Great gameplay and world design are marred by lack of compelling story and worthy adversaries.
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: May 5th, 2017
NOTE: Prey was played on the PlayStation 4 PRO. Review code provided.
Since its original release, Prey has gone through somewhat of an identity crisis. It began as a Quake/Doom inspired game in 2006 released by Human Head Studios and starred a Native American who gets abducted and must save his loved ones. A sequel was planned, when the rights switched from 2K Games to Bethesda Softworks, but was inevitably canceled for any number of reasons. Prey 2 would star a U.S. Marshal who would also get abducted but would assume the role of bounty hunter across a vast, open science-fiction landscape akin to Blade Runner. As of 2017, Arkane Studios – Dishonored 1 & 2 – are at the reins of the Prey franchise and elected to retain the science-fiction setting but remove even a microscopic portion of the previous games.
To start the game, the player assumes the role of a male or female Morgan Yu. From there, you wake up and go to work with your brother, Alex Yu. The alien species known as Typhon escapes – as aliens being kept for study normally do – and Morgan wakes up like nothing happened. From there, the player makes their way to the Talos I Space Station where the Typhon are staking their claim and readying for the end of humanity. From the word “go,” Prey bears many similarities to not just Arkane’s own Dishonored series, but SOMA, System Shock, and Alien: Isolation. Credit goes to the studio for building a game world that feels lived in with theaters, living quarters, research labs, etc. Had the Typhon not escaped, you could easily see yourself visiting Talos I.
Arkane’s penchant for crafting excellent game worlds holds true in Prey. No stone is unturned and no detail ignored in Prey and it’s the little things that make the game one of the most intriguing places to explore in a video game. The level designers seemed to have taken a page from Dark Souls and Bloodborne because areas will loop back onto each other and make shortcuts to other parts of the space station. You can also unlock airlocks and explore the exterior of Talos I. The Zero-G segments are confusing and disorienting, just as they would be if you were floating and fighting without gravity.
Unfortunately, your player character never expresses any sort of personality or comments on the state of Talos I or how he/she feels about what is happening around them. The silent protagonist shtick might have flown 10 years ago in the days of Half-Life 2 and Bioshock but it’s hard to learn things and be invested when your character isn’t. A case could be made that Prey makes an excuse for it due to events that take place later in the game, but that ventures into spoiler territory – regardless, your character still never utters a peep. The problem is exacerbated further with other characters telling you how you should feel, such as when it delves into the philosophical ramblings of an aging college professor. It’s the difference between being lectured about a subject matter and the game trusting the player to understand those concepts on their own.
While the plot flounders, Arkane seems to have trusted the player with the open-ended nature of the combat, which serves the game well. You get the choice between two flavors of combat – action or stealth – but there is a bevy of alien powers that Arkane gives to the player to play and experiment at their discretion. Using neuromods, the player is given both human and alien abilities. The human powers range from better hacking, more health and further upgrades to your guns while the alien powers get more creative. You can mimic objects in the game and as you level them up, you can mimic more complex machines like turrets. You can even turn into a coffee cup or slide under an opening in a barricaded door and collect the goodies inside. Other abilities include kinetic blasts, psychoshock and superthermal. As you gain more alien powers, turrets will become hostile towards you. For anyone who doesn’t want that, a respec option that lets you re-create your character a limited number of times would’ve gone a long way towards letting the player truly go wild with the game’s mechanics. And, as of the date of this article, there is no word on a New Game Plus mode that lets you stack powers across multiple playthroughs rather than starting a new game every time.
With so much gameplay variety, it’s a shame that the Typhon are such boring enemies to fight. They’re very derivative of other science-fiction creatures and will often have repeat variations, with Phantoms being the most egregious offenders. When I saw that there were lightning and flame varieties of Phantoms, I rolled my eyes so hard that they nearly fell out of their sockets. Mimics – as true to their name – take the shape of nearby objects and hide for sneak attacks. But when you’re attacking more than one, it becomes a mad frenzy and can often result in death. It feels like the game’s slow-paced combat engine is not designed for enemies that can move quickly around you.
Prey’s graphical presentation is stellar when it comes to non-humans. The station itself is beautiful with the light reflecting the metallic sheen and certain areas sporting an art deco design. The Typhons – in their black, shadowy forms – are menacing and move in such inhuman ways. The human models are another story as they look like they came off the conveyer belt from a Hasbro factory before they made their way to Talos I. Prey is also littered with numerous gameplay glitches should be be ironed out over time. In a sequence that I played at a preview event, you had the choice of either harvesting someone or letting them go in exchange for an armory. When I let them go – in my review session - they ran into a corner and hid. So, I reloaded a save and they did it again and refused to open the door. Eventually, I just harvested him and moved on but the game forced my hand. You’ll often wonder if the game is even working properly. See the video below.
Prey (2017) is alien to the player and vice versa. It excels in gameplay variety and gives the player a complete sandbox to play in but it doesn’t deliver on a compelling story or enemy variety. It’s recommended once the updates and fixes start rolling out but even then, it will remain a hard sell.