REVIEWS

Prey

He hates these cans!

Prey
  • PublisherBethesda Softworks
  • DeveloperArkane Studios
  • Release DateMay 4, 2017
  • Platform(s)PC, Xbox One, PS4
  • Release Price$59.99
  • Rating
    3.5/5

They say installing neuromods is relatively painless. I wonder if that is true after installing one hundred in a row; surely your eyeholes would start getting a little sore. This question, unlike most in Prey, goes unanswered. But in its absence we instead get a world built like few in recent years – a massive undertaking that, in many ways, pays out significantly.

Prey, of no relation except for name to Prey(2006), is a horror shooter taking place aboard the Talos I research space station. You are the sibling of Alex Yu, a researcher who has developed the neuromod, a device that imparts knowledge and skill into the mind of the user. In an instant learn to play the piano, lift heavy objects or even gain psionic powers! Don’t like it? Well you can uninstall the neuromod at the cost of severe memory loss. Oh also there has been a massive outbreak of alien monsters called Typhons which are killing everyone onboard the station. Look out for that.

Button pushing is key to the Prey experience.

The station is more than just a set piece, it is a metal behemoth that the player must jump, sprint, and crawl through. I struggle to think of a game that did more of a service to level design than Prey does; missions don’t just guide you to the next level, they instruct you how to navigate the station in a myriad of ways. The more a player progresses, the more the station begins to feel as though it is a single entity – one massive station rather than zoned-off levels. Having to travel from the arboretum to life support offered me choices: leave the station through an airlock and traverse the outside, take the main lift that travels through the center of the station, or boost through the G.U.T.S. – a zero gravity maintenance tunnel. These decisions helped create a meaningful sense of purpose and an emphasis on the fact that this station was a single congruent unit – if one part fails so do the rest.

Unlike many modern games where exploration is limited, or even discouraged, here it is rewarded in spades… Many of the game’s elements seem to only be present because it is a trend in recent gaming as opposed to being appropriate in their own right.

Each individual zone is meticulously crafted; an obsessive player, such as myself, can spend hours within a single room, investigating every nook and cranny. Unlike many modern games where exploration is limited, or even discouraged, here it is rewarded in spades. If during your playthrough you see a crawl space tucked away and think “I wonder if I can make it there?”, the answer is most likely not only yes, but you will be rewarded for it. Perhaps a suit mod lies hidden underneath junk, or a briefcase full of neuromods is in the rafters of this reactor room. Very rarely did I feel like my exploring was not rewarded, and I covered every inch of almost every single room. To those worried about the need to do such exploration, worry not, the game is perfectly playable without scouring each room for junk to recycle.

This leads me to the recycling and crafting system, which manages to feel out of place but satisfying at the same time. There is something to be said about having the raw materials be a physical item. Recycling your junk is tangible, forcing the player to pick up each piece of raw material one by one instead of watching a UI element merely tick up. And though I personally enjoy the recycling and crafting mechanics of the game, I am not sure if they really have a home here. In fact, many of the game’s elements seem to only be present because it is a trend in recent gaming as opposed to being appropriate in their own right. Tagging enemies, à la Far Cry, makes an appearance, which is a perplexing choice within the confines of a horror game. I can think of nothing that would more dispel the tension of knowing enemies are nearby than being able to see them through walls. A stealth system is also present which seems to betray the very nature of these psychic shadow monsters. And every type of upgrade for your character exists: suit chips, scope chips, weapon upgrades, and neuromod enhancements; though these at least feel more at home in Prey.

The diegetic UI elements are quite impressive and immersive.

The main story itself is interesting though not groundbreaking. The beginning of the game is very strong, but begins to falter as it progresses. The ending lost itself and left me wanting something more in tone with the rest of the game. Without spoiling much, I was disappointed to see the “choose one of two different endings” at play – though admittedly it is a bit more complicated. Don’t forget to stay tuned after the credits, there is a stinger and it is really quite bad. For all the build up, and relatively complex storytelling, the conclusion was over without much fanfare and I must say I wanted more.

For all the build up, and relatively complex storytelling, the conclusion was over without much fanfare and I must say I wanted more… Prey does not need to be spooky to be successful, but if this is what you are after Prey may not be the scariest game for you.

The enemy designs are interesting but somewhat lacking as well. There are shadow headcrabs, shadow people, and a number of floating shadow blobs. Though their visual shadowy effects are quite good, the actual design of them left me wanting something more. The very first enemy you see, the Mimic, continued throughout the game to be the scariest and most interesting of the enemies encountered, able to take the form of regular objects. They are truly clever and insidious little beasts that left me paranoid – just as I would fall complacent that one would not get me, well, one would get me. It’s hard to say Prey is a horror game. It’s not particularly scary, despite what the very dynamic music cues would tell you; cues that on many occasions would get the hair standing up on my neck only to then have no payoff, no monster, nothing. The game can illicit a number of jump scares, and the atmosphere created attempts to be one of terror and nightmare, but it still is not particularly scary. Though I think a bigger article is needed to really flesh out this idea, I believe horror comes from a feeling of powerlessness and uncertainty and these are only present in the beginning of the game. As you progress your power grows exponentially and instead of avoiding fights, you may take glee in being able to blow away your enemies with your new-found powers. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I myself took great joy in it, it is not particularly scary. To be clear, Prey does not need to be spooky to be successful, but if this is what you are after Prey may not be the scariest game for you.

