The first person shooter is a classic genre. One that holds a special place in my heart.
The reason for this is simple. They feel more realistic than most other genres. After all, if you’re supposed to be the player-character, why are you constantly looking at yourself in profile, or at the back of your own head? We see things in first person in the real world, we should see things the same way in games.
Okay, some may argue that your field of vision in real life is a lot bigger than it is in the average FPS. But I really don’t give a shit.
This love goes back quite a bit. I remember playing the original Doom when I was a little kid. Only the first episode though because paying for that stuff was not easy. We didn’t have gaming stores back in the day. We had the shareware bin at Zellers, which had dozens of different games for a dollar each, but that was it. They actually should have been free, but you still had to pay for the media and distribution costs. Remember, this was the pre-internet days. Higgs, I’m old!
There was also the small computer stores which did repairs and sold accessories and software. But not a lot of games.
Anyway, back then first person shooters were simple. There really was no up or down, according to the game engine, and the entire game could be controlled through the keyboard using only six or seven buttons. At least until Quake, which introduced the Z-axis and revolutionized gaming. Now we needed the ability to easily look up or down. Enter mouselook, which allowed us to seamlessly aim and shoot with one hand, while controlling movement with the other.
Since then, controls for these games have evolved even further. Now, first-person shooters are ubiquitous on gaming consoles, which required a simplification of controls, and in my mind, has made them unplayable.
Recently, I was at a friend’s house with my fellow local bronies. We watched the (at the time) recently released brony documentary, during which I screamed “FUCK YOU!” at the Fox News cunts. Then we watched a few episodes of our favourite show, before switching on the Playstation 3 to play some PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, a game which I found to be incredibly broken.
After most of the gang left, the rest of us played some Call of Duty 9: Black Ops II, and I quickly found that I couldn’t play it. I’m pretty good at first person shooters, but here, I couldn’t aim at all. I don’t just mean, I couldn’t aim accurately, I mean I literally could not control the camera. I just couldn’t. I would overshoot my target way too easily and end up spinning in a circle. I even had some directional confusion. Sometimes I got the target on screen, but then accuracy became the obvious issue and my friends are sadistic. But I love them.
Glad to get that off my chest. So yeah, console controls for FPSes suck. But on the PC, thanks to the mouse, they still work like a clock. Even a touchpad works wonders, which is why I’m sure many people will find great use for the touchpad on the upcoming PS4 controller. Though it’s not exactly ideally positioned.
Anyway, there’s one thing I’ve noticed about a lot of first person shooters. If they are not dealing with an international war, either World War II or something modern, they’re dealing with an alien invasion.
I guess it’s an easy plot-device. You can use it as an excuse to introduce really cool and exotic weapons, and have your player-characters slaughter thousands of bad guys without making them feel guilty afterwards.
But still, it’s overused. Can’t we change it up? What if our player-character had hitherto unknown superpowers that one can use in combat, and for puzzle solving? And what if these superpowers originated from some real-world mythology, and played into the game’s overall backstory!?
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to a grossly underrated game: Prey.
Like many first person shooters, Prey is about an alien invasion. You play as Tommy, a Native American twenty-something who’s sick of life. He wants nothing more then to move off the reservation, with his girl, and start a new life. But his girlfriend, Jen, exclaims that her life is there, with her family. Frustrating our sweary hero to no end.
Yeah, our hero says ‘fuck’ a lot. Likely because the writers thought it would give the illusion of maturity. It actually did the opposite. But I digress.
Rounding out our main cast is his grandfather, Enisi, who tries to get Tommy to embrace his Native American heritage. Which I don’t really get. I mean, I get it, no group wants their culture to be lost to the sands of time. But I’m pretty sure only the Native Americans insist their children embrace it as much as they do.
Actually, I’m not even sure of that, because I don’t know any native people who do much more than acknowledge the old myths. Yeah, they exist, but they don’t play a major part in their lives.
You know, I got to give the granddad credit though, he is the most well-acted of the bunch. What’s with video game voice actors and phoning it in?
Anyway, we open in a bar, which Jen happens to own. Two rednecks start to harass her, so Tommy quickly beats them with a wrench. Overkill much? Then, with very little warning, a green light abducts the trio, and the bar. You know, in the game, they never explain why they take the buildings as well. That’d be nice to know.
