This is the Prey Demo review, spoiler free

Once again, I can sound irritating and say: “I told you so” ;) Prey is fucking awesome.

Except, not so much. In short I believe this is a GREAT game. But at the same time the execution of some parts (and some important ones like “combat”) is lackluster. I took lots of notes while playing the demo, now it won’t be easy to pull all that together. It looks long. On the positive side I think I’m going to exhaust the topic here, in the sense that I’ve already framed everything pretty well and I suspect I won’t have much to add when the final game will be out.

Short version here.

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about the Prey demo released yesterday, I played it for quite a while, then went to sleep arguing with myself and without a definite opinion. After some rest I think I’m able to isolate better those parts that didn’t convince me.

If I have to be honest I’ll say that I expected more from the execution. Maybe because I read the enthusiastic comments from 3DRealms official forums, claiming better performance and art quality compared to both Doom3 and Quake4, better environments and baddies and so on.

Let me dispell some of these wrong rumors. The graphic performance is aligned with the other Doom3-based games but I wouldn’t say it is improved in Prey. Due to the overall greater complexity of the environments Prey is slightly less fluid than Doom3 And Quake4. It is true that the portal technology doesn’t influence sensibly the framerate but the engine still obviously suffers when you put two complex environments one by the other. Plus I also noticed some limits. For example the open portals only show you what’s beyond when you are close, while they “fade to black” the further away you move (and your personal light also doesn’t affect geometry beyond a portal).

About the graphic quality and style I’ll say that Prey sits somewhere between Doom3 and Quake4. D3 took place in monotonous, dark corridors with a greenish, metallic tint and some red lights. Which resulted in a general dullness. Q4 was able to break that monotony through much more vibrant, colorful and high-quality textures. More crisp and defined. Prey has some very minor graphic glitches here and there, some approximations. So, overall, slightly less polished compared to Q4. It breaks the monotony of D3 through more complex and varied environments, bit it still doesn’t manage to free itself from the dull tint. The textures taken one by one aren’t bad at all, even if not overly inspired, either. But all the rooms and corridors look like a recombination of the same pattern, which makes sense on a space ship but doesn’t help that overall sense of repetition. As I said the textures used in Q4 were much more vibrant and the level design more detailed and polished. On the other side Prey offers more complex and fun to explore environments.

Summarizing: Doom3 was dark, monotone and colorless. Quake4 had much better textures, more colorful and vibrant overall and with a level design polished and detailed to the extreme, even if not too inspired. Prey loses the vibrance, colors and polish of Q4, but compensates through much more interesting and complex environments. Darkness is not a problem, but the overall tint is back to the dullness of Doom3 without offering satisfactory variations.

On the positive side the levels in Prey become quite involving and immersive thanks to all the new tricks and features that the engine now supports. That’s something definitely pushing you forward to discover what the devs have planned for the next room, motivating you to continue till the very end (which is a RARE quality). The story also does its work, but I’ll return on this later.

So it works and it is “fun”. It’s less of a rollercoaster and movie-like experience as HL2, and more old style like a classic FPS relying on creative “level design”. The graphic style in HL2 aims for the photorealism and familiar look, with the injection here and there of sci-fi elements. This is obviously not the case of Prey who takes place inside a huge, technorganic space ship. So aiming for the sense of wonder and alien, foreign feel. “Away from home” with a constant sense of danger.

I’ll say again that it works. The “flow” is good and there are interesting things going on as you move through the ship.

When it comes to the gameplay the “run and gunning” is probably the biggest problem in the whole game. Here Q4 is far superior. Better baddies, much, much better models, better animations, better weapons, better combat patterns, more streamlined action. The weapons in Prey are well designed graphically, but their “feel” is a bit awkward (and not due to the alien look). Sometimes due to inappropriate sounds (the hit sound of pipe wrench is bad, bad, bad), sometimes due to expectations (when you can freeze the baddies you also expect to shatter them to piece with a kick as in Duke Nukem, instead of watching them “fade”). I think their purposes overlap too much so there isn’t much variation to be felt. But I’ll probably write another post to explain what I think is off with the weapons.

The bad guys are lackluster. The “dogs” are rather inoffensive and could have used better attack patterns. The “grunts” I’ve seen for the majority of the demo don’t offer a satisfying, involving challenge either. They just lack initiative, they stand there. They don’t duck, dodge or take cover. They don’t come to spot you, don’t chase you. You can easily outplay them by moving in/out of a corner quickly and shooting them before they have the time to shoot back (and the dynamic difficulty setting just seem to affect projectile damage).

Basically the biggest issue about the combat that I recognize is about the “movement”. The fight patterns are just extremely static. You stand still and shoot, they stand still and shoot you back till they don’t get killed. “Movement” is probably the most important factor to deliver an involving and fun combat. In Prey this just seems to miss.

It lacks severely of dynamism. You don’t get chased down the corridors, you don’t run for your life. It’s not frenetic at all. I felt more like playing System Shock than a shooter.

EDIT: Playing more I noticed that the “grunts” actually try to dodge, take cover and even lean out of the cover to shoot at you. But they do that rather poorly. They shoot at you with bursts, then stare *doing nothing* for five seconds, then shoot again. Plus they usually keep their bodies exposed anyway. They are extremely easy targets even when they take cover and if you are careful you can shoot them without them having a line of sight on you. Plus they throw “grenades” stupidly and 50% of the times they blow up themselves.

