It’s never a good sign when playing a game makes you desperately want to be playing something else. This is not to say that Prey, was a totally unenjoyable experience, but in evoking one of its clearest influences; Bioshock so heavily it left me constantly comparing it to series that contains two of my favourite games ever. Since Ken Levine has been jettisoned off the good ship 2K rendering the chances of a real successor to Bioshock Infinite practically nil, you’d think that the time would be right for another game in that mold, but unfortunately for Prey, it drops the ball in many of the areas that Bioshock excelled, leaving it feeling like an also-ran that started running about 7 years too late.
In Prey you play as Morgan Yu, who (and stop me if you’ve heard this one) must travel to a mysterious and labyrinthine Art Deco city where all is not what it seems and it is your task to eradicate the menace within whilst also uncovering your own past. However in Prey instead of worrying about leaking water, you have to worry about leaking bits of outer space as here our dystopia is Talos 1, a space station colony that was created by the private spacefaring company that your family owns. Once on the station, you discover that before losing your memory you implanted a robot with an AI version of yourself, who “would you kindly’s” you throughout the game, informing you that the only way to defeat an unstable and destructive alien race known as the Typhon, is to blow Talos 1 into pieces.
I initially enjoyed the narrative themes and the illusions to the alternate history the game takes place in, but as I may have mentioned 10 or 20 times, the game just reminded me of Bioshock to such an extent that I couldn’t take a single story beat at face value. Every single twist came across as obvious or derivative. It’s a shame really because some of the story hidden in the hundreds of emails and books detailing the state of earth before the station was built was really intriguing, but instead, the game focusses on the outbreak of the Typhon, a race of black flubber that serves as the antagonist throughout.
The characters themselves are also about as dull as it is possible to imagine. The only real development comes in the final few hours and even then it feels like reading the last two chapters of a biography without any knowledge of what could lead the person to these decisions. However special mention must go to the mission in which you must synthesise a crew members voice from audio recordings and logs. This mission had more character development for a group of characters I never met than any of the rest of the game. It helped create a vision of the station before everything went wrong and manages to add a human gravitas to the level of tragedy that was missing in the early game.
Without wishing to spoil, the ending to Prey was pretty astonishingly bad. So bad in fact that I literally replayed the last hour twice in order to see the changes from the two endings. Here’s a charming surprise; there was none. I honestly thought my game had bugged and forgotten to give me the final cut scene. Instead, it just launches you back to the main menu for you to either start again, or load a save. What a joke. I was really looking forward to the ending as I assumed that it would maybe tie up a loose end or two about the state of the alien menace or what is actually going on in the opening hour. Instead, you're given a poultry choice that is played out in less than 30 seconds.
Prey is a first-person shooter with stealth elements. One of the first tool tips you’ll encounter encourages you to “play your own way” meaning that encounters can be dealt with using a number of solutions. These include force, some alien powers that you acquire early in the game which give you various offensive and stealth options and sneaking around the large somewhat open areas. Developer Arkane also helmed recent first-person stealth series Dishonored and my problem with those game’s stealth rang true here; stealth in first-person isn’t fun. It’s incredibly difficult to know when you’re visible, or just how close an enemy is to spotting you. Yes, encounters can be snuck through, but the ridiculously clumsy controls on PS4 make this a slog and it serves you just as well to shoot anything in site, or as I resorted to during the game's second half obsession with backtracking; run.
The game’s main missions mostly involve the small cast of main characters, but there is a surprisingly broad array of side missions that are spread throughout the ship. These are often simple fetch quests or small combat challenges, but they are a decent distraction and some missions that may appear small initially can have large ramifications on the main narrative, which was a nice surprise.
There are few weapons in the game, which I didn’t mind because it let me focus on upgrading the shotgun to the point where it was an unstoppable death stick. There is also the GLOO gun which shoots a foamy white substance onto enemies in order to freeze them or to extinguish hazards around the world. There was a satisfaction in combining the GLOO with the shotgun or the kinetic blast, but with little variation it quickly became dull. Also when I ended the game I had almost 600 units of ammo for a weapon I didn’t see one single time. There were certainly areas of the ship I didn’t visit on my travels but for something which ammo seems to pour from every crate and locker, it seemed strange to keep the weapon itself so hidden.
Talos 1 is broken up into several large areas with extremely long loads separating them. These areas are rather large and there is a cohesiveness to the aesthetic of the ship that I really liked. It’s also a lot larger and has more hidden areas and paths than you’ll find following the direct path, so be sure to stop and check every door and security panel. Instead of travelling around inside the station, you can also go for spacewalks which are surprisingly non-linear. Presuming you don’t attempt a visit to the Moon, you can float around the station freely. There is also some hidden side missions and narrative building moments out in the abyss, so it’s worth exploring.
These exploration moments were by far my favourite parts of the game. At times it really feels like there is little or no need for this game to have any action at all. A nice touch is that every corpse you encounter around the station will have a name, and these can often be linked to quests or side areas in a different part of the station. The computer terminals also feature full lists of every crew member on board, and as far as I can tell, every one of them can be located somewhere on Talos 1.
It’s clear from the off that Prey is from the same developer as Dishonored, however unlike in the gameplay, in the art department, this is a strength. Characters are expressive and varied, although it does have the same problem as Dishonored wherein every overweight character looks like a caricature. The ship's interior is beautiful. It has restrained itself from leaning on the retro-futurism instead going for more of a light influence rather than the time capsule approach of the Bioshock games. The lighting effects are fantastic and create atmosphere and tension in a very subtle and effective way.
Light acoustic guitar and ominous strings create a soundtrack that is oppressive and depressing. It conveys the themes of lost progress and tragedy effectively while also ramping up the more horror-like moments with smartly timed audio cues and volume changes.
From a technical perspective, the game is very inconsistent. While the visuals are nice in motion, stopping to look around will reveal some muddy textures, inconsistent frame rates and some instances outside the ship where parts of the geometry would flicker in and out of existence forever. The loading times are also interminable. The loads between areas are understandable, but the load following deaths can also take a frustratingly long time. Also, strangely on a few occasions, despite having 0 health according to the HUD, I was able to continue to walk around and shoot for a few seconds before the game decided to reload me.
Prey also has some serious control issues on Playstation 4. The delay between moving the stick forward and the character moving is at least one entire second and this can be repeated with the aiming on the right stick to. It makes instances of combat in which the player must hit a moving target entirely luck based, as I was having to factor in the delay in trying to line up a shot.
Throughout my time with Prey, I was waiting for the spark. The moment when the games clumsy controls and uninspired combat were rendered a minor annoyance by a grand revelation in the story or a compelling new character. Instead what I found as I progressed was a very well designed pseudo-open world with compelling world building which is totally let down by a truly terrible ending and pacing issues that stop it from being anything interesting. If you are so bereft of first person narrative driven games set in a dystopia, then maybe a rental to walk around and read some of the emails or listen to the audio logs is worth it, but as a full priced experience, it’s a 15 hour tribute act that was outshone in virtually every class in literally 10 years ago.
|+World building.||– Awful ending.|
|+Well written side missions.||– Boring encounter design.|
|+Big, beautiful world.||– Unresponsive controls.|
|– Poor pacing in the closing hours.|