Deathmatch has been a staple of multiplayer first-person shooters since pretty much Day One. And it's easy to see why deathmatch remains popular to this day. If you're looking for a chaotic free-for-all, then nothing quite beats jumping onto a server and blasting every moving thing that you see. However, there's also a feeling out there that regular deathmatch is starting to get a bit too familiar. So if you're making a first-person shooter, how do you differentiate yourself? If your game is Prey, the upcoming shooter from 2K Games and developer Human Head Studios, the answer is simple: turn everything upside down, literally.
Prey is certainly a game with an interesting past. It was originally announced almost a decade ago, but then it quietly disappeared into development oblivion, only to be resurrected last year. This new Prey is being built on the high-tech foundation that is the Doom III engine, and it's packed with all sorts of interesting ideas, many of which carry over to the multiplayer, which we had the opportunity to play recently. And let's just say that Prey's deathmatch takes the traditional multiplayer and adds some interesting twists to it.
In the single-player game, you'll play as Tommy, a disillusioned Native American military veteran who, along with his small town, is abducted and taken aboard a mysterious alien vessel to serve as slave labor alongside other subjugated species. Needless to say, Tommy gets an (alien) gun and begins to battle his way to freedom, while also trying to save his girlfriend. Tommy also learns about and unlocks his mystical Native American powers, such as the ability to "spirit walk," or leave his corporeal body behind and use his spirit to bypass barriers. He also discovers that the alien vessel does some pretty funky things with gravity, and there are sections of the vessel where you can walk on walls and ceilings, and even reverse gravity with the flick of a switch. These concepts and more found their way to multiplayer.
Prey's deathmatch feels very much like a traditional deathmatch game at first. At least, until you hit your first wall-walk or you find yourself shooting at guys standing on the ceiling (or, is it that they're on the floor and you're on the ceiling?). Human Head developed the multiplayer levels to incorporate some of Prey's unique design elements, and it's pretty impressive to see how much of an effect these simple ideas can have on the gameplay. By putting the walls and ceilings into play, the developers can take a standard-sized deathmatch map and make it feel a lot larger. But there's also a wonderful sense of weird disorientation that comes into play. It's almost strange to kill someone and then see his or her weapon "fall" to the ceiling. And you have to be on your guard from nearly every direction, because the enemy can ambush you from almost any point in some levels.
As you might expect, navigating these levels can be a bit tricky at first, but we discovered that it only took a couple of minutes to get a feel for each level. Thankfully, there are subtle clues throughout the level to orient you. Most wall-walking surfaces are easily identifiable, and there's a blue trim to edges where gravity changes, which means that you can walk "over" that edge and you'll still find yourself standing on the "floor." And, finally, all weapon ammunition spawns on the actual floor, so you can use that to get your sense of direction. The multiplayer levels themselves are variations of levels found in the single-player game, and you'll battle it out amid the organic innards of the alien spaceship, complete with muscular valves (reminiscent of the valves of a human heart) that serve as doorways, as well as plenty of portals, or teleporting gateways that are a bit more advanced than a traditional teleporter found in regular first-person shooters.
While you'll mostly battle it out on foot, you'll also find a small number of vehicular combat levels, such as an outer space battle. Perhaps the craziest level we played featured the spherical gravity at work. This level takes place on a huge spheroid divided up by rooms and hallways. If you could run in a straight line, you would eventually return to where you began, so it's essentially a small planetoid. However, there's a second, smaller sphere that "floats" above the larger sphere, and a portal will transport you to it. This smaller sphere is smooth, which means that there's nowhere to hide on it. So you can battle it out on the small spheroid, or target someone on the larger spheroid and vice versa. And we're told that if you can generate enough escape velocity (probably through rocket-jumping, or firing a rocket at your feet and timing the jump), you can travel from the small spheroid to the other.
Speaking of rocket launchers, those are just one of the weapon types you'll find in Prey. These aren't your "traditional" first-person-shooter weapons, as you won't find a submachine gun or an assault rifle as you normally think of them. However, you will find plenty of exotic, organic weapons, many taken off of the corpses of your alien enemies. For instance, you can recover one opponent's "arm" and discover that it's an autocannon with an alternate concussive-blast fire mode. Or you'll discover little alien spiders that can serve as grenades if you tear their legs off (or you can make them stick to walls if you only tear off one leg). While the weapons are alien in appearance, you'll discover that most of them fall within the familiar first-person-shooter archetypes, because the developers didn't want to alienate players with some truly weird weaponry.
Prey will support up to eight players in multiplayer in both the PC and Xbox 360 versions. We had a chance to see the Xbox 360 version in action, as well, and it looks exactly the same as the PC version. We're told that 2K Games' Venom Games studio in the UK, which is handling the port, is working to optimize the frame rate. This is a concern, because Quake 4 for the Xbox 360 had significant frame rate issues, and it, like Prey, is built upon the Doom 3 engine. (The Xbox 360 version will also support Xbox Live marketplace, as well as achievements.) Still, both versions look very sharp, and the Doom 3 engine is being put to good use. Prey should also sound pretty good (at least, to older gamers) thanks to a soundtrack filled with Blue Oyster Cult, Judas Priest, and Heart. And Art Bell, the radio host and conspiracy theorist, even plays a role in the game. The spacecraft receives his transmissions in orbit, and you will be able to listen in on some of Bell's broadcasts, which is also a way for the designers to give you a heads-up of what to expect next.
It seems like the traditional first-person-shooter formula has been turned on its ear in Prey, and it's pretty cool to see how Human Head toyed with gravity in the game. Meanwhile, the production values are first-rate and the multiplayer is fast and furious. This is definitely the game to keep an eye on if you're a shooter fan. 2K Games plans on shipping both versions of Prey simultaneously this spring.