When I first heard that Bethesda were working on a new Prey title, I thought they were going to do with the original date game that they had recently managed to accomplish with DOOM and reboot it. But it was very clear once I got my hands on the free playable demo for it a week before it released, that this only had the same name and nothing about it was remotely similar to the first game. Instead I was both surprised and impressed by just what games Arkane Studios had taken inspiration from and I was hoping that Prey would make up for the rather disappointing experience I had with Dishonored II.
There is quite a long list of games that the team from Arkane Studios looked to and in every moment of Prey you can feel the titles that helped build the foundation. In the same way that Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor took the combat system from the Arkham series, some Assassin’s Creed world map and blended them with an amazing Lord of the Rings story to create something very special, Prey has done the same with elements from Dishonored, Bioshock, Half-Life, System Shock and some Deus Ex. That is quite a group of iconic titles but Arcane have chosen wisely to use what they already know with Dishonored but to enhance it with aspects from other games to give a sci-fi RPG that can truly be countered among them.
The story is centered on the main character Morgan Yu who is about to embark on the dreaded first day at work with big brother. Players can select a gender for Morgan and depending on whether you choose the male or female Morgan, the only differences are dialogue changes of he and she and operator voices are male or female accordingly. I like how deceptive the opening is with a fun twist that instantly launches the sci-fi story. The playable demo is actually the first hour of the game, or at least the first area of the game that you can spend time in and will give you a good taste of how the gameplay and story will be in the full game.
Prey starts off with a very well balanced pace in terms of the story narrative and gameplay, allowing the player to become immersed within its setting comfortably before it starts to test the player with what they have learned. As an RPG the player will be able to enhance and add new skills to Morgan which if you are familiar with Deus Ex will be instantly recognisable. To begin with Morgan has three base skill trees in which the player can start to shape Morgan to fit their playing style; Scientist, Engineer and Security. Each skill tree will shape how Morgan can interact with the tasks and dangers that Talos 1 will throw at him/her through the game. From adding the ability to hack terminals, operators and devices to building up weapon use strength as well as enhancing health, stamina and upgrading the suit to boost attributes even more. How you as the player decide to spend the Neuromods that act as skill upgrades will be key the deeper into the game you go and much like Dishonored, you can opt to go for a more stealthy approach or full on guns blazing with a freedom that allows true choice in whichever style the player may prefer.
Talos 1 is made up of different sections and main story missions and side quests will have the player exploring each area and travelling to and from each one regularly. The map designs have different routes to get around them whether to avoid danger or hazards blocking progress. If you think a path is blocked off then it might require a certain ability to help get around it such as he ability to move a large object blocking a doorway or hacking a terminal to gain entry to a security or private room. It does like to tease the player into exploring but always lets them know exactly what is required to get through and the freedom to go away and come back later in the game once Morgan has been suitably upgraded prevents the frustration of hitting a wall time and time again especially when it comes to the large number of side objectives you collect on Morgan’s travels. This strength to the game will sadly also become the game’s undoing but will come to that later on.
Now the main enemy for Morgan will be the strange and sinister Mimics, who provide a very curious but effective adversary all throughout the game. The Mimics come in various types, but it start off with perhaps the cleverest creation of an enemy since The Flood was introduced in HALO. The basic form of Mimic is a tiny spidery little git of an enemy that has a particular ability which becomes their calling card and the reason why they are named Mimics. The spider Mimic has the sinister ability to shape shit and copy any object in a room in order to hide. From a simple cup to a chair or filing cabinet, the spider Mimic can be a harassing source of paranoia for Morgan and the genius to them lies in their remarkable but deceptive AI. They have been giving very simply instructions to follow, to enter a room and play hide and seek with the player. What surprised me was in how their behaviour is so different each time you encounter the, I found some spider Mimics would disguise themselves and attack me when discovered but them some would also just run away as soon as they spotted me. The aggressive ones were tricky little sods too as they would hide, let me go passed before attacking me from behind.
