Prey starts off as a tense survival horror experience where you can’t so much as walk past a coffee cup or a trash can without tensing up and preparing to swing your wrench at an inanimate object. You scrounge for resources and treasure every ammo clip not knowing when you’ll get another. That’s how it starts. By the end of the game, you’ll be running past enemies to avoid the game’s sluggish combat as you backtrack around the space station until you reach the ‘twist’ ending that makes a mockery of what came before it.
Prey’s opening hours are captivating and only make my eventual frustration with the game all the more disappointing. You play as either a male or female Morgan Yu who ends up trapped on the space station Talos 1, which has been overrun by an alien race known as the typhon. That’s about it for the introduction because Morgan has amnesia after getting a little over-enthusiastic when testing alien neuromods.
The early twist in the story serves little narrative purpose and feels designed solely to get a ‘wow’ moment from the player. Once the heavily scripted opening is out of the way, the storytelling is largely “environmental” which, as we all know, is video game speak for listening to audiologs and reading emails. Audiologs contain snippets of conversations between crew members, but rarely flesh out the space station itself or how it ended up being infested with typhon. Emails are even worse, typically serving as little more than thinly-veiled excuses to give the player keycodes or the location of hidden weapon stashes.
This lack of storytelling means there’s not much of a story to speak of. At roughly the five-hour mark, you’ll be given the final objective and know everything there is to know about the main story for the rest of the game. From that point on, it’s just a case of moving through the levels to get to the place you need to be. Prey’s paper-thin narrative could have been saved by a compelling enemy, however, the typhon are literal blobs that never get more interesting no matter what form they take, and there’s no ‘Big Bad’ taunting you as you progress through the station.
Side quests are usually busy work that can be easily ignored without missing much. Other side quests are almost an unmissable part of the main story and it’s odd that they’re even considered side quests at all. Prey is so desperate to give the player options that seems to have stripped out mandatory content and presented it as optional just for the sake of it. As an example, at one point in the game, you’re asked to bring in a container that is floating around outside the station. There are a couple of containers to choose from, however one container has someone trapped inside it and therefore seems like the obvious choice. Rescuing this trapped person becomes a side quest that you almost instantly complete because you’re bringing in a container anyway. Why wouldn’t you bring in the container that has someone trapped inside it? Prey considers this to be a moral choice. It’s not.
There’s a dark side to life on Talos 1, but it’s barely explored and has no effect on the narrative. The crew experimented on ‘volunteers’ from Earth who came to Talos 1 instead of serving life sentences in prison, and there are psyche evaluations that suggest not everyone is happy on board Talos 1. On a lighter note you’ll find Dungeons & Dragons character sheets and treasure hunts which go some way to making Talos 1 feel like a place where people lived, worked, and loved.
Typhon come in various shapes and sizes but they’re always black goo and as appropriately bullet-spongy as you might think from that description. You’ll first encounter typhon in the form of mimics which can disguise themselves as small objects such as bar stools or even ammo packs. Mimics do a wonderful job of building tension and keeping the player on edge. If there are two trash cans nearby then it’s likely that one is a mimic, but which one? Mimics only take a couple of hits to defeat, however they’ll often deal damage due to the slow and unresponsive combat. Mimics are quick and Morgan is most certainly not.
Mimics are always a nuisance, but the real threat comes from humanoid phantoms that deal a frightening amount of damage. Early on, you’re best off avoiding phantoms by sneaking around or running away until you’ve picked up the Gloo Cannon and preferably a pistol or shotgun. The Gloo Cannon can temporarily freeze enemies in place which is crucial given how horrible the weapons are to aim. Every weapon, from the pistol to the laser gun, is slow and unresponsive no matter how much you upgrade them or adjust the sensitivity.
Phantoms hit hard and tend to have abilities that ignore pesky things like walls, so taking cover is not going to help much. When you add in phantom’s huge health bars, the fights become battles of attrition where you just hope that the room or area you’ve entered contains enough resources to make the whole thing worthwhile.
