In lesser hands, the sphere’s strange properties would just be gimmicks, but Human Head’s triumph is in a) combining the walkways and gravity switches with confusing, vast spaces in a way that’s guaranteed to spin your head and give you vertigo and b) using all this stuff to construct elegant puzzles whereby using walkways, portals and switches to get from A to B is a major part of the game’s pleasure. In short, at its best Prey messes with your mind, in ways that Doom 3 and Quake 4 never imagined.
And while the sphere packs in plenty of odd stuff, Tommy has a few tricks of his own. Being a Cherokee brave – not that the rebellious, materialistic youngster would like that description – Tommy learns from his grandfather the ways of spirit-walking. At the touch of the E key, Tommy takes on spirit form, enabling him to walk through barriers and defences that the physical Tommy cannot, while using a bow to take on the baddies. This adds – literally – another dimension to the game’s puzzles. At first, you’re simply spirit-walking through a force field, then operating the control on the other side, but as things progress you’ll be rapidly switching between forms to operate switches or walkways and keep Tommy moving in the right direction. It’s a bit like the Dark Aether stuff in Metroid Prime 2, or the light world/dark world stuff in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and combined with all the portal/walkway/gravity switch stuff, Prey really does keep your mind in constant motion.
And it’s this, the superb, surging score and the genuinely awesome graphics that make this – to my mind – the best single-player FPS since Half-Life 2. Prey completely outdoes both Doom 3 and Quake 4 with its stunning lighting, rich texturing and imaginative architecture, and while there are some technical disappointments – like the lack of destructible objects – this is about as good as it gets on the PC at this point in time. In many respects, it’s the game you wish Quake 4 had been; not just Quake 2 with a modern makeover and touch of Call of Duty, but a weird, alien experience that would have been unimaginable without the latest hardware. Of the FPS games that have emerged since Valve’s mighty sequel – and not counting the brilliant Episode One – only Call of Duty 2 hits the same heights.
However, plenty of folk disagree and – as you can see from the score above – I don’t think they’re entirely wrong. That’s because, for all its genius, Prey lets itself down on three points. The first is creature design – it’s as if Prey’s art team were locked up with Doom 3, Quake 4, Devil May Cry and a copy of the Matrix and asked to come up with something similar. As a result, the monsters are horribly generic, and almost incapable of leaving a lasting impression. The second is weapon design. While the arms stay away from the usual pistol/shotgun/assault rifle/sniper rifle combinations – and most have their own cool secondary fire modes – there’s nothing here to match Half Life 2’s pheromone grenades or gravity gun. Worse, what you do have lacks welly: that satisfying pop that tells you that bad boy’s going down, and staying there.