If you could say anything of Arkane Studios in recent years then it would be that it really knows how to master a sense of place, a familiarity within an alien environment, scenery that tells as much of a story as a hundred audio logs could possibly hope to achieve. For Prey, Arkane has used that skillset, and added a new twist on it by mastering an underutilised aspect of horror in videogames to put that sense of place into doubt. Prey does wonders with the art of paranoia.
Prey 2017 is technically a new IP from Arkane and Bethesda. I say technically because Prey was already a thing under the umbrella of 2K Games and Duke Nukem maestro 3D Realms, but this is a very different beast to that 2006 FPS. It does share traits with Dead Space (sans the over-zealous bloodletting), System Shock, Deus Ex, and even Arkane’s own Dishonored, but these influences are crafted into something inventive and interesting, even if it does hold onto inherited flaws.
You are Morgan Yu, and you’re taking part in a set of experiments to help improve the human race. The experiments are being overseen by your older brother Alex, on behalf of the hi-tech company TranStar. It gives Prey a relatively mundane opening tutorial as Morgan trudges about his/her apartment, and the test facility, living a somewhat sedate life. That normality is accentuated by a sense of unease though. You know something is off about the whole thing, and sure enough, the time comes where all hell breaks loose, and Morgan has to not only escape from a Talos I space station infested with an alien menace, but attempt to find answers to why any of this is happening, as the procedures Morgan has undergone have left some big holes in their memory. While not an original story conceit, memory loss does help you fit into Yu’s shoes a touch easier and embrace the exploration of the space station for answers.
Ah, that space station. Talos I is the set for the majority of Prey’s story, and despite being a singular location, Arkane has done a splendid job of making it feel as sprawling and varied as it has. The station’s aesthetic is rich with a 1970’s style idea of what a space station should look like, with a touch of present day slickness blended in. The front-facing areas are all wood panelling and large gold-framed windows, while the stations innards, have a coldly efficient industrial appearance. One rather sizeable area of the station melds Japanese gardens with an almost 1930’s architectural ethos, and it, like much of Talos-I, looks wonderful without relying on too much in the way of graphical grunt (Prey runs on CryEngine, and shockingly for consoles, it runs bloody well).You’ll visit Crew quarters, a power plant, cargo bays, restaurants, and even take a few spacewalks outside the station along the way, learning fresh things about the history of the place, and the unwanted tenants inhabiting it.
Prey is never aggressively pointing you towards doing any one thing, and this makes exploration of Talos-I a pleasure (as pleasant as being stuck on a space station full of deadly alien beings can be anyway)There’s a Metroidvania appeal to Talos-I’s design, meaning you’ll find places you can’t get to from the off but as you pick up tools and abilities, you can return to areas and uncover fresh secrets and goodies. Arkane also bring the multiple route system over from Dishonored so that you never have a singular method for accessing something.
For instance, say you want to get past a code-locked cargo gate so you can snaffle the wonderful, precious materials and ammo found within. You could go snooping around one of the many computer terminals looking for the code (they often pop up on Post-It notes as well) to open it. Or you could use the game’s Neuromods (effectively skill points that Morgan injects into their eye to create neural connections that make you faster, stronger, adept at certain tasks etc) to upgrade an area of your skill tree to unleash Morgan’s Typhon-infused powers to morph into a small object so you can fit through the small opening in a window. Or perhaps the most clever, yet obvious way is to aim the Nerf-like Boltcaster (a crossbow that fires foam arrows) through the window gap, and bounce the arrow off the wall and back onto the door switch inside. This playful experimentation appears time and again in Prey, utilizing both your powers and your tools in a multitude of ways to escape both Talos-I and the threat found within.
The systems and setting work in harmony towards softly encouraging exploration and experimentation. Arkane is confident enough in its vision to allow the player a level of freedom not found in even in the more recent titles that Prey liberally borrows from. What would be a 10-hour piece of satisfying story-driven shooter filler in other hands, is a sci-fi sandbox world with a rich amount of backstory woven into its walls and halls in Arkane’s.
