Whew. A few days ago I finished my first run of Prey, a tense sci-fi shooter from the minds that gave us the absolutely stellar Dishonored series, and what a run it was. This review very nearly got written without knowing the ending of the game, simply because I wasn’t sure if/when I would ever reach the end of the story – and that’s not a criticism.
My first playthrough came in at a whopping 26 hours playtime, during which I completed perhaps 1/3 of the side objectives, a completionist run therefore likely reaching 35-40 hours. Much like the Dishonored series, Prey rewards those who take the time to explore, complete additional objectives, and learn about the world around them; rest assured there is plenty of station to explore and plenty to find.
The game takes place on an enormous space station named Talos I, a research & development outpost owned and run by the Transtar corporation. Talos I’s primary focus is the Neuromod project, an initiative that aims to improve humanity through the development of (as you may gather from the name) neural modifications. A neuromod is injected directly into the brain via an eyepiece with a terrifyingly enormous needle which grants the user one of many enhancements, so effective that they can enable a user to learn a new instrument in minutes, lift objects 4 times their weight and allow them to live beyond the age of 200.
They also have a rather grisly source – the Typhon species. Talos I’s neuromod project stems from highly-controversial research into the alien Typhon species, discovered around half a century prior. The oily-black Typhon come in several different flavours, from the creepy spider-crab Mimics, to the humanoid Phantoms, right up to the gigantic Nightmare behemoths. This alien race possesses a huge range of abilities including elemental attacks, kinetic powers, and of course the Mimics’… well… mimicry. That is, the ability to disguise themselves as inanimate objects at will, an ability that will soon have players unaccountably phobic of coffee cups, toilet rolls and bar stools.
These creatures are all very hostile and can kill a human in seconds, exactly how neuromods are produced. Human “volunteers” (supposedly death row convicts) are isolated in a chamber and a mimic is set upon them. Upon killing the human subject a Typhon is able to rapidly reproduce using the corpse, after which process the Typhon are harvested into raw “exotic” material, the substance behind the Neuromods.
Now, based on your moral compass, this might not seem all too terrible… not until they break containment. Cue the beginning of Prey, where these nasty beasties escape into the station, kill most of the crew and reproduce to create an army of nightmare fuel. This is where you come in, or rather, Yu comes in – that is, main protagonist Morgan Yu (see what I did there?). Morgan is, amongst other story-contingent things, a high-level neuromod researcher with some nasty amnesia, and one of the few survivors of the Typhon attack on the station. As players begin to explore the devastated station they will discover exactly what happened, who Morgan really is and what needs to be done to prevent further catastrophe.
As you delve deeper into the cryptic history of the station, you will come into contact with a number of survivors each with their own agendas and motives. Some will offer more minor objectives such as locating certain crew members or restoring access to areas of Talos I, whereas others will begin to sow seeds for a number of end objectives – different methods for final containment of the Typhon outbreak. How and when these tasks are completed is entirely up to you, the story free-flowing for you to direct.
Talos I is a huge installation, a truly open world with around 15 different sections, plus an exterior environment in which players can explore the entire outside of the station in zero-gravity. Players will find themselves spending a lot of their time in Prey travelling from one area to another, so it’s a good thing that the environment is one of the game’s strongest aspects. Each section looks and plays in a completely different way, varying in architecture and visual design depending on when it was built in the game’s canon. Some areas are almost pristine whilst others are devastated by hull breaches, or littered with corpses from Typhon assaults.
My favourite part of exploring Talos I is the regular backtracking players will find themselves doing. Yes, normally, endless backtracking in a game is a deal-breaking chore, but if directed correctly it can be a truly memorable experience. A room previously cleared doesn’t stay clear for long, as players will soon discover that revisiting a location 30 minutes later can yield a far greater threat than the one that inhabited it on the last visit.
Prey is excellent at throwing curveballs at the player, mixing in some of the toughest Typhon creatures right from the get-go. On many occasions I was forced to completely rethink my approach because I found myself getting curb-stomped within seconds of entering a room. Fortunately, this is intentional and Arkane have built in a whole array of options for those who don’t like being tossed around the room like an old rag doll…
Much like Dishonored, Prey features a whole host of navigational options to allow players to take the high road rather than blasting their way through the Typhon horde. Maintenance hatches, for example, encourage you to scan your surroundings for an alternate path, often hiding small rewards inside to incentivise more exploration. Far more interesting opportunities await players who think outside of the box – the most obvious of these is Prey’s signature GLOO device, a launcher that fires balls of expanding adhesive foam. Primarily marketed as a way of immobilising foes or patching hull breaches, the GLOO device is also an excellent bridge-builder, using expanded shots of foam to create platforms or staircases can be an excellent way to avoid the Typhon.
