Review : Prey : Pure Sci-Fi Brilliance

The original Prey released in 2006 for the PC and Xbox 360 to relatively low fanfare. While offering some unique gameplay, the title never resonated greatly among players and the title fell into relative obscurity shortly after. Fast forward a decade and Bethesda debuts a trailer for a new, intriguing sci-fi shooter during their 2016 E3 conference. The title of this new game? Prey. When asked about the lineage of the title it was made clear this new Prey was an entirely new game, sharing nothing with the previous game of the same name. Rather Arkane Studios, the studio responsible for Dishonored, has helmed this new title and for System Shock or Bioshock fans, it will immediately feel familiar.  The game shares a lot with that lineage which is evident from the outset.  I will touch more on that later.

Prey takes place in an alternate universe where John F. Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and the United States continued to pursue and prioritize space exploration over military conflict. The United States and the U.S.S.R. coordinated on development of the space station Kletka in the 1960s where they captured an alien race labeled the Typhon unbeknownst to Earth’s general population. After some accidents occur, the station is abandoned in the 1980s. Fast forward to the 21st century and the TranStar Corporation, led by the Yu family, acquired Kletka where the Typhon still resided. Under the new moniker Talos 1, the station is used to conduct neurological experiments on the Typhon thus leading to the invention of Neuromods; brain altering modifications that give humans enhanced powers and abilities.

Pursuit of the next step in human evolution is a large theme in Prey

As the game opens in 2032, you awaken as Morgan Yu (male or female) and after meeting your brother Alex Yu, immediately go through an introductory series of unexplained scientific tests.  Rather quickly an emergency occurs in front of you and you are forced to react.  Not wanting to spoil any part of Prey, I will simply say the next time you awake is alone in your bedroom, in 2035.  However, very quickly it is revealed that all is not as it seems and Talos 1 is now under attack by the Typhons. Meanwhile you are left with amnesia trying to figure out what occurred prior, with little to no idea of the truth.

Right from the outset, I was intrigued by the situation Prey places you in. The title of the game was instantly relevant as I immediately felt threatened, vulnerable, confused, and lost.  This introduction was excellent and I found myself eager to begin uncovering the details of what occurred on Talos 1. A big part of what makes Prey special right from the outset is the ability to present multiple narratives to the player without defining what is true or morally correct. Rather, from the start right through to the end, you are given the power to fill in the designed narrative gaps with your own beliefs and forced to make decisions that have no “correct” answer.

Setting out across the station for the first time, you are weak and ill-equipped. Your initial weapon, a wrench, does little damage and requires you to get close to the Typhon – something that can lead to your death very quickly. Prey can be a challenging game and you’ll want to be cautious in how you approach each and every room. Because the smaller Typhon, named Mimics for their ability to take the shape of any object, can be anywhere at any time, you have a steady state of dread.  This in itself is another brilliant aspect of the game as even the cautious and slow sneaking that can be over-utilized in some games will not always save you in Prey.

Phantoms are fast, powerful, and a frequent threat

You are soon formally introduced to Neuromods, and are able to select your first ability modification. Early enhancements represent human abilities such as improved health, stamina, the ability repair and hack, etc…. As the game progresses and you begin to study the Typhon more, further skill branches are opened where you can gain Typhon-like abilities and frankly, this is where the gameplay really begins to take shape. These abilities include taking the form of nearby objects, mind control, teleportation, telekinesis, and other supernatural abilities derived from the Typhon.

As Arkane demonstrated with Dishonored, the ability to solve enemy and environmental challenges in multiple ways empowers the player and that design methodology is a key part of Prey as well.  There is more than one way to overcome nearly every obstacle in the game and once you begin to unlock the Typhon abilities, the options become plentiful.  Combined with the level design that offers secret paths and many ways to access areas, it can be a joy to simply discover all of Talos 1. As you inject more and more Neuromods and reach your maximum potential using human and/or Typhon abilities, you will be a force. By the end of my playthrough, I felt superhuman and was able to navigate the environment and take down the strongest enemies with relative ease.  Character progression and the feeling of becoming more powerful the longer you play is something Prey does very, very well for a narrative FPS.

