Prey (2017) Review

I can’t type the word “Prey” without thinking back to the 2006 game by Human Head and the 90’s Prey from 3D Realms that was never released. The Prey game in 2006 was inspired by the idea of portal technology from the 3D Realms game. The concept was that players could look through, and walk through, portals, to take them to other places. This idea seemed revolutionary back when Duke 3D could barely manage to hold a mirror together in the BUILD engine. The idea was completely surpassed by Valve’s Portal, but there were plenty of other Prey projects between 2006 and now that shared the same fate as the original 3D Realms game that never saw the light. One that sounded particularly promising was a bounty hunting sequel by Human Head to their 2006 game. We will probably never see any of that work, but here we are in 2017 with a new exploration and brutal alien murder sim from the developers of Dishonored, Arkane Studios, that has no portals or involvement with the previous developers.

The second game to actually ship with the name Prey shares the overall genre of science fiction and first-person action but has nothing to do with any of the previous games. Today we’ll play the character of Morgan Yu. Morgan is kind of a blank slate who has lost a lot of themselves, but in a way that feels appropriate when you learn why.

Although you hear Morgan’s voice more than a typical silent protagonist like Gordon Freeman, it is still far less than you might expect. The developers have a neat trick to make you feel like you hear more from Morgan that I won’t spoil.

Morgan’s life and work are on board a gigantic space station called Talos 1 where an alien species called the Typhon are being researched by the employees of the TranStar corporation. They acquired the station after it was developed by different political groups in the alternate timeline of Prey‘s universe.

Talos 1 truly is huge, it feels complete once you’ve seen the different sections where it’s clear that different crew members worked and lived. Prey gets some things wrong, but their space station isn’t one of them. Eventually you can explore a few different modes of transportation that let you get around more quickly than hustling through the decks. Each of those alternate transportation modes have their own advantages and add to the wonderful sense of exploration I felt as Morgan gained more and more access to the station.

Different areas of the station, and rooms or maintenance facilities behind its facade, really felt like they were designed by different era’s and cultures of space explorers until TranStar finally got hold of it for their projects.

Part of TranStar’s research enabled people to absorb skills through a device that jacks into their brain via spikes inserted into their eyeballs to reach their brain. Ouch. Fortunately, as these are the regular way that Morgan can upgrade their abilities, you only have to truly experience that effect once. I’d probably recoil in horror if it were done in virtual reality.

Neuromods could give someone the power to play the piano with the skill of an extremely talented musician in just a few seconds, but Morgan’s upgrades are almost all centered around overcoming obstacles to reach new parts of the station, survival skills to live longer, stealthily sneaking past enemies, or straight up combat abilities.

The lowest form of these amorphous blobs of Typhon sludge can assume the shape of random objects on the station and it isn’t long before those skills enable them to escape their containment and start murdering everyone onboard Talos 1. The higher level Typhon can possess the crew’s minds, turn them into bipedal Typhon phantoms, or just murdering them. There are so many dead or possessed people on Talos 1 that you really might feel bad for some of the regular crew who weren’t involved in the research. It took hours before I came across any humans left alive on the station.

Other Typhon can even possess the station’s stationary sentry guns and the large flying toaster robots (called Operators) that serve as medics and engineers onboard Talos 1.

Each upgrade of Morgan’s skill tree is only unlocked with Neuromods, there aren’t any experience points or other leveling mechanics. That tree is so large that you’re really only going to get to play with a few different sets of abilities throughout the game. A lack of specialization would probably leave your Morgan unable to survive for long, and although I had many options I did end up feeling like I picked a slightly boring route by focusing on stealth and traditional firearms over the (slight spoiler) unlockable Typhon powers that would have allowed my Morgan to gain some of those mimic abilities and other more outrageous powers. Maybe I put a little bit too much of myself into my character, but I felt that the Typhon were genuinely disgusting to look at and didn’t want my Morgan to be like them.

It was a little frustrating that you’re not given any chance to test out these powers before spending your precious Neuromods on them. On the other hand, the descriptions on some powers are straightforward enough to understand what you’d be getting. Unlocking the different tiers of the hacking power, for example, makes sense because every hackable item in the game tells you what level of the hacking skill you would need to even attempt it.

Speaking of Prey’s hacking, wow is it bad. It’s a randomized two-dimensional level where your controller or keyboard input fidelity are reduced and you have to move a crosshair onto a target position and press a randomized button before time runs out. Each level of the hack introduces a new target position onto the same field of plain walls and shocking red walls that bounce your crosshair around. If you can’t complete the puzzle within the time limit the hacking attempt fails and Morgan loses a little bit of health.

I don’t know what a good hacking minigame could look like today, but this is definitely not it. I just found myself frustrated and annoyed when I had to go through with it in order to achieve some relatively minor objective like unlocking a safe that just contained eel parts and ammo.

Strangely enough, the higher tiers of the hacking minigame give you so much time to complete them, and the puzzles are so generously spaced out, that they’re actually far easier to complete than the lower tier puzzles. It’s almost like a message from the developers that they know this sucks but they needed to limit Morgan somehow, but they are apologizing by making things a little easier.

