Making its way through roughly a decade of troubled development, Arkane Studios’ Prey is finally here. While sharing the same name as the original Prey – a well received first person shooter released on PC and Xbox 360 in 2006 – this 2017 game bears almost no resemblance to its source material at all, and it’s not hard to find out why. When Bethesda bought up the rights to Prey in 2009, development began on a sequel, helmed by the same studio that made the original: Human Head Studios. But at some point in development, the publisher’s vision for the game differed from the developers, and the sequel was cancelled in 2014.
At Bethesda’s E3 conference last year, we were introduced to a new game bearing the Prey name, but it looked very different. Now being developed by the studio behind Dishonored, the 2017 Prey shifted away from alien bounty hunting and into the the realm of the Immersive Sim next to their prior work and the likes of Bioshock, System Shock and Deus Ex. The only thing besides the title that remains of the 2006 original is the alien focus, though even in that regard they are dramatically different.
Critical to any game’s success or failure is the introduction. Here we should be gripped by the tone, interested in the setting, and intrigued by the characters. Prey does all of these exceptionally well. In the thirty hours or so that I spent with the game, every minute felt as though it were making good on some narrative or mechanical promise made in the first hour. And what a first hour it was. It begins in much the same way the initial trailer did, with the main character in their apartment. I’ll avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that the narrative twist that kicks off the game proper is excellent and surprising – even if it won’t change what you know about the meat of the game already. You’re still shooting space aliens, but the setup to get there is much more engaging than I would have expected thanks to its good pacing and strong voice acting.
But a great narrative hook isn’t the only thing the first hour does well. Prey employs mechanical foreshadowing in a way I’ve rarely seen. Weaved into a segment in the first hour’s narrative is a bit that tasks the player with doing things that they clearly are not capable of doing yet – not for lack of skill, but for lack of mechanical freedom. This lays out some expectations for what the player will be able to do later on in the game and feeds back into the tension that is payed off in the opening hour’s twist. The next two dozen hours are spent expanding the player’s abilities until they meet and exceed the promises made in the beginning.
Story and mechanics come together to form one of the best opening hours I’ve ever played in a game, hands down. And while there are certainly ups and downs with how the rest of the game executes on this vision, ultimately I felt that the game as a whole felt committed to themes initially shown to the player. Curiously, Bethesda and Arkane decided to release a demo of the game that allows you to play the first hour, so if you are on the fence I encourage you to check out the free download to thoroughly understand what I’m describing.
The Middle Manager from the Black Lagoon
One of the most surprising and enjoyable aspects of Prey is its commitment to portraying corporate culture, even in an extreme setting. The space station the game takes place on is called Talos 1, owned and operated by the corporation Transtar. As such, everyone on board, all 300 or so, are employees. This narrative decision is reflected in everything from the level design to the characters and even enemy placement. Prey never lets you forget that you are knee-deep in corporate culture and design, and that the crisis aboard the station is, in some part, directly tied to that culture.
Characterization is largely played out through emails and audio logs found by the player, and while sometimes this falls short in creating good individual characters, it masterfully builds the character of the space station itself. As a life or death crisis is breaking out, people are first sending emails to Human Resources. When the stress of working in orbit begins to take its toll, people go to the corporate counselor. When characters talk to each other, it’s often about shift duties and that manager that they hate. Talos 1 is the embodiment of the achievements and perils that corporate culture brings with it, and Prey never shies away from that.
That said, the characters Arkane did decide to fully flesh out often leave much to be desired. Animation is pretty lackluster, especially in faces. It’s not terrible, by any stretch, but it contributes to most of the modeled, in-game characters feeling somewhat stilted. The writing and voice work does much to alleviate this, as well as the overall visual design of the characters. As such, the perfect storm comes into play for one character who the player gets to know through a number of emails and audio logs before briefly meeting them in game. This character’s story undoubtedly becomes the most interesting (besides the two main characters), and it’s clearly due to the fact that their story is told through Prey’s strongest avenues while avoiding its pitfalls.
