Weirdly enough, it’s absolutely nothing to do with 2006’s Prey, a topsy-turvy sci-fi shooter that, if memory serves, had an arsenal of weaponry comprised of living extraterrestrial organisms that would belch gelatinous projectiles at the player’s foes. It also had a wrench, which means that, as a matter of fact, 2006’s Prey does indeed have something in common with 2017’s Prey, and it’s newer, shinier wrench, as well as 2007’s Bioshock, with its underwater, objectivist wrench, and even 1999’s System Shock 2, which had a blocky, pixelated wrench, and is a game to which all of those listed above owe a rather significant mechanical and thematic debt.
It’s another first-person sci-fi quasi-horror wrench-swinging RPG, is what I’m saying.
Could have just said that.
I could, yes, but – let’s be frank – these creatively-bankrupt titling practices are really starting to get on my fucking nerves. The old Prey isn’t even that old. And it hardly cemented itself as an iconic brand; it doesn’t seem to me that there’s much sense in slapping the name across what is, for all intents and purposes, a perfectly serviceable new IP. That’s Bethesda for you though, isn’t it? Never a thought spared for the lowly consumers like me who write themselves in knots trying to review the thing. It’s not even enough to specify that it’s another – all together now – “spiritual successor” to System Shock 2, because so is Doom 3 and Dead Space and, if we’re being honest, every sci-fi horror game released in this millennium. You also have to clarify that’s its set on a spaceship and it’s about an alien invasion and there’s a wrench in it.
So that’s what it’s about?
More or less. The game takes place in a future built on an alternate history in which John F. Kennedy survived his assassination attempt and NASA received all the funding it desired to range into the cosmic unknown. The player-character is Morgan Yu (you playing as Yu being the level of knowing wordplay you might expect from Arkane Studios, the development team that also brought us the character of The Outsider), a ballsy science-type who awakens during a rather clever, though ultimately meaningless, introductory sequence aboard Talos 1 – a kilometre-long slab of lunar-orbiting space station where, would you believe it, something alien has supplanted most of the crew.
There’s more to it than this – much more so than you might expect from the writing team of the Dishonored games, with which Prey shares an art style, among other things. But the particulars are better left to the player’s own slow and careful discovery, because if a game mandates a slow and careful approach, well… it’s better if you have something to read along the way.
Well, it’s an Arkane game, isn’t it? The protagonist never speaks, even when being addressed directly, and most of the narrative unfurls in discoverable written material. Luckily, Prey continues the genre tradition of everyone on a top-secret, not-entirely-legal spacefaring research base leaving their computer passwords on Post-It notes stuck to the fucking monitor.
Aren’t you used to this, by now?
I am, and as it happens I was notably better disposed towards these shenanigans in Prey, thanks to a couple of things. The first is that the plot, when it eventually gets where it’s going, does a good job of re-contextualising what at first seem like wonky video game mechanics; no more of that talk, though, otherwise I’ll have the Spoiler Police at the door. The second is that Talos 1 might be the grandest, most well-realised sci-fi facility ever assembled, in this medium at least, and it shouldn’t be understated quite how much that matters.
Talos 1 is the tasteful offspring of every iconic genre edifice in recent memory; glistening glass lobbies, ruined, sparking workshops, lush ornamental gardens and plush sales departments, all tied together with that kitschy retro aesthetic you might recognise from certain deep-sea settings with similarly philosophical underpinnings. Talos 1 is superior to Rapture, though, especially when it speaks, in no small part because it’s high-minded questioning is of existentialism, evolution, and artificial intelligence, rather than reductive Randian rambling. It is, truly, a superior video game environment in almost every way.
Is it a superior game, though?
That’s a complicated question, made more difficult by how puzzling it is to decipher, at first, exactly what kind of game Prey actually is. There’s a period of fumbling uncertainty as the player figures out what might be expected of them, what the best approach to any given situation might be, and if there even is an optimal approach at all. It’s a first-person game, and so the initial implication is that it’s a shooter. And there are, indeed, a handful of generic, upgradeable firearms with which you can pester Prey’s amorphous alien menace, the Typhon. But to play the game like this consistently – at least on the “Normal” difficulty, which is my go-to choice for games I intend to review – strikes me as being impossible; there are too many enemies and too few resources for an entirely ballistic approach to be viable.
Stealth is a suggestion that Prey itself posits, and enemies all have those ghostly overhead awareness indicators. But Prey is also a game in which Yu will creep into a room and sweep its contents into her (or his) trousers like a cartoon bank robber, which necessitates a thoroughness that evasion prohibits. The collection of consumables and miscellaneous bits of office tat are in service to a clutch of mechanics that evokes the resource-scarcity of survival games and the fiddly busybody work of something like Minecraft. Morgan can feed all her junk into a giant touchscreen machine called a Recycler to whip up a batch of resources, which can then, in turn, be slotted into another giant touchscreen machine called a Fabricator, in order to 3D-print a variety of useful objects from med-kits and ammo to weapons and plot devices.