Hacking is just one of the different powers on the skill tree that allow Morgan to proceed past different obstacles and access restricted areas of the game. Sometimes you’re also given the opportunity to find a key card that can get you past a secured door without having to hack it. Or you find a maintenance duct that you can use to sneak past enemies and get into the same room. Prey goes out of its way to tell you that you have these options very early in the game. You also might be able to use the game’s gloo gun to clamber over the wall or access that maintenance duct. These options make Prey feels like a very advanced metroidvania.

One way for Morgan to get more ammunition and other consumable items is to recycle junk that you can pick up around the station through a very entertaining process that ends in a satisfying series of clinks and clunks as the the resulting pure materials land in the recycler’s bin. Once you have the raw materials you can select what you would like from the catalog of an ultra-advanced 3D printer. Throughout the game you’ll also find the raw blueprints that enable you to expand your catalog. Recycling junk and turning it into ammunition never stopped being fun for me, even after the process would sometimes leave me feeling strapped for materials once I had mined part of the station’s Typhon and trash cans for recyclables. At those points in Prey, particularly towards the end of the game, I was very glad to have unlocked stealth and other movement abilities that enabled me to speed through the world and complete the final objectives I had left.

The story has meaningful choices, and some surprisingly technical ideas. For example, at one point you find out that digital rights management has locked you out of 3D printing an item you might want, but an optional mission gives you the ability to bypass the DRM and keep printing that item. It makes sense that if all of the 3D printers on a future cruise ship or space station are from the same company they could also, and almost certainly would have, implemented incredibly shitty DRM. Some of the crew’s audiologs and e-mails are concerned with people wanting more access to the 3D printing catalog, or their abuse of it. This just adds to the lived-in feeling of the station.

It’s fun that these materials and neuromods are your currency. I can’t remember any point of Prey where Morgan has to deal with money, but it also feels like part of the game’s mostly solitary journey that you’re not interacting with any vendors.

Once you’ve made some choices for Morgan and completed your journey through Talos 1 you aren’t given a chance to play through the game a second time while retaining the powers you’ve unlocked. Another bummer. I’m kind of glad that my playthrough is unique and will be my canonical experience, but it’d be good to at least have the option of experiencing more ways to play the game without starting over from scratch.

There are more pitfalls for Prey. The weapons aren’t interesting enough. They’re close, but they’re just missing more interesting effects and ideas that seem to have been reserved for unlockable powers on the skill tree.

The gloo gun is the most disappointing because I had the highest expectations for it. Each shot of gloo lets you attach a glob for climbing or incapacitating a foe, but that’s it. The climbing isn’t particularly enjoyable, and it feels wildly imprecise even with a mouse and keyboard. There also aren’t any puzzles where Morgan could connect two objects with gloo. Prey just uses the gun once or twice to seal a hull breach on Talos 1’s exterior and even then what I saw onscreen felt disconnected from the actions I was actually doing.

It also took quite a while for me to get engaged with the game early on, although it’s difficult to say why exactly that was, I had reached the opposite end of the spectrum by the time I had finished the game with 34 hours on the Steam clock.

The worst shortcoming of Prey is that while the game did give me choices that felt meaningful, in the end it also subverted them after the credits and made me feel as if they were never as important to the developer as setting up a sequel without any consequences from this game. Will the sequel even get made? Games called Prey have a very difficult time getting past a conceptual stage and production. If it doesn’t, ruining the player’s choices for a sequel could be a fundamentally wasted decision.

There is an obvious comparison to the System Shock and BioShock games, but I feel like Talos’ designs are superior to some parts of Rapture. Of course they might not have been better if it weren’t for at least BioShock existing in the first place, but once I got to know the world of some of Talos’ crew Prey just felt more like it housed real people instead of Bioshock’s caricatures. Sure, that comparison might not hold up for everyone on the station, and I will always be happy to destroy libertarian fantasy worlds like Bioshock’s Rapture, but here we are with original characters and science fiction ideas that somehow feel more grounded in reality than a modern gritty movie or television show.

I’m also glad that my fear that this would be a horror game was unfounded. The feeling of terror you get from the Typhon springing at you quickly fades, and leaves you with a level of fright that you might experience while watching the nth Doctor Who episode featuring the same monsters you’ve seen before.

Ultimately, the Prey we got in 2017 is a different beast that surpasses any association with older games just by being better than them. It has some serious flaws, but I can’t think of many successful first-person games that don’t. I haven’t thought about the the Prey game from 2006 in years, and if anyone does care about games with that name in the future they’ll think of what Arkane created here. Even when today’s Prey was disappointing, it was an overall success that I eagerly played whenever I could because unlocking and exploring a new room or section of Talos 1 was just so much fun.

4 out of 5 Typhon for Prey. It is available now on Steam for Windows as well as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Author: Jack Slater

A Philadelphian exiled to Hawaii. You can follow or contact me on Twitter where I'm @TimeDoctor, via the contact page, or via e-mail to zjs AT zacharyjackslater dot com More here.

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