Once I found out that the likes of Chris Avellone and Arkane were working on Prey I had actually made up my mind that this was going to be good, as Chris Avellone is an established and proven games designer with games such as New Vegas under his belt, and Arkane is of course known for their open-ended and excellent Dishonored series. These are all people that have worked on games that were intelligent and let players solve situations their own creative way without being restricted to a one-way linear path like most other sci-fi games such as the Bioshock series.
It isn’t that the Bioshock series wasn’t good, in fact all three games, and especially the first and infinite did something games were shying away from that movies were fully embracing, which is creating a user’s expectation by making them believe in something, then completely tilting it on its head. The ending to Infinite left as much impact as the excellent ending to Inception did, which made me contemplate what had happened for several weeks, and only some movies and games have ever made me do that.
However, that was still always tied to the story-telling aspect of it rather than gameplay. The gameplay wasn’t on par with the intelligent storytelling, which is a most common issue with those games, however here with Prey, every single encounter I have to go through and every tool I use to get through these situations makes me feel clever, and the level design further amplifies it with its dense design, which is something that I definitely expected from the solid team working on the title. The game encourages you to not only study your threat but also the environment you are in, as certain routes or placement of items can determine life or death.
The game takes place on Talos I, a huge research and development space station that used to house hundreds of crew members and staff. You are given free rein to travel around the station, so in a sense it is an open world game where the world is a man built and a giant floating metal structure in space. It isn’t seamless traversal around the station to be fair, as the station is divided into sections and travelling from one section to another requires the game to load assets.
This organisation of sections, in my opinion, helps the traversal become cohesive as having an open structure or building is vastly different than a grounded world in my opinion. With an open world, great game developers can make use of landmarks to effectively help guide the player around, whereas even though a setting such as Prey can have landmarks itself or unique areas it can still become a bit confusing travelling around a structure that largely follows the same visual themes.
The design of the Station’s exterior is impressive, where it looks both ominous and impressive at the same time due to its extraordinary scale. Traversing outside is completely different than moving around inside, especially due to the fact that there is no gravity so you are mostly floating around, which creates a different set of challenges to overcome and forces you to change your tactics, which I particularly like.
In relation to traversal, the best weapon you will come across in the game is a Gloo Gun, which spits blobs of hardened foam which can stick to most surfaces, allowing you to create a path to out of reach platforms and items. There are loads of possibilities in regards to that gun, as it can be used from anything from creating a path, to blocking doorways or even slowing down your enemies or dousing out flames. It is fascinating how creative you can get with the gloo gun if you spend a moment to think about the environment you are in.
A good alien thriller is nothing without its main stars, which are the actual aliens. The aliens in this game, are absolutely terrifying, and I don’t mean in the sense that they look gruesome, something you’d expect out of a Dead Space game but instead they are absolutely haunting due to what they are capable of doing.
Mimics are the iconic adversaries you will face in this game, and they can shape shift into various objects. By looking at an object such as a mug you would be hard-pressed to tell if something is a Mimic and instead, especially before you get the “Psi-scope” – a device that allows you to gather scans and tag enemies – you have to deduce for yourself by looking at the environment if something is a mimic. For example, are there two of the same objects side by side, is one of the objects not where it would make sense? What is more scary however, is that they can actually mimic resources that you pick up, so imagine getting close to a medkit only to have it shape shift into a dark gooey material and murderously lunge at you.
It is a very clever enemy design, one that makes you not only stay on your toes, but also show caution with how you approach it. There are several other enemy types as well, all with their own sets of unique challenges. Some can harness the power of electricity which messes with your weapons, effectively jamming them, while others can mind control humans that trot towards you like a mindless zombie until they get in your vicinity to blow their heads, killing the host and inflicting damage on the player at the same time.
One particular enemy I found cunning and horrifying was the poltergeist. The poltergeist isn’t like the others, you can never really see what it looks like because… well, you can never really see it as it’s mostly cloaked and manipulates objects around you. What really sends a chill down the spine however, is the way it talks in a whispery and haunting tone. Most others also share this haunting method of communication, especially the phantoms which are twisted versions of the station’s previous inhabitants who were unfortunate enough to get taken over by the Typhon aliens. Their words are usually a slurred but creepy mess, being repeated as if these words are the only things left behind by their former selves.
If these monstrosities sound challenging, then that is correct and unfortunately that is where the main problem for the game lies as well. I am not particularly bothered that the enemies are hard, in fact I encourage that and I especially love how the Phantoms zoom between places once they spot you, as they can suddenly spot behind you without even knowing, I love that as it is both scary and cinematic at the same time. I also don’t have a problem with them having a really tough skin which requires them to be literally pummelled by gunshots in order to die, but when you take into account that the game limits the amount of resource you find and the ammo as well which will definitely leave you dry most of the time, it is infuriating as you never really get a chance to fight back. In this sense the game is definitely unbalanced and needs further tweaking to either the enemy’s abilities or the rate at which you acquire items.
