By Alan Bell
Prey, for those that don't remember the 2006 title, was a first-person shooter that leveraged portals to spice up the action (yep, portal mechanics before 2007's Portal). The game, believe it or not, was originally announced in 1995 by 3D Realms, two years before their other game, Duke Nukem Forever, was unveiled.
Anyway. The game was eventually released, to some critical acclaim, with Edge typical in it's assessment: "While most shooters handle the genre's design tradition like fragile cargo, careful to ensure that its arrangement of pieces doesn't fall into disarray, Prey cranks it like a Rubik's cube, cocking its world delightfully askew."
A sequel, then, was assumed to be in progress - an assertion that gradually faded as time passed, until it was finally confirmed in March of this year. Human Head are helming the development duties again, however that (and an appearance by the original protagonist) is about all that remains the same.
We got to spend some time with the title at E3 last month and what we found was surprising, fresh, and invigorating. The original, linear premise has been discarded - replaced instead with an open world structure, itself embedded with a rich vein of narrative and complex, rewarding interaction.
The new main character, Killian Samuels, has lost his memory - a handy narrative device for sure. One thing he does remember, though, is that he's some kind of bad-ass bounty hunter, which means that the player is tasked with assuming the mantle of this most ignoble of professions while following the fine thread of memory in an effort to find out what happened to him.
This all takes place in, as discussed, a free-roaming open world. This particular world, called Exodus, is an ultra high-tech planet that is heavily urbanised; think: massive, neon-bedecked skyscrapers. The city is located on the penumbra of the perpetually sun-facing (and, therefore, uninhabitable) part of the planet, which means that it's permanently twilight - the best possible time of day to take in the bright lights and futuristic visage of this immense alien arcology, something the developers refer to as "Alien Noir".
Killian is quite the perambulator, adopting the suddenly-in-vogue ability to navigate his environment in ways that, until recently, were unheard of in first-person games. If there's a legacy from EA's Mirror's Edge, surely it's this; like Brink, Killian can slide, jump, hang from ledges, and more like some kind of high-tech Bear Grylls. It's hard to comment on how this plays, without having played it, but the gameplay we saw demonstrated a number of situations in which this skillset was able to deliver experiences that have previously typically been restricted to third-person games. Hanging from window ledges, as though you're Nathan Drake or Cole MacGrath, only to pop your arm over the edge and bust a cap in your mark before dropping away to safety, for example, was a thrilling prospect.
The open world isn't just populated by thugs and miscreants; instead, a bevy of characters from all sorts of worlds meander through the neon-lit Courtenay Place analog. For that reason, the designers have elected to remove the previously standard "constantly holding your gun in front of your face" conceit that has been present in the genre uninterrupted since it's debut in 1992's Wolfenstein 3D. You can still draw a gun, of course, and you'll need to - often. But if you do it in front of Joe Citizen, it will have consequences - consequences that can be exploited, if used wisely. NPCs will cower in front of you, targets will realise the threat you pose and flee - all manner of possible reactions have been included in the virtual psyche of Exodus' denizens.
Being the future, Killian has a host of technological wizardy to aid him in both his day-to-day job and the grand quest associated with the game's narrative. One such gadget is a visor which augments the reality in which he finds himself, allowing him to identify threats or otherwise glean more information about what's going on around him. Similar to Batman's detective mode, which itself was neatly lifted for the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot, the tech informs the player as they navigate the world, providing them with the information necessary to inform their actions. One example saw some threatening, if not yet hostile, individuals stalking a generic citizen. By highlighting this action, the visor gives Killian the opportunity to intercede on behalf of Joe Six-Pack, however by doing so he may be way-laid from his current objective. Yet if he helps, maybe he'll earn some credits, information or a new quest... Another time, the visor helped navigate a crowded night club, through which a mark was currently attempting to flee.
Variety and choice is present throughout the title, which felt less like a linear shooter and more like Elite, albeit on-foot. Is this the free-roaming, sci-fi-life-sim that gaming SF geeks have been pining over? It's far to early to answer that question definitively, of course, but the early signs are very promising indeed.
You can find out for yourself once the game hits in March next year, on PC / Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3. We will, of course, attempt to get some more detail out of Bethesda before then. Prey 2, in our opinion, is looking like one of the must-play titles of 2012.