Anyway, they wake, strapped to some type of cage, like the one in The Citadel at the end of Half-Life 2. We get a bit of a sightseeing tour, before the conveyors are sabotaged, and you get a chance to escape. Then the real game begins, and I find it odd that the aliens never checked our hero for weapons, since you still have the wrench.
There are a few things to note about Prey, such as your array of weapons, all annexed from your enemies. We have the bolt rifle, the leech gun, the acid shotgun, the bug grenades, the bug-rocket launcher, and the sub-machine creature.
What’s really cool about all these guns is their idle animations. Because with the exception of the leech gun and the acid shotgun, they’re all organic in nature. So they twitch and fidget, and, in the case of the bolt rifle, turn to look at you.
The bolt rifle is probably the weapon you’ll use most often. It shoots… bolts. Actually, I’m not sure what it shoots but the ammo looks a bit like rebar. I found it to be the easiest weapon to use, primarily because ammo is always available. It also has a sniper mode, but I avoid using it because it uses way too much ammo, and for some reason I keep missing the shot.
The leech gun is the second weapon you’ll get, and possibly the coolest. It can take four different types of ammo, but it can run out pretty quickly, and only be aquired in a certain way at certain points. There’s the plasma balls, red spheres of death that fire rapidly; the freeze ray, which is short range, but very effective; the lightning bolts, which have a slow rate-of-fire, but it’s a one-hit kill for most enemies; and finally, the greatest ammo, the freaking sun, which you can fire in a continuous beam to incinerate your enemies into dust. Ever see that episode of Doctor Who entitled, 42? Or how about the movie, Sunshine?
Anyway, the leech gun has a few major handicaps. For one, you don’t get ammo simply by walking over it. There are special stations you have to find, and each will hold only one type of ammunition. You get the ammo by pulling out the leech gun, and using the secondary fire, which will ‘leech’ the ammo straight out of the wall. This can break the game’s flow somewhat, and it makes the gun a bit inconvenient.
Secondly, you can’t top-up your ammo like you can with other guns. Well, you can, but once you use a station, you drain it completely and it won’t work anymore. Some regenerate, but not all. So if your ammo is at half, and you decide to top-up in the middle of a battle, then get back down to half again, you can’t go back to the machine to get the rest, because it’s gone. So for the sake of economics, you’re best off waiting until your ammo is drained before refuelling. This is the only gun that works this way.
Some of the stations regenerate, which makes the point moot. But as far as I know, it’s impossible to tell which ones regenerate at a glance, so you’re taking a bit of a gamble.
Finally, you can only hold one type of ammo at a time. If you have, for example, the plasma balls, and leech a freeze ray station; your plasma will go away, all of it, and you’ll be left with a gun full of freeze power.
This isn’t a major problem, but it means you have to commit to what ammo you want before you go into battle, and typically, you don’t know what you’re gonna encounter in advance. You don’t want to use lightning on a fast moving enemy, and you don’t want to use freeze power on a melee-based enemy.
The acid shotgun is supposed to spray acid. But I never see it affecting enemies in the way acid should. They get a face full of green stuff, but don’t writhe in pain. In fact, you can shoot an enemy in the face with acid, and they don’t react at all until their health meter depletes and they collapse into a heap of ragdoll.
Then again, this always happens in these kinds of games. Enemies never react to pain. Primarily because being shot once is pretty damn painful, and one shot anywhere on the body would be enough to take anyone down.
The bug grenades I find a bit odd. I didn’t even know what they were at first. You pull off the legs and they act either as your basic hand grenade, or as a proximity mine. I never used these. Then again I never use the grenades in any game because they’re so fickle. You throw one and by the time it goes off, your enemy has already left the area, so it’s useless. You just wasted it.
The bug-rocket launcher is a late-game weapon and your generic rocket launcher. It can be pretty effective.
Finally, the sub-machine creature, which I so dub because it’s a sub-machine gun from any other FPS. Works like a goddamn clock. Also lobs grenades, but I rarely used that feature.
