It’s sad that the first five, wonderful minutes of Prey made me believe anything was possible -- that the world of the first-person shooter is subject to change on a whim and nothing is necessarily what it seems. It’s sad because the following five hours were nothing if not overly familiar and predictable.
Prey is Arkane Studios’ (developers of the Dishonored series) stab at the “Shock” formula. Superficially, the near-future adventure has a lot in common with the art deco architecture and “science run amok” story of BioShock. Aesthetically, though, it’s clear Prey means to mimic that game’s 1999 progenitor, System Shock 2 -- as it’s set almost entirely on a space station, sports mind controlled crew members, and a blend of technological and “psi” powers that evoke System Shock’s tools of the trade, directly.
It doesn't seem to start that way. An apparently normal day in the life of protagonist Morgan Yu -- a nonspecific "scientist" working for his or her brother's company -- quickly becomes a fight to survive an outbreak of aliens that can mimic everyday objects. I only learned this shortly before smashing Morgan's bedroom window to reveal the "normal day" was an illusion they were living over and over again. The aliens weren't the only things trying to deceive me, it seemed.
The parts that don't just lift mechanics and aesthetics from the past feel like afterthoughts.
The BioShock “homage” begins immediately after this revelation. Those opening hours are comprised entirely of hunting down emails and audio logs, occasionally fighting monsters, and digging for literal trash to either eat or break down into component parts for crafting. A heavy-handed message from the developers near the start of the game -- reminding the user to “play your way” -- felt like a much too self-conscious plea to think that Prey belongs in the aforementioned pantheon of story-heavy shooters that have featured exactly this loop, in exactly the same manner, for years.
The trouble is, Prey wants so desperately to be accepted as one of those games, that the parts that don’t just lift mechanics and aesthetics from the past feel like afterthoughts.
Those early five hours, for instance, are pretty much just looting computers and cabinets for information and resources, without much personality or story, and only subpar shooting to back it up. No villain stands out with believably frothing political fervor like Andrew Ryan, or wicked, unknowable malice like SHODAN. No one area feels disorientingly, memorably alien, like the underwater parks of Arcadia. Which isn’t to say that Talos 1, the station on which the game takes place, isn’t generally pleasing to move around in -- it’s just slightly edgeless where the series it’s trying to emulate have been sharp.
The wildly flexible nature of GLOO gun goo often makes the "doing" more interesting than the reward.
Thankfully, Prey regains some of the steam it starts with in subtler ways than exposition. The “GLOO Cannon,” for instance, is an early, wonderfully analog tool for rewriting Prey’s world. The rapid-fire “weapon” emits balls of quick-drying foam that can be used to stun enemies -- but is just as often, it’s useful for building impromptu staircases, bridges, and walls. Using it in those ways never felt like I was flouting reality as drastically as in those scripted, painfully short first five minutes, but it was much more consistent.
Since so much of Prey is getting from point A to B -- even if it’s just to loot yet more pistol ammo or a semi-interesting message exchange— the wildly flexible nature of GLOO gun goo often makes the “doing” more interesting than the reward. It’s not alone, either. Prey is full of powers and devices that allow clever workarounds to basic problems.
My favorite example happened once when I needed to enter an early locked room (Prey is full of such areas, which is fine by me, since they give plenty of excuses to think your way past conventional obstacles). I couldn’t open its door, but the room also sported a window that was only sealed with bars. Using the GLOO gun, I made a miniature staircase to said bars -- then used a mid-game ability to shapeshift into small objects to morph into a loose liquor bottle I could see through the window. It looked ridiculous, hopping up and down as animate booze, but it worked.
Of course, it was only afterwards I learned that I could have also shot the door control inside, through the bars, using a non-lethal Nerf gun-like crossbow. If I had been more patient, I could have also made a mental note of the room and come back after leveling up my hacking skills. Yet Prey’s “open” approach to puzzle solutions let me bypass that tedious bit of backtracking games like BioShock and Dishonored often impose. It just took a while -- about five hours, in fact -- for the game to give me enough rope to with which to plumb that well of options.
Sadly, Prey’s eventual strengths are always weighed against its weaknesses. The combat itself, for instance, never gets better. Later skills make it easier, and more satisfying, once you start one-shotting baddies with critical hits from shotgun blasts. But for some reason, Prey eschews the modern shooter convention of aiming down sights. It’s hard to ever feel precise when you can’t line the barrel of your gun up with targets more than a few feet away.
Then there are the slimy, oily enemy monsters themselves -- the Typhon -- which almost seem to “cheat” at being formidable foes. If you stealth around without them noticing you, for instance, you can witness them constantly walking into walls or bumping into each other with the typical intelligence of bad video game A.I. The Typhon only make up for that lack of fine motor control with huge health pools, the ability teleport away from your shots, and often devastating ranged attacks. Many of them also damage you automatically if you get too close, which makes the relatively close range you need to shoot at all the more dangerous.
Prey's eventual strengths are always weighted against its weaknesses.
Prey’s difficulty can be savage, then; at least until you unlock some of those outlandish perks. But that difficulty doesn’t feel “fair.”
Speaking of “unfair,” Prey’s ending does a lot to undercut not just its own plot, but nearly everything I felt like I accomplished as a player throughout the game’s 30 to 40 hour campaign. Without getting into spoilers, Prey’s conclusion follows more in BioShock’s footsteps than System Shock 2’s -- in that it’s extremely abrupt and unsatisfying. It’s also pretty much the only time the game’s story plays with those concepts introduced in the mind-bending intro -- albeit in perhaps the most frustrating and cliched “Gotcha!” moment imaginable.
Granted, by the time I reached the ending of Prey, I had pretty much written off caring about the story for its own sake. With the exception of an office romance subplot (which meets its own frustratingly trope-y end), almost nothing about Prey’s world felt "human," or relatable. Those audiologs I mentioned, plus some convenient radio messages from many offscreen NPCSs, pretty much only existed to dryly drive me towards the next environmental puzzle or scrap of exposition.
Which, hey, since the environmental puzzles are my favorite part of the game, isn’t the necessarily a deal-breaker. A more vivid story would have helped the game more complete, however -- less slapdash and even rushed -- than its myriad bugs already make it feel.
Oh, right. There are bugs, by the way -- lots of them. I didn’t run into anything totally game-breaking, but there were a couple of close calls.. I got stuck in the environment a handful of times and only Prey’s copious autosaves shielded me from too much frustration. One side quest also marked itself as being “failed” hours after I completed it, and I repeatedly had main quest markers direct me down paths I hadn’t unlocked yet -- leading to some unnecessary backtracking on top of what’s already mandatory. It’s also worth noting that others have had much, much more serious save glitches.
With those annoyances in mind, however, it should say something positive about Prey’s nearly endless, multi-solution spatial puzzles that they still managed to make me like the game, overall.
Prey's bland plot and shoddy conclusion don't come near to fulfilling the potential of its initial premise.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s sloppy. Its bland plot and shoddy conclusion don’t come near to fulfilling the potential of its initial premise. Yet its environmental puzzles, wacky powers, and multitude of ways to tackle different situations makes the act of slogging along continuously interesting and enjoyable.
Despite its aspirations to be the next game in the “Shock” lineage, I sincerely doubt Prey will have the lasting impact of even the least-liked of those games. Yet it’s a “good enough” imitation that manages to be enjoyable, sometimes in spite of itself -- least after you accumulate enough tools to think your way around the game in special, personal ways.
Although… it wouldn’t hurt to wait for a patch or two, just in case.