FBT plays Total Recall ... in Space.
The Prey franchise has the most convoluted history. The 2006 original started in the 90s as a Doom clone. The trailer for the unreleased Prey II showed a Bounty Hunter chasing aliens through Blade Runner. And now this, the 2017 version, a ‘spiritual sequel’ to SystemShock. It might be Prey in name only, but it’s got a lot to live up to.
In the near future, Morgan Yu is in the final stages of preparing to board Talos I, an orbiting science station managed by her/his brother, Alex. As she performs a psych test, something attacks the testing team, and Morgan finds herself back in her apartment like it never happened; the apartment was just a façade and Morgan a test subject aboard the station. Breaking out, she discovers the station housed an alien species, the Typhon whose abilities Alex was engineering into products sold back on earth. But now they’re loose and Morgan, with no memory before waking, is the only thing stopping them reaching Earth.
Morgan’s missing memory is explained by Prey’s version of Psi Powers/Plasmids/Vigors; this time, Neuromods, implanted into her brain and allowing super-human abilities, but removing it causes all memories since it’s insertion to be lost, hence Morgan not remembering what happened or suspecting she was a lab rat. But who made her a rat? What's Alex's role, and what are the Typhon up to? While Morgan tries to make sense of it all, the station’s owners send a team to put down the Typhon threat the old-fashioned way – and silence any survivors.
Exploring the station, which is somewhere between Rapture and 60’s-era Star Trek, Morgan is helped/hindered by Alex, contacting her to claim the station is their life’s work and too valuable to destroy while AI-bots Morgan left as clues insist she realised the threat was too great and everything –including her- needs to be destroyed. It’s up to Morgan to navigate the station, save (or ignore) various other survivors and stop the Typhon however she sees fit.
At times, Prey is the best game ever made; but after every great moment –and there are a lot– it flatlines into a trudge until the next set-piece. And there’s something else taking the edge off Prey; we’ve played it before. Not the original, regrettably, but it endlessly calls to mind other games; Bioshock, Portal 2, Fallout 3, Half-Life, Arkane’s own Dishonored – and that’s before we get into the similarities with System Shock 2 (Let it go). It just all feels so familiar that Prey never quite comes into its own no matter how strikingly original it seems.
The Typhon are awesome to begin with. The smallest, the Mimic are the size of a cat but their ability to morph into any similar-sized shape leaves you nervous about approaching almost everything. Calling to mind The Thing, it’s a great to see one scuttle away then notice two boxes on the floor - wasn’t there only one box there a second ago? NO! It was the coffee mug on the table! Panic! They’re really good - and unscripted, they’ll make their own choices dependant on how you might have altered the room, where you are, and you can return to an area hours later and get jumped, cursing yourself for not noticing a desk has two chairs. But the later and larger Typhon can’t shapeshift; they just attack, and while they unnervingly wander unscripted, they always use the same tactic. The Mimics are the most fun because you swap roles; hunted and hunter. The big boys just treat you as prey so you fight or flee; never getting to turn the tables and it’s odd to be more intimidated by this game’s headcrabs than their big bros; it’s not a horror game but the Mimics keep you jumpy and make you waste a lot of ammo, shooting toilet rolls just to be sure.
What we have to shoot with varies. There’s the security team’s pistols and shotguns which can be upgraded and they have a lovely art-deco fused with tech look to them. There’s that scourge of the office, a foam-arrow crossbow – redundant against the Typhon but invaluable for firing arrows through gaps and triggering touch-screens. The big one is the Goo gun though. Firing fast-drying gel, it can then be used to clamber to hidden or inaccessible areas and momentarily slow down the Typhon, but after a while you kinda wish you could take on the Typhon a little differently than point and shoot.
It’s not all shooting though. The Neuromods are broadly split into two groups, human and alien skill tress. Human level-ups are fairly typical; carry more crap, better hacking, weapon upgrades and so on. But the alien side is both brilliant and woefully underused. Early on Morgan recovers the Psychoscope, which allows her to scan the Typhon and learn its weaknesses - like the camera in Bioshock. Once unlocked, you can gain Typhon abilities such as mimicking the Mimic. Anything roughly Mimic sized you can morph into and fully upgrading lets you move as the item; I even managed to get past a security door by turning into a mug on a shelf then rolling under the security glass. It’s brilliant and a crime this doesn’t become a major part of the gameplay rather than just an alternative or stealth option; others such as mind-control, fire traps and kinetic blast are plasmid-tastic but they mostly support weapons for the guns. Interestingly though, the more Morgan uses those, the more Typhon she becomes; eventually security sentries and the like attack you on sight as Morgan starts to lose her humanity. Not that she had a great deal to begin with.
