Thoughts: Prey

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I have done a terrible job of a) posting and b) responding to comments recently, for which I can only apologise. I was having some severe motivational issues and needed to take a break. 

Here’s a fun game you can play when reading a review of Prey on a mainstream gaming outlet. Do Ctrl-F, and count how many times the reviewer mentions Bioshock. Then do the same thing for System Shock. Then correlate those mentions with a score, or the overall tone of the review. I guarantee you the better reviews will have name-dropped System Shock at least once; these are the ones that really understand where Prey is coming from, because it’s System Shock 3 in all but name.

The distinction is important. I enjoyed the first Bioshock game, but it was very much a product of its time: released a couple of years after the start of the 360 era, it was designed to bring across something of System Shock’s open world and pseudo-RPG nature into the (at the time) modern console age. It succeeded thanks to certain compromises it made on mechanics and game structure, but those very compromises are what has caused the series to age very ungracefully between Bioshock 1 and Bioshock Infinite’s full stop; Infinite presented an extremely pretty world to the player filled with interesting things, but the only way you could interact with them was by shooting them in the face. If Prey was simply an updated Bioshock I’d probably be slating it along with half of the gaming press, as there’s very little mileage left in that concept.

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That’s the last thing Prey is, fortunately, and that Bioshock is the closest analogue most mainstream games journalists can reach for is a pretty damning indictment of the paucity of their experience and knowledge. No, Prey is something very special indeed. The concept is very similar to the first System Shock: as protagonist Morgan Yu (who, excellently, can be either male or female with small details changing depending on which one you pick) you wake up on a gigantic space station infested with strange alien beasties and killer robots, and you have to figure out what’s going on, contain the outbreak and escape. This took me about 17 hours on my first run, so it’s not a trivial task. There’s the usual shenanigans you’d expect from what is now referred to as the “immersive sim” genre1: you can pick up injectors called Neuromods that function as skill points for buying powers and passive abilities, there’s computers stuffed full of emails to read, and audio logs left scattered around the station that provide a lot of backstory as to what happened before you woke up. That certainly sounds a lot like a Bioshock game so far.

If I had to pick one thing that differentiates Prey from Bioshock, though, it is the level design. Prey has been developed by Arkane Studios, who also did the Dishonored series, and Dishonored 2 was extremely my shit thanks to the way it approached the level design. Arkane are now arguably the best developer in the world at structuring levels, and this is because they think about how their environments would work as real places as well as levels in a game. They’ve extended this philosophy to the huge, kilometre-long Talos 1 space station in Prey, except where in Dishonored 2 each level was an isolated entity, the various areas of Talos 1 (and there are about a dozen) have been designed in such a way that they connect together seamlessly. You could take the layout of each individual part of Talos I that you visit and fit them together into a blueprint of the whole thing that actually makes sense — and in fact it turns out this is basically what Arkane did.

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The fact that the interior environment of the entire station exists in the game has some extremely beneficial knock-on effects for the rest of it. For starters, it’s incredibly open. Your movement at the start of the game is restricted by one locked door. Once you’ve hit the appropriate point in the main plot to unlock that door (which could be done in minutes if you were speedrunning, but which took me an hour or two) you can go pretty much anywhere in the station without having to wait for more plot to occur, just so long as you can find your way there without dying to the various high-level monsters you’ll find in later game areas. Past that opening tutorial segment, Arkane do not have to worry about restricting the player’s movement down a single critical path — everything outside the station is a microgravity vacuum that presents its own hard limits on exploration, so why introduce artificial ones when you’ve gone to the trouble of making everything inside the station a real, explorable environment? Similarly, Arkane do not have to worry about masking areas of the station that do not exist with the hoary old videogame tropes of barricades, wreckage and unopenable doors blocking your path. Any time you come across a locked door in Prey there’ll be some method of opening it to get to what’s the other side, and often more than one. Even the emergency hull breach containment doors you occasionally run across aren’t abused at all, as later on you get the ability to venture outside to the station exterior through airlocks scattered along the length of Talos I, and whatever part of the station you’ve run across that’s open to space will always be accessible from here. Except for the nearby Moon which Talos I orbits, the general rule of Prey is that if you can see a place you can get to it, or through it, somehow. The trick is in figuring out how.

