Preying on Your Expectations
Copying the likes of Alien , 2001: A Space Odyssey , and Blade Runner is a time-honored tradition in video games. It makes sense. Dark, horrific science-fiction is compatible with the interactive thrill of games. The participatory element can expand and enhance those themes of isolation, transhumanism, and terror several-fold if done well. Gaming now has a lineage of its own, full of all-time greats that stay in rotation no matter how far removed we get from their debuts. These include games like Metroid, System Shock , and Shin Megami Tensei . Recent efforts like BioShock, Dead Space, and Axiom Verge have kept the trend running. Prey , the latest effort from Bethesda’s Arkane Studios, seeks out its place in that canon, almost aggressively so. It’s a game full of exploration, transhumanist intrigue, and horror. Also, there are emails. There are so many emails.
Prey introduces us, in its most effective early moments, to Morgan Yu. Players are given a refreshing choice of whether Morgan is a man or a woman, with similar, but different features and no customization options. This leads to a similar story on either side, but with subtle shifts in detail that can shape the experience of someone really paying attention. Attention to detail is something Prey has in spades, whether you like it or not. (More on that later.) Morgan is used right away to introduce the game’s world, near-future technology, and ham-fisted human arrogance. After some neat visual trickery and a fun, in-your-face, “something is very wrong here” opening sequence, Morgan is dumped onto Talos I, an elaborate, System Shock -like space station/hub.
From here, in my eyes, everything falls apart so quietly and gradually that eleven hours passed and I didn’t feel like anything had actually happened in that time. Prey is a strange experience for sure, constantly opening the door for cool and interesting scenarios, but always with a “yeah, but…” follow-through that never sticks a single landing. Beneath all of its grandstanding and self-proclaimed profundity is a collection of visual and mechanical references to its peers wrapped up in some of the most achingly boilerplate narrative checkboxes in recent memory. Prey is competent, gorgeous, and dreadfully boring. Let’s break it down.
Prey wants to be mysterious and oppressive; it wants to leap atop the pedestal Metroid sits by opening its world up and letting you tackle situations without a rote set of instructions. Except, it can’t help itself and drowns the player in what feels like hours of reading emails and listening to audio logs. It oftentimes makes those things as mandatory as possible without totally dropping its façade of mystery.
Locked doors and computers abound, but opening them often is as simple as rooting around for a nearby keycard or notepad containing somebody’s password. Considering searching around is what you’ll spend most of your time doing, it never feels rewarding or distinct. Attempts to humanize the world of Prey lurk around, as you’ll discover the remains of relationships and conflicts between the corpses littering Talos I. There’s little to associate these stories with, as you probably found the relevant bodies earlier when looting pistol ammo and banana peels.
Once your inventory is full of discarded trash and computer bits, you can participate in a sometimes boring, other times frustrating, crafting system. Once you happen upon a device that gives you a recipe of sorts, you can dump all your junk into recycling machines, which turn it into pseudoscience resource cubes. Find another machine, and those cubes can be turned into ammo, medkits, and so on and so forth. It’s almost insulting how simultaneously simple and complicated the process is. The actual crafting process is cumbersome, but there’s zero thought put into the actual crafting. You dump your junk, then mash buttons until you can’t make any more shotgun shells.
Speaking of shotguns, Prey has a bizarre relationship with its intended themes and desire to still have bullets and shooting. Prey wants you to be terrified and vulnerable, but it also wants to be a cool BioShock -style game, with wild powers and environmental weaponry. It never fully commits to either, and its attempt to make everything work together is a clunky mess. Guns feel like ineffectual toys, in part by design as the game wants you to use them in tandem with your other tools. The Gloo Gun is the marquee device, which deals with things like environmental hazards, navigation puzzles, and enemies that behave too erratically to engage with more traditionally. Ideally, you sneak up on a monster, trap it with glue or another device, then finish it off with your guns or handy wrench. (Of course it’s a wrench.)
