James Stephanie Sterling
Prey Review – Neuromoderate
Developer: Arkane Studios Publisher: Bethesda Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One Released: May 5, 2017 Copy purchased
Prey is almost nothing like its namesake and almost everything like System Shock, which is great if you don’t mind the use of unrelated intellectual property as a delivery vehicle for an inferior System Shock successor. Some of us will miss what Prey 2 was supposed to be, but there’s no changing that.
I wouldn’t mind it so much if Prey was superior to the game it aped in any way – any one meaningful way – but when we cut to the heart of it, we’re looking at a fan tribute to the Shock series lacking the atmosphere and imagination that made any of the official games so endearing. It seems “helping out” with development of BioShock 2 was not adequate experience to pull off a full game.
Like Prey‘s most marketed antagonists, the shapeshifting Mimics, Arkane Studios’ sci-fi horror adventure closely resembles the thing it’s trying to be, but it doesn’t take long for the artifice to make itself known.
Its unremarkable story and sterile environments are thoroughly uninspiring. Like its spiritual predecessors, most of the narrative is deployed via audio logs, but characters are given little depth or time to develop, and their stories aren’t particularly engaging.
The fall of Talos 1, taken over by the alien Typhon, is nowhere near as interesting as the collapse of Rapture, and the game lacks a strong antagonistic force such as Andrew Ryan or SHODAN to give the story any sort of kick. A villain with actual motives is introduced in the very final stages of the game and does his best to salvage some audience investment, but he arrives too late and his impact is too little.
Mission progression is a formulaic case of constantly taking diversions because of conveniently inconvenient lockdowns to the point where it’s almost comical in its repetition. The entire main story is a case of constantly needing to run to a certain place to fix a thing so you can go through some doors.
Side missions can be more varied, but usually revolve around locating and picking up varied McGuffins or basic upgrades, without much else to break up the monotony.
The Typhon themselves? Terrible.
Prey‘s gloopy grotesques are some of the least engaging forces I’ve encountered in a game, much less one attempting to evoke a sense of isolated dread found in the work it copies from. Described as being unable to “see” humans, this bestiary of amorphous oily shapes is devoid of personality and lacks any tangible motive other than destruction.
It’s not like you can’t make that work. The Xenomorphs from the Alien series or Warhamer 40,000‘s Tyranids operate on the same level. The different is that Xenormorphs and Tyranids are visually striking and genuinely terrifying in their methods, while the Typhon just skittering slime zombies.
Prey hinges a lot on its Mimics with their one gimmick of changing form to assume random pickups or environmental debris. At first, this concept induces a sense of light paranoia, but once the Mimics reveal themselves as little black balls with four tentacles poking out, any sense of fear quickly evaporates.
The most common enemies, the Phantoms and their many irritating variants, aren’t much better. Imagine Venom without any of Venom’s distinguishing features, or a toy skeleton dipped in tar. You’ve just imagined the Phantoms, stomping about Talos 1, making silly noises, being quite the opposite of scary.
If you’re absolutely starved for some Shock antics, Arkane does produce a serviceable forgery.
It runs nicely, it’s graphically pleasant if not artistically inspiring, and its quick crafting system is fun enough to use. Turning masses of junk into usable materials to make medkits, ammo, or even precious Neuromods is something that never quite gets old thanks to it cutting out much of the bullshit associated with modern crafting systems.
Talos 1 is well designed from an architectural standpoint. The space station is intricately mapped out and separated into various departments, all of which feature alternate routes through hazardous environments as well as obstacles that can only be dealt with by certain character builds.
Prey‘s Neuromod system allows players to enhance their character in a number of different ways, allowing for improved combat performance or more intricate skills such as repairing machines and hacking computer equipment. Again, it’s System Shock, so many of these upgrades will be familiar to many of you.
So many of you.