However, nothing comes at all close to my personal favourite exploration route, the Looking Glass windows. In the fiction of Prey, the Looking Glass is the next step in 3D TV, a series of screens that display a 3D picture so realistic it looks like you’re viewing the video through a window. In many locations in the game, access routes and secrets are hidden behind these screens, only discoverable if you smash them, something that doesn’t immediately spring to mind for the average player. That is what I love about the Looking Glass – that first discovery behind a screen teaches players the value of experimentation. The key to getting the most out of Prey is to not be afraid of experimentation – make the most of quick saves and let that curiosity run wild, you’ll be surprised at how much fun you can have with a wrench and some GLOO.
Now, it would be a sin if I were to fail to mention the other major player in Prey’s environment – the soundtrack. Back for another Bethesda production is the masterful Mick Gordon of DOOM (2016) fame. Those who enjoyed the powerful, atmospheric music of DOOM will be able to tell very quickly that these two games share the same composer, but despite this, the music is completely different and perfectly written for the game’s tone.
The Prey soundtrack draws heavily from classic 80’s scf-fi synthesiser music, much like the captivating and eerie music of Netflix’s Stranger Things. This influence has an incredible effect on the atmosphere of the game, with quiet ambient themes setting the scene for each area, only to be broken by sharp jabbing sound effects, signalling Typhon contact and a shift to Gordon’s incredibly engaging and energetic combat tracks.
Mechanically, the game is pretty solid, with a standard RPG style skill tree available to unlock new abilities and upgrades with Neuromods, however it’s nothing to be all too excited about. The more interesting Typhon-based abilities (did I mention YOU can also learn to turn into a coffee cup? NOW you want this game…) don’t become available until nearly halfway into the story, and aside from initial ability unlocks, most subsequent upgrades don’t feel important enough to want to “save up” for anything in particular.
Arkane also drew on their work with Dishonored’s decision-based storytelling and gave Prey a similar treatment. Players are regularly given a number of ways of completing objectives, with each outcome affecting the overall plot and how NPCs will react to Morgan in dialogue. There are several endings also available, some based more on the physical actions, others hugely contingent on the morality of your decisions.
There’s a little something for everyone’s play style, with options for stealth play and those who prefer to show their inner Rambo. In reality, however, players will usually find themselves using a bit of both, preventing a player from sticking to one particular style. The stealth options just aren’t enough to keep you hidden the whole time, whilst loud ‘n’ proud players will likely find themselves not having enough ammo to kill everything they see on Talos I.
Overall, Prey’s greatest strength is the deep and rich world Arkane has built on Talos I. Much like Dishonored’s Dunwall and Karnaca, Transtar’s pride and joy is teeming with data logs, emails, notes and more, all telling the stories of the “little people” of the station. Workplace romances, moral dilemmas, corporate conspiracies and personal issues bring the environment to life, creating a truly believable game world that story lovers will feel compelled to study. The station always feels like it’s in a constant state of change, with something new every time you revisit an area, creating the impression that the Typhon threat is real and always growing. Increasingly challenging enemies and an eerie soundtrack fill you with genuine tension and dread as you move around the station, and nowhere is safe for long.
Prey is a beautiful marriage of sci-fi shooter, horror and RPG influences; a carefully crafted world with plenty to do, fight and find, tied together by a cryptic story of conspiracy, morality and tragedy. Gameplay mechanics may underwhelm at times and the choice of running at 30FPS may prove to be an annoyance to some, but this can be easy to forget as players find themselves pulled further and further into Talos I’s grisly descent into chaos.
In this day and age it can be hard to find a game of this significance packing as much content as Prey, especially when that content is so rich and engaging. This is yet another excellent title from the minds at Arkane and Bethesda, and one I urge you not to miss out on. Still not convinced? The first hour of Prey is available as a free playable demo on both Xbox One and PS4 – check it out and let us know what you think!
Have you had a chance to visit Talos I yet? What did you think?
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