Unfortunately, Morgan moves like a wheelbarrow and is sluggish and impossible to maneuver effectively. The controls feel unnecessarily complicated and restrictive, making easy swapping between equipment, healing items, and evasion methods a real pain in the ass. Prey wants you to be a tactical, genius badass, but at the same time wants you to die real bad if you mess up. It also wants you to eventually feel untouchable in that “AAA with RPG elements kind of way.” Enter Neuromods.
Neuromods are the Plasmids of Prey , the big old skill tree this whole deal is banking on. After the edgy cutscene showing how this tech works, you find neuromods scattered throughout Talos I that serve as skill points. As the game goes on, you go from the usual health/hacking/guns skills to more otherworldly abilities. It sounds cool in practice and has promising visual depth, but the neuromod tree highlights Prey ’s great struggle with pacing. It takes a long time to build up enough points to purchase a skill. You find dozens and dozens of neuromods and eventually can craft your own as well, but skills are also locked behind the dreaded scanning mechanic, something games refuse to leave behind no matter how many times people protest. To unlock more skills, you have to sneak up on enemies and scan them from afar, scanning the same enemy multiple times. Because of all this, especially in your initial run, you can be well past the halfway point of the game and still feel like you’re barely getting started.
Compounding my frustrations with Prey is how weirdly inconsistent it can be in structure and how pointlessly dull its storytelling is. If it was a drawn-out, slow burn of a game full of interesting characters and terrifying enemies, it would probably be a contender in 2017’s crowd of Shockingly Great Video Games. Instead, you fight evil blobs with powers that just sort of fill the screen with noise and follow Morgan along with a list of clichés a mile long. Exposition delivered through emails and audio logs is the worst way to deliver a story, and it doesn’t help that every beat feels like something I’ve done several times already in other games that got there first.
The bad guys start strong with mimics, creatures that can take the form of any innocuous object and jump out at you when you least expect it. These guys take a back seat after you gain the ability to detect them, and you face more generic creatures that shoot fireballs and lightning at you once Prey really gets going. To its credit, enemy encounters often take the form of puzzle-like situations and are isolated in rooms with different options presented to the player to deal with them. This is the real appeal of Prey , something that’s more muddled than the other parts, but often what the player will need to deal with the most.
A lot of Prey is about navigating Talos I and finding your way off the beaten path. As often as you’re fed keycards, passwords, and scripted events, you will find just as many dead ends you’ll need to investigate for physical ways around. Particularly interesting is Morgan’s ability to grab into almost any edge and pull themselves up on top of pipes and other structures that would be aesthetic window-dressing in other games. It’s not very well translated, but once you figure out it’s another option in your bag of tricks, it opens up how you interact with roadblocks in a way that’s much more satisfying than fumbling with any of Prey ’s other sloppy systems.
Prey also has an amazing soundtrack. Seriously, its score is not afraid to take over the whole experience, getting loud out of nowhere and flexing its bulging muscles. It’s simultaneously the best and worst part, perfectly nailing its aesthetic, but promising more than the plot can ever deliver. Prey is often at its best when you’re working your way around an obstacle, with no bad guys around and some stellar music taking over as you look for the next out-of-the-box solution.
Ultimately, I doubt I’ll remember Prey much after I stop playing it. There’s too much else going on in games in 2017, and Prey does not stand out amongst its peers. Its fiction is self-serious, despite being so derivative, and its systems are frustrating and constantly in conflict with each other. It feels like dozens of other games I’ve played already, but enjoyed more. Even when something interesting does happen, I still feel like my time hasn’t been respected and my brain hasn’t been stimulated as promised. Prey is competently made, it runs great on the CryEngine, and it seems like no expense seems to have been spared,, but it clings to what it’s paying homage to, rather than reaching for new heights. Prey has an audience, but I doubt it will have a legacy.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
Not much creativity is on display, but the sci-fi environments and other visual trappings are certainly polished. 3.0 Control
It is functional, but often clumsy when it matters the most. Exploration can be fun, combat is not. 5.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Its brilliant score overshadows the entire rest of the game. 3.5 Play Value
Skill tree variation presents opportunity for replay. Sluggish pacing and dull storytelling might make starting over unappealing, however. 3.0 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best