There’s something immediately unsettling about Prey. Its Talos I space station setting bursts with colourful decor and affluent designs, hiding a series of maze-like corridors and the mechanical bits that make it tick behind a thin facade. Its inhabitants lay dead in its halls – their faces shrivelled and dry as the life was very literally sucked from them. And yet nothing stirs. Nothing moves. There’s no indication that something is wrong aboard Talos I until it’s literally jumping at you from out of nowhere.
Prey in every single way is style over substance. It’s a game that’s deeply rooted in the design philosophies that Arkane has come to be known by, while also borrowing the tensions and theming from games like System Shock 2. Prey isn’t confused over what it wants to be, but it sometimes loses itself to its aesthetic. Its gameplay and upgrade paths sometimes contradict the tasks expected of you. Its seemingly endless approaches to play marred by an over-simplification of level design. And a narrative that fails to live up to its lofty opening.
You play as Morgan Yu – a brother or sister to Talos I’s lead engineer and scientist, Alex Yu. Together you’ve helped discover and develop Neuromods – an alien powered device that allows humans to augment themselves with all sorts of abilities, albeit through a needle in the eye. Alien experimentation rarely leads to anything great though, and it’s not long before the Typhon are set lose on Talos I – posing a threat to every other living being on the Earth below.
To speak about Prey’s thematic setup would be to undercut its fantastic opening. It preys on your perception of the world around you, asking you to question what is real and what isn’t. This narrative thread is used to dangle a carrot in front of you for the rest of your campaign, too, but fails to really mess around with it in really interesting ways. Most of the time Morgan is just looking for answers. What happened on Talos I? How did it get to that stage? Who can and can’t you trust? These are the questions Prey wants you to pose, even if it ultimately fails to deliver on them in any meaningful way.
It’s instead supplemented by environmental storytelling that’s far more effective. Talos I was once a living, breathing hive of technological minds and very human characters, and it feels like that around every corner. Countless emails on beautifully designed monitors help flesh out the many inhabitants of the station, detailing their working activities, multiple ideologies and even past time activities (an on-going pen and paper RPG game between employees is surprisingly interesting to follow). Talos I definitely feels like a place that was lived in, even if all of that life has been sucked out of it by the time you get to explore.
It’s also a space that’s supremely intricately designed. Prey shuffles you between multiple hubs, most of which manage to feel distinct. The lush greens of a biosphere that looks out into the endless abyss of space are nicely juxtaposed by a twisting labyrinth of coolant pipes and engineering spaces in maintenance. You’ll quickly become familiar with the stages too, which help unearth secrets and rewards. Prey isn’t meant to be rushed through, and its most meaningful interactions and moments of brilliance come through the simple puzzles that exploration pushes onto you.
Prey emphasises the same “play your way” format that Arkane’s own Dishonored has in both its entries. You could choose to hunt around for a keycard to a door or look for a maintenance hatch nearby to circumvent it entirely. The verticality of Talos I is useful in this regard too, sometimes hiding paths that your jet-propelled suit can’t reach alone. The solutions are sometimes a little too on the nose to make you feel like you’re being smart, but there’s still a real sense of accomplishment as you figure your way out around the station.
This is complimented by the many, many abilities that Prey’s plentiful neuromods allow you to unlock. Upgrade paths are split right down the middle, allowing you to choose from more human, tech ones to alien-augmented abilities. You could bury points into hacking and repair abilities, which allow you to pick apart electronics locks and fix power breakers to restore electricity to security functions. Alternatively, you could choose instead to transform into a small inanimate object, find a crawl space to shuffle into and defy security measures in that way. Prey’s many options really bring exploration alive, and it was rare for the feeling of wonder to fade from solving self-imposed challenges.
But since these abilities are primarily only possible thanks to the Typhon aliens that inhabit Talos I with you, the tables can quickly turn. These inky black creatures come in various forms and pin down the real sense of dread that Prey carries with it around every corner. Mimics bear the ability to transform into objects around the world, which makes for some frequent (but effective) jump scares in virtually every room. The delivery of the high pitched sound cue might get tiresome, and their effectiveness diminishes as Morgan gains access to some stronger surveying tools.But the fear of a group suddenly striking at a moment’s notice is never lost, and you’re never left to play without being on the edge of your seat.
Phantoms provide a little more direct combat challenges, while more specialised enemies such as the Telepath and Weaver start using more indirect methods of trying to make your life a little more complicated. Unfortunately, Prey’s combat never rises to the task. Most of the slow opening forces you to stick exclusively to a set combination – your GLOO Gun and hard hitting wrench. The GLOO Gun allows you to freeze enemies in place, allowing you to move in close for a melee kill. Rinsing and repeating this process becomes bland very quickly, even as Prey’s enemies start becoming more complex (and more dangerous) foes to deal with.
A pistol and shotgun offer some reprieve, as do your many options for avoiding combat altogether, but Prey often forgets how difficult it’s making life for Morgan. Resources are extremely scarce, making your bullets, GLOO canisters and various grenades (ones that electrify, ones that create small black holes, the works) extremely hard to come by. It adds nicely to the tension and setting of the game but makes it downright punishing far too often. At two distinct points, I was forced to slog through growing waves of enemies without any ammunition or tools to help, often relying on luck rather than skill to make it to the next generous save point.
It makes most of the otherwise excellent combat scenarios feel few and far between. As you progress, the many neuromod abilities that you leech off the Typhon start making combat a far more exhilarating affair. You can take control of automated turrets or lockout enemy abilities entirely with the press of a button, figuring out the most efficient use of your limited Psi pool in the heat of a fight. It takes a while for Prey to hit this stride, and it’s sadly short-lived as you race to the end, but it is satisfying nonetheless.
Beyond combat difficulties and annoying balance, Prey wrestles with technical issues that really start bearing down on the game the further you progress. On PS4 exclusively, the game suffers from ever present control issues, ranging from input lag to troublesome dead zones causing drifting. The game also takes an incredibly long time to load every time you switch hubs, which only really reveals itself as a problem near the end of the game. The requirement to quickly shift from area to area with frequent 40-second stops is frustrating and served only to yank me out of an otherwise exhilarating sprint to the finish.
It shows a lack of polish that manages to permeate through the game, infecting so many of Prey’s strong features like its tendril-laden enemies. Yet while it forces you to juggle problem after problem, Prey’s setting and unrelenting tension manage to coat the game with a layer of enticement that few other titles have managed to do recently. Talos I is so superbly put together that you can’t help but marvel at its interlocking pieces from afar when taking a space walk. Neither can you help but wonder just how life might have been onboard before the tragic events of the opening.
Prey might not deliver on the encompassing narrative “gotcha” it tries to convince you it has from the start, but it instead leans on some incredibly strong environmental storytelling to bring a game space alive in a way that few other games manage to do. There are problems to wrestle with to maintain this immersion, but you’ll find a trip to Talos I well spent. Even if its inhabitants don’t really want you there.
Last Updated: May 15, 2017