Prey Review 2017-05-14 06:00:55
For a game so concerned with the perils of futurism, it’s ironic that Prey feels like it’s trapped in the past. With the Dishonored series, developer Arkane Studios has become torchbearer of the Looking Glass legacy, crafting so-called “immersive sims” from the building blocks of System Shock and its various progenitors. The frameworks of these games are just as formative to the design of Prey, but while the Dishonored titles take ideas underpinning the genre and push them forward, Prey’s humdrum execution of these fundamentals leaves it feeling stuck in time.
Set in the year 2032, Prey casts the player as Morgan Yu, a scientist that finds herself–or himself–trapped on Talos I, a space station overrun by a race of highly intelligent aliens called the Typhon. Morgan was involved in the creation of Neuromods, a technology derived from the Typhon that allows humans to augment their abilities. She was also the primary test subject for them, hot-swapping Neuromods in and out of her brain with reckless abandon. During the removal process, the memory of a user is rolled back to its pre-installation state, and since the game begins shortly after some mods are ripped out of her brain, Morgan–and by proxy, the player–starts as an amnesiac.
Prey’s opening is its most memorable part, largely due to its own “Would you kindly” moment, and the promise of what it could mean. In the ending of Irrational’s BioShock, the revelation surrounding this phrase re-contextualises the events of the entire game to deliver a commentary on player agency. Prey subverts this with an early game twist that lays the groundwork for players to scrutinise their agency in the moment, to question the motivations of characters as they appear, and re-evaluate the impact they’re having throughout. It’s an opportunity to tell a twisting, paranoia-fuelled story that forces you to second-guess your own character. But sadly, that opportunity is largely wasted. Prey quickly loosens its grip on this narrative thread, allowing it to drift into the background in favour of environmental storytelling that shifts the focus to Talos I itself.
With its fusion of art-deco stylings and utilitarian design, Talos I is initially very striking. It has the deep red furnishings and gleaming gold frame of a baroque hotel but this is abstracted against the blackness of space, visible through giant glass windows. Together with the luminescent blue computer screens and neon stylings of other futuristic technology, Talos I has a distinct visual identity, but it’s one that grows tiresome.
Video game worlds are often designed on the same principles as amusement parks, with zones supporting unique themes for variety. Talos I, however, maintains a consistent aesthetic throughout its various areas, breaking the uniformity of its visual design only for the Arboretum, where lush vegetation, towering trees, and snaking vines are entangled with cold space station architecture. Otherwise, the place is comprised of typical living quarters, office areas, and an abundance of science labs in various states of disarray. Logically, the lack of variety makes sense–it’s an installation designed to house people that do science, not a funfair. Nevertheless, the lack of variety provides little incentive to stop and admire your surroundings beyond the initial few hours.
Good immersive sims–like BioShock and Dishonored 2–weave stories into their environments. In Prey, however, those stories are limited to either “people were here, Typhon appeared, killed everyone, knocked over furniture, and blew holes in things” or “Typhon were being experimented on here, they got out, knocked over furniture, and destroyed all the expensive science stuff.” A space station ruined by a catastrophic event and the hubris of its leaders is evocative in itself, but this is just the outline of events, and without more color Prey’s world reveals itself to be vapid and lacking in depth.
Smaller tales involving the people stationed on Talos I can be found by reading emails at computer terminals, and although they provide a little more to latch onto, by and large it’s all similarly forgettable. Emails are mostly the kind of thing you’d expect a bunch of coworkers to be contacting each other about: complaining about colleagues, reminding each other about best practices in the workplace, or explaining why that door you really need to get through is locked.
Hidden amongst all the emails and loose papers strewn around environments is the occasional meaningful exchange–like a group arranging a Dungeons & Dragons game complete with character build sheets, a multi-part treasure hunt, details of shifts in Morgan’s personality during the Neuromod testing, or theories on the strange abilities the Typhon exhibit. Again, these are effective in creating a sense that Talos I was a real, functioning place where people worked and lived together, but the abundance of mundane notes makes reading them a chore, and overall they feel like filler for an overarching narrative that’s stretched thin.