Next to the weapons, is the environment you find yourself in. The game is based heavily around portals and gravity puzzles. Now, by ‘portals,’ I don’t mean the ones from Portal. Sadly, you don’t get a portal gun. But instead, much of the environment is composed of portals to other parts of the map.
The first one you encounter is framed by a simple arch. From one side, you can look right through the thing like there’s nothing there. Like it is just a simple arch. On the other side, you see a completely different room.
There are also boxes you can enter, that lead to gigantic rooms, as if it’s bigger on the inside. And the first time you encounter one of these boxes, it’s a bit perplexing. The box starts jumping around, bopping back and forth, like there’s something inside. Then it tips over, onto the floor, and a creature jumps through the portal.
I’ll remind you, it jumps through the portal, from another room. What exactly caused the box to bop back and forth?
Then there are the spawn portals, which are either blue, or orange, and appear floating in mid air. I should point out that this game was released before Portal, but after Narbacular Drop.
Sometimes, enemies pop out of the spawn portals, other times, they just float there waiting for you to enter. It’s a good in-story use of the technology, since it’s not the first game to do this kinda thing.
Portals in games actually got their start as early as the first Unreal Engine back in ’98. They were used to make level design easier. If a certain section of the map couldn’t fit where it needed to go, you’d just place it elsewhere and link it to the rest of the map with portals.
If you’ve ever played Tomb Raider III, also released in ’98, you’ll remember this was used to great effect in the Area 51 level. Where you enter the puny alien spacecraft, to find it’s much bigger on the inside.
So it wasn’t a new thing at the time. But it is the first time it was used this significantly, as part of the story.
But there’s one problem I have with it. Sometimes, when you enter a portal, there’s no exit portal on the other side. Instead, you exit nothing. You just appear in mid-air. I wonder what that would look like to an outside observer. Someone suddenly appearing in mid air? It’s an odd effect, and it boggles the mind.
I understand they wanted some of the portals to be one-way trips. But just make the exit portal high up, or in the ceiling. There, problem solved.
Some people might not notice this odd design choice at first, because they’ll enter all portals the way you’d enter any door in a game. By walking forward. But if you back into it, you’ll see the room you were just in suddenly blink out of existence. Which is really odd.
Sometimes, when it’s a spawn portal, you’ll see it close quickly behind you. But other times, it’s absent all together. So that can throw you off.
Actually, if they did that with the other portals, I wouldn’t mind. Suddenly, the portal gets staticy and dissolves. That would make sense.
There is one section of the game where the portals are used to great effect in a maze-like format to get you running in circles. You think you’re getting somewhere, but instead, you’re unwittingly stepping through various portals. You look down the hall, and see yourself, running down a different hall. It’s a strange sequence, to say the least. But it still has that blinking problem I mentioned earlier.
It’s also used pretty well early on, when you enter a portal, and find yourself shrunk down to the size of an ant on this large rock held under glass. But sadly, we never see the size-changing again, which is disappointing.
Gravity is also a well-used mechanic. In some parts of the game, the walls and/or ceilings showcase special gravity generators, which you can shoot to change the direction of gravity. However, in some areas, shifting gravity works a bit differently. As certain parts of a room have gravity pointing in one direction, and other parts have gravity pointing in a different direction. I don’t know how exactly one is supposed to transition between them, or why there are two methods of controlling gravity that don’t really mesh well.
Oh, and there’s a third way. Sometimes, a console in the room will reverse gravity for a brief time.
Best guess, this alien race steals technology from other races, and have been incorporating all of them into their ship’s design.
There’s also the wall-walk paths. Which you can step on and walk across, even as it goes up the wall, and across the ceiling. But it doesn’t appear to be gravity-based, since doing a simple hop will send you flying off the path. So, some type of force field, or it’s just really adhesive.
Certain parts of the game can get pretty disorienting, but it’s really fun, and you can quickly get the hang of it.
Then, we have our enemies. They’re all your standard fare, there’s the big bosses, the foot soldiers, the Cyberdemon from Doom 3. There are flying baddies, baddies that shoot rockets, baddies that charge, baddies that swipe. The designs are kinda interesting, some reflecting the experiments attempted by our big bad. You see, some of the abductees were experimented on, and mutated into giant monsters. But beyond basic appearances, and story-significance, all enemies are pretty standard for video games. But they do contribute well to the game’s overall look and feel.
