One of the first games we got to see demoed on the E3 show floor this morning was Prey, a first-person shooter in development at Human Head Studios. Shown behind closed doors at ATI's booth--the same place where Half-Life 2 was first revealed a couple of years ago--the Prey demo gave a convincing impression of how the title would look and play, and revealed some of its wildly unusual design elements.
The demo started in a realistic-looking dive bar. Already we could tell that the visuals were quite impressive (on the same level of a game like Doom 3). Through a window, we see a truck apparently take off and fly up into the air in a ray of green light. Sounds like an alien abduction, and sure enough, the entire bar starts to break apart as the few people in it fly up into the air. Those alien bastards are gonna pay for shooting up my ride.
Cut to gameplay. Initially Prey looks like any other sci-fi-themed first-person shooter, though we noticed the crazy-looking biomechanical rifle right away. Turns out pretty much all the weapons in Prey have this sort of look and feel, kind of like the bizarre bone-gun in the cult movie Existenz. One of the "guns" was particularly amusing--a creepy, glowing spiderlike bug that twitched nervously, and whose limbs could be ripped off and used as explosives.
The weapons are just part of Prey's unusual design. What's really wild about the game is how it uses direction, gravity, and portals to surprise you, disorient you, and impress you. Basically, "up" and "down" is relative throughout the game; certain types of corridors allow you to run straight up onto a wall and then keep moving "forward." Portals tear through the fabric of the bizarre alien landscape you're fighting in, revealing completely different environments on the other side. You run right on through (and can even fire your weapons through) and just keep going, and you'll be suddenly surrounded by different terrain.
Some other really crazy levels featured sensors that could be shot to cause the level to literally turn upside down. You fall to the "ceiling" when this happens. As we watched the 20-minute demo, we couldn't help but wonder about all the possibilities that this type of level design could introduce. Granted, without any sense of direction to rely on, these levels might end up being just completely bewildering. After seeing the levels in action, we can say that they sure looked interesting--far more so than the typical corridor crawls you'd expect.
Another cool twist to Prey is that you evidently can't die. Your character may leave his body, traveling in sort of a ghostlike spirit world. It's reminiscent of the Soul Reaver action adventure series, though we're happy to see that the game's innovative twist finds its way into a first-person shooter. When defeated, it looks as if you'll have to literally fight your way back from death's door, shooting strange ghostlike creatures and finally diving right back into your body.
The Prey demo also featured a neat-looking flying sequence, in which the character needed to use a jetpack-enabled exoskeleton to fly between meteors. This again demonstrated some of the unusual environments in the game, as well as the notion that the levels will give you the freedom to move in any direction.
What about the enemies? They too have a biomechanical look to them, and several of them looked really disturbing--in a good way! Speaking of disturbing, the biggest shock came when the player happened on two children playing in a room. Something was clearly amiss...blood was smeared on the walls and so on. Suddenly one of the little girls becomes possessed, hunching over unnaturally and taking on a demonic visage. She pounces on her young playmate, eventually impaling the other child before crashing through the glass. Looks like Prey isn't going to pull any punches. Other enemies included a big, honking demon strapped with two chain guns and a grotesquely obese creature with a scythe for an arm. Nice.
We came away from the Prey demo quite impressed with what was shown. The game's tagline, "Earth's savior doesn't want the job," was an amusing conclusion to a look at a game that seems to be going out of its way to defy many first-person-shooter conventions. Ironically, Prey was originally announced nearly a decade ago, and was always promised to feature the "portal technology," as well as the Native American mythology and story elements that are still present in this cutting-edge game. Prey is slated for release in 2006 and is heading to the PC (which was the version we saw) as well as the Xbox 360.