Idle chatter amongst colleagues many moons ago turned up a great idea for a feature.
The concept of "poor games, great sequels" proposed titles whose core concepts were flatlined by awful final products, and could do much better with a heavy redesign. Funnily enough, Prey was one name that came up.
Not that the original was a poor game. The sci-fi FPS was a solid story-driven shooter at the dawn of this console generation, following escaped alien kidnappee Tommy into the bowels of the vast sphere-shaped alien vessel on a revenge and rescue mission.
Trippy spiritual projection and chip the size of an anal probe on the protagnist's shoulder aside, the main sell of Prey was the concept of portals as gameplay mechanics, preceding Valve's own take by a year. Static though they were in the game world, combined with changeable gravity they made for Escher-style navigation across the craft.
Despite good reviews, and likely because of Portal's presence so soon after, Prey's legacy to the genre was prematurely stunted, and it disappeared into the void. Hence its appearance in our discussion.
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Reason then that announcement of a sequel by way of an ambiguous live-action trailer brought curiosity rather than excitement. You'd have to skip ahead some months before the buzz really started. A month after that, and you'd have caught me catching flies with my open mouth. I'd just seen a gameplay presentation of what Human Head Studios conceived as the future of Prey.
Event presentations - be it TGS, E3 or Gamescom, as it was here - for press are trailed by months of polishing and refinement as studios lift a self-contained vertical slice of gameplay (so called because it lets you see all the layers of game mechanics) from the game proper to demo. Its a teasing scorcher reel, but truer for the medium than a cinematic-style trailer because its a better representation of what we'll be playing.
Therefore we expect it to be good. But what surprised with Prey 2 was the excessive shift in gameplay. Gone were portals, variable gravity (so far), alien vessels, linear pathways, singular-minded alien threats. Instead: open cityscapes, parkour leaps across mile-high drops, restraining bolt weapons, tracking devices and federal marshall turned hard-assed bounty hunter.
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Its all played out in a vibrant and blue-hued city, that not for the various alien species the studio shouldered and shoved through in the chase of a particular troublesome bounty mark, could have been futuristic Tokyo for all its neon lights and bustling night life.
It's an astonishing turnaround coming from a source that was mainly a linear corridor shooter, and shows how Human Head's assuredness of technology has developed in the past half decade. Because while the creator of id Tech has skipped ahead to the fifth iteration of the engine for this year's Rage, Human Head are sticking with the fourth - the same engine that powered the original Prey.
Story background links the two games, and explains that singular live-action trailer. In your travels across the alien sphere in the original game, one set-piece has a commercial airliner roar overhead, transported earth-side onto the alien vessel. You stumble upon its remains shortly after - what you haven't seen, and how Prey 2 opens, is with a survivor, federal marshal Killian Samuels going toe to toe with a squad of alien aggressors, only to be knocked out and dragged away to places and things unknown.
Prey 2 takes up the story years later as Samuels is working as a pretty successful bounty hunter on the planet Exodus, and the gameplay has been expanded beyond mere trading of gunshots between you and perps. You can scan crowds with a heat-signature style device for possible leads and side-storylines, such as rescuing a civilian from a savage beat-down. You can converse, intimate or kill targets - alternatively capture those with bounties on their heads for transport and a reward, or take a payoff to let them go.
Decisions will have lasting effect on your experience, suggesting an emerging narrative defined by player choice. Even if its less pronounced than, say, Mass Effect, the concept excites: it was one of this strongest elements in this year's Deus Ex.
Its that comparison that further elevates the excitement around Prey 2's distinctive merging of gameplay types and setting. As much as Deus Ex was tagged as the playable Blade Runner, its look and feel were unique to it. From the brief gameplay section we've seen, the same can be said of Prey 2.
Bustling sci-fi future worlds are as yet untapped potential in the FPS genre. We're tired of modern day shooters funnelling us down corridors and restricting our exploration. We've grown immune to post-apocalyptic wastelands whose decor is ragged, colours mud-stain brown, environments desolate. Prey 2 could offer something new: gun-blazing parkour charges through crowded city streets, generous conversational interaction with multiple alien species to source leads, and a character showing more grit than a triple bill of Westerns at your local cineplex. Human Head might make good on a gaming legacy yet.