This creepy space station is fantastically explorable, and its shape-shifting enemies maintain tension when combat doesn’t.
[Note: When Prey launched, I hit a game-breaking bug on PC that prevented me from recommending it. That’s now been patched, and so has this review. It’s now updated to cover our experiences on all platforms. It was initially scored as a 4.0 on PC.]
With a sophisticated setting built to accommodate classic RPG mechanics we don’t see often enough in modern games, Prey feels both new and nostalgic at once. A wonderfully explorable science-fiction environment proves dense with interactive systems, intrigue, and ever-present danger. And even though combat’s only slightly preferable to the weak stealth options, I was a little surprised at how quickly my time-played clock seemed to tick toward 40 hours before I reached the end.
The first hours of Prey are enticing, with a mind-bending psychological opening scene that foreshadows a story more interesting than what the main plot ends up being. It’s fairly strong nevertheless, with some interesting implications and a few surprising characters who keep things moving along during dozens of hours of exploration. Its twist on the typical amnesiac protagonist premise prompted me to question everything I was told as I roamed the enormous and fascinatingly anachronistic space station, Talos I.
Arkane has done a fantastic job of making this bizarre place feel lived-in.
The most interesting stories were the smaller ones I came across, those of the people who lived on Talos before, during, and after it was attacked by aliens. Between terminals containing all sorts of emails, well-acted audio logs, and thoughtful environmental storytelling, developer Arkane has done a fantastic job of making this bizarre place feel lived-in long before I ever met another living human. There’s so much storytelling treasure to uncover here, ranging from squabbles among co-workers to more personal notes like a scrapped proposal speech, Dungeons & Dragons character sheets, and even hilariously terrible in-universe science-fiction novel snippets.
It’s an impressively fleshed-out universe, built around an alternate history of the space race that somehow led to an elaborate orbital station, complete with artificial gravity, where touchscreen computers exist side by side with film projectors and rotary telephones. I enjoyed uncovering how that history unfolded in bits and pieces gleaned from news articles and tidbits on the brief loading screens. That, combined with being rewarded for picking up literally any piece of useful gear or actual trash thanks to a cartoonish recycling system that lets you turn even old banana peels into raw materials for manufacturing weapons and upgrades, made me eager to turn over every metaphorical rock on Talos.
Which is devious, because some of those inanimate objects are actually disguised facehugger-style aliens who will surprise you by abruptly revealing themselves when you get close and trying to eat your face off. The presence of these mimics, as they’re known, gives all of that exploration a looming sense of paranoia: you have to question why objects are placed where they are, which works because just about everything on Talos is meticulously laid out in a way that, for the most part, makes sense. It sets all kinds of cruel traps for you, such as when one of what appears to be a pair of much-needed health packs actually turns out to be a predator lying in wait for wounded prey. The jump scares did get old after a while, but I never stopped feeling the tingling sense of tension upon entering a new room.
Prey follows closely in the footsteps of System Shock 2 and the original Deus Ex.
Mechanically, Prey follows closely in the footsteps of classic first-person RPGs like System Shock 2 and the original Deus Ex, and puts some of their best ideas to good use. There’s complex character development along six different skill trees, plus modular upgrade systems for both your space suit and your scope. With all of those options and not enough upgrade items to go around, there are enough meaningful decisions to make your version of Dr. Morgan Yu (who, notably, can be either a man or a woman according to your whim) feel like your own, and tailored to your playstyle. Equipping the mimic-detecting scope upgrade, for instance, let me change up the task of sweeping a room before it became tedious. Prey can take a bit too long to get to the good stuff, though – the psychic power options didn’t open up for me until I was more than 10 hours in, and I never saw any suit mods until even later than that.
Most of the abilities themselves don’t feel like much of anything special, as things like enhanced strength, repair skill, the ability to move objects or kill with your mind, and even resurrect the dead to fight for you have all appeared in plenty of games lately. What makes Prey feel more distinct is the flexible, semi-open-world level design that allows you to reach objectives by different paths, depending on your strengths. (Granted, that’s also shown up in recent Deus Ex and Dishonored games, though not on this style of open map.) One character build might look for opportunities to hack into computer terminals to bypass locked doors, while another would use brute force to open doors or remove barricades, and still others might just search the environment until they find the passcode written carelessly on a post-it note somewhere. Even though I didn’t have all the abilities I needed to exploit them, it’s fun just to try to spot all the ways into a locked room and appreciate the thought that went into designing these puzzles. Plus, it’s a pleasant surprise that you’re able to move and climb so nimbly in general, and moreso when it’s upgraded, letting you reach some out-of-the-way places and further encouraging exploration.
I usually had unlocked new abilities that let me access new nooks and crannies.
Your main quest – and the many side quests that can extend the life of Prey from a 15 to 20-hour run to something more on the order of 40 or 50 – will send you back and forth across the same moderately varied zones repeatedly. I didn’t get tired of seeing the arboretum, the cargo bay, the lobby, the crew quarters, or any of the others, though, because I usually had unlocked new abilities that let me access new nooks and crannies since the last time I’d been there. I did, however, get a little sick of trying to find my way around the outside of the station. It’s the closest thing to a fast-travel system Prey has, but it’s annoyingly tough to figure out where the right airlock is, especially since there’s no “up” in the zero-G environment.