However the most unpleasant part of the game comes from the ghosts. You first encounter them when you spot a room containing a little girl, and a little boy. Then, this white ghost, looking like a translucent stingray wrapped in a bedsheet, enters and flies straight through the girl. She explodes into a dozen pieces.
In gaming lingo, this is known as ‘gibbing.’
But, standing where she once did, is her ghost. Basically, the same little girl, only white and translucent. She jumps toward her brother, grabs him and impales him on a spike.
It was one of the most disturbing things I ever saw in a game. Earlier, we see people tortured and mutilated. One person is stabbed in the heart, then crushed to a bloody pulp. All that was a bit comedic in it’s over-the-top absurdity. But this scene was just unsettling. It’s also given no purpose. What the hell are these things!?
Oh, and by the way, you’re helpless to stop it. Believe me, I tried… Over and over again…
I’m also a bit disturbed that the writers thought to do that to a kid. They thought brutally killing a kid, then having her ghost kill another kid, was kosher.
I would have been fine with it if it was an adult, but that was a kid. Her entire life ahead of her, and she was killed… Brutally! And they made us watch! Okay, technically they didn’t, you’re still in control of the camera. But it’s the principle of the matter!
Yeah, sure, things like that happen in real life all the time. Young kids die every day. But I play games to get away from that, not to be reminded of it!
But the evil ghosts do fit in well with the other major game mechanic, and the only part I haven’t talked about yet. Tommy’s Super Indian Powers! No, he doesn’t grow 50 feet by shouting “Eh-neeek-chock.” Instead, he has the ability to leave his own body and ‘spirit walk.’ More commonly this is known as astral projection, but ‘spirit walk’ is fine too.
This is a really cool, and versatile mechanic. You can use it to reveal hidden passages, hidden bridges, pass through forcefields, and if your health is low, and you’re facing a crap-ton of enemies, your ghost can scout ahead and start invincibly taking them out with your bow and arrow.
This is used for some timing puzzles as well. For instance, at certain points in the game, you have to press two buttons in rapid succession. Or you have to press a button which activates an elevator, or opens a door, with no delay. So you have to be ready in an instant. The solution? Be at the door, ghost over to the switch, press it, then snap back to your body.
Now, you can’t go through the entire game as a spirit, because while you can still pass through portals and still press buttons, most mechanical technology won’t recognize you. So, auto-open doors won’t open, and wall-walk paths won’t carry you. But this is also very beneficial, as electronic eyes won’t trigger if you pass through, and most enemies won’t even acknowledge your existence. Actually, that’s a bit of a mixed blessing.
The one downside to this mechanic is that it’s not very intuitive. Sometimes I’ll reach a dead end and find myself searching every wall for a button, or shooting everything that looks like it might do something. Until eventually I try the spirit walk and find the solution was much simpler than I thought.
For instance, when I first encountered the laser tripwires, I tried to carefully walk around them, trying to meticulously avoid the beams. I did this through several of them, messing up each time, before I realized my ghost didn’t trigger them. A much simpler and faster solution. I feel like an idiot.
Another useful superpower in Tommy’s arsenal? He’s immortal.
Yeah, you heard right, immortal. Meaning he can’t die. Everytime you run out of health, your ghost travels to this Native American limbo where you shoot at flying red stingrays to earn back health. And blue stingrays to earn back spirit power.
Takes the teeth out of any threat doesn’t it? I mean sure, dying still breaks flow, so you still want to avoid it. But so does pressing F9 to quickload, then waiting for the loading screen to finish up.
From a story perspective, it means your character can’t possibly lose. There comes a point near the end where the big bad says she allowed us to live. Which I would buy, if I could die. At least when you load a saved game, it means your character did actually die and evil prevailed. Here, you just step outside for a second and come back guns a-blazin’.
To put it simply:
Once the player character becomes immortal, nothing is ever a real threat anymore… Ever. You don’t need to worry about health since you can just resurrect later, and get it all back. Especially here, you don’t lose any ammo, or progress. You actually respawn pretty damn close to where you left off.
So where’s the threat?
Okay, there is one. Your mission is to rescue your girlfriend, Jen. Just like every game ever. So obviously she’s at risk if you fail. If you take too long to get to her, something terrible would happen. Right?
