The story behind the development of PREY (2017) has become modern internet legend at this point. Originally intended to be PREY 2, the sequel to the 2006 cult-classic Sci Fi shooter PREY (Yup, It’s really confusing), it went through a complete reimagining when Bethesda wrestled control of the property from Human Head studios (via a long, complicated political struggle) and gave it to ARKANE studios.
Who in turn, have now reinvented it not as an FPS but a true-blue successor to SYSTEM SHOCK 2 (and 1 to an extent). They want this to be a full-on ‘emergent sim’ and a throwback to the old, golden days of first person gaming. Having success with DISHONORED 1 & 2 (which were throwbacks to THIEF), they want this to be their love letter to the classic outer space survival-horror sim. So did they succeed?
In my humble opinion, yes. Very much so.
Story And Narrative
The narrative of PREY (like that of SYSTEM SHOCK) is best left for the player to discover on his/her own. It’s a straightforward but still mysterious plot that slowly comes together and has a few twists in the narrative near the end. You play as Morgan Yu, who’s invited to work with his brother Alex on a scientific research mission on space station TALOS 1. Half an hour later, you discover that the situation is something else entirely (no spoilers) and the station is overrun by a mysterious race of creatures known as the Typhon.
It’s up to Yu (get it?) to figure out what’s going on in the station and how to get rid of the emergency. The narrative isn’t thrust in your face like a lot of other games, rather it’s done via smart choices like minimal cutscenes, which are complemented with well written ‘audiologs’ and ‘e-mails’ that subtly flesh out the world. There is a staggering amount of world-building done through all this, with minimal amount of fuss and interruptions and as expected from a ‘Shock’-type game, there is a plot twist near the end of the game. No spoilers though, as it’s best discovered on its’ own and brings the themes of the story full circle.
Overall, it’s a solid yarn that presents itself to be based on a world of scientific fact and is more closer to say, a movie like INCEPTION or PRIMER than say ,ALIENS. I can’t state how much of the ‘science’ is accurate as I’m a fairly stupid person, though.
Gameplay And Mechanics
Let’s get straight to the point, Prey for all intents and purposes, is a modern day System Shock game (leaning more towards System Shock 2) and the way it revitalizes some of its’ best, most complex mechanics and brings it to the modern age is something that I don’t see a lot of review outlets give it credit for. Whilst being referred to as ‘Bioshock in space’ makes a fine blurb, it does not do justice to the complex design and thought process that went into bringing a game like this to life. In some aspects (to me at least), this is the game I was expecting Bioshock to be back in the day. Simply put, it scratched that classic ‘Looking Glass Studios’ itch of free-form character building and multi-faceted exploration that should have been there in Irrational games famous 2007 title, but wasn’t. (More on this later)
Unlike BIOSHOCK, this game prides itself on complex game mechanics and to encourage the player character to customize his/her own type of character build and letting him/her progress through the story-line in a manner of their choosing. Character abilities are granted via ‘neuromods’ that run the gamut in giving you options: want to specialize in firearms? You can. Want to wield a huge array of ‘Psi-powers’? Go ahead. Want to increase your stealth capabilities? No problem. Want to be a master technician and hack/repair robots, turrets and access locked doors without code input? The game’s got you covered.
The neuromods are divided into distinct categories, apart from the classic scientist/engineer/researcher categories, there are a host of ‘Typhon’ abilities that range from telekinesis to ‘morphing’ into an object in the environment to escape enemies. Excess usage of the ‘Typhon’ abilities can result in turrets across the station automatically identifying you as an enemy later on and will shoot on sight ( Going in line with the story’s themes of you gradually becoming something more extra-terrestrial) so there is a nice amount of tension throughout the game as you play. Ensuring that you never feel safe at any point.
Then there are the suit and scope chip sets that grant extra bonuses/buffs, giving you further options for customization (and extra chip slots you can unlock via using modules). The weapons in this game are also fully up-gradable in multi-tiered capacities, which mean that any at all times there’s a lot of depth around for the player to dabble in.
Which is a good thing, because you’ll need that depth. The game makes no bones or apologizes about its’ unforgiving nature. Enemies are tough and if they spot you, will absolutely spare no expense in tearing you apart in a matter of seconds. Even the weaker ones have the potential to catch you off guard and take off chunks of your health. Some of the stronger ones seem borderline impossible to kill when you first encounter them and so the game really forces you to use your wits and knowledge of surroundings to either survive the encounter or avoid it altogether. The only thing you can trust in PREY is your own instincts.
