Morgan Yu and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Format: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Released: May 5, 2017
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned after finishing Arkane Studio’s questionably named, but highly anticipated Prey (not to be confused with 2006’s Prey, by the by), it would definitely be “first impressions are important, but so is not blowing your load too early”. That is to say, if there ever ends up being an end-of-year gaming award for “Best Screen-Lickingly Amazing First Hours”, Prey would win hands down. But unfortunately, while it bolts right out of the gate incredibly strong, it rather quickly devolves into a ho-hum, and at times frustrating experience that carries an unsatisfying scent of wasted potential.
Set during an alternate timeline in which JFK miraculously survives his assassination attempt in 1963, Prey takes place on the interstellar research station, Talos I in 2035. You assume the role of a male or female Morgan Yu, one of the station’s head researchers who has woken up to what might just be the worst day ever. They’ve just found out they’ve been unknowingly living a simulated life for experimental purposes, have an inconvenient case of amnesia, and are surrounded by dangerous alien lifeforms called the “Typhon”, who have escaped containment and are overrunning Talos I. And then just when things couldn’t get worse, they find a message from a pre-amnesia Morgan that tells them they need to blow up the whole station with them inside of it before the Typhon figure out a way to reach Earth. Unless, of course, they actually want a race of alien spiders who can perfectly camouflage themselves as your morning cup of coffee to invade the planet.
The most memorable parts of Prey’s story definitely take place within its opening hours, especially in its wonderfully executed Truman Show reminiscent beginning. It sets up the story as a potential psychological mind-fuck with twists and turns, placing a small doubt in the back of your mind that makes you question the motives of every character you interact with, including Morgan’s. But as the game progresses, the story completely forgets about the interesting concepts that it set up and instead delivers a mediocre plot with nothing in the way of interesting developments. Even the smaller background stories you can discover via crew emails and audio logs don’t really provide anything especially interesting besides one particular moment in which you learn about a DnD game run by a small group of crew members. Ultimately, Prey’s story feels like it shows its cards far too early, spending its remaining time stumbling around until it essentially ends with a binary choice that you can see coming within the first hour and an unearned “shocking reveal” that comes out of nowhere.
Unfortunately, the story’s issue of interactive pre-mature ejaculation is also reflected in Prey’s early gameplay. While the game’s opening introduces a bunch of interesting mechanics and weapons that have the potential to create a constantly tense atmosphere and some memorable puzzles with intuitive solutions, it ends up either forgetting about them entirely or simply makes them trivial busy-work. And once that happens, all you’re left with is another story driven first-person shooter set in space with a bunch of set pieces and scenarios that you’ve seen done in other games before, and in some cases done better.
The most notable example of this in my mind is how you deal with the “Mimics”, the previously mentioned spider-like shapeshifting Typhons. When they’re first introduced, they make the opening hours of Prey almost unbearably tense once you realise that a Mimic could be anything in the environment. They could be disguised as an office chair, a scrap of paper, a coffee mug, or even a medkit. With this in mind, you start to question your surroundings, looking for anything out of place and listening carefully for their tell-tale chitterings to figure out where they are and get the drop on them before they can spring out of hiding. But then, not very long after these first hours through the main story, the game decides to completely drop that tension and gives you the optional ability to see Mimics, even when they’re camouflaged. And since it’s an ability that’s far too useful to ignore in the early stages of the game, my once careful exploration became a lot less engaging when all I had to do was walk into a room, tap a button, and look around for a few seconds to know if the room was alien free.
That being said, I don’t think that Prey’s gameplay is completely mediocre and mundane. After all, it’s probably one of the few games I can think of that boasts a “play your way” gameplay style that doesn’t actually try to punish you for approaching problems creatively. Thanks to some spectacular level design, obstacles like locked doors can be bypassed in a number of ways via the tools and abilities given to you. For example, you could use tools like your instant-drying cement shooting “Gloo Gun” to reach a vent above the door, look around the area for clues to the door’s passcode, or, if you have the right technical skills, you could simply hack it to get it open. It was always an incredibly satisfying feeling to overcome a bothersome obstacle with the skillset I currently had at my disposal, reminding me that all the time I put into upgrading my hacking abilities wasn’t wasted.
Speaking of which, I was quite surprised to see just how much Prey’s skill trees had to offer. Littered around Talos I, you’ll find little gadgets called “Neuromods”, consumable items which essentially act as the game’s version of skill points. Using these, you’re able to access three different types of skills: Scientist, which improves your healing rate, as well as hack into electronics; Engineer, which lets you repair broken machinery and upgrade the size of your inventory; and Security, which focuses on combat abilities like better damage and upgrading your maximum health. This becomes further expanded a little later into the game when you’re even given access to Typhon powers, which can allow you to do things like turn human corpses into your personal Typhon army, or even turn yourself into objects like the Mimics. The only trade-off being that the more Typhon powers you acquire, the more alien your DNA becomes, causing Talos I’s defences to start turning on you since they no longer recognise you as a human.
Unfortunately, it does feel as though Prey wants you stick to a specific skill tree once you start investing points into it. Once you pick an ability, you’re stuck with it and won’t get any options to respec skills you no longer want. Don’t get me wrong, taking a “jack of all trades” approach like I did works perfectly fine at the start of the game to experiment with the different playstyles. But as the game progresses and its obstacles start requiring you to have high-level skills, which have incredibly expensive unlocking costs, the later challenges of the game can feel like crushingly brutal and frustrating roadblocks if you aren’t prepared for them.
But even though the game stumbles and even meanders when it comes to its story and gameplay, Prey at least looks and sounds incredible. The soundtrack is a joy to listen to, offering a delightful otherworldly vibe during its tense moments that combine gruff, grinding techno beats with smooth 80s synth. Meanwhile, the more quiet and introspective moments make use of peaceful, melancholic guitar tunes. I also adored the visual design of Talos I, especially whenever I got to see the stations living quarters and lobby areas which offer a charming mix of futuristic technology and the gold-trimmed polished mahogany of late 60s office architecture. And while the visual designs of the Typhon are rather simplistic, being differently shaped blobs of amorphous black goop, the way they move and sound gives them this imposing sense of menace that, even after twenty hours of playtime, can still send a chill down your spine whenever you hear their distorted, gurgling voices.
Overall, Prey feels like a game of missed opportunities, both in terms of its story and gameplay. While the game’s opening hours set the game up as a potential psychological thriller with interesting and memorable mechanics, it doesn’t take long before you realise it’s shown off far too much, far too quickly. And once the post-opening glow fades, what you’re left with is a fairly average survival horror action game set on a space station. If that’s the sort of thing you’re looking to get out of Prey, then you’re probably going to love what it has to offer. I was just hoping for something more. And while I can definitely see some replay value in its ability-based “play your way” gameplay style, I don’t think I’ll be coming back to try Prey again any time soon.
A great looking “okay” game that promises too much, too early and pays the price.