A key part of Prey’s story involves presenting conflicting evidence about Morgan’s personality before the memory loss, specifically her intent for Talos I and her contingency for a Typhon outbreak. The game wants you to define your Morgan by completing select side-quests that require moral decisions. However, it only serves up a handful of these moments and they come in the form of uninspired missions for characters who seem like distractions from the main narrative instead of pivotal figures in the outcome of the story. Prey makes an honest effort of raising the profile of these people, but it happens late in the game, and when all’s said and done, the characters still felt disposable. There’s a restraint to Prey that creates a disquieting quality in Talos I, but when this philosophy is extended to its characters, it just makes them fade away.
Prey does occasionally deliver an engaging mission … but they’re few and far between
Who can be blamed for wanting to ignore that guy that asks you to go out of your way to fetch a personal artefact? Or that lady who needs you to expend precious resources battling Typhon to grab her medicine? It turns out, however, these menial tasks are critical to the ending. And when the game laid out the unexpected way it all tied together, the revelation didn’t feel earned. Prey does occasionally deliver an engaging mission, such as a hunt for an escaped convict, but they’re few and far between, and often end very anticlimactically.
Prey’s gameplay experience fares better, but it’s uneven and, at times, its systems feel at odds with itself. With limited access to weapons and special abilities, much of the early game feels like a slog. The Typhon are abundant and soak up damage, so you’re dumping ammunition into them while they chip away at your health, and then struggling to stay alive since resources are scarce. It feels like the worst parts of survival horror: a punishing war of attrition, but without the cycle of tension and release that makes it enjoyable. This becomes pronounced when you consider that Mimics, the most prevalent type of Typhon enemy in the early stages, have a tendency of appearing in blind spots and catching you off guard.
This aspect of the game is simultaneously exhilarating and infuriating. The Mimics are small, highly mobile creatures that have the ability to shapeshift into innocuous objects around them. This means that you can walk into a room and be completely unaware that a Mimic waits just a few feet away, disguised as a cup or a trash can. While this was effective in creating tension, it also detracted from exploration; I wasn’t soaking in the atmosphere as much as I was painstakingly scouring it to get that Mimic before it chipped away at my health, forcing me to use precious healing items. And when I took on a Mimic, the lethargic controls of gunplay coupled with a small, black Mimic darting around the floor of a dimly lit room and leaping off walls made me feel like Mr. Bean.
There are methods to uncover a Mimic before it strikes, most notably by scanning environments using the Psychoscope, but having to put it on every time you enter a room becomes tiresome. The scanner is better suited for rooting out a Mimic once it has revealed itself and skittered away to hide again.
Mimics are eventually joined by Phantoms, which are the result of Typhon reanimating dead human bodies. These wraith-like creatures patrol Talos I and, given their ample health pool, are difficult to bring down early on. They’re not particularly interesting to fight since they just close the gap and physically attack you, and they eat up a whole load of resources to successfully vanquish. This enemy type becomes more interesting as elemental variants are introduced, as they can limit the weapons you use, split into multiple attackers, or set the environment on fire. However, for a significant amount of the game, Prey never afforded me the freedom to approach combat how I wanted–it forced me to play conservatively. The scarcity of health packs and ammunition meant that it was in my best interest to sneak by enemies, which was fine most of the time, but became frustrating in situations where they were swarming around an objective.
As the game progresses, Neuromods become more abundant, which in turn means you can unlock abilities that level the playing field somewhat. This is when Prey’s combat opens up, and while it doesn’t provide as much room for creativity as Dishonored 2, weapon and ability combinations develop a satisfying synergy. The GLOO Cannon, for example, can be used to fire a foam that hardens and immobilizes enemies, at which point a Kinetic Blast can shatter them into pieces. Other powers can compel enemies to fight alongside you for a short period of time, or teleport short distances to get the jump on targets. As newer foes are introduced, it becomes imperative to use the Psychoscope–a helmet with a scanner attached–to research the Typhon and reveal their individual weaknesses, while also unearthing more abilities to unlock.