And then there are the RPG trappings – no less than six upgrade trees, which entail the usual computer-hacking and machine-repairing and then, a few hours in, branches from which hang creative, extraterrestrial powers. You know it’s an RPG because when Morgan attacks something, numbers cascade from its head to indicate how much damage she’s doing. But, structurally, it has much more of an open-ended Metroidvania vibe, with players having the full run of Talos 1 except for all the locked bits, which open gradually as the player unearths the means or hits certain story triggers.
That sounds… confused.
It does, but Prey reveals these mechanics patiently, and none of them are so complex that they overwhelm the others. After a while, each option is squirreled away as a subconscious little “maybe”, and so each encounter offers a wealth of possibilities. Maybe I’ll shoot that one, maybe I’ll bonk that one over the head with the wrench, and maybe I’ll sneak past that one. Maybe I can find enough goodies here to craft that ammo, or that gun, or that grenade, and maybe I’ll find the key that’ll let me into that bit of the station, where maybe that guy I’m looking for is hiding. Maybe, maybe, maybe. It doesn’t amount to confusion so much as possibilities.
That’s good, right?
It is. Prey is very much a game you need to figure out, in one way or another, and we don’t get many of those these days. Once you’ve figured it out, though – once you, let’s say, realise you can stuff your face full of drugs and liquor, bludgeon your way through everything during the high, and sprint back to the health-replenishing robots when you’re done – something essential about the experience starts to get lost. The game’s latter half is significantly less interesting than its former, even though that’s where all of the spicy plot reveals live, and you don’t realise how effective the confusion and vulnerability were until you’re enthusiastically goose-stepping through Talos 1 with psychic powers and a rucksack full of guns and ammo. The first Typhon you encounter, for instance, is a spidery Mimic, which can disguise itself as any object of roughly equivalent mass that happens to be in the environment. (I guess we can add John Carpenter’s The Thing to the rapidly-growing list of Prey’s influences.) In the early-game, dealing with those things using just a wrench and your wits is a nervous nightmare, but by the time you’ve got the tools to see them while they’re hidden and vaporise them instantly, they’ve long-since become an annoyance. And there are plenty of those, after a while.
My personal bugbear is that the enemies respawn – or, more accurately, that the areas repopulate, which dorks on forums will painstakingly explain is a completely different thing. I have no idea how it works; the two most popular theories are that areas repopulate based on story progression, or based on how far away Yu moves. Whatever, areas you have already thoroughly explored will contain more enemies when you traipse back through them, and in a game that, by design, contains a lot of backtracking, this is incredibly aggravating. It’s also a logistical issue. Areas don’t repopulate with resources, so during a large trip the worry is always that you won’t be able to find more odds and ends than you use up.
Can’t you just run past the enemies?
You can, and I did, which made the game’s final act feel incredibly rushed. It was admittedly my fault, but it would have felt tedious otherwise, and that’s worse. I also, naïvely, left a handful of side-quests uncompleted until the late-game, when I realised that I was approaching a point of no return, with Talos 1 packed full of advanced Typhon, and no real way to rectify that situation. So if there’s some great storytelling tucked away in one of those side-quests, I apologise, because I skipped them.
While we’re on the subject, how is the storytelling?
Fine, for the most part. The genre-standard quest of destroying the Typhon or preventing them from reaching earth is a little thin, but it has some intriguing wrinkles, and there’s lots of compelling information to be gleaned about the nature of Talos 1, of the Typhon, and of the lives preserved in the bitten-off answerphone messages. The storytelling has the same interlaced quality as the station’s architecture; you’ll find conspiracies, relationships and power-plays that cross departments, float along the facility’s immense, weightless spine, and factor into an ending that is bravely determined by the player’s actions without ever telling them that they’re being evaluated.
Okay. So, you do recommend Prey?
Without question. Niggles aside, Prey’s jumble of exotic raw materials coalesce into something that is, at times, remarkably compelling, and only ever reaches points of real frustration when you’re so invested in what’s happening that you’ll push through to the end regardless, tugged along by the insistent gravity of the game’s better story and gameplay ideas. It’s flawed, to be sure, but serves up one of gaming’s new great settings, and a self-contained slice of action-RPG that’s never transcendent but almost always effective. There’s probably some irony to be found in its best elements being mimicked from other, better games, but it would take more of a cynic than me to point that out.