The game also has a tendency to just throw every enemy type it has on you at times, which feels like a cop out and doesn’t sit well with the game’s overall intelligent and clearly thought out system-driven design. You are actually given Typhon abilities to unlock which allows you to mimic objects, electrify or burn objects and enemies yourself, but the game seems to punish you the more abilities you unlock as the Typhon Material in your body starts to dangerously rise with each upgrade and the turrets around the station start perceiving you as a threat.
One of the game’s main mechanics is the resource mechanic. Littered throughout the station are broken electronic parts, discarded objects and even organic parts of your enemies that have been killed. These items can be brought over to a recycler machine that allows you to discard junk and disassemble it into 4 different reusable materials, which are Minerals, Synthetic, Organic and Exotic. Using these players are able to craft ammos, weapons, neuromods and health based consumables through a fabricator machine. Different items have different requirements, but the most important one usually tends to be the Minerals, a resource that suffers from balancing and is easy to run out of, or hard to find. It is a very unique take on the crafting mechanics and works well with everything else, as it makes you think about what you are picking up, and doesn’t just use some items as props but actually gives them meaning and purpose.
As for the story and setting, from what I have picked up, human evolution is it’s main theme and how our pursuit of that usually leads us down collective destruction. The story revolves around Neuromods, a revolutionary new technology that allows people to rewrite their brain structure in order to pick up skills that have been recorded from professionals. One day you can be a novice piano player, and then the next day you can literally have a little bit of Frédéric Chopin in your brain that gives you advanced understanding of how to play a piano. It feels as if you have been practising and refining for a long time. However, things start getting complicated when reports start emerging of personality changes due to a use of a neuromod and even memory erasure from removing one. That mixed with the Yus excessive pursuit for human perfection leads them down dark roads that puts everything in jeapordy.
Neuromods for that reason make a lot of sense as upgrade points for your ability, allowing you to get stronger, faster and more adept at several things, which is a much more practical and clever way to explain getting stronger than XP points in other games. However, there was still a huge problem I had with the game, and that was the fact that Morgan never speaks or reacts to his surrounding. It makes no sense as you can clearly hear Morgan speak and talk in audio recordings, videos and messages. You aren’t playing as you, you are playing as Morgan who has an apparent personality. It would have been tons better to actually give him or her a voice throughout the gameplay, and would’ve made them a more memorable character ultimately. Even then, The plot is smart, well planned and the ending depends on what you do throughout the game and the choices you make.
Last few things I would like to talk about is how good the sound and projectile design of this game is. The music has been composed by Mick Gordon who was previously responsible for the excellent soundtrack to DOOM, definitely one of the main reasons that it found success. The music is electronic based occasionally mixed with organic acoustics to give a very futuristic-thriller yet human feel to the situation you are in. It also deserves getting commended for getting used at the right time, as certain sequences are heightened due to it. One of the prime examples of this would be when you are restarting the station’s reactor core and before you can pull the final switch and are getting the station ready for the inevitable reboot, the music becomes hectic and fast, imparting both excitement and suspense.
The projectiles on the other hand are really well made, they aren’t your usual frag grenades or flash bangs but are instead cleverly designed tools that make sense to the setting of the game. It reminds me of how Isaac uses his engineering tools as makeshift weapons in Dead Space, which due to making more sense engrosses you more in the overall experience. Some of the main projectiles that are impressive in this game are the Recycler Charges, and the Typhon Lures. The Recycler charges basically disintegrate anything in its path, turning it into craftable material while the Typhon Lures simply act as lures. They are very simple in concept and easy to throw and use, but what truly makes them feel powerful and effective are the audio/visual elements associated with their use.
Using a recycler charge looks like something out of a Sci-Fi movie with great and practical looking special effects, as the affected space around the projectile contorts, effectively giving you the sense that it is violently swallowing everything around it. Same with the Typhon Lure, in essence it is a simple distraction device that lures enemies, but with the alarming sound it makes mixed with the blinding and screen shaking glow, it feels powerful.
With all these different and unique mechanics coming into the blend, Prey is a powerful game, one that has sorely been missing from videogame shelves in the recent times littered with simple, handholding sci-fi games that barely let you experiment or explore. It is vastly different and stunningly unique with how much creativity it affords you and how different mechanics and enemies of the game come together to create for an impressive systems based simulation rivalling the likes of Warren Spector and Doug Church’s System Shock where every tool requires you to think and plan in order to survive against an overwhelming and cunning foe. The game does have some balancing problems but nothing that can’t be fixed in this day and age of excessive patches, unfortunately the mute protagonist still leaves a sore spot.
Still, despite some problems, I can finally say this is the game I have been dreaming of after watching movies like The Thing and 2001: a space odyssey, and if like me you are a fan of clever sci-fi or just well made videogames in general, this should be on the top of your to-buy list.
+ Myriad of Weapons and Tools That Let You Experiment
+ Jaw Dropping Visual Effects and Graphics
+ Clever Theme and Story
+ Exciting Music and Sound Design by Mick Gordon
+ Homage to Classic Sci Fi Games and Movies
- Unbalanced Difficulty