The mimics get bigger, turning into Phantoms and Typhoons, exhibiting even more deadly special abilities and elemental attacks. Thankfully the Neuromods help even the field a little once the game gives Morgan the tech needed to begin scanning the Mimics. Scanning them will start to unlock their abilities that Morgan can then implant into himself adding special powers to his/her ever growing skill set, which is where the Bioshock influence can be seen. Powers ranging from delivering Kinetic blasts to mind control and even gaining the same mimicry ability as the spider Mimics to shape shift and copy objects. There is a price though for basically stealing and adding these alien abilities straight into Morgan’s DNA however and there will come a point where if too many abilities are added, the defence turrets of Talos 1 will start to identify Morgan as an alien threat and will attack if Morgan comes into range of them. Thankfully the hacking ability will put them back on track but it is a very clever mechanic to have.
Earlier I mentioned how Talos 1 is made up of different sections which at the start of the story will be locked out from Morgan until abilities or story progress make them available to be travelled to. One of the benefits of this has to be the Zero G element of space walking which will take Morgan outside of Talos 1 in order to access the different areas. Zero G works really well and genuinely gives the player the sense of being in space both when outside but also when back in the station itself. The game cleverly mixes the both well enough to make going for a little exploration of the outside of Talos 1 with the moon and Earth above you just a visual delight. The look of the game is spot on, not quite as cartoony as Dishonored II but striking enough to stand out. The visuals are complimented well by an amazing musical soundtrack but it is the sound scheme that really adds a punch to Prey. The audio is as menacing as the Mimics, with a sound scheme designed to build tension as well as paranoia as it signals that a Mimic is nearby or attacking. Prey uses that tension and paranoia far more effectively than other games have and are using jump scares to mess with the player’s mind. If you play using a headset, the sound will cut through your head throughout the game and generates a level of intimidation that follows the Mimics wherever they are and which ever form they take.
But sadly, the game also has some very noticeable issues that at first can be annoying but steadily grow to the point that they actively break the final act of the game to the extent that it quickly went as an early GOTY contender for me to a frustrating mess that left me disappointed and annoyed. I talked about how the pacing at the start is solid and used well to create the experience but the longer you are in the game and the closer to the final act the player gets, the pacing just goes wrong and becomes a slow trudge padded out with side quests which are so tedious I reached a point where I just decided to end the story to get it over with. My main complaint however is the insanely long and silent loading screen the player has to endure each time they move to a new area of Talos 1. At first its acceptable but soon both side and main story missions will require hopping from area to area, each one taking 80 seconds to load. There were times in the final act of the game where I actually spent less time in each area than the loading screens to get to them, sometimes having to move through two or more areas just to get to one section to do one thing before being told I had to go all the way back to the area I started from. So that is a loading screen to get into a area and a loading screen when leaving an area, so its literally minutes looking at a silent loading screen bar that snaps you right out of the experience and breaks the immersion. I sat shaking my head at my console and TV at the end that it was infuriating to see what is an absolutely brilliant story and narrative get completely bogged down and spoiled by this method of moving around Talos 1.
I started off completely in awe and loving Prey. I liked Morgan as a main character and the story around him and the other characters. The Mimics are an incredible and well designed enemy to fight and the visuals and audio just elevate Prey to a high tier of sci-fi based action RPGs. But when the loading times and yanking the player out of the game experience each time the story requires the player to move to a different area undoes so much good work, you have to question why this was not identified as a problem during development and testing. I will never question the use of a Fast Travel system again after Prey, I would rather press X and go straight to where I need to go then spend minutes having to move from area to area the way Prey forced me to do. I admired how player choice can shape the ending of the game, of which Prey does have different endings depending on how you choose to complete the story, but whilst the ending from a story point of view is spot on, from a gameplay and experience perspective Prey just fell completely flat for me. The lackluster way that after 23 hours in the game, it delivered the final hour left me thankful it was just over and not applauding an epic journey which the first ten hours led me to believe I was going to be feeling.
It borrows much from other games in the same genre and uses them amazing well that if you are fan of titles like Bioshock, Dishonored, System Shock and Deus Ex than Prey will more than deliver the gameplay fans will want and know. What will be confusing to players as it was for me, was just how poorly executed the final moments of the game were after such a polished main campaign and intriguing twist to the endings. Prey really could have been the start of something amazing with its refreshing combat, puzzle solving and story narrative but a lazy ending and terrible loading screen system prevent this from being the new king of the genre and instead just a homage to other games that sadly couldn’t quite end with the same quality that it had started with.