Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: Action Adventure
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
ESRB: M for Mature
One could write a book on the story of how Prey (2017) came into fruition, but because this is simply an introduction to its review as a video game, a brusque summary will have to suffice. We return to 2006, after the first Prey was received with critical acclaim, providing a foundation for Valve’s legendary Portal (2007) through its usage of human-sized wormholes for travel. Prey 2 was announced almost immediately, also to be developed by Human Head Studios. However, in 2009, Bethesda Studios would acquire the rights to the Prey franchise. The publisher would re-announce Prey 2’s development in 2011 with 2012 as a shipping window. However, drama between the two companies would ensue. According to IGN, rumors began to circulate that Bethesda was looking to purchase Human Head Studios, but the developer did not want to become a slave to the publisher like a Bioware to an EA, a Blizzard to an Activision. The studio choose to discontinue development of the game, while the publisher announced that the game was delayed rather than in development hell. Bethsesda would appear to wave the white flag of surrender in 2014, officially canceling the game. However, more rumors were circulating that the company had already transitioned development over to Arkane Studios in 2013 after its contract with Human Head Studios expired in 2012.
In 2016, Bethesda would officially announce that Prey reboot in order to complete its disassociation from the taint of Human Head Studios. Rather than a FPS full of action, the studio opted for a simulation with an emergent narrative. Now, we can determine if the final product was worth all of that drama.
Violence: Blood is surprisingly uncommon in Prey. Players will eventually have the option of unlocking a psionic power that can explode human heads, but encounters with eligible foes is rare. Besides navigating through a few rooms stained with the red stuff on floors, it is possible to complete the game without ever seeing it. Ironically, the most disturbing imagery completely lacks gore; the alien species players will encounter in the game kill by seemingly absorbing a human’s life force, transforming the body into a grotesquely deformed husk, paralyzed in a pose from when the victim took its last breath.
Language: Characters are competent enough to posess a vocabulary outside of the four-letter variety, yet on occasion, the four-letter kind, such as s**t may make a cameo.
Alcohol/Drug Use: Given that much of plot devices of Prey can be attributed to the research of TranStar Corporation, the staple sci-fi megacorporation trope, there will be drug use. In fact, usage of the experimental “tool” known as neuromods is a central mechanic in the game, and they are an invention of a dubious nature not unlike the harvesting of ADAM in Bioshock. Neuromods are exclusive, expensive commodity on Earth, only accessible to the rich. This renders them a sort of contraband aboard Talos I where they are produced, and Prey explicitly expresses this value through several quests revealing that some crew smuggled them for personal gain while others attempted to do so for the purpose of curing the terminally ill on Earth.
The less fictitious, good ol fashioned beverage of the ABV kind can be collected and consumed both for a visual distortion effect in addition to a remedy for the “fear” status ailment.
Sexuality: Though Prey is bereft of sex as spectacle, players should prepare themselves for LGBT tokenism. An adventure on the main quest tree requires procurement of an NPC’s voice samples to unlock a specific door. The big reveal is essentially an homage to Gone Home, complete with voice samplings of the eventual courtship (though in the case of Prey, this romance is told from the perspective of the Lonnie equivalent, rather than Sam).
Spiritual: An AI named January makes a feeble attempt at a kind of existential revelation to influence the player in the midpoint of the game. It is as superfluous as it is ridiculous, and whoever on the writing team who came up with the idea should have been told to stay in their lane.
In 2032, Morgan Yu wakes up in a blissful futuristic room and dons a specialized suit before jumping on Transtar’s private company helicopter to report for his first the first day on the job. After descending the elevator, Alex, Morgan’s brother, offers his greetings and is profusely grateful that his sibling “changed their mind about this.” In the next room, Morgan is subjected to a series of “experiments” which make for a rather didactic tutorial. To the horror of the conductors, a strange amorphous creature seemingly sucks the soul out of the lab doctor before security arrives and purifies the room with generous quantities of lead. In the chaos, Morgan is gassed, only to awake from bed again. This déjà vu is short-lived, for when Morgan exits this time, the environment now appearing like a nightmarish version The Truman Show. (Please pardon the frequency in which I use “Morgan,” for Arkane Studios selected a gender-neutral name for Prey’s playable character, and most narratives maintain that neutrality throughout. Henceforth, my Morgan is male.)
Someone by the name of January contacts Morgan, instructing him to come up to his office. Here, I ask myself how on earth do I have an office when it was supposed to be my first day on the job? After a jump scare or two and receiving the equivalent of a fatal backhand slap from a giant shadow-like creature called a Phantom, I manage to find “my” office where January, a machine rather than a man, awaited. There, the AI revealed many things—most importantly, that the space station that I am on, Talos 1, must be destroyed along with this alien race called the Typhon, as it must never reach earth. Armed with my new mission, I set off to acquire the necessary override keys for the noble sacrifice, but along the way, various survivors of the Typhon outbreak urge me to make a different call.
Prey is a game that will goad players into exercising their discernment accordingly, and there will be several opportunities to do so, with those opportunities becoming more or less frequent depending upon the player’s penchant for exploration. Without question, this game has System Shock to thank for its template of emergent narrative and limited non-linear exploration. Unfortunately, Prey lacks a seemingly omniscient foe as clever and formidable as SHODAN, thus negatively impacting the significance of discovering emails and audio files (I am conditioned to be taunted after the discovery of each). Actually, there is certainly one, possibly two side-quests that will actually activate a discount SHODAN who is annoying rather than entertaining. Suppressing the source could impact the ending.