This is tremendously refreshing. I have a very specific approach to playing first- and third-person games these days: as soon as the tutorial finishes and the game blesses me with free action, I immediately go looking for the limits of the simulation. Back in the early ‘00s Old Man Murray rated games by their Time To Crate, so I guess you could call this measure Time To Invisible Wall. Most games usually don’t last more than a couple of minutes by this metric before I run into something rather uncomfortably gamey that keeps me on the straight and narrow. – open world games have a higher TTIW thanks to their scope, but eventually you’ll run into some decidedly unnatural geography designed to hem you in. By contrast, Prey arguably doesn’t have a Time To Invisible Wall. Technically you could rate it at around two hours, as this is the earliest point in the game where you can get outside the station and start jetting away from it indefinitely using your suit thrusters, at which point Prey has no choice but to kill you because modelling local Earth orbit is somewhat beyond the scope of what it’s doing — even here, though, they’ve put some thought into it and presented some fairly convincing in-game reasoning as to why this happens. Other than that first locked door after the tutorial I managed to explore pretty much the entire station without ever advancing the main plotline, and the game accommodated me quite happily even though I was breaking the sequencing on some of the sidequests pretty damn hard — one of them I managed to complete before I even picked it up by hacking into a container in the cargo bay, but in general Prey is good at providing some sort of acknowledgement of the fact that you’re doing things out of sequence, even if it’s a throwaway voice line.  Prey is the first game that I have played, ever, that completely rebuffed my attempts to break it. And of all the games that have had the “immersive sim” label retroactively plastered on top of them, Prey is, perhaps, the first to truly earn it.

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I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I was with Prey once the almost total lack of bounds became fully apparent. It’s something best experienced blind, but if you haven’t bought it yet you probably need some convincing and for my money the Talos I station is by far the biggest and best selling point it has to offer. Of course because this is Arkane the station environment is complete, connected, and detailed, with a flashy art deco facade for the station staff and visitors giving way to more practical and utilitarian maintenance spaces behind the walls that run pretty much exactly where you’d expect maintenance spaces to go. One of the gimmicks of Prey’s alternate history world is the Looking Glass technology scattered throughout the station; this is a viewscreen that’s more than a viewscreen, as it presents a flawless 3D image of whatever you’re looking at that’s like peering through a window or onto a stage. The primary gameplay purpose of the Looking Glass is so that you can plausibly view cutscenes as a helpless observer (it’s a damn sight better than unbreakable glass windows, anyway), but Arkane then ask themselves: how else might this technology be used? Especially on a space station where space and resources are at a premium. This is why there’s more than one waterfall in Prey that isn’t actually a waterfall at all, but is instead a Looking Glass screen presenting a facsimile of a waterfall that’s indistinguishable from the real thing – and that you can smash and get behind the workings of if you manage to figure out that it’s a fake. Talos I is stuffed full of secrets like this and ferreting all of them out is immensely pleasurable, like deconstructing an incredibly intricate puzzle box. It’s also important to note that at no point does Prey break character in anything it does; where it has to make concessions to the fact that it is a game it’ll always come up with a believable in-game reason for why a thing is the way that it is, and that’s a principle that extends to both the level design and the more general gameplay mechanics.

Now, as to how Prey plays out in terms of the moment-to-moment activities of sneaking, fighting and listening to the ubiquitous audio logs, about the worst criticism I can make of it is that its weakest areas are no more than genre standard. The sneaking is perfectly functional, and the three working firearms in the game do exactly what they say on the tin; they are perhaps a little unspectacular, but then Prey is neither Dishonored or Doom. It simply makes some provision for you to play it like Dishonored or Doom if that’s what you want to do. More interesting are the non-firearm weapons and the powers you can pick up by scanning alien lifeforms and researching their abilities. Something that struck me a couple of hours into the game was that there really are only three weapons in the game that are primarily intended to be weapons — a pistol, a shotgun and a short-range stungun. Everything else is a jury-rigged experiment or an actual tool that you might believably find on a space station of the future, such as the Gloo Gun – this fires gobs of quick-expanding sealant that harden instantly and which are intended to be used for sealing atmospheric breaches (and there’s some sidequests where you use it to do literally this), but it’s also handy for immobilising enemies or for spraying onto walls to create impromptu staircases. Ditto the Q-Beam, which is a sort of high-powered welding laser, and the Huntress Boltcaster, which is actually a toy crossbow that fires foam bolts; it’s absolutely useless in a fight, but for pushing buttons from across the room and creating distractions for enemies that track movement or noise there’s nothing better.

