A Welcome Shock
“The last frontier is the human mind and we are its pioneers.” – William Yu
Sure thing, Will. But I’d love to hear you explain that nugget of wisdom to the elderly research scientist that I just saw willingly jettisoned into the the murderous vacuum of space in a desperate effort to escape the sinister advances of a seven foot tall, psychokinetic, shadow demon – wielding balls of electricity and screaming in tones that would make Cthulhu squirm. So back off, Will, yeah?
Arkane Studio’s latest release, Prey, has ironically little in common with its 2006 predecessor and namesake. It does, however, have a large amount more in common with a wide portfolio of influential first-person action-adventure games, most notably – System Shock. The Shock games have always explored the relationship between scientific endeavour and societal alteration. 1994’s System Shock saw an experimental mutagenic virus ravage a corporate space station (Hmmm). The 1999 sequel told of humanity’s struggle against a brutal hive mind created on the aforementioned space station as the end result of illegal bioengineering research. And for a more modern slice of context – the Bioshock series grapples with the idea of DNA-enhancing substances being available for purchase on the open market, not to mention how social dynamics are impacted by acute exceptionalistic and isolationist philosophies.
Other influences include the often lauded, Deus Ex, and even Arkane’s own – Dishonored. Both of which, again, involve core narratives that centre around extreme forms of human augmentation and how this warps the status quo. From a core gameplay perspective, Prey falls firmly into the Metroidvania camp of an essentially open world design that does little to section off content other than minor obstacles that can be overcome once the player opts to spec their character with the relevant ability (more on this later).
So with such a robust list of stellar influences, which Arkane are not shy about declaring (a key piece of Prey lore is named after System Shock’s developer, Looking Glass Technologies, for example), does the game live up to its forbearers, or is it merely standing on the shoulders of giants? Well the fact that I finished the game in two sittings totalling just shy of thirty hours should tell you something about the compelling experience that Arkane has crafted here. Prey is a love letter to a very specific type of game, and if you enjoyed any or all of the games mentioned above then you’re in for a treat…
Prey’s protagonist and player character, scientist Morgan Yu, has recently been recruited to work alongside his/her (you choose Morgan’s sex at the start of the game) brother, Alex, onboard a research space station named Talos I. The game begins in Morgan’s future-chic city apartment and quickly moves on to a testing area (via a nicely rendered helicopter ride set to some lovely 80s-esque synth music, I might add) where the game’s story really starts to take shape. I’ll leave the specifics of the plot out of the rest of this review as it’s probably something that’s best experienced with no prior knowledge, but what I will say is that Prey has one of the most striking and original opening sections of any game since Half-Life introduced us to Black Mesa. An opening that contains such an intensely brutal, and also visually creative, mind-fuck that it will keep you paranoid about the game’s true nature until the very climax. A climax which will also fuck your mind and no doubt spark the fires of analytical debate within the nerdier corners of the Internet.
Once Prey properly gets going it very rarely stops. The vast majority of your time within the game is spent cautiously exploring the expansive and intertwined decks of Talos 1, scurrying from one room to the next, forensically examining every cupboard, locker, and wastebin for items and/or resources that might just get you to that next waypoint in one piece. Very rarely is control wrestled from the player, with nearly all exposition delivered through audio segments or handwritten notes and emails. Arkane basically hands over control to player and says – ‘Have at it!’, whilst maintaining a sense of direction via brief, one-sided dialogues. For much of the game I felt underpowered and/or under-resourced, which in the face of a steadily increasing enemy threat helped to build a genuine sense of tension throughout.
The multi-faceted approach to level design found in the game deserves high praise, and is standout even when compared to the likes of genre classics like Deus Ex. The seemingly endless internals of Talos 1 have been crafted to deliver an adaptable gameplay experience, with the standard strategies of all out combat, stealth, hacking, and more blended seamlessly within a well composed sci-fi meets art deco aesthetic. You’ll never walk into a room and feel that the game is signalling one approach over the others – you’ll just see natural looking environments that happen to have a multitude of interaction points, allowing for a high level of planning and improvisation, i.e. fun. I personally specced towards an all out combat build, but still scuttled through vents and hacked my way through security doors if and when it made sense to do so. The upgrade tree is light and forgiving, allowing you to create fairly well rounded characters without running the risk of making some advanced abilities inaccessible. There’s no XP or levelling, so the frequency with which you can unlock new skills relies on finding specific resources in the world, with optional side missions and environmental puzzles offering considerable bonuses.
