Prey (2017, PC)

By vintage81 / May 24, 2017

Prey is divisive. Its numerous flaws, difficulty, pacing and odd design choices will render it unplayable for some. However, others, who love this kind of game and are able to look past these flaws, will absolutely adore it.
   You play as Morgan Yu, a research scientist aboard the space station Talos 1, which has recently come under attack from a hostile alien species called the Typhon. Confounding this situation is the fact that Morgan, like a strangely large number of game protagonists, is suffering from amnesia, and so it is down to you to not only fight this alien menace, but work out who you are and what part if any you have played in this unfolding nightmare.
   Prey's design borrows heavily from other first-person action-adventure games such as the 'Shock games, Dishonored, and Deus Ex, with its focus falling heavily on the adventure side rather than the action. This is fortunate, as the action in Prey is often lacking, and is definitely not one of the game's stronger points. Its adventure side though really shines.

   You start the game with nothing more than a wrench, and the first aliens you encounter are spider/headcrab-like Typhons called Mimics. Their special skill, as you might have guessed, is that they can mimic ordinary everyday object such as coffee cups, chairs, paperweights etc. Kudos to Arkane that the objects mimicked are randomly designated, meaning even if a mimic jumps out and kills you, there is no guarantee it will be in the same place or form next time around. This leads to some genuinely scary moments and an excellent atmosphere of dread as you inch your way forward looking for the slightest sign of danger. Unfortunately, when a mimic or other Typhon does attack, combat is somewhat lacking. Not only are most of the Typhon incredibly fast and erratic, but your movements are slow and cumbersome. Combined with a lack of on-screen radar you will often find yourself swinging or shooting wildly like a maniac, hoping to land a lucky blow. The Typhon also hit hard, often leading to quick deaths and what some will find a steep and slightly annoying learning curve.
   Luckily, combat does get easier if you can last out the initial stages. First, you gain the ability to slow down time for a short period. Second, you gain a Gloo gun, which glues enemies in place and renders them immobile. Later still, you gain a helmet scope, which allows you to identify mimics in hiding and prevent those dastardly jump scares just before they start to get too annoying. Combat unfortunately however never really elevates itself above this level. Firearms come later, but ammo is extremely scarce and only inflicts a small amount of damage, meaning you often run out. Other options do exist, such as throwing or shooting hydrogen canisters or shooting hydrogen and nitrogen supply pipes to burn or gas an enemy, but the Typhons are so fast and aggressive that this is rarely a viable option.<7p>

   Stealth is also a problem. There is no explicit cover button, instead you just crouch behind objects and hope the Typhons don't see you. The problem here though is the erratic nature of the stealth rules. You can peer around corners and be looking at an enemy face to face, with so much of your body exposed, you can even fire a round into it, yet it will not see you, but other times you are hidden under a desk, completely out of sight and it will see you. This lack of consistency is further confounded by the aliens being effectively featureless, so it is often difficult to tell if they are facing you, or if their back is turned and you can leg it.
   The other side of Prey's design — adventure — is, thankfully, where the game excels. You are free to explore most of Talos 1 from the off, which creates a great sense of freedom and choice. Story development unfolds mainly via audio logs found lying around and emails on colleagues' computers. Some may dislike the lack of structured narrative (there are only two cutscenes in the entire game — the intro and the outro), but for me this approach fits in beautifully with the protagonist's lack of identity, meaning the more you explore, the more you uncover about yourself, others and what has been going on aboard Talos 1.
   Reading emails also opens up optional side missions such as helping colleague in trouble, finding equipment stashes and so forth. Several of these feature moral choices, which do an excellent job of enabling you to define who you are and what type of hero you want to be. Much later in the game, you also meet live human beings, however these interactions are strangely handled as Morgan is completely silent, and so just stands there when someone asks him a direct question. I get the idea of a silent protagonist, but here this often comes off as odd and stilted and would definitely have benefited from a few choices of response, or even default ones read aloud.

   The best part of Prey however is its flexibility when exploring and the numerous ways you can tackle each problem. The Gloo gun comes into its own here as it can be fired onto any surface to create solid blobs, which can then be climbed or jumped upon. This opens up a whole new world of verticality, enabling you to create stairways to virtually anywhere and Prey does a great job of hiding rewards and supplies in tucked away places. As an example: you will often find a locked room. Do you search to see if you can find someone holding the key card, learn the hacking ability so you can hack entry, try to find a maintenance shaft leading there, or Gloo-gun your way on to the roof and see if there are any weaknesses you can exploit for entry? The choice really is up to you. You can even gain the ability to transform into nearby objects in the same way mimics do, meaning you can transform into a small object and slip through a service hatch to gain entry.
   Upgrade abilities also feed into this flexibility and come in two types: human and alien. To install abilities you need to find neuromods littered around the station, which are then spent to activate or upgrade each ability. These neuromods are limited, so you really do have to choose upgrades carefully as they make a big difference to the options available to you. Another neat trick is that for the alien abilities you have to scan different aliens first to unlock them, before they become available. The human abilities cover aspects like hacking, movement speed, health, and ability to upgrade weapons whereas the alien abilities include fire and electrical attacks, stunning enemies, freeing alien-enslaved humans and much more. Some abilities come at cost — install too many alien abilities for example and the ship's automated turrets will start to see you as alien — meaning your choices have even more weight.

   The last aspect of Prey's mechanics that's worth mentioning is recycling. Around the station, you find numerous discarded items, which you can pick up such as old circuit boards, copper wiring and the like. These can then be fed into recycling machines, which convert them into three types of raw ingredients. These ingredients are then used at fabrication stations to fabricate more ammo, extra health packs and even neuromods. The caveat being that you can only fabricate things which you have found fabrication plans for. Again this feeds into Prey's excellent risk and reward nature — do you explore the abandoned crew quarters, which could contain new fabrication plans, extra neuromods or raw materials — or do you stay away in case it is full of aliens ready to shred you to pieces?
   How to summarise Prey then? Exploring Talos 1 is a gripping experience, full of choice, variety, scares, pitfalls and rewards. However, combat is a mismatched affair and will often leave you frustrated. If I had to highlight any other niggles it would be that the graphics are only so so and the loading times, whilst thankful scarce, are a little on the long side. If you can look past these shortcomings though and instead embrace the atmosphere, intrigue, story, sense of freedom and choice, then Prey is a hell of a game.