Movie Sleuth Gaming: Prey Reviewed

For most of my gaming life, I have been avoiding horror games like the plague. I don't have a problem with their existence, but as someone who gets a little, let's call it ‘over-immersed’ in games, I haven't found them particularly fun or healthy for me as an individual. I don't think that the genre gods of the great wiki in the sky would go as far as to consider Prey a proper horror game, but I sure would. On countless occasions I found myself jumping out of my chair from an unexpected reveal of alien life, and it surprisingly never got old to me. On occasion, I felt some fatigue, but like clockwork, even after a few dozen hours, Prey continued to scare me; and more importantly, surprise me.

In the initial hours of the game, I would not have said the same thing. I am glad I dug in and gave the game a shot, but I would by lying if I said I wasn't tempted to write it off as a another cliched copy from a post-Bioshock world. It’s homage to the immersive sim games of the past is apparent, and the direct parallels to System Shock and Bioshock are early and often. After a well-executed intro sequence to set the stage, the player is greeted with an environment that is simultaneously familiar and uncanny. My first thought was that it was a little TOO Bioshock. Mysterious assistance from the radio, a massive art deco facility in disarray, unseen villains, and constant questioning, it was a trope festival. Fortunately, it uses these elements primarily in the setup phase of the game, and moves beyond in a satisfying fashion.

The core loop of the gameplay is exploration and problem solving. You get a brief introduction to the situation, but are not in a position of understanding what’s really going on. You know that you are a scientist, Morgan Yu, and you are on a space station where things have gone wrong, but the rest is really up to you to find out for yourself. You explore the surrounding areas, take in the environment, read primary documents and notes, and get nosey with your coworker’s emails to piece together how things came to be the way they are. This kind of open-endedness is something that developer Arkane Studios has come to be known for from its Dishonored series, and I found it to be even more effective here than in their past titles. I still got a little frustrated at times with the choices v. options dichotomy, but I think it may just be a product of wanting a lot of possibility space without feeling like you are punishing players for making specific choices. I would rather the choices make more of a difference when it came to what items or locations you saw, but I might have sung a different song had I missed valuable content because of skill choices. What the options ultimately presented was the opportunity for some personal narrative roleplaying; an awesome freedom that was both a blessing and a curse.

Arkane's bulging and visceral character design is back, as unnerving as ever

My desire to roleplay how I think I would handle the situation (that is to say, poorly and in terror) also at times worked against me, but not so much as to totally inhibit my experience. The idea of being trapped on a ship full of dispassionate murderous aliens terrifies me, as I imagine it would many others. Between creatures appearing out of thin air and the found documents revealing a world of junk science for profit at any cost, I was right to be. The first time the neuromods (the skill points equivalent)  are made available to the player, you are warned that automated defenses are more likely to target you the more you use them and how the world may change. That, on top of the countless written records of side effects, the implied scumbaggery of the more dubious characters, and the ability for me to easily get through hours of the game without them, I didn't feel encouraged to use them as much as perhaps the designers had hoped. There are a large variety of abilities available though, which I do appreciate. Especially after Mass Effect Andromeda and other modern story-driven RPG games removing a lot of the non-combat powers, it was nice to have a wider variety available.

The combat itself is modern streamlined experience but is ultimately flawed, especially in the early hours. I appreciate that the developers wanted to make the experience feel authentic by slowing things down. Morgan is not the Quake guy, he is a scientist, and it is made immediately apparent by the slow natural movement speed and limited stamina. Though upgradable, the natural movement abilities of the player character feel sluggish. Even the most basic of enemies have a propensity for sudden appearance, and I found their frantic movements a challenge to follow. Not due to poor reaction times or inability to follow the action, just from controls with sub-par fidelity. This is a deliberate design choice to increase the challenge and make the player’s upgrade decisions more interesting early in the game, but I don’t believe it achieved what it set out to do. Most of the faster moving and weaker enemies are just that, and not being able to keep up with them felt more like an annoyance than a challenge.

While I still quite liked the game and thought the challenge level was appropriate, it had a small handful of flaws that I had trouble overcoming. On a minor but personally impactful level, there are some serious sound problems with Prey. It’s not something simple like a bad soundtrack, I actually quite liked Mick Gordon’s original pieces (it’s no DOOM soundtrack, but that’s neither here nor there). The problem lies with the audio mixing and use of the musical queues. In the later stages of the game when the smaller enemies become more nuisance than threat, the audio queues would still imply extreme danger. Similarly, if enemies are contained in a room via a closed door or clever GLOO (a universal tool to slow down enemies and make platforms via a giant glue gun) use, since the systems still know they are in my vicinity, my audio experience is amiss. Some might call it nitpicking, but sound is very important for immersion and at times it really misses the mark.

The GLOO Gun shoots a polymer that traps enemies and provides dozens of creative uses
The only big miss of the game for me had to do with the story reveals in specific instances. Prey was the game that spoiled itself, and while I did my very best to suspend my disbelief, I really struggled. Keeping things as vague and low on spoilers as possible, I urge players to avoid the side-quest related to ‘December’. It was the most intriguing side quest I had had throughout the early game, but I regret finishing it after only around 10 hours. That on top of the intro sequence really did the game a disservice. The way that you are so quickly made aware that things are not what they seem via the intro had a more drastic negative impact than I expected. I try very hard not to be cynical, but i just spent a lot of the rest of the game thinking that nothing I did mattered, especially knowing how connected the game was to Bioshock. I still think the story is great and the pacing in the game is otherwise brilliant, but having figured out the ending a good 15 hours before actually completing the game really took the wind out of my sails on the narrative as a whole.

On the subject of the good pacing, there was a moment about 2/3rds of the game that helps to change your perspective that I found exceedingly powerful. I will spare you the details, but it was proof positive of smart pacing. It wasn’t the wild story twist that players may have been expecting, and if anything it was much more powerful. Not a cheap reveal, not a contrived explanation of mysteries, just a simple but poignant discovery that made me rethink my actions, past and future.

In addition to the RPG and combat mechanics, Prey comes complete with the most popular unifying gameplay mechanic of the modern video game: Crafting. The crafting system functions as a great mechanical triple-threat: It puts more choice in the player’s hands by having to manage what you want to keep or throw away due to limited inventory space and the need for breaking down junk into crafting parts, It acts as a gate to the player to need to accomplish certain goals to move forward,  and it also streamlines the consumable item systems by enabling players to craft things like ammunition and health packs. I found the crafting system to be just the right frequency of relevance, not core to every moment to moment action, but relevant enough to remain a constant in the player’s mind. Crafting ammo and utilities is useful, and the infrequency of fabricators adds a pleasant gameplay cycle of tension and safety that works in Prey’s favor. Fortunately I have the self-control to not do so, but as of my playthrough of Prey, it still had a bug that allowed duplication of unlimited crafting materials. It has since been patched, and I don’t hold it too much against Arkane, but I do feel bad for folks that may have unintentionally ruined the challenge for themselves.

More than any game I have played in the recent past, my feelings on Prey were in a state of constant change. In the early game, I actively disliked it’s similarities with the Shock series, and was quickly fatigued by the combat. With such a powerful opening sequence, I expected more from the early hours, but everything eventually did start to open up and pique my interest after just a few more hours. I am glad I stuck with it, and I advise others to do the same. It was a lesson in having a good attitude and sticking with it to be rewarded, especially as the rewards came at my own pace of investigation and decision making. Prey stands on the shoulders of genre giants, but stick with it, it just may surprise you the way it did me.

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-Justin Wicker