Arkane takes the modern video game obsession with cramming environments full of seemingly useless debris to new heights – I lost count of the times I found a twisted and charred corpse of some poor chap in the corner of a dimly lit room, huddled in terror with the look of utter dread forever burnt into his expression, only to find the atmosphere lightened somewhat by the odd notion that this space man died with nothing but a single banana peel in his possession (I was really after some shotgun rounds but thanks all the same, mate…).
However, Prey does implement something that not only makes sifting through empty tins and half-smoked cigars worthwhile, but actually fairly rewarding and, dare I say it, – enjoyable! Dotted around the doomed station are two different types of machine – one which will take all that crap that you’ve stuffed into Morgan’s pockets and reduce each to a portion of several core elements, and a second which will take said elements and allow you to purchase useful items (assuming that you’ve found the requisite blueprint), including anything from weapon ammunition to precious Neuromods, with which Morgan can unlock the perks and abilities vital to achieving a reasonable progression through the game.
Combat is somewhere between good and great, with the fully levelled shotgun having a particularly satisfying kick. The weapon list is limited but contains some notable additions to the standard handgun and melee options. The GLOO (or Gelifoam Lattice Organism Obstructor, for short) has a primary function of slowing and weakening enemies, allowing you to get up close and do some much needed extra damage. I actually found it cumbersome as an offensive weapon and rarely utilised it for this purpose. I instead used it to put out fires, clog leaking pipes, and most interestingly – to build DIY platforms within the environment allowing access to previously inaccessible areas. This particular mechanic is introduced to the player by a subtle and cleverly done in-game sequence which actually made me exclaim – ‘Ahhhh!’. The second weapon of note is the Huntress Boltcaster! Sounds mean, right? Wrong. It’s essentially Prey’s version of a Nerf gun, and can be used to distract enemies or activate buttons from a distance. Fair enough.
The primary enemies that you’ll face in the game are called Typhon. They vary widely in size, shape, and ability, but all share the same core design – entirely ink black with no distinctive features, and an almost incorporeal form with a rapidly shifting silhouette that puts them at odds with the solid environments. They start small (think Half-Life’s headcrabs), but eventually you’ll take on man-sized creatures and bigger. One variant can utilise mind control leading to some interesting encounters where you have to consider the lives of your fellow scientists who will attack you on-sight until the monster is slain. Or just setup some attack turrets and write them off as collateral damage. Your call.
Probably the most unique mechanic that Prey introduces is that of its smaller enemies being able to mimic inanimate objects. For much of the early game you’re never really sure if a coffee mug, desk lamp, or cardboard box is going to suddenly transform and try to peel your face off. It’s a neat oddity in a game that mostly relies on convention, but one that I can’t help feeling never really pays off in the way that the developers hoped that it would. More often than not it would feel annoying as opposed to frightening when my exploration was interrupted by a pissed off alien that identifies as a suitcase. Frequently the transformation would trigger without the item in view, resulting in the sound mix spitting out a thrashing of string instruments designed to compliment a jump scare that I failed to witness. This ability, along with many of the others used by the Typhon, can be learned by Morgan (unlocked via clumsily scanning the various abominations during encounters), but I opted not to do this, at least in my first playthrough, as the game threw out multiple ominous yet vague warnings about becoming the beast etc.
Overall I found the Typhon disappointing – mostly due to the uninspired uniformity of their design. It’s hard not to compare them to classics of the genre like Bioshock’s plodding yet deadly Big Daddies, or the gruesome and terrifying cyborgs of System Shock 2. Typhon get the job done, but that’s about it.
From a presentational perspective, Prey does a great job all round. The game doesn’t push any boundaries graphically, but the art direction is strong and coherent throughout, with environments looking lived in and practical. The sound design works well, and the score is memorable in parts despite being fairly minimalistic. Performance was more than acceptable (PC) despite the game having only been out for a few days. Frame rate would drop momentarily and infrequently in a way that we’ve seen be optimised to the point of nonexistence in plenty of games previously.
Once the credits had rolled, and I had gotten over my disappointment that the game has no New Game+ option (really?!), I was left to ponder if Prey had lived up to the high expectations that it had placed upon itself in the hearts and minds of many hardcore gamers. The game never really captures the wonder and sense of place that Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite did. And it certainly doesn’t capture the sense of fear and dread at the heart of System Shock 2 (although I’m not even sure that it really wanted to…). But what Prey has done is rekindle the type of game experience that many assumed dead when Irrational Games closed their doors. And not only that – it does this in such a way that will no doubt create new fans of the genre. By taking classic game design and merging it with modern, accessible sensibilities – Arkane has created a rare bridge between two eras of gaming. Something that Bethesda published titles have had a gratefully received habit of doing recently (see DOOM)…
Prey is challenging, fun, thought provoking, and stylish. It’s also yet another noteworthy release in what is shaping up to be an astonishingly good year for games.