Well, no. You see the story is incredibly linear, and… well… spoilers. She dies anyway, no matter what. So there’s no real threat, and no challenge. I mean, we still have the puzzles, so there is that. But no real threat.
Besides, this isn’t a puzzle game, and the puzzles it does have are pretty simplistic.
You know, I didn’t even mention the shuttles. These are used in some parts of the game to get around. You are armed with fireball cannons, so every threat is easily neutralized, and any damage you incur is immediately rendered moot once you’re near a docking station. You don’t even have to dock, just sit near the darn thing and all shuttle damage is repaired. Though some of the enemies you face while in the shuttle do give you a run for your money. But even if you die, you come back a minute later, so it doesn’t matter.
So, how did Tommy get these powers? Was he born with them? Well no. You see, as he’s running through the ship, after getting freed by the saboteur, he begins his mission to rescue Jen. Eventually he runs across the heart-stabbing crusher I mentioned, and sees his grandfather placed in it. The man dies a grizzly death. Then, as you wander through the ship, you end up falling off a collapsing bridge and dying… sorta.
In the afterlife, you see your grandfather, who teaches you how to spirit walk, and how to use the bow and arrow, before being sent back. While there, you also meet Talon, your pet bird from when you were a kid, who died long ago. He ends up accompanying you through the ship and even taking on enemies. He’s supposed to guide you, but he does a shit job of it. Since throughout the game, he never gives a single clue of where you’re supposed to go next. At one point I saw him sitting on a hand scanner, but activating it did nothing. Turns out I was supposed to go through a portal box at the other end of the hallway. From that point forward, I just ignored the damn bird, because he really did nothing.
Tommy also gained the power to intuitively translate the alien language. So signs and voices you can read and hear in plain English. This actually plays into the game’s plot, since the fact that you can understand what the big bad is saying is what grabs her attention first, setting up the endgame.
It doesn’t always work though. Don’t know why.
Expanding on the story, the game features these Easter-egged clips of radio broadcasts, sometimes off the beaten path, sometimes in the middle of it. They’re hosted by Art Bell, a real guy who apparently hosts a real radio program themed around the paranormal. During the clips we get a bit of exposition explaining what’s happening on Earth as you fight the aliens on the ship. We hear from a few rednecks, and a cop, and even a ‘psychic,’ who basically says she can see what you’re doing.
I’d bitch about this, but since it’s established that our protagonist can astral project, I’ll consider it moot.
We also hear from a professor of… something, I forget. She claims that the aliens actually come here periodically to feast on us humans, and actually placed us here well in advance, specifically for this purpose.
…NOW HOW THE FUCK WOULD SHE KNOW THAT!? What!? Is she psychic too!?
Of course, we learn later in the game that she was right, but it doesn’t make her knowledge of it any less stupid.
Even random exposition requires context, people.
As the game goes on, you get called back to Native American heaven, and are told that the threat to humanity is bigger than you know. But it turns out our protagonist is a cunt, and he declares that all he wants is to grab Jen and go home. Hey, asshole! You can’t do that if there’s no home to go back to!
He’s told that there is more he has to learn, and more abilities he can grab. But apparently, time is of the essence. Isn’t it possible that one of those abilities could be time manipulation!?
So he goes back to the ship to save his girlfriend.
After his girlfriend dies he goes back to the afterlife, and finally wants said abilities. Fantastic! He is told there are seven trials. First, he gets a health enhancement, and then the place is attacked by the aliens.
Yes, turns out getting to heaven is just a matter of tuning your portals just right. The aliens start staging a full-on invasion of the afterlife, which is absurd on so many levels.
For the most part the game does a good job of merging the fantasy elements with the sci-fi elements. But at this point you have to laugh. It’s a matter of dialing things just right? The big bad managed to psychically track Tommy into heaven, and followed? If they think this makes sense, they’re wrong.
Fine, the afterlife is just another dimension, or whatever. But the whole thing is just ridiculous. How can they interact with ghosts?
Actually, that’s a good point. How can they interact with ghosts? When you’re a ghost, their shots don’t touch you. But in the land of ghosts they can cause some damage!?