Fortunately, you should be able to avoid combat entirely if Prey’s much-touted player freedom is to be believed. Prey introduces you to its “Play Your Way” mechanics with all the subtlety and nuance of a YouTube reaction video. Early on, the game throws up a huge notice telling you that you can get through a door by finding the keycard or taking an alternative route. I’d by amazed if anyone found the alternative route before finding the keycard because it’s lying right there on a nearby desk.
When it comes to exploration, you really do have an almost unparalleled amount of freedom for how you get past a door. Any room could have six different ways to get inside. You could: (1) find the keycard; (2) hack the keypad; (3) find an alternative way inside e.g. through a vent; (4) transform into a small object and move through the gap; (5) shoot through a window to open the lock; or (6) read the keycode off the computer. Typically, you’ll be able to pick from multiple options depending on what skills you’ve unlocked. This freedom doesn’t particularly excite me. I’m not going to replay the game just to hack a door panel instead of sneaking through a nearby maintenance tunnel, especially because I probably already have the keycard anyway.
Your choice of skills–known as neuromods–influences exactly how you get past obstacles, but you’ll never be punished or rewarded for your choices. No matter what skills you have available, you’ll be able to get into every room because Arkane Studios is terrified of blocking players off from any content.
I assumed the Play Your Way idea would extend to combat, or more specifically, avoiding combat, however that’s not the case. You won’t be able to go toe-to-toe with typhon early in the game even if you load up on combat skills, and therefore most players will gravitate towards stealth skills with those first few upgrades. Conversely, by the end of the game, most players will be specced out with combat skills, either human or alien, because that’s clearly the way the developer intends for you to play the game. The number of enemies ramps up dramatically as the game wears on and playing stealthily becomes increasingly tedious and eventually too difficult to be fun. The lack of meaningful stealth skills is especially disappointing coming from Arkane Studios, the developer of Dishonored, a game that allowed players to do complete no-kill playthroughs with relative ease.
The survival horror experience I enjoyed for five hours slowly morphed into a first person shooter with terrible combat and bland alien abilities. The mimic skill is fun to use, allowing you to transform into other small objects and get through tiny gaps. Other than that, there are two separate skills for mind controlling typhon and machines, and abilities like Psychoshock which deals damage to a typhon with a quick button press. There’s typically no need to aim and no chance you’ll miss. It’s effective, but not at all satisfying.
One thing Prey absolutely nails is its level design. When you first go through an airlock and spin around to see Talos 1 from the outside you can truly appreciate the interconnectivity between the levels which is only marred by the lengthy loading screens. Levels are typically multi-layered and you can slightly adjust the path you take depending on your build. It’s satisfying to move around the entirety of a level without ever touching the floor, although it would be a stretch to say that it’s at all challenging. While you can increase your agility and jump height through neuromods, the Gloo Cannon will help you reach any zones that might otherwise be inaccessible, once again showing you that your choices make little real difference.
While a lot of thought went into the level design, the same can’t be said for the visual style, which is an art deco theme full of red furniture and more gold than a Trump Tower in Saudi Arabia. The style is functional and consistent throughout the different stages, but it’s bland and overly familiar. When you’re setting a game in 2035 in an alternative reality, you have the freedom to do whatever you want. When you decide to recreate Rapture in space then there’s a substantial lack of creativity on show.
Prey has a few technical hiccups, even after a couple of patches. There is notable drifting on the PS4 version and one important side quest bugged so badly I couldn’t even start it. The sound mixing is also terrible at times. Audiologs get cut off by calls, the noise that plays when you enter a room with mimics in is far too screechy, and cutscenes come in remarkably loud for no apparent reason.
Despite all my criticisms, Prey isn’t a bad game; it just isn’t a particularly good one either. At its best, Prey is a thrillingly immersive survival horror experience, but at its worst, it feels like a poor first person shooter with bullet sponge enemies and uninspiring alien powers. “Play Your Way” is nothing more than a marketing term forced into the game to give the illusion of choice. Arkane Studios is so desperate for that replayability factor, that it forgot to make a game people would want to complete even once.
If you are truly desperate for a System Shock 2 successor then Prey might just scratch that itch. However, my mom always told me not to scratch an itch because it only makes things worse. She might have been right.