons and classic first-person games. There are clear (though not direct) parallels to assault rifles, shotguns, and grenade launchers. The pacing is also slower than what you might expect; one wonders if Human Head was afraid that players would have enough trouble just finding enemies in portals and on walls, and cut movement speed to give novices a chance to fight back. This decision is understandable, but frustrating to those used to flying through rooms at breakneck speed. It’s not enough to keep MultiPrey from being an enjoyable extension to the main game.

The end result is a first-person shooter demo the likes of which we haven’t had for years. This is a genuinely exciting demo that promises not just a competent game, but a brilliant one that sets an example others should follow. Best of all, it’s produced by companies that obviously care more about players’ happiness than cost-efficiency. Unlike the 15-minute demos of some companies that often amount to little more than glorified trailers, Human Head gives you hours of worthwhile game time that let the design speak for itself. So long as the full game is as diverse and engaging as the demo, we could easily be looking at a top contender for the action game of the year.

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