Arkane’s latest game is one with a complicated heritage and not the first to be conceived under the circumstances of its own namesake. The first Prey was released over ten years ago, and it too was birthed out of a cancelled project. While this Prey may bear a resemblance to Human Head’s game of the same name from 2006 in the sense that it’s a science fiction themed FPS action game with horror aspects, the similarities end there. Despite Arkane’s best efforts to create something new and novel, the original game is still better than what’s on offer here. This fact also makes the cancellation of the original game’s sequel all the more crushing. In spite of this, however, there are times when this Prey can feel as cerebral as Valve’s Portal, as pressingly intense and dynamic as Arkane’s own Dishonored, all with the rich sense of place and wonder found in exploring the likes of Fallout or The Elder Scrolls. Prey is endowed with some slick strokes of genius design, which makes it all the more saddening when its frequently onerous combat scenarios and frigid storytelling frustrate to the point where doing your taxes seems like an enjoyable alternative.
Waking up in his or her bed, players take control of TranStar’s Director of Research, Morgan Yu. You’re free to mess around in your crib, look outside your window at the gleaming, futuristic vista of San Francisco, but not for too long as you’re late for some lab testing. After a short helicopter trip, you’re led by your brother, Alex, into the evaluation where you’re asked a series of questions by a group of scientists in lab coats. For some reason, they’ve placed you in a containment cell, though it’s not clear why, and regardless of the answers you give the lab coats are somewhat worried by your reactions. However, before you’re able to finish the final test, a Rorschach interpretation, a mass of shadowy black goo eviscerates the head psychiatrist, having shape-shifted out of the poor fellow’s favourite coffee mug. Put under sleeping gas, you once again find yourself in your apartment. Except, it’s not actually your apartment. It’s a simulated observation cell, and now there’s no one watching you, and everything outside has gone to shit. Aided by an unknown assistant, you manage to escape your prison, but with no memory of who you are, what’s going on, or what you need or want to do about it, you set off to find your office and get your bearings on the situation.
While there are plenty of secrets to uncover on Talos I (the space station on which the game takes place), they are mostly revealed to you in overly familiar ways. Reading emails, books, notes, and listening to audio logs are all proven narrative devices, but in the case of Prey, few character stories are fleshed out through these means to develop any sense of attachment or emotional investment. Stories in games that offer as much agency as Arkane titles typically lack the impact of more focused, linear experiences, but Prey represents a change in ambition for Arkane Studios. With a larger, more elaborately designed world, one would hope Prey’s storytelling would be comparatively sophisticated. In adopting a singular, relatively open world to engage players in, though, I found myself underwhelmed by the “less is more” approach Prey seems to take in comparison to the likes of the game it most resembles, Bioshock. It also fails to be all that scary – Prey’s enemies are easy to spot and don’t look as disturbing as supposed horror game monsters should. There are choices to be made, many that will test your moral compass, and the ending is pretty messed up. But getting through this game for the sake of its story alone will leave you wanting for most of the experience. Bethesda’s trademark use of Hollywood actors as voice talent brings us yet another set of bored sounding thespians to deliver their lines, with the likes of Benedict Wong, James Hong and Walton Goggins all sounding like they dropped by for an afternoon mainly to collect their pay cheques.
What this game most definitely nails down, however, is its atmosphere, world-building and lore. Talos I, as told through the aforementioned familiar tropes, is a place with a fascinating history. Most of your time spent travelling will be lonesome – and this feeling is addictively refreshing. The station of Talos I is always moving in a slow rotation, close to Earth’s moon, and as a result, the light glaring through the station windows is constantly moving at a calming, sedated pace. In its quieter moments, the world of Prey is invitingly serene, and I found myself addicted to this placid sense of isolation. As you travel through Talos I, these tonal elements are reinforced by pulsing synth chords and minor-keyed, sliding acoustic guitar strokes. Visually, Prey won’t strike you as a technical showcase, but its aesthetic draws from an interesting, and less common, visual influence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a melange of that film’s style and the familiar art deco designs from the world of Bioshock’s Rapture. The various texts you’ll glean snippets of info from outline Prey’s world as an alternate history. One where JFK’s assassination was a failure, and as a result, the space race lasted another twenty years or so, and gave birth to a joint space station venture between the USSR and America. This project would become what is known as Talos I, and would eventually come under the control of shady Weyland-Yutani-type megacorp TranStar. Searching for bits and pieces to help define this world Arkane has created makes Talos I somewhat of a joy to explore, consistently offering you new areas to digress into away from the central mission objectives.
Prey is largely an open world game, and you are free to explore most of the confines of Talos I from the very outset. Like in The Elder Scrolls, though, prepare to have your quest log quickly overrun with numerous objectives, most of which are easy to lose track of. It doesn’t help that the rewards for engaging in side quests are often insubstantial, and you can more often find useful items by simply exploring aimlessly. The means by which you’ll gain access to new areas to follow-up on these many quests, as you’d expect from a Bioshock-like game, is dependent on your choice of skills. ‘Neuromods’, the MacGuffins at the centre of Talos I’s many troubles, are devices used to imprint memories and skills directly into the neural makeup of their recipient – and are your doorway to a mix of both typical and truly unique abilities. You’ll jam a pair of needles straight into your eye upon your first mod installation, which is a particularly grisly animation. Once you’re done tickling your frontal lobe, however, you’re given access to your choice of abilities from one of three human skill trees. These abilities allow you to do the typical Deus Ex/Shock style things such as move heavy objects and hack electronics. After the first couple of hours of the main story missions, you also acquire what is basically a Pokédex for the Typhon, the otherworldly monsters laying waste to Talos I.
