SPACE is a dangerous place. Cold, solar radiation, aliens intent on killing us all, scientists and astronauts with wrenches smacking said aliens around … it’s no wonder a lot of computer games are set off world.
Prey, developed by Arkane Studios and released by Bethesda on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, is the latest in this long and distinguished line of extra-planetary first-person shooters.
The game casts you as Dr Morgan Yu (player’s choice whether Morgan is male or female), a senior executive at the Transtar Corporation who are involved with various “Science!” developments which (of course) are a bit more sinister than they first seem.
The most notable of these questionable achievements is the development of Neuromods which involve granting the user additional abilities and skills via the simple and painful method of sticking a large needle in their eye and injecting chemicals into their brain to rewire it so they can speak French, fly a space shuttle, hack into computers or gain psionic powers.
Of course, all the neuromodding comes later — after you’ve woken up in your apartment and then discover an experiment has gone horribly wrong and something terrible has escaped in the process.
Did you enjoy the System Shock or Bioshock games? Then you’re going to love Prey.
The ‘lift pitch’ version is Prey is Bioshock on a space station, with special guest appearances by Dishonored, Alien: Isolation and Deus Ex.
And before anyone says ‘So, it’s basically a new System Shock?’, I direct your attention to the retro-1930s to 1950s-esque architecture of the Talos I station interior and challenge you not to think of Rapture.
Prey — set in a universe where the Soviet Union never collapsed, the Vietnam War never happened and JFK lived until 2031 — follows a familiar formula of “dystopian setting in the middle of a disaster, dead people everywhere, audio logs and emails helping you piece together what happened, gain superhuman powers, rescue survivors and solve crisis” so it’s a credit to Arkane that Prey does it so well — I never felt like I was playing a derivative game.
In fact, the opening part of the game is outstanding and contains one of the most incredible and memorable “Whoa … Holy Smeg!” moments I’ve encountered in gaming.
The most commonly encountered enemy in the game is the ‘mimic’, a spider-like creature which can morph into inanimate objects like mugs, lamps, crates and pretty much anything else in the environment — then, when you’re not looking, BAM, it turns back into an alien and attacks. Other enemies — known as Typhons — include larger phantoms, Weavers, Technopaths and corrupted robots, all with their own challenges and threats.
While at the start, you’re frantically trying to bash these frightening creatures in with a wrench and counting every single round of ammunition you find, by the end of the game, you’re wandering around with experimental laser weapons, upgraded shotguns and possibly telekinetic powers, so most of the enemies become inconveniences or annoyances rather than terrifying threats.
One of things I particularly liked was relatable touches in the game; from the bubbly HR representative welcoming testing volunteers to colleagues whining about each other in emails to an explanation on why a scientific research space station has so many firearms on it, to the fact half the crew were apparently playing a Dungeons & Dragons¬-type tabletop RPG in their spare time.
Crafting is well done in Prey too, with the ability to break down useless items into component parts at recycling machines, then use the new materials in a large 3D printer to fabricate new stuff — everything from suit repair kits to ammunition to medical kits.
One of the game’s weapons, the GLOO Cannon, deserves an acknowledgment for being so unique, interesting and useful — it shoots globs of matter that solidify on contact with floors and walls and objects, allowing you to glue enemies in place, block vents, or even create impromptu stairs to climb to higher levels.
There’s also a toy crossbow that fires foam darts. At first I was thinking I was about to go full Daryl on the Typhon, but the foam darts do no damage. They do, however, activate buttons and touchscreens — providing opportunities to distract enemies or gain access to areas.
The levels are particularly well designed, with multiple paths to an objective — and it feels like a functioning space station with different environments ranging from a tree-filled park on the top level to a nuclear reactor and water recycling plant on the bottom.
Each part realistically feels connected to the rest of the station, and in an underused but impressive element, you can go outside in zero-gravity to navigate around the station, make repairs and fight enemies.
The Zero-Gee sections are well done and it’s a lot of fun to drift around space (or some parts of the space station), although it’s also disorientating — as real-life EVAs would be.
The theme of “illusions” runs through the game — and not in a “doing bad magic tricks while accompanied by the song The Final Countdown” way — exemplified by the “Looking Glass” technology (super advanced display screens/mirrors) that really have to be seen in action to be believed.
The powers available to you — which include morphing into inanimate objects, hacking computers and psionic attacks — are also very interesting, but equipping too many of the Typhon abilities will turn the stations security systems against you — as if you didn’t already have enough problems to worry about.
Despite the relatively hefty system requirements on PC the graphics aren’t super impressive — they’re good, but not amazing.
While many people had been reporting game-breaking bugs prior to the latest patch, I hadn’t encountered many — the most serious was a sidequest marker vanishing in the lategame, but I was too busy wrapping up the main storyline to be worried about it.
I did, however, have an issue with some of the plotting — completing one of the marked quests just results in a “game over” in a way that’s very frustrating and confusing at the time, but makes sense later on once the main story is finished properly.
The game also starts to drag a little bit in the middle, with objectives sending you all over the station in search of keycards and things like that. On a few occasions I was looking at a keycard-locked door or safe thinking “I have a literal laser-beam weapon in my hands. Why do I need a keycard to get this open?”
There are a few meaningful sidequests, though, including avenging a murder, reactivating a faulty escape pod, and tracking down lifesaving medicine for a survivor.
It’s quite hard to get into the nitty-gritty of what makes Prey such a good title without throwing significant spoilers around, but ultimately it’s been several years since the last Bioshock game and Prey is an outstanding spiritual successor. It combines elements of a few games very well and the end result is something which is enjoyable, engaging, fun to play and will make you think in the process.
While it’s not redefining the genre or breaking significant new ground, I really enjoyed Prey so my suggestion is to go and hunt down a copy as soon as you can — and stay away from any spoilers until you finish it.