Arkane Studios’ Prey is unique in that it’s a reboot of an intellectual property with only one game to its name. The original Prey (2006) did have a sequel planned, with an aesthetic heavily inspired by Blade Runner and the Star Wars prequels. This sequel was cancelled in 2014, which means that Prey 2017 is, for all intents and purposes, a brand new IP for Bethesda. It’s first-person, it’s set in space and it most definitely involves aliens, but have Arkane made the most of a fresh start, or should Prey have remained stuck forever in the realm of what could have been?
You play as Morgan Wu, a high-ranking member of the space station Talos 1. In an alternate version of our history, JFK was never assassinated and the US Space Program went ahead unhindered with willing cooperation from the U.S.S.R. It was during this time an alien race called the Typhon were first encountered on a Russian space station which, by the year 2035, has been expanded into the enormous Talos 1. Prey opens with Morgan trapped in a memory-erasing simulation loop for an uncertain amount of time, by his brother, Alex.
The amorphous Typhon have taken over, killing most of the humans on board and turning the rest into powerful phantoms. Upon breaking out of the simulation, Morgan is instructed by various voices over radios to go to various labs, quarters, facilities, departments and offices of Talos 1 to find various items or key cards, with the ultimate goal being to destroy the space station and stop the Typhon from spreading to Earth.
Prey adheres to a very specific formula, championed by titles like System/Bio-shock and Deus Ex. As Morgan, you’ll explore decently-sized but disconnected areas, engage in first-person shooting and use experimental Neuromods to gain Typhon powers (i.e. space magic). You’ll sneak around, collect key cards, listen to audio logs, read emails, repair/hack/craft and of course loot, loot, and loot some more. The inventory system is akin to System Shock, with loot management being rather important, especially early on. There’s a lot of shooting involved, and the easiest comparison to draw here is to the likes of Bioshock and Dishonored. Left click to shoot, right click to use an ability (see: space magic).
Prey does present a handful of mechanics that help it stand out among the games it so clearly imitates, the first of which is the GLOO Cannon. As the name suggest, this allows Morgan to shoot clumps of glue which can be used to freeze enemies, build makeshift bridges or sets of stairs, put out fires and temporarily stop circuits shorting out, giving you time to carry out repairs. This allows for a level of freedom uncommon in the genre and is definitely worthy of praise. This design philosophy is also reflected in the environments of Talos 1 themselves, all of which have an impressive amount of verticality. Right from the start Prey lets you test the limits of how high you can climb. On many occasions I thought I’d hoodwinked Arkane, thinking smugly to myself ‘There’s no way I’m supposed to be up here’, only to find a hidden stash of ammo or even an audio log. Not only have Arkane considered that players will attempt to get to these hard to reach places, they’ve actively encouraged it throughout.
Another unique element is the mimics, which are among the first Typhon you’ll encounter on Talos 1. Looking an alarming amount like the poison headcrabs from Half-Life 2, mimics can turn into any small object that happens to be lying around. This makes for some truly intense encounters. Losing track of them is terrifying, as you just know that one of these damn mugs, lamps or chairs is moments away from leaping at your face.
It is unfortunate then, that despite having some interesting tools and mechanics to play with, actually exploring Talos 1 just isn’t all that fun. A lot of the areas look and feel the same, with the majority of them being a variation of a lab or an office. There are exceptions to this, with the Aboretum, a miniature park sitting atop the station, being a clear highlight. The narrative complications that arise to heed Morgan’s progression through Talos 1 are similarly arbitrary. Some antagonist will lock you out, or you’ll need to get a specific key card from a specific corpse, or something will turn itself off so you have to go turn it back on, and so on until the game ends. You will encounter survivors, some of them even have mildly interesting things to do or say, but there’s a distinct lack of both memorable characters and big story moments.
This type of storytelling, where it’s up to the player to seek out the details, can be done in an engaging way. Unfortunately, Prey struggles to maintain that hook, that sense of drive in the player to want to follow these breadcrumbs. Games like Bioshock and Deus Ex also feature liberal use of audio logs and emails, but they’re far better entwined within the context of their respective worlds. Remember the mannequins in Bioshock? Sander Cohen’s tirade about bunny rabbits? It’s the kind of stuff that leaves you speechless and almost scared to go on. Similarly effective, the modern Deus Ex games utilise a remarkable sense of place: apartment buildings feel lived in and the augmented ghettos suitably bleak. Prey’s plot is minimalist, with most of the surprises happening in the last hour, which means that for the bulk of the game there’s nothing to latch onto, nothing to keep you invested other than the dull melodramas of Talos 1’s staff.
On a more positive note, Prey features another fantastic score by Mick Gordon, known for his work last year on DOOM. Here, the ridiculously heavy guitar riffs are gone, replaced with a far more ambient, electronic sound. There’s appropriately pulsating beats during combat, and evocative but quiet guitar during exploration. For the more suspenseful, horrific scenes, Gordon brings some truly unnerving, discordant sounds that wouldn’t feel out of place in Alien, or Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Overall the score fits the muted chaos of Talos 1 perfectly, adding significantly to the atmosphere.
I was similarly pleased with the performance when playing it on my PC. On my ageing R9 290 I was able to run the game at 1440p, 60fps with some insignificant drops here and there. This came as a great relief as I was unable to play Dishonored 2 on my PC due to frame-pacing issues that remain unfixed to this day. It would appear the engine is the culprit in that case, as Prey runs like a dream on CryEngine.
That being said, I did encounter some glitches along the way as well as a few mission bugs. One example was that lifting things (with Morgan’s enhanced strength ability) proved needlessly difficult. Instead of letting me move the object around it would glitch out and either not do anything at all, shoot off as if I’d thrown it, or even phase out of existence entirely. A handful of side missions failed or completed at random times, hours after I thought I’d fulfilled their requirements. Another mild annoyance was that the game would crash when alt-tabbing, sometimes it’d be fine, other times I had to use the task manager to close the game. Worst of all there was one mission that, despite doing everything it asked of me, refused to complete and the NPCs involved just stood around motionless and silent. The outcome of this mission did have a minor impact on the ending, which was a bummer.
It’s possible that for a lot of players the new things Prey brings to the table in terms of enemies, combat and traversal will be enough to keep them interested for the duration. For me however, the plot wasn’t surprising or present enough to motivate me to keep plodding along for over 20 hours. Audio logs or the simple satisfaction of gaining access to a locked room are only suitable rewards when their contents are actually worthwhile. Arkane’s effort is commendable, but ultimately Prey fails to both live up to the games it’s attempting to spiritually succeed, as well as stand out among its contemporaries. Just like the Typhon hiding in plain sight as mugs and toilet paper, mimicry can only get you so far.