The latest game from Arkane Studios, Prey, came out late last week, and a demo of the first hour has been released for those not yet sold on the title. This review-in-progress is based roughly on the same content that is available in that gameplay preview, but my full review will be available next week.
I came to Prey very much sold on the concept. I was well-acquainted with the in-universe lore, the space station design, and I had a basic understanding of the enemies I would come across through the many promotional videos Bethesda has released. I had also seen enough playthroughs that the story, gameplay, and the fantastic initial twist had been spoiled. Prepared with all of this background knowledge, I just wanted to get my hands on the game and play.
The hands-on experience is utterly different to anything to be watched online. Seeing the flailing panic of YouTubers and listening to them squeal in terror when they face the enemies is not the same as playing through the game yourself. Going in, I felt confident that I knew what enemies I would face, where they would spawn, and how to deal with them. As soon as the music kicked in and I saw my enemy writhing around in front of me, all my preparation went out the window. In a simple moment of panic, I was caught in Prey’s grasp and I doubted I could escape, even with my enemy dead.
While playing the game, I found so many engaging aspects to the story. The premise is that an alien outbreak has occurred on Talos I. The aliens in question, the Typhon, feed on humans and can transform into a range of inanimate objects, from a chair to a coffee cup, making them rather difficult to clear up. Taking the role of Morgan Yu (who can be male or female; I went with the latter), you must stop the creatures from breaking quarantine and spreading to Earth. However, even in the initial stages, I could sense I would have to make a difficult decision before the game was done: How can I be certain Morgan is not infected, and if she is, do I risk returning her to Earth or should I kill Morgan for the greater good? The burden of the decision weighed heavily on my shoulders, and yet I was barely out of the tutorial.
To complicate the situation further, Morgan has lost her memory and needs to find out how and why. Without giving away any spoilers, the carpet was yanked out from under me quickly, and I experienced a strong feeling of trepidation and confusion about what exactly was going on. As I learned more about the story’s background and the power relations between characters, I almost felt less at-ease than when I was simply fighting aliens. This aspect reinforces the themes of mistrust and uncertainty that run through the game. In Prey, you cannot trust a coffee cup, let alone the sinister organisation for which you work. Gamespot called Prey “BioShock in space”, and, considering the brilliant paranoiac storytelling in the demo, I agree.
In fact, what I love about Prey is the echoes and homages from other games. I could point out the obvious gameplay similarities between Prey and Dishonored (both made by Arkane Studios), but what struck me was that I was basically playing Half-Life twenty years on. Wielding a wrench, fighting face-sucking aliens, and wearing my specially designed exosuit, I was Gordon Freeman. Furthermore, I was playing as everybody’s favourite theoretical physicist in what looked like the space station from Alien: Isolation mixed with the city of Rapture from BioShock.
However, Arkane’s latest is far from an unoriginal game. All the elements pillaged from other titles are made to fit perfectly within the universe. The developers took many influences from seminal games and have enough talent and originality to put them together in a brand new form. In this respect, Prey reminds me of a Tarantino film: If a gamer with no classic video game knowledge played Prey, they would still have an engrossing gaming experience and time to check out the influences later.
Considering I am a Dishonored fan, I found the controls easy to master. The first difference I noticed between the games was that I jumped a lot when trying to access computer screens, as I did not need to select said computer by pressing X before interacting with the screen. Whereas Dishonored was primarily a stealth game with the option of combat, Prey offers a much more dynamic experience, making stealth just one aspect of the gameplay. As a practiced stealth player, this trait only added to my terror at needing to face enemies head-on, bringing to mind the first bit of combat in Fallout 4 where I was panic-shooting a pistol all over the place and dying repeatedly to kill a single radroach.
Even as I got used to the controls and battle interactions, combat proved surprisingly tough and I found that I must constantly adapt my strategy with every encounter. Initially, the main enemies are the Mimics, a scary spider-like ooze creature with the ability to change into small objects such as mugs and boxes. Coming across the Mimics is terrifying at first, as they are small and I only had a wrench to defend myself, but, after a few minutes, I figured out that I merely needed to thrash every inanimate object I came across. If any objects turned into a Mimic, I would stick them in place with the GLOO Cannon, then proceed to beat them to death. My strategy was crude, but successful.
That strategy did not work in the next area. I walked into a stairwell with a handful of random objects and all of a sudden six objects changed into Mimics and ran at me. I did not have a chance to attack anything. I did not know what to hit. Within moments, I was dead, swarmed by creatures I thought I knew how to kill.
One of the criticisms I heard about Outlast II was that gameplay is unfair on gamers. The player has to stumble into an area and get killed time and time again until they find the correct path through process of elimination. To some extent, Prey contains this same aspect, but, where Outlast II forces you to face your vulnerabilities in a grotesque and violent world, Prey dares you to do better.
After dying far more times than I survived, I developed a strategy where I would attack the Mimics and perform a strategic withdrawal, all the while firing wildly with my GLOO Cannon. Any enemies I had incapacitated I would shoot with my pistol or my shotgun, running backwards as I went. Thus, after twenty-five minutes, I killed six of the eighty or so Mimics littered throughout the level. I had dozens more areas to go through, each with a myriad of new challenges and foes that required ever higher levels of creative, strategic thinking to overcome.
The one criticism I have is the incidental music that plays during combat is slightly too intense and plays for a little too long. As someone who came to Prey thinking it was a first-person shooter, the music went past being merely immersive and began to feel overwhelming. After killing even a single Mimic, the atmospheric combat music would continue for the next couple of minutes, keeping the tension high, as I walked through a Mimic-free environment, scared out of my wits over nothing.
In the end, the content of first hour demo provided about three full hours of gameplay. I am not an amazing gamer, which could explain the time it took me to complete this section, but the game contains so much extra stuff outside the main objective that I felt encouraged to merely explore. For instance, towards the end of my initial play session, I found a security control panel with a list of names. Clicking on the names would open a quest to find those crew members to determine if they had been killed or were trapped, waiting for my help. The mission would entail little more than checking in to see if the remaining random crew members were alright, but the game is interesting enough for me to return and do just that.
Going by the early sections of Prey, I would be hard pressed to name a recently-released game with more self-confidence and originality, and, so far, in a year proving to have a number of incredible games, Prey somehow stands out as the most impressive.
Watch out for OnlySP’s full review next week.