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Because you have very few actual weapons, and very little ammunition for those weapons, you’re forced to get creative when taking down your alien foes. Immobilising them with the Gloo Gun or the stungun before whacking them with your wrench — yes, Prey continues the fine Shock tradition of having a wrench be your primary melee weapon — is much preferable to taking them head on with an unupgraded shotgun, as even one kinetic blast from a Phantom will take off nearly half your health. For bigger enemies you need to disable their more damaging abilities via EMP or psi-nullifying powers before taking them out. Prey’s weapon selection mostly being a set of tools is mirrored in you using them like tools: each one has a specific application, and you switch between two or three when fighting a given enemy.

Prey follows a slightly different design path when it comes to the alien powers. You unlock these by scanning the various alien enemies you encounter with your Psychoscope doohickey; once you’ve scanned four or five of a given enemy type you’ll unlock the appropriate parts of the alien skill tree that corresponds to the abilities that enemy has, at which point you can purchase those abilities yourself using Neuromods and use them against their erstwhile owners. Here Prey does something that I very much like to see games doing: it applies the same rules to both you and the aliens. They look weird and scary and until you get the Psychoscope they’ll show up in your HUD as a series of ??? marks rather than a named organism, and the start of Prey is correspondingly incredibly tense as you creep around the station trying to avoid bizarre monsters with unknown capabilities. That lasts up until you scan and research them, at which point the tables are turned: nearly every single alien ability that exists in the game is something that can be scanned, bought and turned against them. Eventually you learn that a Thermal Phantom is just something that can lay fire traps and has innate fire resistance, both of which become available to you after doing the requisite research. Etheric Phantoms are immensely confusing to fight until you realise they only have one active ability: Phantom Shift, which teleports them a short distance while leaving a clone of themselves to distract the enemy. Again, that’s something that you can research and use yourself. It’s not quite universal, and they can do some things that you can’t, but you eventually get access to all of their best toys.

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This design ethos of providing you with a universal toolkit rather than a weapon or powerset mostly succeeds in keeping Prey’s combat from becoming stale, but if Prey has one single weakness it’s that it doesn’t pace itself quite right in terms of encounter design. It’s not so much that the enemies you face are badly designed in and of themselves, it’s that Prey runs out of new ones to throw at you about halfway in and they don’t increase in threat while you continue to jam Neuromods into your head, powering yourself up to the point where even large groups of enemies are nothing more than an inconvenient speedbump. This is probably unavoidable when Prey has to cater to so many different styles of play — there’s a big thing around the morality of injecting yourself with alien abilities, so potentially a player only has access to the passive Human powersets (hacking, repair, more damage for weapons etc.) or even none at all, and the game still has to be completable for those players. It just means that for somebody like me, who found the Neuromod fabrication plans about thirty minutes into the game (I love that it let me run across them that early) and spent the next sixteen hours obsessively picking up every scrap of exotic matter they could find to make more Neuromods, the last half of the game was rather lacking in challenge.

A brief word about crafting: as a system it’s pretty basic and functional, but the in-game process for it is tremendous. You can pick up many different junk items in the game and, when your inventory gets too full, feed them into a Recycler that breaks them down into their constituent components: Organic, Synthetic, Mineral and Exotic. You then take those raw materials across to a Fabricator, call up the desired plans and plug in the required number and type of components to build the thing you want, which is 3D-printed in the air in front of you. Very simple, but I mention it for two reasons. One is that it means exploration is always worthwhile, as exploring a new area will always yield new items that, no matter how seemingly useless they are, can still be fed into the Recycler for more materials that can be used to create items you do want– it also means picking up duplicate guns has a point as these always have a very good yield when put into the Recycler. The other is that recycled materials are physically deposited into a hopper next to the machine for you to pick up, and the sound of them clattering into the slot is one of the most satisfying things ever.

