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Prey (2017) – Review
How much can you take inspiration or mimic something? Would you throw away your own identity for it? It’s a question that Prey (2017) will make you think. Not only within the game, but in a meta way as well.
Arkane Studio’s latest IP, the last which co-founder Ralph Colantonio worked on before retiring, has a murky history. It shares the name with the 2006 original by Human Head, but aside from the name, bears no similarity whatsoever. Instead of getting Prey 2, an impressive sounding sequel, fans were disappointed it got cancelled and instead we have a game that cuts from the same cloth as System Shock, Bioshock, Deus Ex and Thief: an immersive sim.
This is not a game many would have wanted, but it is also a well made immersive sim by borrowing influences from past games. Maybe a bit too much to the point of mimicry.
Graphics & Audio
Prey favours style rather than technical prowess. If you’re familiar with developers Arkane’s water-painted, exaggerated look on its characters like in Dishonored, it’s all here now wrapped in a futuristic art-deco setting. It has a clean look to it, which makes the messy situation of the Talos I space station is when you first discover it rather distraught.
The synthwave music only appears occasionally, but when it does it’s a treat. The opening sequence where you take a helicopter ride is jaw-dropping, even after knowing it’s all smoke and mirrors.
Prey runs on the CryEngine, unlike Dishonored 2 which runs on a modified id Tech 6 engine (which had some issues early at launch for PC). Prey runs smoothly on PC, especially right now far from its initial release thanks to patches, but it did had some issues on the PS4 and PS4 Pro early on.
The PC port is handled well with the UI easy to operate with mouse clicks (though it has some quirks). The clean and simple art style also makes playing Prey on lower settings not much of a bummer, it still looks nice and runs well.
There are a lot of audio logs to discover in Prey, and the voice acting here is decent. It’s unfortunate that the few living NPCs do not sound good. It is not mixed well, their voices are too loud regardless of where you are when the lines triggered. The lines can also trigger without warning, overlapping another dialogue, which is a mess.
This is only seen later in the game, but in the early tense moments the sound design is on point, with locational beeps, thumping debris from outside the station and the rare times when the eerie music kicks in just to make you tense up.
In Prey, you play as Morgan Yu. The game begins with a strong setup, the one seen in its reveal trailer where what was a simple day of doing simple tests went awry: a glimmer of something sinister looming. Eventually, your perception of the world will shatter to discover that you are in Talos I, and aliens known as the Typhons have broke loose.
Yu (heh) will then traverse the seemingly desolate station, figuring out what is going on and what he or she needed to do stop the aliens. While straightforward at first, the info discovered about what happened prior to you assuming control of Yu will get dropped, sometimes at conflict. What will Yu do?
The game is played in the first-person, but it is not a straight-up FPS. Your arsenal of weapons are small. But thankfully, the weapons and later psi abilities you obtain have more than one use. Take the GLOO Cannon. At first you will see it as just an incapacitating tool for defense. Then you start seeing corpses of other Talos I crew used in to reach new heights, and now it opens up platforming opportunities.
The Huntress Boltcaster is a foam gun does no damage at all. I thought it was just a joke weapon until I discovered that you can trigger buttons from the other side of the room to open doors, or operate computer screens and even kill certain aliens with it.
This is Prey at its best. It revels in the immersive sim philosophy of making the gameplay systems all tick together in a believable manner. In other words: emergent gameplay. If you love to push boundaries on how to tackle a challenge, Prey will reward you immensely.
Cannot go through a room with a heavy object blocking? If you didn’t spend points to unlock heavy lifting you can throw smaller items to it until it nudges. Or throw a grenade that recycles them, which will get you crafting materials as well. If a tough alien is chasing you, you can trap them in said room by putting back the heavy object or lock the doors. Again, Prey only offers a handful of weapons and abilities, the opportunity to use it in unexpected ways is immense.
Another part where Prey totally nailed what its influences started is making a believable world. The Talos I station feels like a totally inhabited space, not just made in service of gameplay. Each of the crew is a named NPC, with stories fleshed by audiologs and emails. The officers all have a desk and a computer assigned to them as well as a living quarters space.
There are some brilliant environmental storytelling being used as there’s a reason the corpses lied down where they are. I was moved seeing dead bodies lying around near some exit shuttles, only to find out that they were trapped with not enough oxygen with all of the shuttles, bar one, is broken. I found why there was only one working shuttle, and why only two people managed to get inside of it, which also led to a romantic subplot.
And this is all delivered by finding the right collectibles in the various rooms around Talos I. Experiential games (“walking sims”) excels in these kinds of experience and to find Prey being able to do it without compromising gameplay is an outstanding effort.
But here’s the thing: Prey does exceptionally well in crafting the elements of an immersive sim, but I don’t think it adds anything new or fresh. If you’ve played enough immersive sims you will feel right at home really quick. But those unfamiliar with the open-ended nature of the genre will be left hanging with not enough motivation to push through. Don’t expect big set-piece moments here, or hand-made linear level sections.
Content & Longevity
My first playthrough of Prey lasted around 25 hours, which also involved me taking time to do various sidequests. It has a strong opening, which leads to tense moments where the enemies are clearly stronger than you and the environment is so unfamiliar that you only progress inch by inch.
The mimic, one of the many Typhon aliens, is so menacing in the beginning of the game. It can shapeshift into any small objects, and seeing a normal object rapidly twitching uncomfortably before exposing its true self is horrifying at first and leads to some jumpscares and a large sense of paranoia.
The middle part can be a slog. I managed to find it interesting as I used the time to explore every inch of the station and piece together what happened to the crew as well as some optional sidequests, but if you are hoping for a strong story thread here, it fades away for a while.
The last few hours of the game requires backtracking, with more and more stronger enemies appearing, which should not be a problem by now as you can take them down, but it’s pretty much busywork.
Some of the sidequests are worth pursuing however as it affects the outcome of the ending. There is one obvious choice to make by the end of the game, but you will be judged in other forms as well once you finished the game.
The twist is rather disappointing when taken at face value, but it fits within the context of the game so, so well that I was bewildered, and later appreciated it more after watching the breakdown of it in many YouTube videos.
Prey lacks its own unique identity. Its well-realised setting and interesting aesthetic is the only thing different from the many Shock games and immersive sims. But it mimicked the games it wanted to so well. I now understand why many folks either write off the game or simply could not engage it with it enough to see till the end. Prey requires you to invest in its world and deep mechanics with little to no hand holding.
And for me, it is why it so great.
That takeaway, which ties in so much of the themes revolving within the game’s lore and the lore around its development, is why it is the hidden gem of 2017.
Review based on version 1.05 of the game, played on the PC. Review copy purchased by the reviewer