“Play your way” is a motto of the game, so much so it actually interrupts play to boast about it at one point. Unfortunately, it’s not strictly true. While there are several notable hindrances and combat arenas that allow for varied playstyles, the sheer amount of machinery and locks found on Talos 1 strongly favor anybody going into repairs or hacking first.
By the same token, even fully upgraded weapons will require a ton of ammo to put down even the most basic Phantom, so anybody whose way of playing trends toward the direct will have an undeniably tougher time until many hours in, finally competing once they have so many upgrades that combat becomes laughable.
It’s quite possible, in fact, to build a character “wrong” – or at least so ill-equipped for the early hours that gameplay becomes utterly miserable. This is the position I found myself in when I thought I’d break from tradition and play a more gun-toting protagonist.
My mistake, I guess… but the game told me I could play my way!
With every enemy taking bullet-absorption lessons from Scarface, and the world being littered with turrets and keycode screens begging for attention, I decided to scrap my first run after several hours. The difference on the second run, having invested heavily into the Engineer skill tree, was tremendous.
While Prey still remained a fairly mundane and unremarkable Shocklike for twenty dreary hours, the efficiency with which I was able to regain my lost progress was startling, not to mention how many more options for exploration opened up to me.
The first half of the game is tough no matter where you invest your Neuromods. The Typhon are thick smoky meat shields and dart around the room with erratic swiftness once alerted, quickly turning any battle into an anarchic shitshow. Players may quickly find resources are tight while their opponents never run out of juice and tend to repopulate previously cleared areas.
Due to there being no sense of adequate balance in the game, the second half is a sudden twist in the other direction.
Getting hold of a Neuromod fabrication plan is difficult not to do before the closing credits roll, and with a few easy investments you’ll be able to loot Typhon corpses for “exotic material,” a key crafting component. With these two elements in place, you can create unlimited upgrades for as long as you have the easily acquired materials.
After agonizing about how to customize my character for the first portion of the game, by the end of it I was investing in upgrades for the sheer hell of it.
As well as general gameplay upgrades spread across three skill trees – Scientist, Engineer, and Security – Prey offers Neuromod paths for Typhon abilities unlocked by scanning different enemy types for their data.
The suite of alien powers are useful but generic, consisting mostly of various energy blasts and mind control abilities. Aside from being able to mimic the Mimics themselves and morph into different objects, there’s nothing really original or impressively done with the more juiced up powers on offer.
They’re worth taking simply for how much they can hurt Typhon (Psychoshock isn’t just what the game clearly wants to be called, it’s a damn good attack), but they’re not exciting in the least.
That’s Prey all over. It works, it’s well made, and polished, and all those things we expect “AAA” games to be. What it is not is exciting. At all.
It’s an also-ran that I was quite frankly happy to see the back of once I was blessedly finished.
On a final note, whoever worked on audio balancing needs a stern talking to.
Prey makes very limited use of pre-rendered cutscenes, but the few appearing are considerably louder than the rest of the game and they appear as sudden flashback sequences, meaning at any time you could be ambushed by the game fucking screaming at you. Scott Cawthon may have repopularized horror for the kids, but Five Nights at Freddy‘s has not a single jumpscare as jarring and horrifying as Prey‘s poorly mixed cutscenes.
Operators, floating robots that can restore health, armor, or ability-governing Psi energy, are also curiously louder than anything else in the game, with distance or solid walls doing nothing to govern their noise. At one point, I couldn’t hear an NPC in the same room with me because an Operator outside was yelling “GOOD TO SEE YOU.”
It couldn’t actually see me because I was in a different goddamn room. What was so good about this situation?
One of the final and most important pieces of dialog in the game was actually ruined by Prey‘s inability to handle its audio. I received an unbidden radio message at the same time one of the game’s sorta-maybe-antagonists was delivering a crucial monolog. Prey chose to subtitle the radio message, and played it far louder than the man directly talking to me.
I don’t know what the fuck he said. What his ultimate motives were.
But hey, at least I know it’s good when the Operator sees me!
And like I said, it’s good to see the back of Prey.