There’s a scene in the movie Aliens where, after the marines have been soundly trounced by the xenomorph, Ripley announces her plan to “nuke the entire site from orbit.” After completing our playthrough of Prey we can understand that motivation. Long before we’re given another way, we’d already decided that nuking the setting of our story, Talos I, was the only option, fellow survivors be damned. However, the more we played this sci-fi first-person shooter, the more we started to waver and while we don’t want to spoil the endgame we felt a very real tinge of sadness as things unfolded before us.
Set in the year 2035 and in an alternate timeline where President John F. Kennedy survived, you are Morgan Yu, a human scientist aboard the privately owned Talos I. Along with your brother, you are studying an alien species called the Typhon. All is not what it seems, and you wake up to discover that the Typhon organisms have broken containment and all kinds of hell has broken loose aboard the station. You are then contacted by a mysterious person known only as January who tasks you with finding your way to your office. There you are to watch a pre-recorded video to fill in the blanks in your memory, since at this point neither you nor Morgan have any idea how you got into this mess. What lies ahead is a wonderfully crafted story full of consequence and choice and is ultimately about discovering who you are for reasons you don’t truly discover until an end credits scene reveals all. We don’t want to spoil things here but we couldn’t help but smile given everything we’d been through.
The story and its environment, in our opinion, is one of the best we’ve seen in a sci-fi shooter and shows that developer, Arkane Studios, is firing on all cylinders here off the back of their successful Dishonored franchise. It shows confidence in not only the story they have to tell, but also in their method of telling it, that very little is directly told to you. Everything we learned about Talos I, and the timeline that it exists in, was discovered solely by exploring the station, by reading every email, every book and every note until we felt like we knew almost everyone aboard. We happened across a bunch of crewmates who had created their own D&D characters, an inter-office treasure hunt, emails between bickering colleagues and audio files shedding light on the internal conflict some of the crew had about what they were doing aboard Talos I. The station itself is beautifully realised with character in every nook and cranny. From the art-deco main lobby to the lush atrium there’s detail everywhere giving the feel of life where currently, there is none. In fact we were quite far through the game before we actually met any other survivors.
It seems like Arkane Studios was heavily influenced by the world-building of Bioshock when creating Talos I, as this lived-in aesthetic in a run-down environment echoes the setting of Rapture. Put Talos I under several hundred feet of water and you could almost be forgiven thinking it’s a reboot. However, it’s not a straight lift, and the homage to Rapture only goes so far. One of the greatest assets of Prey and Talos I is that almost everywhere can be explored. There is very little that has been sealed off completely and even when you don’t have the right keycard to a door, you soon learn there’s more than one way to enter. You could discover an access hatch or perhaps you could hack the door? Later in the game as you expand the skill tree, other means of accessing hard to reach places become apparent. However, you don’t have to play long to acquire the best tool within Prey, as the GLOO (short for Gelofoam Lattice Organism Obstructor) gun will, over time, become your best friend.
On the surface it looks relatively useless. It fires an instant hardening white goo which can slow down most Typhon organisms, letting you attack them until they break free, but as you encounter harder enemies its use here declines. Its other, far more useful ability, is that you can fire at most surfaces and create ad-hoc staircases. Going vertical in Prey is a very useful skill which, when coupled with the jetpack (used for Zero-G excursions but also useable inside), allows you to bypass enemies or access previously inaccessible areas. By adopting this strategy you can conserve your ammo for more destructive weapons like the shotgun or the mighty Q-beam energy rifle and find ways into rooms holding all manner of loot.
Speaking of the Typhon, there’s a fair bit of diversity to their ecosphere. The main type you will encounter are mimics, a spider-like entity with the ability to copy any nearby item, meaning every time you enter a room you’ll be constantly checking for doubles. If you’re able to spot and shoot one whilst it’s mimicking you’ll get an attack bonus but it isn’t easy to spot the fake. Beyond that there are seven other types: Cystoids, Phantoms, Nightmares, Poltergeists, Telepaths, Technopaths and Weavers. Each of them has their own unique ability and once you gain access to the Psychoscope, you can then unlock Typhon-based upgrades. The Psychoscope is a headset which, with certain add-ons, allows you to spot and identify any and all Typhons including their weaknesses, as well as copy their abilities. Meaning, if you so wish, you could gain the ability to mimic nearby objects. There’s something to be said about being able to turn into a coffee cup and casually floating across an office. It’s rather surreal and invoked fond memories of our friend the polymorph from Red Dwarf.
Despite all of this knowledge and any of the acquired abilities, you never feel overpowered. Even on normal difficulty Prey is quite a challenge, and we respect anyone who manages to pop the achievement for completing the game without ever using a neuromod (the tool used to acquire abilities). This balance of power is maintained by two things. Firstly, as we’ve already mentioned, ammo is scarce and even when you gain the ability to manufacture your own you will likely never have an abundance of it. Secondly, even with decent firepower, the Typhons themselves pack a punch and so if you can’t dispatch them quickly you’ll be dead before you swing your wrench.
Sneaking should therefore be your best friend but unfortunately that’s not the case here. It’s a shame that the sneak ability is a weak link, and a surprise given that Dishonored, another Arkane Studios game, is built around the mechanic. Never once whilst sneaking did we feel at ease, and our Typhon enemies frequently spotted us with only our left nostril poking out from behind a crate. In the end, if we ever wanted to bypass enemies, our best option was to sprint headlong past them and hope they didn’t follow us. Sneaking isn’t Prey’s only disappointment as, if you do end up taking on a Typhon, combat leans a bit too much on combos. You can, if you wanted to, unload an entire clip of your pistol into a Phantom and if you’re lucky you might kill it before it kills you. On the other hand, if you spray it with GLOO you can then pop a few well-directed shots into its head and use about a third less ammo. While this is an intelligent approach, forcing you to learn your opponents and their weaknesses through heavy use of the Psychoscope, it gets a little tiresome after a while.
Outside of gameplay mechanics we were a bit disappointed with the long load times between main levels. Respawn load times weren’t too bad but when you’re waiting up to a minute or so for the next level to load it does start to grate, doubly so later in the game when you’re often running between several of the game’s main levels. We also noticed occasional asset pop-in and despite being one of the best-optimised versions of CryEngine (notoriously bad on console) it did stutter badly when we reached Talos I’s main reactor. It’s not perfect in the sound department either as we often encountered situations where audio would play over itself. In one instance, this problem lead to an audio file which would loop the first five seconds, permanently, until we moved to the next location that required the game to load another level. There have also been reports of saves being corrupted on all formats, however, during our twenty-plus hour playthrough, we did not encounter one single crash or save corruption.
When all's said and done, it’s the world that Arkane Studios has created that makes Prey, despite its faults, one of this year’s must-play games. As Vincent explains to Jules in Pulp Fiction, it’s the little differences that count. The touch of personality that Arkane Studios has imbued Talos I with goes deep. Peripheral characters who you may never meet are fleshed out to the point where you practically know them. History books and even (awful) in-game science fiction show just how deep the developers went in making sure the setting for Prey felt believable. The issues that Prey suffers from did little to diminish the enjoyment we got from the main campaign. It speaks volumes that when you can smash out the story in around fifteen hours or so, you’ll find that your natural instinct to explore grips you so much that you can easily lose yourself on Talos I following sidequests for easily triple that. Prey is a strong outing from Arkane Studios and points to a very bright future for the studio. Rest assured that if you do pick up Prey and invest the time in exploring the world set out before you, then you’re in for one heck of a treat.