After waking up in a posh apartment with a stunning view of the city, you start your day as (either a male or female) Morgan Yu, a scientist who appears to be participating in some sort of experiment. Just as the fear that something isn’t quite right starts to sink in, your perception is turned on its head. To avoid diving into spoiler territory, I won’t explain what happens; know that’s the game is best experienced without any prior knowledge of the plot. Once the horror-infused world of Arkane Studios‘ Prey starts to unfold, you’re sent on a terrifying sci-fi trek through the sprawling Talos-1 space station.
I’d expect that games like BioShock, Dead Space, Half-Life, and System Shock sprang to mind when you read that description. While it never strayed too far from the familiar playing grounds forged by the aforementioned games, there was something special about the way Prey evolved as the story progressed. Though some of the elements are admittedly a bit messy, including combat mechanics that were too clunky for my liking, the intriguing plot, frightening enemies, complex level design, and interesting consequences, more than make up for the pitfalls and render the Dishonored dev’s latest a game worth surviving.
Set in 2035, Prey paints a stunning art deco-inspired alternate universe where John F. Kennedy was never assassinated, and the Space Race waged on and pushed humanity into the outer reaches of the galaxy. On Talos-1, scientists are studying the mysterious Tyhpon–an alien race that serves as the central enemy at the heart of the game–and are crafting experimental augmentations called Neuromods to boost human abilities. Of course, one thing led to another, and sticking with the dangerous alien enemy trope, the creatures started to multiply and run amok. While there may be nothing out of the ordinary here as far as the premise is concerned, the implications of the research are quite interesting.
Speaking of the Typhon, they’re quite the foe. The headcrab-like Mimics are equipped with the ability to well…mimic random items in your environment and make your life a living hell. That innocent looking mug in the corner of the room could very well spell your doom if you’re not ready to fight it off once it morphs. Until you find the GLOO Cannon (which we will get to in a minute), your only method of taking out these nuisances is swinging at them like Gordon Freeman until they’re good and dead. They’re easily one of the most frustrating enemies in the game because they’re fast, numerous, and hard to see in the dark.
There are also the humanlike Phantoms (three varieties) that dart around the area and pack a hefty punch, as well as Telepaths, which are capable of enslaving humans and sending powerful blasts in your direction—all of which are absolutely terrifying, and keep you on your toes. Unfortunately, because of the scarcity of healing items and ammo, and the strength of the enemies themselves, taking them out can be a bit of a challenge with the weapons at hand. As far as artillery is concerned, there is a straightforward pistol and a shotgun, which are both annoying to use because of the weak aiming mechanics. To alleviate that plight, you’ll have to get creative with items like the GLOO Gun to freeze enemies in place long enough to wail on them with bullets, a wrench, or powers that can be acquired later on. Suffice it to say, combat is for the most part pretty frustrating.
Though there are really only two guns that damage enemies, there are a few other “weapons” that will act as useful tools when it comes to solving puzzles. The unique GLOO Gun, for instance, can be used to briefly put out flaming or electric obstacles long enough for you to pass, or create makeshift stairs along a wall to enter an otherwise unreachable area. Another favorite is the foam toy boltcaster, which can be used to distract enemies, or push buttons (which is particularly useful when it comes to locked rooms). The variety of creative uses for the weapons themselves is the system’s saving grace.
Unsurprisingly, where the game really excels is in the level design department. Much like Dishonored, there is a linear path to each objective, but surrounding rooms you’ll want to explore for items, short cuts, codes, and key cards that will become important as you progress. While most of these spots are blocked by locked doors and various other obstacles, there’s usually a creative way to get inside, which makes discovering them all the more rewarding. These rooms are also a good place to get a better understanding of what’s been going on inside Talos-1. These areas feel realistically lived in and make sense when it comes to the layout and what the room’s purpose is. There are offices, living quarters, an I.T. department, an arboretum, and several zero-gravity areas that you can traverse. Prey is at its best when you take your time to explore these areas.
Another highlight is the available upgrades. As you progress throughout the game, you’ll find Neuromods, which function as the game’s RPG elements. Much like your average experience points, these can be used to enhance and shape your own Morgan Yu. While the Neuromod upgrades add straightforward boosts to your vitality, hacking capabilities, and stamina early on in the game, they get more unique as you dive deeper into the game and uncover Typhon powers that grant an interesting leg up (much like the vigors from BioShock).
Curiously, the Neuromods you unlock (whether human or alien) have an effect on the way your own story plays out, and the ending you get. For example, while powerful, harnessing the alien abilities will have a negative effect when it comes to maneuvering past turrets and other security measures that are designed to thwart hostile enemies. There are decent enough non-alien upgrades that will keep you alive throughout your playthrough—but where’s the fun in that? It’s pretty hard to beat disguising yourself as a coffee mug and walking right past unsuspecting enemies.
Choices, however, extend beyond upgrades and deciding how to enter a room. Over the duration of the game, you’ll encounter fellow crew mates whom you’ll have an option to save. More often then not, choosing to do so will exhaust much-needed resources, but could potentially reward you with side quests, ammo, or health packs. Will you save a group of scientists from the control of the psychic Telepath Typhon? Will you take out the onslaught of possessed humans and farm their pockets for resources as well as the difficult foe? Or will you ignore the difficult area altogether and conserve your energy for the main task at hand? These decisions, along with whether you choose to give in to the alien powers, will shape your experience as Morgan.
Though music has a tendency to take a sideline seat when it comes to a game review, the tunes in Prey play an important part in making not only the setting, but the encounters feel dire and incredibly unsettling. Mick Gordon (who also composed the chaotic DOOM soundtrack of 2016) has done a standout job crafting a beautifully creepy synth-laden score that will both make your skin crawl and make you want to dance at the same time.
While a relatively short play at 13 hours, Prey is a challenging game that you’ll want to explore again as soon as you reach the final scene. Though it bears a striking resemblance to several other titles, it holds its own with creative puzzle solving, a complex setting that is fun to traverse, and enemies that will scare the ever-living crap out of you and give you nightmares.
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos.
Editor’s Note: This review was completed using a PS4 copy of Prey provided by Bethesda. The game hit PS4, Xbox One, and PC on May 5, 2017.