What of this alien threat, then? Well, it’s a malevolent alien race known as the Typhon, creatures made up of wriggling masses of oil-like matter that have a bit of a tentacle fetish. Your first encounter with these creatures is with the Mimics, small, elastic spider like beasties that have a habit of shapeshifting into everyday objects. This is where an inherent mistrust of your surroundings comes in, especially early on while Morgan is still relatively defenseless. The Mimics are only one, small aspect of the alien ecosystem however, as there are Phantoms that take control of deceased crew members (creepily muttering what appear to be the last words of their hosts repeatedly) and emit energy/Psi projectiles among other things. Then you get onto the more intimidating foes. I’ll save you the surprise on these, but needless to say, they require planning and/or avoidance if you hope to survive. The accompanying electronic thuds and stabs of music that announce whether the Typhon are aware of your presence, and subsequently attacking you are excellent in their implementation, nailing the dread and panic of being stalked and ambushed by the bloodthirsty xenos (the rest of the soundtrack is similarly superb, maintaining the synthy/electronica soundscape). There’s a uniformity to all the Typhon types in the sense that they all exist as black oily horrors but they each bring their own strengths and weaknesses to the table.
Fighting them is an unenviable task, a gruelling annoyance to be honest, especially during the early stages. Combat may not be the focus of Prey, but it is by far the weakest aspect of it. The movement of the Typhon seems at odds with the speed and adeptness of Morgan for the most part. Fending off Mimics with a wrench during the first hour or so is a royal pain, as the swiftness of the little spidery buggers makes them hard to track and pummel them efficiently, a problem made much more difficult thanks to an easily-depleted stamina meter that robs Morgan’s strikes of power after a few consecutive swings. It also isn’t helped by a persistent dead zone issue with player movement that leaves Morgan ‘skidding’ beyond the moment you stop pushing the left stick. I tried three different controllers, all had varying levels of this skidding. It’s more noticeable in quieter moments, but knowing it’s there then makes any self-inflicted combat failure feel like an extension of it. Beyond that hiccup, things do get easier as you find better tools and weapons, along with the right abilities to avoid getting pounced on, but never is there a time that the head-to-head battles feel truly slick or intuitive.
I suppose the mercy here is that Prey doesn’t really move at a frenetic pace otherwise, so as time goes by, careful, considered tactical thinking will win the day over unloading a shotgun into a floating tentacle nightmare (ammo is quickly depleted, and never plentiful enough to encourage such acts anyway). Combat may be underwhelming, but it doesn’t really prevent Prey from doing what it does well, which is building an immersive world that demands to be seen. Just know that if you go in for this wanting some fast-paced meaty gunfights against xeno scum, then you’re in for a disappointing time.
You’re helped along on the tactical side by the Psychosphere, a headset that you can use to scan Typhon for weaknesses, track them, and learn new skills that you can unlock down the line if you so wish. It can be upgraded (as can Morgan’s TranStar spacesuit) to improve your Psi skills, spot Mimics while they still reside in a transformed state, and other such advantageous nudges. You’ll find the boosters for these around Talos-I, but you’ll have to upgrade the Psychosphere and suit via the skill trees to fit in more than a couple at a time.
While Prey’s setting is story rich, the main tale is merely a decent one. A fairly standard sci-fi tale of science gone wrong. It’s well told, and not overtly flashy, but it’s told with a straight face at all times, with barely a flicker of dark humour to break it up. It still baffles me that the strongest part of the main story comes in the opening hour, yet the final build towards the end, with all the knowledge I’d gained from over 25 hours, feels a touch flat. I’m not as fussed by its abruptly awkward finish as I should be, but that’s mainly down to the strength of the game’s overall mantra of making exploration and experimentation the pillars of the entire experience. It’s just disappointing that the main plot doesn’t reach the heights of the underlying narrative threads woven throughout Talos-I.
Prey may not be particularly original in story or gameplay components, nor may it be as well rounded in its experimental nature as hoped thanks to shortcomings in the implementation of combat, but what it is more than makes up for that. This is an immersive sci-fi sim that lures you in with the promise of interesting toys to play with, and keeps you hooked by delivering a setting that’s superbly designed to encourage the use of those toys. Flawed? Sure. Memorable? Most definitely.