The Times We’ve Had: Prey, The Last Great Corridor Shooter
Corridor shooters used to be the king of the gaming world. I will attribute this partially to the limitations of the graphics engines of the time, but they also proved to be incredibly popular due to their easy-to-play mechanics. Doom, Quake, Heretic and Wolfenstein 3D were all so popular. Even Half Life is at its heart, a corridor shooter, albeit one that changed the rules, mostly that a story can be told through the use of a first person perspective and that open areas can be just as tense as the closed hallways (the Dam level really proved this). However, Deus Ex came out and seemed to drive the genre even further away from its claustrophobic roots.
Recently, I played the indie game Hard Reset for review, and the game really made me miss the days when a corridor shooter could seem like it was more than, well, shooting in a corridor. Hard Reset was a classically styled corridor shooter without the fun. The way I would define corridor shooter is essentially a game that has you moving through limited hallway space where you can use a range of guns to eliminate waves of enemies. There are usually some cool setpieces, and the levels are usually a maze, but there are generally very few open areas, and those are usually a clue that there will be a bossfight.
One of my biggest issues I had with Hard Reset was that it was not that fun. It had its moments, but it was mostly uninteresting, and a lot of the reason for it is because the story was so lacking. Of course the older generation of shooters were not exactly known for their great stories, but at that time, it was excusable. All you needed to know was something along the lines that you were on mars and that you were the last one alive. Doom, Quake and the shooters of that era can be excused because we were not yet spoiled by the stories present in games like Half Life and System Shock. In the last decade, there have been a few attempts at recapturing some of the simple fun of the corridor shooter, but only one has really stood out and remains fun, even in the face of the current generation of shooters. That game is 2006s Prey.
Of course, some may consider the Call of Duty series and the whole military shooter genre corridor shooters, but they have things like dynamic gameplay changes, such as the AC-130 levels, or more open areas like the War Pig level of Modern Warfare. There certainly are levels in the modern shooter genre that are reminiscent of the shooters of old. The White House level of Modern Warfare 2 comes to mind here. Even so, Prey stayed much closer to its roots then an lot of other games this generation. Similar corridor shooter games such as Doom 3 were still enjoyable, but still felt somewhat dull. and that you were merely going through the motions of the genre without any originality or emotional response. I have not played Quake 4, though I heard it was more similar to Doom 3. Prey was impressive in part because it felt original in spite of its claustrophic nature and old school roots and the emotional nature of its story.
Its originality stemmed from the core of its story-telling, it starred a Native American, a character with personality. In Doom 3, you were again just “generic space marine.” Hell, one could even argue that Gordon Freeman has no personality, though I would argue that his personality was granted to him by those characters around him, at least in Half Life 2. But Tommy was a disgruntled, cynical and disillusioned man with a mean streak who just happened to get abducted to great music. Seriously, Prey has one of the single best opening sequences of any game. It was exciting, confusing and absorbing.
Tommy’s progression through the massive alien space ship was one of the best first person journeys that has ever been presented. It retained the important core mechanics of games like Half-Life and Doom, such as a selection of interesting and cool looking weapons, maps that generally replaced maze like navigation with portal-based or wall-walking based puzzles (not like Portal’s puzzles though) and some awesome bosses. However Tommy’s story, unlike games like Doom 3 and Hard Reset holds up even today, because of the environments and the story, and not so much the gameplay. Though, in truth, the gameplay is still fun, just how Doom or Quake can still be fun. The guns were fun to use and felt powerful, and the enemies were interesting and varied enough.
However, the game surpassed its roots by adding in some of the best setpieces in a corridor shooter. Just because you are going from one hallway and room to the next does not mean that it has to look dull. This was one of the things Hard Reset got right, well at first, with its neon dystopia scenery. But Prey had the amazing plane crash (which factors in to Prey 2), and one of the most interesting boss fights of its time. I can’t spoil the fight, because it involves one of the better and more shocking plot twists of its time, but suffice to say, it really made Prey stand apart.
Human Head Studios had guts to give the game the look it had. Whereas Doom and its sequels always tried to shock you with heads on steaks and literally hellish levels, Prey took another route to try to get the player to feel something. The levels, whether they were grand areas where you could see out into space, or claustrophobic areas featuing giant sphincters, there was always something to look at after you were done slaughtering the aliens. the visuals weren’t always pleasant either and they sometimes led to surprising character moments, such as the early, and very gruesome and graphic demise of Tommy’s grandfather. Sorry for the spoiler, but it was at a very early moment and it serves as an awesome example of why Prey stood apart. The game was not afraid to be different. While not nearly as revolutionary, it shared this with Half Life, and I think that is where part of the enjoyment in the game came from.
The gameplay in Prey was mostly standard, but even that took the chance to diverge from its roots. You couldn’t die. If your health dropped to zero, you were simply elevated to a different plain of existence where you could recover some health and try again. The core gameplay though was moving through generally narrow passageways or rooms and shooting enemies to try to progress through the game, but in spite of this, it felt refreshing and there was a drive to actually see the end of the game, and not just to see the end of the story.
Prey was a game that I am sure many remember fondly or otherwise. But with Prey 2 coming up and with its open world nature, it seems like Prey deserves some remembrance. Moreso, it suggests that a simple corridor shooter can actually still be done and done well, with only minor changes to the core mechanics that make a first person shooter enjoyable. Prey was a refreshing take on the genre, and it is good to see it is getting the love it deserves through a sequel, even if the sequel is entirely different. I just hope Prey 2 can be as enjoyable and fun as the first game was. Maybe I should play Quake 4 in the meantime, or I could just lament the death of a once colossal genre and celebrate its evolution into the more open environments we have now.