Skill Tree
The skill tree gives you a lot of options to adjust your play style

While ability development is a strong point for Prey, gun combat is relatively simplistic. Outside of the standard pistol and shotgun, there are but a few additional weapons at your disposal. The Disruptor and experimental “Q-Beam” are viable for certain encounters but by the time you’ve improved your abilities and maximized the shotgun’s power, there’s really no incentive to use anything else due to sheer efficiency. The most unique weapon, the GLOO gun, you receive early and has multiple uses from solidifying Typhons, to sealing leaks, and even creating walkways and climbable paths. I found myself using the GLOO gun throughout my entire playthrough and the fact that it represents a scientific solution to a problem I found admirable, as you could imagine it actually existing on a space station.

Outside of pure weaponry, you do have a few other items at your disposal including the EMP Charge and Nullwave Transmitter which can stop the Typhon from using certain abilities briefly, along with a lure that can distract them for several seconds. But my favorite and most inventive item in the game, the Recycler charge, creates a small black hole that not only results in extensive damage to nearby enemies, but can instantly turn them, and surrounding items, into recycled material. However, while I applaud Arkane for making the combat and weapons believable given the synopsis and setting, a small piece of me wishes they would have taken some chances with more extensive sci-fi weaponry.

The development of a believable setting is on display most with Talos 1 itself. Arkane has done a superb job of creating one of the most memorable game environments I’ve explored in years. From your first steps out of your bedroom and through each and every area, Talos 1 feels as though it could actually exist. Every area is designed with a purpose and the attention to detail is remarkable. Living quarters are small and efficient, the layout and navigation of the station makes logical sense, and the technology and design aesthetics fit the time period and story. The Art Deco and Retro-Futurism inspired artwork deserve mention here as well as you can tell a lot of time was spent in making it fit the narrative.

But most impressive is that every single crew member aboard Talos 1 is represented with an identity and can be tracked through security stations spread throughout the station. There are no simple, blank NPCs. Rather, many of them have interesting backgrounds or hidden agendas that you uncover through audio logs, emails, and side missions. Some of these side missions are quite extensive and give you a real feeling of what the associated crew members were going through in their lives aboard the station. The more of these you research and complete, the more the puzzle comes together of what it must have been like on Talos 1 prior to the outbreak. This shaping of the narrative as you progress through Prey is masterful and one of my favorite aspects of the game.

Talos 1 Blueprint
The attention to detail paid to the design of Talos 1 is exceptional.

Your enemy aboard the Talos 1, the Typhon, come in many forms and progress in challenge the further you travel across the station. While the more basic Typhon like the Mimics and Phantoms are common, they should never be taken lightly as damage can ramp up quickly.  More challenging variations of the Phantom along with more advanced enemies like the Technovoid, which can turn turrets and remote operators against you, begin to show up later and require time and thought through each interaction.  The most threatening enemy, the massive Nightmare, acts as its own recurring sub-mission. You will encounter it randomly and you have the choice of either killing it or avoiding it while a three-minute timer counts down. If you try to avoid it and it discovers you, you better hope you’re prepared as even when you’re more powerful late game, it can kill you near instantly.

During one instance I recall vividly, I ran from a Nightmare across an entire level and hid in a corner of a room with only one door.  As the Nightmare is extremely large, I thought I was safe.  Boy was I wrong.  It not only made its way all the way to the room, it changed shapes and entered through the door, then morphed back into the hulking creature it was originally inside the small room with me. The tension and fear I felt at that moment speak to the quality of the enemy design in Prey. And as with other interactions in the game, it’s up to you how you choose to combat the Typhon. Whether you want to sneak to avoid combat entirely, go in guns blazing, or a combination of both, every method is theoretically viable, and you can build your Morgan to fit your play style.

