Prey (Xbox One Review)
The word prey often refers to the weak and helpless, the bottom of the food chain. It’s rarely a shifting dynamic–prey will always be prey. But for one instant, Arkane Studios gives the underdog a chance at turning the tides in their reimagining of the 2006 game of the same name.
The story takes place on the space station Talos I, while a group of scientists toy with technology and life forms they don’t fully understand. As a subject and member of the team, you, Morgan Yu, are put through rigorous tests and awake to find out that not everything is quite what it seems. From there we investigate as much, or as little, as we want in the pursuit of fixing the station with the help of numerous members of the team. The revelations will come at you thick and fast, with large swathes of Prey’s backstory and exposition lying buried in email inboxes and scattered books. For somebody willing to invest a lot of time in to piecing together the shattered past of a space station torn asunder, there’s a lot to lose yourself in, but if you were looking for a straightforward story, you’d be left with a lot of questions.
It’s the pursuit of these questions that makes Prey an enjoyable jaunt throughout the great black beyond, but without the helmet. Prey’s side missions can be suffocating, flying at you furiously without any rhyme or reason. Challenged with saving members of the crew or navigating circumstances you are not equipped for and may never be, denies some players very important parts of the experience because they chose to indulge in the rather loose levelling up system.
Prey boasts an impressively diverse number of perks when it comes to upgrading and fine tuning your character. Chipsets can be implanted in Yu’s suit, and subsequent upgrades create more space in his inventory. These chipsets can also be installed in other areas, giving bonuses to damage as well as extra perks. The backbone to all these upgrades lies within the Neuromod system, a series of technological advances that can upgrade humans by integrating them with new technology. There are plenty of options to choose from, ranging from the basic ability of upgrading weapons to hacking safes–it’s all very Deus Ex in execution and choice. Where Prey does differ, however, are the more extra-terrestrial powers. During the campaign Morgan finds a Psychoscope that allows him to scan the enemies of Prey to unlock hidden, almost forbidden abilities, which are discouraged by Morgan’s robotic guide, January. So naturally, based on my trusted robot sidekick’s advice, I avoided these powers. Turns out that this was bad advice and I struggled with certain aspects of Prey’s combat throughout. Although, that’s not the only issue I had with Prey’s combat.
Coming face to face with the numerous Typhon, the gooey black enemies that linger around Talos I, is a daunting task. The most prominent of these enemies are phantoms, the anthropomorphic beings of the Typhon. Like shadows with intent, they slowly stalk you looking for precise moments to strike. When you do come face-to-face with the varying versions of the phantoms, you will struggle. Enemies, even the small mimics, will move at an almost blinding speed, requiring you to have the right equipment and even powers at some point. So, as a player that actively avoided certain powers–the skills learned from studying the Typhons–I was often faced with a choice to endlessly whittle away the massive life bars with my weapons or run constantly. With my head as thick as the steel space station we find ourselves trapped in, I decided to take a guns blazing approach. And it worked, at least early on it did and it cost me nearly every recyclable resource I could find, only for the enemies to regenerate stronger and with more mutations than before when I returned to the area later.
This is particularly problematic when resources are scarce. A large portion of your time in Prey will be spent foraging, be it for Post It notes with precious passwords scribbled down or for materials. Once you’ve collected enough materials, these can be chucked into the big recycling machine to get small cubes of useful materials, which then are dropped into the fabricator. It won’t be long until you resemble a trope of an American homeless person, carting around a big stack of recyclable materials and mumbling under your breath that Janet doesn’t understand the value of the slowly decaying gold that is a banana skin. Although, this need to constantly hoard every item does bear down on the player, as well as the greatly-lauded inventory management system as it asks players to calculate the most optimal inventory to squash into your seemingly almost endless pockets.
Thankfully, Talos I is an absolute delight to explore, negating a large amount of the fatigue that comes with the endless backtracking of the story and side missions. Talos I has cordoned off rooms, dilapidating stairwells, and a million maintenance vents for you to explore. Everything is a puzzle waiting to be solved and with multiple solutions, you’ll undoubtedly find a way around the most obscure of areas. Finding tiny cracks in structures, mimicking small objects, and navigating the cracks between is marvellous. And for those of you avoiding the controversial Typhon abilities, there are almost Nerf-esque guns that you can use to fire darts through tiny gaps in the hopes of operating PCs or the GLOO Gun that allows you to create ad-hoc platforms on walls the gain leverage. On top of that, Prey boasts a wonderfully perfect soundtrack. Dialling up the tension when a mimic ducks out of sight and capturing the future aesthetic almost seamlessly as your progress from area to area is a true work of art.
Yet, regardless of how I feel towards Prey’s world and the ambitious design, there are some aspects that stick in my craw. A lot of Prey’s mechanics and expectancy of the player often feel unfair, potentially leaving some prospective players out in cold harsh vacuum of space. I definitely struggled later on in the story against certain enemy types as they weren’t particularly foreshadowed, and the weapons and upgrades I had invested in didn’t benefit me at all in those fights. I also lost interest in exploring when the rewards just didn’t compensate for the risks–why would I ever risk life and limb for more recyclable materials when the requirements to reach the next objective effectively resulted in a net sum? Then you have the regular performance dips on Xbox One and the numerous crashes I experienced. It all served to dampen my experience and leave a sour taste.
Prey definitely doesn’t follow the path that the original game set out on. Long gone are the allusions to Native American culture, the more unique design of the aliens, and the spirit world that you inhabited upon death. What Prey does bring to the table is a truly open world that is bursting with stories to tell, laboured with the generic issues that come with. A bit more fine tuning on instructions and some slightly less obtuse directions would serve it well. It’s a game catered to Sci-fi buffs looking for a challenge, and in that respect it checks all the boxes.