Prey is an achievement. Never before have I played a game that showed me just what choice could mean in regards to gameplay. Sure, many comparisons can be drawn between Prey and BioShock, but Arkane Studios does it better. In terms of big sci-fi ideas, treating the player with a vast amount of respect and intelligence, and rewarding gameplay, this game delivers.
The story puts you in the shoes of Morgan Yu, a scientist aboard the space station Talos I, who starts as a lab rat but quickly becomes a space savior after the aliens known as the Typhon attack. Almost all of the storytelling is delivered via audio logs and a handful of crew members who are still alive. I won’t go into details on the main narrative, but it is more than compelling to move the adventure along.
More interesting are all the little side stories and details of your journey. Finding notes, reading crew members’ emails, and listening to their final moments all provide something interesting and relevant. These aren’t just window dressing to add some spice to the gameplay on Talos I, they have meaning. A note may mention a secret stash somewhere in a room; an email, a suspicion of another crew member that leads to an entire side mission and scavenger hunt; or an audio log that tells a love story and leads to further relationship clues.
The crew of Talos I feel like real people that had this happen to them. They were living their lives and all hell broke loose. It is a fascinating take on the S hitting the fan idea because it doesn’t happen days later, the outbreak just occurred. Everything on Talos I is littered with debris, bodies line the hallways and others are clearly where they thought they were safe and decided to hole up, only to be attacked by the Typhon anyway.
There is a quiet desolation that suffocates almost the entire experience and I couldn’t get enough of it. Sure, there are plenty of audio logs and interruptions by some of the still alive crew, but the majority of the time, there is a still silence. The game knows this and uses a light peppering of enemies to break the flow of exploration, helping to punctuate the terror in the vast silence.
You don’t have anything when you start Prey, but you build up an arsenal pretty quickly. The standard melee weapon, pistol, and shotgun make appearances but, surprisingly, there aren’t any more traditional weapons besides various grenades. There’s also the gloo gun which fires a goop you can use to make temporary platforms, suppress fire and electricity, and even slow down enemies.
This is where the crux of Prey comes in: you are given complete control over how you tackle each challenge. This doesn’t sound like anything special but everything in the game is based on choice, much like Arkane’s other franchise, Dishonored. A Typhon lure can draw the enemy into a fire, a broken electrical panel, turret fire, or your own wrench for a damaged-boosted stealth attack. A turret can be disabled with an EMP grenade or stun gun, or hacked to use against the enemy. Weapons can also be upgraded in the traditional ways (damage, reload speed, etc.), and this is before I bring up the psychic powers.
The first several hours of Prey are spent learning just how different Talos I is from other game environments. Every inch of this station demands to be scoured. You’ll hold on to materials until you can use them for something later, because everything in the game can be fabricated if you have the recipe for it. Ammo, health packs, even shotguns can be made with whatever you find. This is thanks to a recycling system where any item you find can be reduced into simpler crafting materials. Thus, you aren’t picking up 3 of this and 4 of that to make some concoction, but grabbing everything that isn’t nailed down to reduce into more useful basic materials, all in conveniently small cubes. In this way, it simplifies crafting and makes looting the environment, an absolute necessity, fun.
Going from office to office can, and should, be a meticulous experience. I never wanted to miss anything. Every scrape of ammo, personal note, or material represented the tasty breadcrumbs the game was feeding me. This is a game for hoarders, it really is. But it is also so much more because exploration is never so simple, and this leads back to that player freedom again.
There’s a room you want to get in, but the door is locked. Here are some ways to get inside: The side entrance is blocked by a really heavy object but you can use a certain level of an ability to lift it out of the way. You could also use a recycler grenade to vaporize the large object into raw materials. Back at the main entrance, you happen to have found the passcode to open the door through your earlier exploration, or you’ve leveled up your hacking ability enough that getting through the door is not problem. A window next to the door can be broken and you can shoot a dart at a touch screen to open the door. Or transform into a nearby object, such as a cup, to slip through that same broken window. What about the piping that runs around the ceiling outside of the room? Climb up to it and walk along to find a hidden maintenance entrance. Or even use the gloo gun to climb around the outside and onto the terrace on the other side of the room.
These aren’t even all of the ways you can get around a simple door in Prey. Granted, you won’t need to use all of these ways but just seeing the possibilities (such as noticing the maintenance entrance on your way out) always impressed me. The amount of care and thought in the level design is second to none.
Which brings things around to the special powers you can get through neuromods. There are six skill trees in total and they all offer something fun to try out. I can be harsh on skill trees, many of them are seemingly complicated for complexity’s sake, but Prey does it perfectly. At the third and final level of one skill, your HP will be triple what it was at the start for example. That’s a dramatic increase and that simplicity and clarity carries over to the other skills as well.
In addition to lifting heavy objects, hacking, and stealth options, half of the skills are devoted to Typhon abilities. By researching the enemy with an in-game scope, you’ll unlock more and more of these alien abilities and be able to use them on the very creatures you got them from. Options include a psionic blast, mind control, and warping, just to name a few. All of these abilities affect both exploration and combat in numerous ways.
All of this should make it pretty clear just how much player choice is in Prey. How diverse not only individual play styles can be, but also individual encounters. The slow, methodical pace of exploration continues throughout and manages, impressively, to not become just another first person shooter by the end. Almost the entirety of Prey is dripping with a suspicious atmosphere that could turn into a frantic battle at a moment’s notice.
As previously mentioned, the combat is just as filled with interesting choices as the rest of the game. While the enemy variety isn’t too deep, with the exception of the alien mimics that are able to disguise themselves as just about anything and attack at a moment’s notice, there was never a combat scenario I didn’t enjoy. Seeing an enemy patrol and preparing for the battle remained something to be worried about even at the end. Sure, I had a ton of bullets, but if I didn’t smartly disable the enemy’s psionic abilities, set up a nearby distraction turret, or slow down time, I would have died.
Every battle is one worth preparing for. Seeing something across the room, readying the appropriate grenade, and quicksaving before diving in, happened throughout and various enemy setups offered new and interesting ways to experiment.
If there is a problem that does come out of this focus on hoarding and exploration it’s that the final act of the game relies too heavily on backtracking fetch quests. As threatening as the Typhon are, it still doesn’t shake the tedium of walking back through offices and facilities you’ve thoroughly stripped down for weapons and upgrades trying to find the next item or thread to forward the plot.
Besides a map system that could be better and a few glitched side quests, my experience with Prey was flawless. There were some misteps near the end, but the final scene gave me chills and the existential implications therein made it all worth it. To me, Prey easily stands toe to toe with some of the best sci-fi games in recent years, and if the world is just, should be remembered as one of the finest gaming experiences of all time. This is an instant classic that you shouldn’t overlook.