When encountering any of the Typhon, with a press of a button you can bring up the scanner, and as long as you keep your target alive and in sight for a brief period, you’ll learn that enemy type’s specific weaknesses and resistances. Once you’ve scanned enough targets of the same type, you’ll gain access to a new ability to invest in, in one of the Typhon Neuromod skill trees. These abilities run the gamut of everything from telekinesis to energy shielding and mind control. The most interesting ability, though, will always be ‘morph’. Taking on the powers of the most basic Typhon, the mimic, the player can assume the form of inanimate objects such as coffee mugs and cassette players, or even the player’s tools like the wrench and pistol, and roll awkwardly in-between small spaces. If upgraded enough you can not only morph into larger objects but also useful machinery such as turrets as well. It’s a silly experience in most instances, but it can be nerve-wracking to pose as a vase when you’re low on health and without any medkits when an overly powerful enemy is stalking you. There is a caveat to using alien abilities though, as both turrets and human characters will become suspicious and eventually hostile towards you if you add too much foreign material to your genetic makeup. You can upgrade your weapons and equipment, but you’ll need to invest in Neuromods if you wish to make your firearms as useful as possible. Regardless of your choices, the openness of the level design offers enough freedom to keep your quest through Talos I moving along at a swift pace, and you’ll never feel as if you’ve made a bad investment in your skill tree. Supplementing your abilities are chipsets for both your suit and your visor, which like Bone Charms in Dishonored, provide you with various perks such as elemental resistances or enhanced stats for your base abilities and more.
A problem I did have with the game, however, is that troublesome enemies will frequently bring your progress to a standstill. Most encounters in Prey are seemingly random, but as you progress through the story, enemies become more numerous despite the fact that your options for dealing with them won’t multiply unless you invest heavily in offensive powers. These enemies remain considerably more powerful than you for most of the game, and as a result playing offensively is discouraged. Prey’s enemies will force you to make use of your powers, and it can be exhilarating to combine the use of powers and weapons such as slowmo and phase shift, all while swapping between a shotgun and the GLOO cannon to slow and attack respectively. The problem is just how quickly a fight can turn in your enemy’s favour. Ammunition is often scarce, and Morgan is particularly squishy even with health and armour upgrades. When two or more elemental Phantoms of more than one type are involved in a single encounter, it’s often a painful enough scenario to make you want to disembowel yourself with a wooden cooking spoon. Technopaths, in particular, are just plain unfair; they can disable your weapons, even stunning your thrusters in micro-gravity, leaving you unable to react, and sometimes unable to move. They, and any other surrounding enemies, are then free to lay waste to you in this situation.
The process of figuring out how to expunge an enemy is frequently either a series of quick deaths followed by a swift reload or running away with your tail between your legs. Making this issue worse is that enemies are often located at or near the entrance of a level and are sometimes nigh on impossible to sneak around, resulting in instances where I would just be pounded into dust five or six times in a row before the enemy would be placed slightly further away. Topping it all off, loot drops can vary wildly, making it difficult to assess whether engaging in a confrontation is worth the trouble. Carrying around that loot, too, is also a massive pain in the ass.
Talos I is littered with recycling and crafting stations, and you can break down any of the items you pick up in your inventory for literal building blocks to craft new items. Most of what you’ll use though is literal junk. Expect to have a professional-level nous for hunting colostomy bags by the end of the game. Everything can be turned into colourful spheres and cubes of synthetic, metallic and organic materials with the use of a recycler. These cubes and spheres can, in turn, be placed in a fabricator to create items based on design plans you’ll acquire throughout your travels. Every item you find out in the game world can eventually be crafted at a fabricator. The issue that fabricators pose, however, is that they aren’t always there when you need them. That, and you won’t always have the necessary materials for that little bit of ammo you need to take out an enemy, and all too often you’ll be trekking for what feels like miles with a backpack full of useless crap before you’ll find a fabricator to use them with. It was also pointed out to me that it makes no sense as to why you can only use specifically crappy pieces of junk to create new items. Traversing half-way across the (sizeable) maps, or even to another area entirely to get to a fabricator so that I could then get a couple of shotgun rounds to take out an enemy in my way became a repeatedly tiresome issue throughout my time with this game. I likely would have given up completely, to be honest, had it not been for Prey’s ingenious platforming.
The GLOO cannon, and I don’t wish to grate you with hyperbole here, is a work of genius. It’s the first gun you acquire in the game and will be your go-to throughout. It has a diverse range of applications from slowing enemies down to reinforcing barricades and patching gas leaks, but its most impressive use is in climbing. The adhesive polymer fired from the cannon can stick to most surfaces, and, it’s mountable. This small fact allows you to build ladders and scale the walls of every room you find yourself in. Like blink in Dishonored, this excellent tool allows you to explore dark and out of the way confines within the uppermost areas of Talos I’s various departments, and aids in the constant search for loot and upgrades. Add in the use of jetpack for controlled descents, and you have what is essentially the best first person platformer on the market. It fleshes out exploration in Prey in a most joyous way and is by far and away my favourite single aspect of my time with it.
Prey is a game of unexpectedly stark contrasts. The scope of its design is hampered by the use of unambitious narrative tools and a plot that only becomes interesting at the last minute. Its atmosphere and sense of place are stifled by the fact that it’s not scary and you’ll become tired of its various locales due to genre-typical kleptomania and hoarding. And while its platforming and exploration are inspired elements of masterful design, its combat is frequently as fun as snorting powdered glass. At the end of the day, Prey is a game that I can say will be worth your time, but only if you are understanding of its flaws and are extremely patient. From the likes of Arkane Studios, whose efforts have come to be regarded as some of the best games available to modern audiences, it’s a mild disappointment to find the game suffers from the issues it does. Play it, but know it will make you groan as much as it makes you cheer.