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But it’s the final problem that proves telling: the combat in Prey simply isn’t what it could be. In many ways, it has the opposite problem to F.E.A.R., where the slow-mo fire fights were thrilling, even though the dull industrial backgrounds were anything but. Here, the setting takes your breath away, but the combat never leaves you gasping. After F.E.A.R., Call of Duty 2 and Half Life 2, Prey’s action feels like a throwback to the days of Unreal. There’s little evidence of any real enemy intelligence, and simply not enough moments where you feel you have to raise your game, or die trying.
Part of this comes down to another design decision. In Prey, you can’t die. Lose all your health and you’re sent to the spirit world for an after-life mini-game, where you have to take down as many flying beasties – thus restoring your health and spirit power – before you’re sucked back into the fray. It helps keep you in the game, and cuts down on the usual Quicksave/Reload tedium, but it also throws out much of the challenge baby with the irritation bathwater. During massed scraps or the occasional boss battle, you know that all it’s going to take is perseverance; whatever they throw at you, you’ll just keep on coming back for more.
And while I’m complaining, I ought to mention that multiplayer is curiously underwhelming. Yep, the gravity switches, walkways and portals are fun – especially if you use them to cause the demise of your rivals – but there’s still something missing; that frantic, run-and-gun, race for survival feeling that characterises the best deathmatch shooters. You’ll try it, smile, and then inevitably return to Quake 4, Counter-Strike: Source, Battlefield 2 or whatever your favourite online tipple might be.
In other words, if all-out, balls-to-the-wall action is what you go for, then Prey might not be your cup of tea. You’ll play it, shrug and go ‘meh’ and wonder what exactly all the fuss is about. But if you want to be dazzled, bewildered and bewitched by a truly impressive sci-fi world, then Prey does so better than just about anything else. A classic? Maybe not. But a great 3D shooter? As Tommy might say, “f***, yeah.”
A mindbending sci-fi FPS with plenty of awe-inspiring moments, but not quite enough pulse-pounding action to earn the all-time classic status it might otherwise deserve.