Luckily, the game provides a playground when it comes to feeding those. Thanks to the open ended nature of character progression and large environments, you are free to progress according to your choosing. Almost every area is open, filled with interactive objects, doors that can be hacked, turrets and often vents that allow you to circumvent entire sections of combat. Not to mention the GLOO gun, a weapon that can both put enemies in temporary stasis (allowing you to kill or pass through them) and sometimes build pathways that allowing you to circumvent large chunks of the level. It acts as the inverse of Half Life 2’s ‘Gravity Gun’, this games’ ‘multi-purpose’ weapon , one whose true depth will be unveiled over time.
While you won’t get too lost in PREY at any time if you follow the single-player story mode, you are actively encouraged to seek out side-quests and most of them will involve you taking long detours into other sections of the station that initially don’t seem to be that obvious. But luckily, there’s always more than meets the eye at all times and the always intriguing story-lines behind these quests will keep you hooked, intrigued and the complex, well-hidden lore (that you need to often piece together on your own) will keep you thoroughly entertained and coming back for more.
In fact, figuring things out for yourself seems to be the central motif behind the entire game. From the gameplay to the combat to the exploration, nothing ever seems to be handed out to the player, which is something that I find most impressive about it. Things you do in the game are entirely up to you. There are of course, multiple solutions to get your way around any problem and there are multiple approaches to combat as well, with ‘combos’, where a series of attacks can lead to enemies absorbing massive damage. A lot of the time, you’ll be switching between the GLOO gun, the psi powers and your melee weapons in a succession to put down extremely powerful foes, and executing them whilst holding on to your last breath. Contrary to what other members of the press have said, it feels really satisfying to implement strategy and take down a couple of enemies altogether. It rewards your planning ahead of time and the spontaneous nature of the environment can lead to some really YouTube-worthy moments.
And speaking of enemies, the enemy AI in PREY is stellar. Line of sight rules still apply (ala DISHONORED and DEUS EX) but this one has AI on the more unpredictable side. Even if the enemies lose sight of you, they don’t really stop looking for you that easily. They would happily move across doors to other rooms to look for you. In one particular case, one enemy even followed me up a ‘Grav shaft’ and killed me in the next room. It’s little touches like these that make the world feel dangerous and alive and worth experiencing by your own eyes, as opposed to a written review (yes, I see the irony).
The star of PREY is undoubtedly the TALOS-1 space station. It is a marvel of overworld design. Visually striking, deeply atmospheric and superbly interconnected, it sometimes feels like a METROID PRIME game, instead of Rapture 2.0. Speaking of which, Prey takes influences from that particular series as well, with the inclusion of double jump/ boost ability that allows the player to navigate vertical surfaces like a piece of cake. Although, Morgan is nowhere near as maneuverable as Samus, it’s still far superior to most other games and adds a further step in the entire ‘providing the player with options’ motif that the game seems to be going for.
The strong sense of place is further emboldened with the station being fully explorable from the outside as well (aka outer space). While, there is no METROID levels of backtracking, you will open plenty of shortcuts to the hub and previously visited areas, leading to plenty “Aha!” moments and often time those areas will house secret side quests. Such a thing is reminiscent of the first SYSTEM SHOCK (and 2 to an extent) and the game forcing you to explore every nook and cranny of each room makes for an incredibly absorbing experience.
PREY is a technically solid game (minus the facial animations) but it’s the art design, atmosphere and the solid (if sometime uneven) atmosphere that truly brings it to life. It doesn’t take long for you to get sucked into TALOS 1 and you won’t want to get out either, until the game ends.
As mentioned earlier in the review, this game and its’ legacy needs to be talked about. In one of the earlier missions in the game, you are asked to repair the ‘looking glass’ servers. While they do exist in real life, the meaning behind this instance is a direct reference to ‘Looking Glass studios’. The fact that barely any reviewer bought this into account in their reviews is kind of jarring.
Considering how large a part they are of gaming history and how they are responsible for pushing so much of the industry forward, most reviewers calling the game ‘Bioshock in Space’ not only shows a huge level of disrespect but a severe lack of understanding of gaming history. And while freelance reviewers in their teens can be forgiven, it’s kind of jarring to see this come out of the verbiage of professional reviewers, who should know better.
That the titans behind the SYSTEM SHOCK and THIEF series get barely a mention in most articles about PREY is kind of baffling. See, many of the ex-looking glass staff did work on PREY, so if nothing else, this game carries the pedigree of that legendary studio in it’s’ veins. It was surprising to see barely anyone mention that.
Instead of burying this game for its’ (minor) missteps, this should be celebrated as a great continuation of ‘emergent gameplay’ and a hearty appetizer for both SYSTEM SHOCK REMAKE and SYSTEM SHOCK 3 , that are on the horizon.