Review: Prey

Prey is a game in which you fight a shape-shifting race of hostile aliens with a variety of futuristic weapons and devastating mind powers… but that somehow isn’t the fun bit. What makes Prey a worthwhile adventure is the chance to explore Talos I, a sprawling space station that rewards those who make the effort to uncover its secrets.

Much like Bioshock’s underwater dystopia of Rapture, this intricately-designed space base is best described as a semi-open world. To begin with, most areas of the station are sealed off to be unlocked through story progression, but once you’ve unlocked an area you can come and go as you please. Before long, you’ll find the Zero-G Propulsion System (read: jetpack) and gain access to Talos I’s exterior, where you can traverse the station via a system of airlocks.

These must be unlocked from the inside first though, so only serve as shortcuts back to areas that you’ve already explored. It’s a frustrating restriction, but necessary to maintain story continuity. Nevertheless, I was grateful for these shortcuts when a side mission required me to backtrack, and thanks to some superb sound design, I enjoyed these occasional jaunts into the vacuum of space. All sound is suitably muffled and Morgan’s laboured breathing is a constant reminder of your hostile environment; I really felt like I was inside a space suit.

Talos I is visually striking, thanks to the colourful, 1930’s, art-deco style, another design choice borrowed from Rapture. The areas that lend themselves better to sci-fi (laboratories, cargo bays, etc.) look more industrial and modern, but in the offices and residential areas, the noir aesthetic makes it easy to forget you’re on a space station.

Prey 5

Prey’s story is born from an alternate history, in which John F Kennedy survived his assassination attempt and the US and USSR worked together in the pursuit of space exploration. Talos I is primarily a scientific research station and a product of this cooperation.

You play as silent protagonist, Morgan Yu, the brother (or sister, if you’d prefer) of Talos I’s CEO. When the station is overrun by a hostile and mysterious alien species, it falls to Morgan to take drastic action.  As little as that tells you, it’s difficult to say more without wandering into spoiler territory, and it’s best to go into Prey knowing as little about the story as possible.

It’s a mind bender, but it never quite lives up to the intrigue it builds in its opening hours. You’ll have several opportunities to decide what kind of man or woman you want Morgan to be, and these choices are reflected in the ending, if not in an entirely satisfying way.

Prey 1

The alien species, collectively known as the Typhon, are a mixed bag. The standout foes are the Mimics. These small, spider-like creatures can disguise themselves as nearby inanimate objects. They’re the most common enemy in the game, and the most unnervingly lifelike. Their quick, erratic movements allow them to slip out of sight and find a new disguise with which to launch another ambush.

Some of the more powerful Typhon can take control of the station’s robotic workers and automated turrets and turn them against you, others can mind-control human survivors, but these enemies are little more than floating, amorphous blobs without much animation to them.

The Typhon can at least be interesting to fight, but you have to pick the right character upgrades, as the weapons lack the punch necessary to carry the combat by themselves. Things get much more exciting once you unlock a few Typhon powers and start finding effective combinations.

Who needs a shotgun when you can trap your enemies in place with the GLOO Cannon (exactly what it sounds like) and follow up with a kinetic blast that shatters them to pieces, or deploy a decoy of yourself to lure a Typhon into a carefully-placed mine? Using Typhon powers drains your psi energy, but the item that restores it is reasonably common, so you’re unlikely to worry about running out.

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In fact, if you loot diligently, you’ll never need to worry about running out of anything. In place of a traditional crafting system, Prey has you dump your unwanted junk into a recycler, which turns it into raw materials. You can then take these materials to a Fabricator and use them to 3D-print something more useful, like ammo and med kits.

There’s something oddly gratifying about the whole process, even if, practically speaking, it’s no different to selling off your loot to a merchant in an RPG and using the money to buy stuff you need. Perhaps it’s the way the blocks of raw materials come tumbling out of the recycler like coins from a slot machine. Whatever the reason, it’s a refreshing approach. Leave it to game developers to make recycling fun.

Much like its recyclers, the more you put into Prey, the more you’ll get out of it. Stick to the story missions and rush towards the ending, and you’ll never see the game at its best. Prey shines when you slow down and take the time to really explore Talos I. Get stuck into the side quests and you’ll uncover subplots and secrets that often manage to be more intriguing than the main story, and throw up some deliciously grey moral choices.