Whatever. But speaking of ghosts. The stingray that killed the kid early in the game? It keeps harassing you throughout. Flying by and draining your spirit power. But, you can kill it by stepping outside your body and shooting it with an arrow, and it’s otherwise harmless.
But it is a pretty interesting creature. How does it fit into the overall plot? Well, it doesn’t. In fact, other than being a harmless annoyance, it has absolutely no impact on the story, or anything else.
It could have. They could have explained what these things were. Had it fit into the overall plot. Perhaps given us a mission where we had to kill a bunch of them before gaining a power-up needed for the final battle.
Nope, none of that! They sorta just scoot by. They’re there, but a reason or purpose is never given. Bit of a waste.
One can presume they have something to do with the ghost kids you encounter at one point. Remember the little girl’s ghost I mentioned earlier? The one that killed the little boy? Yeah, a bunch of ghosts just like her make an appearance early in the game, and they attack you all at once. But then we never see them again, which is odd.
Why do we never see the ghost kids again? Not that I’m not grateful, but it is a bit of a plot hole.
The ship itself is interestingly alien. It’s called The Sphere, and true to its name it’s basically a small, possibly organic, net-like Dyson Sphere. I say ‘small,’ but that’s compared to a proper Dyson Sphere. It’s actually fucking huge, about the size of the moon. Oh, and it appears to be in relatively close orbit. I’d be surprised to find out no one on the ground noticed that thing. I’d be more surprised to find out we failed to see it coming.
We got some pretty good telescopes, someone would have noticed if the moon was on an intercept course.
Of course, I already said your mission is to rescue Jen. Which you do. And then, one would figure the game was coming to a close at that point. Well, no, actually, you’re only at the halfway point. There’s still another three hours to go! So, she’s captured again, and I kept playing, thinking: This is the final chapter… Okay, this is the final chapter… Alright this is the final chapter… Is this the final chapter? It just kept going on and on, and it felt like mere padding. They had to keep pushing back the ending so the customer gets their money’s worth.
I’d rather play a game that was short, tight and interesting, as opposed to long, padded and boring. It’s a quality over quantity issue.
But is Prey boring? No, I don’t think so.
Honestly, there was a lot of absurd moments. The game tries for horror at certain points, but it just comes off as pointlessly gory. The ghost kids are a bit unnerving, but I’m not sure that’s the same as horror. Silent Hill is horror. That was just fucked up.
It does get boring at one point, where you drive your shuttle into an elevator and have to wait for it to finish before you can do anything. But thankfully, those segments are pretty brief, so I can forgive it.
Overall, it’s a good game. Fun and exciting. But fair warning, don’t take it too seriously.
I think they want us to take it seriously, which is a bit sad when you think about it. Because the plot gets pretty dark. But it’s still extremely absurd.
Of course, like many games of the modern era, the writers decided to end it on a cliffhanger, with Tommy being told he has to go visit another planet, and save it as well… or something.
A lot of games do this, setting things up for sequels, which half the time never come. Advent Rising did this, but the game wasn’t popular enough to warrant a sequel, and a sidequel that already started development was killed before it could grow legs. So the story ended with absolutely no closure. I hate that.
If you ask me, the epilogue should have just been cut from this game, and saved to open the next one. From a narrative perspective it would have worked just as well, if not better, because if the sequel was cancelled, and there was no epilogue, we would still have closure.
Consider it narrative insurance.
But Prey was pretty popular. So did it get a sequel? Not yet. But one is planned, and it stars a completely new player character named Killian Samuels.
So Tommy’s arc does end with no closure. What the hell? What sense does the epilogue make if the sequel has nothing to do with him?
Actually, good riddance, because Tommy was a bit of a cunt.
Also the game is gonna be a sandbox title. Um… kay…
You know, I kinda wish this game was a sandbox. Or just a bit more open world. The linearity cripples things somewhat and the fact that you can’t die makes it worse. A few forking paths and alternate endings would have been awesome. That way things would be interesting despite your character’s immortality.
However, it seems Prey 2 is caught in development hell. So we might have to wait a while, assuming it ever gets released.
But overall, the original’s still a fun ride. If you find it in a bargain bin, pick it up. It’s worth the weekend you’ll lose.