A standard silent hero, we learn Morgan’s backstory from the AI and snippets of recordings, but she never really comes into her own. Obviously, much like Jack in Bioshock, that allows us to play her as we see fit but whereas Jack was ostensibly a stranger in a strange land, Morgan is tied into all of this, even if her mind is now a blank and we should be discovering as much about her as the world she created. There’s strong implications that she wasn’t the pleasantest of people, but the game doesn’t seem to know if it’s her redemption or not; and the whole piece around her choosing to go through the procedure at the start is muddled; or maybe I missed a diary entry. Additionally, as the game progresses we get some serious Would You Kindly vibes and you start to guess where all this is going but it’s just not paced urgently enough to press on – there’s too much non-linear wandering going on.
The station is huge and varies in look and style, reflecting the station’s history, but a lot of the time you’re not doing a lot. A prominent element is recycling. Morgan can pick up almost any waste scattered about to feed a recycler which reconstitutes it into more useful materials. Those can then be added to a Fabricator which generates ammo, neuromods, and you can create or recycle weapons, letting you change your loadout – if you have the rubbish handy. It’s great at first, until you realise you’re spending hours just tidying up the station; it’s not very heroic to get excited at finding a banana peel, and all the traipsing back to the nearest machine to get some bullets gets wearisome. The idea that you have to purge a space station of shape-shifting aliens intent on invading earth should be a sobering, singular thought. Not checking bins for orange peels. Somehow the RPG elements work against Prey, it’s should have been more urgent; Morgan is trying to convince herself blowing up the station with her on it is the only option, shouldn’t we be focused on that?
Further RPG elements appear in the shape of mini-side missions and helping those you meet, and you return to the same areas often, especially the station lobby – it just makes the game feel meandering. But if you get bored of the inside, you can always pop out. You can shortcut around areas by going outside and using airlocks, fix ruptures to decompress areas to explore once back inside again. Floating around in space is a good metaphor for Prey; that seems to be partly down to the game’s obsession with multiple approaches to problems; that shouldn’t be a criticism but it needs to keep the pressure on – turns out I’m not the guy to save the world from an alien invasion, I’m too easily distracted digging through bins.
There’s one standout though and it’s literally a nightmare; the Nightmare Typhon. I was so thankful I met it after getting the mimic power-up; pretending to be a file binder and holding my breath, watching it hunt the room it chased me into is one of the most thrilling moments in the game. But, even that gets samey after a while; depending on how you best it, the Nightmare can return in the space of time it takes you to walk to a Recycler and back.
Having finally reached the ending, forcing myself to stop recycling and actually shoot something, I was surprised at how it ended. There were some curiously tender moments as I made my choices. It wasn’t what I expected. But then, after the credits, we get the true ending which was exactly what I expected. Who watches game credits? This isn’t Marvel. Escape and quit, that’s the gamer way. It is a much more honest way for it all to end but it’s diluted by being ‘hidden’, as if the game wasn’t sure it should have gone that way after-all. But then, Prey as an entire experience is constantly diluted, either by its lax pacing or being so reminiscent of other games. Still, it’s a great ending, and even if you expected it, the way it plays out is the stuff of Bioshock legend.
On the surface Prey is pure class; the station is astonishingly beautiful, the Typhon are terrifying and it’s very believable; the Groundhog Day moment was so effective I assumed I’d died, placed back at the last auto-save and the overall plot is epic. Had it been a little more linear, made more of Morgan and made the Neuromods so powerful you were fighting the Typhon on their terms instead of popping back to recycle some shotgun shells, it could have been a great game; it just tries to be everything to everyone and ends up never feeling like anything more than a Mimic.
2017 | Developer; Arkane Studios | Publisher; Bethesda Softworks Platforms; Win | PS4 | XO