I’m also not so convinced that they can use portals and wall walking pads on their own without a script forcing them doing so…

The environmental hazards I’ve seen in the demo were all in the style of an annoyance. For example there are organic “spikes” that explode if you pass near them. Here the “gameplay” is just about keeping your eyes open to spot them and trigger the explosion before you go near, or just “reload” a saved game if they hurt you too much. Basically this shares the same basic problem of the combat: not enough dynamism and interaction between all these different elements. Even if I suspect that things will improve later in the game when the “tutorial” phase will be over.

The great majority of the players liked a lot the introductory scene, while I think it was the worst part of the demo without a doubt. I don’t know, flushing a toliet doesn’t impress me anymore. Earth-like environments don’t look well in the Doom3 engine and the whole bar isn’t really well rendered graphically. The human models are godawful (throughout the whole game), if you have stuck the model of Alyx in your mind you’ll just shudder when you’ll see Tommy’s fiancee. Textures, model, animations. All subpar. The fight with the two thugs was utterly pathetic and would deserve to be erased to the game without esitation.

Then you are abducted and things get serious. The second introductory, non-interactive scene on the alien ship is amazing. Really well done, well acted. Tommy’s fiancee screams fit perfectly. Tommy’s voice and reactions much less. If I was the director I would have put more focus on that scene, making it a bit more longer and descriptive. But it’s already great the way it is. Plus I would have inverted the order of the tutorial, delaying the fights to the end and instead introducing puzzle elements earlier, so prologing by a fair amount the part where you walk around poking stuff without any weapon. Which is starting to become the best part of all these games.

Context-sensitive voice comments from Tommy are cool, but when he talks to himself (most of the times) he just doesn’t sound like talking to himself. The voice acting in general is fairly good. All the screams from Tommy’s fiancee are great and at the beginning of the game they really help to motivate you and feel “in-character”. You feel like being in a hurry, even if then this urge slows down considerably. They hinted at an interesting pattern there, though. It’s something to reconsider. I’ll also thanks the devs because all the game is subbed.

As I wrote above the “flow” is good, the story is good and the progression through the game is kept interesting. While the sound portion could have been done better. The setting had a lot of potential to be spooky and atmospheric but fails to deliver. Now that I think about it I don’t recall music at all, but I’m fairly sure that there are small sound bits here and there with some Jeremy Soule moody stuff.

I left for the end the comments about the new features supported just because I don’t have much to say since they are so cool that must be experienced directly. The portal technology feels oddly familar. In the sense that it didn’t “estrange” me as I expected. It definitely gave me some “whoa!” moments due to the way it is creatively used at times (as when you are projected on the planetoid), but it still didn’t disorient. Completely the opposite instead with the wall walking pads. Those make you flip out completely. Describing them properly is impossible. The best I can do is comparing them to roller coasters. The closer you can go to that feel in a computer game.

There are points where you really have to sit there for a minute or more doing not but start at the screen trying to figure out where the hell you arrived and from where you came. The fun of the wall walking is that if you jump you fall and flip accordingly to the gravity of that plane. It’s really something that needs to be experienced when you are walking on the ceiling upside down, jump, flip 180 degrees and land on the pavement. Acrobatic!

So nothing to criticize with the implementation, execution and concrete value of those new features introduced in the engine. They are GREAT. Amazing. Definitely not deluding. Fun and with a great potential as I expected. Enough, from my point of view, to make Prey feel absolutely unique compared to any other shooter. I only have some minor compolaints about the physics system and the ragdolls (both terrible) and the controls. I hate when the “crouch” is not a toggle buy a key that I have to keep pressed (edit: managed to fix this through the cfg file), and I wish I could disable the auto-adjustement of the view angle while you walk on the wall walking pads. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe it was an obligatory function on the XBOX360, but I suspect that disabling it on the PC could have lead to much better and reliable controls as you walk on those things.

Concluding. In this sort of review I’ve analyzed all the elements I could recall and went in detail to explain things that didn’t convince me. It may appear that the game isn’t so great, but instead it is. When you give each element its correct weight then you would see that Prey tries to do something absolutely unique and DELIVERS from that perspective. The combat, at least for the initial levels in the demo, wasn’t so great but, overall, setting, story and all the innovative twists definitely make a great game …that could have been better, as always (and I dream about Human Head joining the Q4 team to do a masterpiece on all aspects since the quality of one seem to miss from the other).

For the final game I hope there will be enough conted for a 15-hours single player run. I’m definitely in for something long since I still think those new features can deliver a lot of fun potential and many possible variations. Still, I fear it will settle for something around 8-9 hours. At least it may keep a good pace and flow. Keeping things varied and the story twists alive and kicking. And lets also hope that the combat becomes a bit more involving and dynamic later on, mixing together all the elements that the game has to offer. More challenge, more frenzy.

1- You can add “+disconnect” to the demo shortcut to avoid the ads at the launch.
2- The trick described here works even in Prey. If you have tiny stutters every second no matter of the framerate you can try adding — seta com_precisetic “0” — to the preyconfig.cfg file. Just set it to “read only” so that the game cannot overwrite it. Edit: lip synching goes to hell with this, though.

Btw, here’s a major spoiler: the organic space ship is nothing else that a jam factory and at the end of the game Tommy will become Willy Wonka.

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