Such is the nature of Prey: it is a game revolving around making choices that will directly impact its outcome, which will in turn, evaluate the integrity of player-character. Indeed, Prey is on the precipice of fourth wall-breaking, and will directly indict the player of his or her behavior in realtime. There will be opportunities to punish or forgive, execute or exonerate, save or forsake. In this way, Prey is not far removed from reality, even though it is and several times over….
The sum total of the Arkane Studios’ design choices converge upon a single objective: atmosphere. The title theme “The Experiment” sets the tone of confronting the unknown, channeling a fusion of the X-Files and Unsolved Mysteries as Nick Gordon returns from his legendary metal-infused Doom soundtrack to create something more experimental, though he reassures everyone of his musical range with “Everything is Going to be Okay” as featured in the introduction. However, most of the soundtrack serves the purpose of setting the game’s mood, such as “The Phantoms,” which plays during enemy encounters, or “No Gravity,” which plays at times when Morgan exits Talos 1. That said, Gordon’s contributions are merely good, as they are overshadowed by the the game’s sound design—possibly the best I have ever experienced.
By sound design, I do not include the Prey‘s merely adequate voice acting. Here, I am talking about the sounds emitting from the speakers when I pull the trigger on my shotgun, or clink an operator (robot) with my wrench, or upgrade my weapons or skills using a neuromod, or cringe at the audio cue notifying me when an enemy notices my presence or when said enemy has confirmed its suspicions with a visual. Imagine the heavy organic synthesized music that Blizzard popularized with its Zerg, blended with the crude sound of mechanization transitioning into sleek robotics, and all of it is audible. The thought of heavy feet from a dead human that a Weaver—an amorphous necromancer alien—has converted into a Phantom alerts players that a threat is near. Skittering and high pitched gibberish give clues that a Mimic is nearby before it pounces seemingly out of nowhere. The banter of operators reveal if they are damaged, corrupted, or friendly. Sound comprises the primary component of what establishes the eeriness of a not-so derelict space station. Without these elements, the presence of the only invisible enemy of the game, the Poltergeist, would go mostly unnoticed, and its impact of scaring the snot out players, negated.
My ears certainly love the game more than my eyes do. Released in the same year but months after Resident Evil 7, the character models in Prey look dated even though the game utilizes Cryengine V. To put things into perspective, humans in Prey seem to have more in common with those in Fallout 4 than those in Ryse: Son of Rome, the latter of which being rendered on Cryengine IV. Perhaps Arkane Studios was aiming for “normalizing” its humans…or all that processing power is focused on other features such as the environments, which are as pristine and sanitary as one would imagine if they were the lovechild designed by some fictional futuristic megacorporation. The biodome at the top level of Talos 1 is a sight to behold, with the fauna standing in contrast to the coldness of concrete, steel, and synthetic materials. But outer space is the highlight of what the game has to offer for exploration. Not since Dead Space did zero gravity feel so intuitive, and instead of boots fastening me to a surface, I have boost jets to propel me where I need to go in a full 360-degree range of motion, with the physics of inertia upheld. Those who struggle with vertigo will need to keep the bag that contains their cookies lest they toss them.
Because the gameplay is emergent, a player’s mileage may vary in terms of enemy encounters and the collection of weapons and abilities to dispatch them. In the beginning of the game, I would only fight Mimics, a basic enemy that essentially resembles a giant “X,” but is agile and stealthy, manipulating its genetic composition to”mimic” inanimate objects; I would run from everything else, repairing sentries to create killzones until I felt confident to fight, such as during the first unavoidable Phantom encounter, where one occupies an office across from Morgan’s office—I sprinted past it and to the safety of the sentry I had repaired just outside his door.
Because I designed to explore every nook and cranny of the game that I could within reason, by the end of the game, I had more neuromods and ammunition than necessary, reducing even the most gargantuan of boss counters into a trivial affair. I became the nightmare! In this sense, Prey does suffer a little due to its open-ended design, as enemies become as much of a nuisance as speed bumps on my way to an objective. I was able to secure the most powerful weapon in the game within the first 3 hours of gameplay, yet it still was not as impressive or utilitarian as the cleverly named GLUOO cannon that could be used to scale elevation as well as deescalate hostiles without the use of lethal force (indispensable should one pursue the relevant achievements). Conventional weapons include the pistol, which somewhat interesting because it is silenced, and the shotgun, which I wish would take a respite from first-person games. The equivalent of a turbo taser is actually stronger than it appears, able to subdue enemies that are otherwise bullet sponges. The coolest weapon in the game, however, is the recycler charge, which implodes instead of explodes, creating a black hole sucking in all nearby inorganic material, and then regurgitating neat little balls of recyclables. It’s like the instant Pizza from Back to the Future reimagined in reverse!
Speaking of recyclables, players will accumulate organic, inorganic and alien materials in their inventories and will use the fabrication machines to produce weapons, ammunition, and items such as medkits. I suffered a severe morale shock when I realize that they would be crafting in this game, but was relieved to discover that this system respects both my upgradable inventory space as well as my patience.
By the time this is published, most gamers will already know that Prey was one of the top-selling games in May according to the NPD; unlike top sellers like for For Honor, I agree with the industry’s vote by their dollars, here. Prey is a no-brainer purchase for those who fawn over any game with “shock” in its name, and I would extend the range of instant satisfaction for those who enjoy the Deus Ex series. Of course, fans of video games in general should do themselves the favor of playing Prey to experience some…psycho…shock.
The Bottom Line
Adapting the best of emergent gameplay mechanics from the classics like System Shock, Prey raises the bar for the standard of space adventure-thrillers.