The hulking Nightmare is fittingly named

Adding to the enemy driven tension, and the overall ambiance of Talos 1 itself, is the soundtrack and sound direction. Prey’s soundtrack was composed by Mick Gordon who also composed the excellent Doom OST last year. The effort here is fittingly more subdued than Doom, but no less impressive. The tracks cover a wide range of emotion that are at times haunting, serene, mysterious, fear-inducing, etc…and the beauty in the implementation is due to the reservation to which tracks are played. You can go a short while with nothing but environmental effects so when a track does play, its impact is usually significant and immediately felt. Sound effect direction also impresses, with distinct sounds not only for each weapon type but for each different type of Typhon as well.  As an audiophile, I always recommend gaming in surround sound or with a surround sound headset if feasible and with Prey, it’s almost an imperative. Being alerted early to nearby Typhon and understanding the type of Typhon, is a benefit in itself. But the immersion you feel on the station, or particularly when outside of the station in space, is highlighted greatly by the sound design.

Floating outside of Talos 1 is simultaneously eerie and serene

At this point, I should touch on Prey’s similarities to the Shock games I mentioned previously. After spending several hours with Prey, the similarities to Bioshock become readily apparent and it’s hard not to compare the two. From your amnesia, to first acquiring a wrench, to injecting yourself with neuromods, studying the Typhon, finding audio logs, and even Talos 1 itself, it all hearkens back to the 2007 classic and in some ways, to Bioshock’s predecessor System Shock 2. Bioshock is one of the most critically acclaimed games of all-time, and one of my personal favorites, so it certainly doesn’t bother me but that may not be true for everyone. Prey doesn’t quite reach the heights of character narrative that Bioshock did, and while Talos 1 is spectacular, I’m not sure Rapture will ever be topped as a game world. But the mere fact that Prey can be included in that comparison is noteworthy.

And to its credit, Prey does some things better than Bioshock. Picking up food and items across Talos 1 has a real use due to the recycling and fabrication mechanics you will use often. The level design is at times superior as well, as you almost always have multiple ways to navigate the environment. But I felt it worth mentioning as with such strong similarities, you likely have a good idea if you will enjoy Prey or not already if you’ve played Bioshock.

The atmosphere at times is simply phenomenal

There are a few minor technical issues worth noting. Load times are long and while not a big deal early on as you’ll be spending significant portions of time in each area, in the late game when you are running from one area to another, they can become cumbersome. This annoyance is likely reduced with a SSD, but I was playing on a standard PS4 Pro (NOTE: the load times on Xbox Series consoles are significantly reduced). Possibly related is some random texture pop-in that can occur not only when first entering an area, but even at random times when just walking around a room.  Also, there have been reports of bugs with various missions in the game. Arkane has been quick to patch the game and I believe most of those have been resolved now fortunately. However, I did encounter one myself during a side mission late in the game where it locked me out of a path to completion. I had to reload an earlier save and do the objective twice in a row to get it to properly move forward. It wasn’t game breaking, but it was frustrating.

In the end, Prey was a fantastic ride and one of my favorite games in years. It takes key elements from other excellent games in Bioshock, Dishonored, and Deus Ex and fuses them together with a unique setting and mysterious, intriguing narrative. It rewards the player with choice at every turn, and creates an environment that is spectacular yet somehow still believable. As someone who loves classic sci-fi movies like Alien and The Thing, it’s a joy to see a video game produce a story that is as enjoyable and at times even more engrossing due to the player’s immersion in the experience. The evolution of the narrative, especially when you take the time to learn the history of the crew, is remarkable. After I had completed my near 50 hour run through Prey, I was left simply smiling and it is frequently in my thoughts which is always a sign of a memorable title. I’m not sure what they’re putting in the water over at Arkane Studios, but with Dishonored 2 and Prey being their most recent releases, they certainly should start sharing it with other developers.

By Ains

Founder and Editor-In-Chief: Seasoned Gaming. Avid gamer and collector. Plays a lot of Halo and Diablo. Find me on Twitter @Porshapwr.


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