When I finally encountered some living, breathing humans and heard about their predicaments, at first I was disappointed at the lack of dialogue options to decide what the outcome of those quests would be. But then I realized that Prey’s approach is more novel: you’re given a task, such as saving someone or killing them, and your actions determine your moral position. Do you save a group of people under attack or leave them for dead? Do you take revenge on the man who killed a survivor’s partner or let him live? Do you kill mind-controlled humans or find a way to free them? It’s an interesting and more subtle yet more active approach than simply stating whether you’re good or bad. It’s nice to see actions speak louder than words when it comes to RPG morality, and those choices were satisfyingly – if somewhat bluntly – recognized in the ending. Without spoiling anything, I found the final reveal slightly deflating, but the setup for where the story could go next has great potential.
All of the detail put into the environments and storytelling goes a long way to compensate for the fact that Prey isn’t exactly the best looking game out there. It only occasionally looks bad, such as when characters other than the handful of main allies move their mouths, but most of the time it makes the most of its sometimes flat-looking textures to make its zones appealing. Creature design, on the other hand, is one-note. All of the aliens are made of the same black goo, which, while creepy when moving through the shadows, doesn’t hold up in the long run. Some of the larger aliens are just weird-looking blobs, and the robot enemies are all built on the same floating PC tower-like chassis.
Combat turns out to be Prey’s biggest weakness.
The act of fighting them, and turrets around the station once they decide you’re a threat, turns out to be Prey’s biggest weakness. Combat is fine, for the most part; the main weapons are a very typical pistol and a shotgun, with a couple of other similarly uninteresting high-tech options thrown in. Even when mental abilities such as creating copies of yourself or planting flame mines get involved these fights have nothing approaching the bloody, supernatural acrobatics of Arkane’s other current series, Dishonored. Most enemies are as bullet-spongy as their gooey look implies, especially before you max out your damage upgrades on both your character and your weapons, and ammo is scarce. That led to some tense standoffs where I was left trying to fend off aliens with my lowly wrench melee attack, but that lasted only until I unlocked the mind-control power that immediately renders even the biggest and fiercest enemies docile long enough for you to bludgeon them into puddles of goo. It became a chore long before the time the save-corruption issues declared my game over, and I’d mostly switched to Jedi mind-tricking my way past most fights. This isn’t the squishy human you’re looking for.
You could, of course, stealth your way past most, if not all of the enemies out there by distracting them with thrown objects (or the goofy knock-off Nerf gun), but Prey isn’t interesting as a stealth game. There are no attempts to detect you other than randomly patrolling aliens, and no alarms raised if they do find you. Meanwhile, the only significant power that seems geared toward stealth is the ability you swipe from the mimics to transform into any small object, which effectively makes you invisible as long as you’re holding still (until your psych power meter runs out). That, as it turns out, is the least-useful application of that power. Prey is workable as a stealth game, but barebones enough that I generally opted to fight instead.
You’d think the ability to turn into literal pieces of trash would let you play hilarious pranks.
More disappointingly for a systems-based game with such strong connections to Deus Ex and Dishonored, the enemy AI isn’t reactive or curious-seeming enough to make them fun to mess with using your powers. For instance, you’d think the ability to turn into any inanimate object, such as literal pieces of trash like banana peels or bio-waste bags, would let you play hilarious pranks on enemies and get funny reactions. But none of these creatures – including the rare humans you come across – react any differently to a strangely placed chair than they do to a valuable item. You’re either ignored completely or discovered and attacked without a word (because the aliens don’t talk), so it feels like I’m telling a joke that nobody’s around to hear.
I did have fun messing with the innovative Gloo Cannon, which launches blobs of instantly hardening foam to very briefly immobilize enemies, clog holes, or create platforms. Its ability to create staircases had me thinking outside the usual box here and there, but it’s nowhere near as full of possibility as a Portal Gun or Gravity Gun when it comes to solving puzzles. You can’t, for example, build towers of goo on top of goo, so your ability to build Minecraft-like structures is limited.
The biggest bugs I’ve encountered since the patch are small annoyances. Some of the most common items you pick up – alien organs and spare parts – often fail to stack properly in the screen inventory, which causes a needless hassle when your slots fill prematurely. Oh, and one time I was launched into space through a wall while passing through an anti-gravity field and had to reload an autosave (which is generally pretty good at saving frequently). But none of that ever did much more than slow me down for a few moments.
Controls feel good on mouse and keyboard, but with a gamepad the first thing you’ll want to do is turn the sensitivity up – otherwise, constantly turning to face mimics that jump behind you gets frustrating quickly. Load times trend a little on the long side on consoles, though, and we’ve inconsistently seen some minor input lag on the PS4 that took some time to get used to. And if you’re a PS4 Pro owner, unfortunately there aren’t currently any enhancements in resolution or frame rate. It’s 30 frames per second on console and uncapped on PC, where it runs beautifully aside from the first time I visited the reactor, but that was easily fixed by a restart.