I’d also forgotten the pains that 3D Realms went to when designing the weapon-roster. Prey’s eclectic arsenal includes living bug-grenades which you pull the legs off to prime, and the leech gun that allows you to absorb different energy sources from the environment and fire them back at the enemy. Even the starting alien assault rifle is fun to use, combining a meaty automatic fire with a powerful secondary sniper mode. The guns are so wonderfully inventive that even the innate clunkiness of id-tech 4 can’t stop them from being a blast.
Prey isn’t short of spectacle either. There are several moments when the cramped corridors open up to reveal the vastness of the Dyson Sphere, including a sequence where an abducted plane crash-lands on the sprawling surface of the spacecraft. Around the halfway point, you get access to a little spaceship of your own, allowing you to travel on the outside of the sphere, the chrome lines of the spacecraft illuminated by the blue glow of nearby Earth. In moments like these, Prey almost feels like a game that was worth waiting ten years for.
For all its inventiveness, its thoughtful environment design, and its playful weapons, Prey is still a game that ultimately falls short of its potential. I already mentioned the flat characterisation, but as the game goes on, the shoddy quality of the writing really begins to damage the experience. Despite his Native American heritage and the fact that he is fully voiced, Tommy is an astonishingly dull protagonist whose sole apparent personality trait is his incessant whining. Tommy isn’t the only character who suffers from a personality vacuum either. Tommy’s girlfriend Jen has all the depth of a puddle on Venus, while Tommy’s grandfather is a headdress and a peace-pipe away from being downright offensive. What doesn't help is the game takes itself so darned seriously, including a late-game twist that would be devastating if the game made any effort at all to make us care about its characters.
Another bugbear for Prey is its visual design, a problem that stems partly from the engine and partly from the art. I’ve never been much of a fan of id-tech 4, with its specialisation in gloomily lit gunmetal corridors, plasticine-like textures and stodgy physics. Although Prey manages to squeeze some impressive scenes from the tech, it still clearly suffers from the engine its based on. I reckon if Prey had been built on an engine like Source, or Unreal, it would have a far better reputation than it does today.
Yet while the technology is partly at fault, Human Head must share some of the blame. Compared to the dizzying environment design, Prey’s aesthetics are nothing like as imaginative. The organic hybridisation of the spacecraft seems to extend little further than glistening walls and doors that look like sphincters, while the aliens you do battle with are depressingly nondescript in their design - vaguely humanoid chunks of polygons and disappointing Xenomorph knock-offs.
But Prey’s biggest mistake is that it front-ends all of its interesting ideas. Portals, wall-walks, spirit-walk and half of the weapons have all been introduced within the game’s first two hours, leaving little for the player to discover in the remaining six. The blend of combat and puzzles is still entertaining, but combined with the drab visuals, the novelty tails off fairly sharply and ultimately it’s the spatial puzzling alone that maintains any momentum.
Despite this, Prey has aged better than I suspected it would, mainly because of the brilliant level design which linear shooters have been starved of for so many years. And I can now understand why Bethesda would want to have another crack at continuing with the franchise. Now all that's left to decipher is why Arkane's new version of Prey is so far removed from Human Head's gravity-defying extravaganza, because I'd sure love to see the creators of Dishonored play around with portals and wall-walks.