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The last thing I should mention is that Arkane have done some serious work on one of the areas I’ve historically regarded them as being a little weak on: their world-building. Between this and Dishonored 2 they’re the undisputed champions of making fantastic environments that still have an entirely plausible layout, but Prey also couples it with some surprisingly good writing, dialogue, and incidental details. Take the Nerf crossbow I mentioned above: in one of Prey’s many incredibly neat touches of characterisation the plans for the crossbow can be found in a dozen places on Talos I because the people who work there are huge nerds and really into their office Nerf wars, which is also something that comes across in their audio logs – despite the fantastic environment the staff of Talos I are for the most part extremely relatable people, which makes it an extra-hard punch in the gut when you’ve been getting to know them via their voice recordings for five or six hours and then come across their helplessly eviscerated corpse. I’ve always looked down on audio logs as being a second-rate method of storytelling that are relied on far too heavily as a crutch, but games like Prey and Horizon Zero Dawn are making me revise that opinion; it looks like developers are finally figuring out how to use them effectively. If you buy Prey, don’t do what I did and dismissively ignore the logs for the first two hours of the game since you’ll be missing out on a lot of detail.

Prey is one of the most complete games I’ve ever seen. I was going to say I couldn’t recall the last time I played something that so successfully delivered on nearly everything it attempted, but then I realised that was a lie: the last time I played a game that left me feeling quite as satisfied and appreciative of the state of modern game development was Witcher 3. Prey isn’t as ambitious a game, but modelling an entire space station in minute detail should be plenty ambitious enough for anybody. Importantly it confirms Arkane as the custodians of the old Looking Glass2 spirit; Prey is a game that takes those old System Shock concepts and updates them almost flawlessly, blending in a little of Deus Ex, Thief, Dishonored, and more besides. It’s certainly a far better heir to the title than than the comparatively anaemic Bioshock games. I don’t namedrop all this stuff lightly but Prey definitely deserves it; it’s one of those rare games that redefines what I consider to be the standard for the genre, and serves as a timely reminder that this isn’t such a bad hobby after all.

  1. Since System Shock and Deus Ex went mainstream in the last few years people were bound to attach a label to them at some point, I guess.
  2. The developer, not the in-game viewing technology I talked about above.
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10 thoughts on “Thoughts: Prey

  1. ilitarist says:

    Nice review. Not that I needed any more encouragement to get Prey, will definitely get to it.

    Don’t worry about rarity of reviews, at least they’re pleasure to read.

    • Hentzau says:

      Please do — I’m not sure which I like better out of Prey and Battle Brothers, but between them I think I’ve probably already played the best games of 2017.

      Incidentally I did pop back to Stellaris briefly and was encouraged to see the game was much bulked out compared to what it was before, but war is still a deal-breaker for me. I think it’ll take another expansion that focuses on that before I can get back into it, but it’s definitely on an upwards trajectory at least.

      • ilitarist says:

        Wars are definitely tedious. The need to train, equip, guard, deploy and redeploy troops takes a toll on my. Without defense my transport ships might be quickly destroyed, and I have to bother with escorts for every jump from planet to planet I want to conquer. I hope they somehow integrate transport and military ships (currently you can’t unite them in a single fleet IIRC). And even without talking about planet sieges your defenses are mostly useless so there’s not much strategy involved in midgame battles, just destroy enemy armada and besiege.

        Crises invaders are much more interesting to fight and they feel like a real contenders in the game compared to tame and passive AI empires.

  2. Oli Hutt says:

    Who are you and what have you done with Hentzau?

    (I had no real interest in this game as I’ve got a stack of stuff to keep me busy, but now I might actually have to play it just because you’ve actually written such a positive review. Curse you!)

  3. Don´t give up man. I´m from Brazil (yeah!!) and always read your articles. Keep up the good writing!

    • Hentzau says:

      Hah, no chance of me giving up – keeping this blog is good for me and I still enjoy writing in bursts, I just don’t want it feeling like an obligation. Glad you’re enjoying it!

  4. Darren says:

    Sorry to hear you’ve been suffering a lack of motivation. Your reviews are always worth reading!

    I’ve been very tempted to buy this game for myself, but I’m trying to hold off since I have a stack of other games that are calling to me. I could just play my boyfriend’s PS4 copy, but after reading about it and playing the demo I think I’d much prefer the PC version.

  5. Griff says:

    I think you’re a little hard on the original Bioshock, yeah it was simplified a bit (hey, it was the early 7th gen) but it still got the ball rolling on reviving a style of game that had been dormant for years, on top of that I think it still has the coolest setting of all of them, System Shock and Deus Ex included, though the Talos I station sounds like it gives Rapture a run for it’s money.

    You’re right about Infinite though, what a waste of a fantastic setting that game was.

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