Native American heroes are a rare commodity in videogames. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, released a decade ago, is the most prominent example.
Now Turok finally has company.
The best way to describe Prey is “Doom meets Cherokee mysticism.” And while most critics are fawning over this first-person action/horror title, don't believe the smoke signals. Prey's characters have promise, but the game itself should have been called Dances With Tedium.
Tommy is a restless Cherokee youth who desperately wants to leave the reservation. He sees his grandfather's ancient beliefs as pure hokum and can't understand his girlfriend's commitment to her spiritual roots.
Then, without warning, flesh-eating aliens abduct everyone on the reservation, along with most of America. In one unsettling scene, the populace is strapped to conveyor belts and disemboweled.
Now it's up to the reluctant Tommy to save his girlfriend, his grandfather, his Earth, his heritage, and his own hide . . . with just a little help from alien weaponry, of course.
The weapons themselves are standard issue, but with an extraterrestrial twist. Instead of grenades, you'll throw exploding bugs. Deadly acid takes the place of a shotgun, and shooting a machine gun means blasting rapid-fire goo out of a larva's hind end.
The game's mind-bending use of gravity and logic makes this run-of-the-mill shooter somewhat unique. Otherworldly technology lets Tommy turn “up” into “down.” Flick a switch, and the ceiling is the floor. If M.C. Escher and Dr. Seuss ever partnered on a videogame, this would be the disorienting result.
But once this gimmicky eye candy wears off, true innovation is ignored in favor of lazy game play.
Early on, your grandfather teaches you how to “spirit-walk.” With the press of a button, your transparent soul leaves your physical body to enter areas you couldn't before.
Where the game Geist first incorporated ghostly, out-of-body experiences in its engaging puzzles, Prey's “spirit-walking” usually means phasing through barriers to unlock things. By the end, spirit-walking is duller than a wigwam's interior decor.
The ghost of a hawk (your “spirit guide”) offers unnecessary hints by perching near important clues. When the hawk finally bites it (yes, as a ghost — don't ask), Tommy's cry of “Talon! NOOOOO!” will evoke guffaws, rather than the sorrow the game-makers intended.
The action is awful for another reason: You can never, ever die. Ever. When blown to bits or tossed on spikes, your body goes to a Cherokee limbo land. After recovering your health, you're dropped back into the fray.
You're in perpetual “God Mode.” There's no fear of failure as you muscle your way though firefights without really earning victory. Whose idea was it to turn Native American mysticism into Groundhog Day with a gun?
Prey strives to be epic and fails, but the little things give the game some atmosphere. The reservation bar has playable slot machines, blackjack, and even Pac-Man-type minigames. (“Worst. Indian Casino. Ever,” Tommy quips.) It also has a working jukebox, featuring Judas Priest, Ted Nugent, Heart, and more. It's nice to know that “Cat Scratch Fever” survives the alien apocalypse.
After the game's disappointing and preachy finale, a bonus teaser scene promises that “Prey will continue . . .”
That's super, but like the game's hero, I've got reservations.