There aren’t many games where it feels worthwhile to collect all those emails and audio logs, but the story of Talos I feels so incomplete without them; they provide context that’s too often missing from the main plot.

I enjoyed piecing together a picture of what life was like on the station before the Typhon: discovering the character sheets for a fantasy board game, or the audio diaries documenting the burgeoning romance between two adorably dorky researchers; it all makes Talos I feel like a place that people lived in – the kind of place that could actually exist one day. It’s just a shame that players have to go searching for these smaller, more personal stories that represent the best parts of the narrative.

Prey 6

Exploration yields more tangible rewards as well. Completed side missions will often reward you with Neuromods, which you need to unlock new abilities and upgrades from Prey’s skill trees. Stick rigidly to the main missions and you’re likely to be stuck with a bare-bones character, giving you limited options in both combat and puzzle-solving. Neuromods can also be made from Fabricators, so the more resources you scavenge from the environment, the more you’ll be able to upgrade Morgan’s abilities.

Thankfully, you don’t need a fully-upgraded, jack-of-all-trades character build. Arkane Studios brought us the Dishonored series, and that pedigree can be seen in Prey’s level design. There are always multiple paths to your objective and multiple solutions to every problem.

At one point, I found myself unable to access a room that I needed to get into to complete a side mission. As far as I could tell, the only ways in were a locked door with a keypad and a damaged door that couldn’t be opened. The gap in the damaged door was too small for me to fit through, I hadn’t found the passcode to the locked door, and my hacking skills weren’t high enough to bypass it.

I suddenly remembered my newly-unlocked mimic ability and began searching my surroundings for something small enough to fit through the gap in the damaged door. Frustrated to find there was nothing small enough nearby, I was about to give up and come back later when I had a brainwave. I took a can of energy drink out of my inventory, dropped it on the ground, mimicked the can, casually rolled under the door, then sat back and took a moment to feel very smug and clever.

Prey 3

While Prey borrows its level-design philosophy from Dishonored, it borrows a whole lot more from Bioshock. The similarities extend way beyond the open-ended environments and art-deco style: the uncomfortably large needles used to administer superpowers, the autonomous defences that can be harnessed by you or your enemies, the trusty wrench that serves as your melee weapon, to name but a few. Anyone who has played a Bioshock game will feel very familiar with Prey’s core gameplay.

Arkane Studios haven’t been coy on the subject, going so far as to call Prey a spiritual sequel to System Shock 2 (Bioshock’s sci-fi parent), but being compared to its ancestors only serves to highlight the game’s weaknesses.

Despite some narrative parallels and themes of psychological manipulation, Prey never pulls off anything as genius as Bioshock’s famous plot twist, and as wonderfully designed as Talos I is, it never comes close to matching Rapture’s eerie atmosphere.

Most of the station is well-lit, and many areas are relatively undisturbed, a stark contrast to the shadowy ruins of Rapture, where you never really felt safe. Prey has the power to startle but not to frighten, resorting to frequent jump scares to compensate for the lack of creepy ambience. Some of these are scripted, while most occur organically when a Mimic catches you unawares, shedding its disguise and leaping at you as the music spikes.

Prey 2The knowledge that every coffee mug, waste basket and office chair could be an alien waiting to ambush you did at least create a sense of paranoia. That is, until I found the scanner upgrade that pointed out disguised Mimics for me, taking away what little tension there was. For the sake of your enjoyment, don’t equip this upgrade. Identifying mimics by spotting out-of-place objects, and listening for subtle audio cues, is far more exciting than pointing a scanner at everything to check that it’s not about to jump you, face-hugger style.

But I won’t remember Prey because of its shape-shifting aliens, its combat, or its psi powers. I’ll remember it because it gave me a wonderfully unique world to explore, with plenty of compelling stories and secrets to uncover. Half-hearted horror elements and the lack of a strong central narrative leave Prey in the shadow of the classics it attempts to emulate, but it’s an absorbing and memorable experience in its own right, and one that sci-fi fans will enjoy getting lost in.

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