The powers that do allow you to destroy the Typhon are quite satisfying to use. Lifting enemies is comical, mind-jacking or machine hacking enemies to fight for you is relaxing, and combat sense makes you feel like a battlefield god. However, in spite of these satisfying abilities, combat can still feel, at times, clunky. The weapons themselves are a fairly standard affair of shotguns, pistols, weapons, and the incinerating Q-beam. The Gloo Gun is the most unique and interesting weapon, allowing the player to incapacitate enemies in a sticky foam or shoot it on walls and climb great heights. The mobility afforded to a player from the onset is immense and becomes even greater as the game progresses. However it can be a bit hard to read what the enemy will do, and sometimes hits you think should land fail to do so. Playing the game on Normal I had little to no difficulty beating the game swiftly, but the sometimes muddied combat did harm the experience slightly. Yet as mentioned before, fully upgrading weapons and speccing into abilities was a satisfying experience – dominating once difficult enemies is cathartic.

The level design does not only allow for great gameplay but is creative and visually stunning as well.

And while combat expertise is one approach it is far from the only viable playstyle. Stealth and exploration are so viable you can skip a number of encounters by slipping through the ventilation systems and shooting toy guns at buttons. You can become a technomancer and have enemies fight for you. Or you can brute force hack your way through many barriers in the game. Not only does the game not limit you in the way you progress, it does not limit you in how you can interact in the world. Want to kill the character helping you the most? Go ahead. Want to get off the station as fast as possible and abandon the main quest line? Sure thing. The game can lead you down a path, but it’s up to you to follow. Save for a few unskippable cutscenes the story is told through in game narrative using Looking Glass technology, a super cool 3d projection system. Audio logs and emails are also found throughout. Normally I dislike story told through audio logs or read through sparsely scattered texts but for some reason it feels very appropriate here. Perhaps it is piecing together the disaster after the fact, or how realistic many of these logs/emails read, but I was engaged throughout. Oddly enough the parts of the story that have stuck with me most were the humanizing side quests, told mostly in left behind audio logs and emails. “Clive was here”

Not only does the game not limit you in the way you progress, it does not limit you in how you can interact in the world… It is a very complex game, but because it is so ambitious there are unfortunately problems.

It is a very complex game, but because it is so ambitious there are unfortunately problems. During my playthrough I crashed to desktop three times. I had texture pop-in constantly, and on many occasions textures failed to load entirely, forcing me to reload the save. On one occasion while space walking at high speeds I died trying to fly through a gap – it wasn’t a gap, the textures just didn’t load. Though the game often had consistently high framerates while maintaining incredible graphic fidelity I did notice momentary frame drops and stutters. In one area of the game if I looked at my main objective my frame rate would dip to <10 frames per second, after searching this appears to be affecting many people; I played that area with my back to the objective as much as possible.

The sound design is ambitious but it can sometimes lead to odd mixing and volumes, with things seeming too quiet or too loud. NPC’s and audio logs can both talk over one another, leaving the player playing audio tennis. Constantly having to re-sort your inventory because items don’t auto-stack was annoying. I had one side mission that would not let me interact with the final objective until I left the area and came back. Certain NPC’s or bodies did not spawn for me leaving me with certain areas of the map I will never be able to access and the Missing Person’s achievement now unobtainable. Sometimes UI elements that were intended to give more detail when hovered failed to do so. And in one horribly frustrating moment the game gave me an objective on the exterior with no waypoint. It’s unclear if that is by design or a bug, but I would pray it is the latter. It took me over 90 minutes of flying around aimlessly. I even re-listened to the related audio log which seemed to hint at it being in one particular area, but when I eventually found it, it was somewhere else entirely.

The soundtrack can switch filling you with either terror or somber sadness.

And that leads me to one thing which is not necessarily a technical flaw but a preferential one. Flying in space or the G.U.T.S. is a really engaging and disorienting experience; it’s easy to get turned around and it really feels like you are in microgravity. However, combat in microgravity is arduous and many of the normal combat mechanics, such as stealth or leaning, are missing meaning it becomes an inertia-based slog.

Prey has problems, but it’s still a titan of atmospheric storytelling.

Prey has problems, but it’s still a titan of atmospheric storytelling. Despite its failings as a horror game, and despite its immense amount of technical issues (which will hopefully be patched away), it is still an engaging experience that should keep you hooked throughout. The variety in playstyle, the satisfying and unique powers and weapons, the masterfully crafted atmosphere and level design elevate Prey but it never quite reaches escape velocity, and remains pleasantly in orbit.

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