No Waist-High Cover to be Found
Because of Arkane’s vision in making Talos 1 feel like a living/work space, the game never has spaces or moments that feel like they were designed solely for a combat encounter and nothing else. Were this game to be in VR and all the aliens were removed, I think it would feel like a believable simulation of living and working on a space station, which is a pretty fantastic achievement. This is almost exclusively a good thing for the game as a whole, though there are a few negatives that come along with it. It plays well to the mechanical genre Prey is trying to compete in, where believable spaces are created that allow for diverse, interactive systems to mesh in. It massively improves immersion in the way that games in the Immersive Sim genre (unsurprisingly) often do, because they minimize moments that feel particularly contrived. In short, Talos 1 feels alive, and it’s an exciting place to be.
But it’s not all good times to be had. Creating a world that is not built specifically for one mechanic only means that individual elements can sometimes feel unpolished in certain environments. For instance, there’s a big ol’ alien that occasionally hunts the player around the station. These moments are usually intense, scary, and ultimately gratifying. Unfortunately, because the station was built with humans in mind, there are instances where you can simply walk down a hallway that the alien is too big to enter and wait for it to leave, killing the tension. In the end, I don’t think that is a bad thing per se, as it preserves the immersion and manages to feel believable, even while clearly undercutting gameplay.
This design philosophy extends throughout the game’s mechanics and creates a whole that is very fun to interact with. As your character gains weapons and new abilities, entirely new methods of play are opened up, completely at the player’s choice. Reflected in the trophies even, is the fact that not only does Prey have multiple endings, but several vastly different methods of play that can change the gameplay dramatically. This is another remarkable achievement because Arkane pulls it off well. You really can play Prey however you want, in the sense that abilities and play styles are nonlinear, even if the story isn’t.
Cracks in the Believable World
The real downsides to Prey come from its technical issues and shortcomings. Right off the bat, the player will notice that load times are quite long, though infrequent. Going between airlocks requires not one, but two loading screens, and by hour 30 it starts to hold back the experience. Despite the fact that each area is fairly large so as to limit the frequency of load times, late-game quests require you to bounce between sections for various tasks so frequently that, at times, it feels like I’m looking at loading screens more than I’m playing. It’s possible, the ending I chose influenced that more than others would have, but what was once a relatively rare annoyance in the first 20 hours, became a tension-killing, pace-destroying problem.
This issue may have been much more easily alleviated by connecting more rooms to each other so that moving from the top of the station to the bottom required fewer loading screens. In all honesty, this seems like a very difficult problem to fix as the game keeps track of nearly every item you move or touch, something that requires system resources and makes the prospect of removing loading screens almost impossible.
Other technical problems are less understandable, such as faulty spawns for people and objects that are key to certain side missions. At one point, a robot who was supposed to give me a key card never spawned in the world at all, and a particular room was unreachable without breaking through the geometry of the world. Thankfully, no bugs of this variety were game-breaking, and the game is very generous with its autosaves as well as letting the player quick-save whenever they want. Even the trophies that require you to collect “all” of a certain item will unlock well below the stated amount, because some bugs have made certain things inaccessible.
Otherwise the game runs smoothly with great image quality, so the moment-to-moment technical aspects are not a problem. Hopefully, the more pressing issues are addressed in a future patch – it remains to be seen.
All in all, Prey is an outstanding game with excellent atmosphere and level design, brilliantly accompanied by an exceptional score. Gameplay is open and diverse, allowing the player to find their own enjoyment in its expertly crafted space. The story is gripping and deals with weighty subject matter I didn’t expect from the way the game was marketed. While there are technical problems that hold back the experience somewhat, they ultimately do little to distract from the tense, engaging moments to be had on Talos 1.
System: PlayStation 4
Release Date: May 4, 2017
Categories: Immersive Sim
Developer: Arkane Studios