The downside of using alien powers is that the the turrets littered around Talos I identify you as being part Typhon and open fire. Again, early on this feels like punishment for exploring the more interesting wrinkles of combat, but over time, turrets become less of an issue as they can be hacked or easily destroyed. In its latter stages, Prey’s combat feels varied and strategic.
As you venture deeper into Talos I, you’ll find Recyclers and Fabricators. You can use these to break down and reassemble junk into useful items ranging from weaponry and Neuromod upgrades to turrets and med packs. Having these went a long way in alleviating the pressures of resource scarcity and empowered me to really approach combat and exploration how I wanted. I could go into any scenario feeling like I had a decent shot of defeating the Typhon and achieving my objective.
Neuromods can also be used to solve some of Prey’s puzzles, though these are often based around simply figuring out how to gain entry into inaccessible locations. In most cases these areas are designed to allow a degree of freedom of approach. Typically, the options are obvious: if you don’t have a keycard, you can hack the lock, look for a vent to crawl through, or use brawn to move an obstruction. One of the more creative ways to overcome an obstacle is to grab a small object like a cup, use Mimic Matter to turn into it, and slip through small openings. Of course, your approach is dictated by the upgrades you’ve unlocked, so if you’ve developed Morgan using a specific ability path instead of diversifying ability upgrades, you may find you’re regularly approaching these puzzles in the same way.
While not challenging, these puzzles shine a spotlight on the layout of Talos I. On a small scale, the looping vents, multi-layered rooms, and gravity lifts (which act as arteries throughout the station) show consideration has been given to the physical construction of Talos I. The GLOO Cannon is particularly effective in showing how Prey’s environments can fold in on themselves. Its foam hardens when fired at walls, allowing Morgan to use it as a makeshift platform. This makes it possible to circumvent the obvious path in favour of a more diverse approach, highlighting the thoughtful level design.
Where Talos I really shines, however, is when you leave the station entirely, entering space to marvel at it from the outside–which you can do by unlocking specific doors in each area. It’s truly fascinating to see how all the pieces fit together and find the alternative entry points into the different parts of the station. Floating through the guts of Talos I really hammered home the scale of the space station. And sandwiched between the hulking construct and the deep, dark infiniteness of space, I felt overcome with a feeling of insignificance. The mixture of cosmic noise and the distant warbles of Typhon floating around, meanwhile, created a strange calm in me; Prey’s space exploration was unexpectedly affecting.
Unfortunately, I encountered a number of technical issues with Prey in my playthrough, the most severe of which prevented quest progression entirely. These had to be resolved by loading an earlier save, which meant losing some progress. I also had enemies clip through walls multiple times, the worst occasion being an electricity-imbued Phantom right next to a gravity lift. Its elemental power disrupted the lift and prevented me from using it. Prey also suffers from lengthy loading times when moving between areas, which becomes particularly noticeable when completing side-quests, as they often ask you to dart back and forth between multiple locations.
Another major bugbear is the audio mixing. Prey has the most aggressive and abrasive sound design that I have heard in quite some time. The appearance of a Mimic, for example, is accompanied by an ear-piercing shrill, and since you’re often not looking at the Mimic when it appears, the sound feels awkwardly timed and annoying. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is buried under what sounds like a warehouse full of fax machines and dial-up modems all powering up at the same time. Couple that with multiple characters delivering their dialogue in unison and it’s pure, maddening, auditory chaos.
Prey is a game of uneven pacing and uninteresting characters. It opens with a poignant, thought-provoking premise, but fails to follow through until the end, when it claims a revelation it doesn’t quite earn. Its gameplay falters out of the gate, eventually maturing into something worthwhile, if a bit familiar. As an homage to System Shock it’s competent and at times even enjoyable. However, Prey fails to distinguish itself, and next to immersive sim contemporaries such as Dishonored, it feels