Screen Critics Sam dives into Arkane Studios’ reboot of Prey, a glorious exercise in cerebral science fiction horror that hits (almost) every mark.
I had very little to no expectations going into Arkane Studios’ reboot of Prey, mainly due to Bethesda’s clever, secretive marketing that worked in favor of the initial impact of the game. Little did I know just how massive that impact was going to be. Unlike any one of its survival horror genre counterparts, Prey took many interesting approaches in differentiating itself from the competition, some more outlandish than others. The result is quite possibly one of the best shooters of the year and alternatively what could be the most divisive, but also one that crucially warrants extended playtime in order to let the experience sink in as opposed to simply brushing it off when the credits roll.
Prey puts players in the position of Morgan Yu, a worker on a space station called Talos I that’s in orbit of the moon and Earth. Scientists and researchers primarily use the station to perform experiments surrounding a dangerous alien species called the Typhon. It comes as no surprise when the Typhon escape confinement and run amok on the station, which puts Yu in the precarious position of escaping the station while trying to survive the alien onslaught. This is where things quite literally get loopy.
First and foremost, Prey is a vastly different shooter than one might expect. As a member of the Bethesda roster of revitalized shooters of the past, Prey may unfairly be seen as the successor to 2016’s excellent Doom, but it’s far detached from the roaring, blood-soaked mayhem of that caliber. Rather, Prey is a much more cerebral shooter than it is overly bombastic and scary, taking several hints from System Shock 2 and Half-Life in the way the game is presented and naturally progresses. In fact, Prey takes plenty of pages from more thought-provoking shooters like the aforementioned System Shock 2 as well as BioShock and Dishonored in creating a palpable, off-kilter world drenched in foreboding atmospherics and nuanced lore. It finds a way to pay great homage to them and takes several artistic liberties while never seeming like a horrid Frankenstein monster of mashed ideas that the game could’ve very easily fallen victim to.
As the main protagonist of the story, Morgan Yu does a fairly commendable job at being believable, but occasionally feels like the second-grade Gordon Freeman with a pipe-wrench and mostly silent, mysterious demeanour. In the initial hour of the game, we get a fairly good glimpse into Yu’s life as seen from his apartment, which allows us to explore literally every nook and cranny of the environment. This is a testament to the astonishing amount of detail that Arkane poured into the world; a level of interactivity we rarely get in modern games anymore. Of course, this is just a taste of the journey to come, where the station, wisely made into a kind of open world environment, is jam-packed with tons of interactive objects, side missions, and objectives that all add to the world-building and expansive, lively nature of the station, even when things take a grim turn for the worst in the first quarter.
Prey, unlike it’s murky 2006 counterpart, is gorgeously crisp and visually pleasing in its aesthetic and level design. Regardless of the platform, having seen it play on Xbox One, PS4 as well as PC, Prey’s conceptual design is artful, articulate, and surprisingly Valve-like, for lack of a better comparison – taking us back to the detailed, clean graphical fidelity of games like Portal and Half-Life. While it doesn’t quite scale the heights of juggernaut graphics like Battlefield 1 or Doom, it still looks and feels viscerally refreshing and unique enough to stand out well above the norm.
Prey’s gameplay borrows heavily from System Shock 2 or Deus Ex, especially given it’s more attentive focus on RPG elements as opposed to being a straight-forward shooter. There’s plenty of items and parts to collect and assemble in the world, some either as rudimentary objects or necessary components for crafting and upgrading purposes later on. Coupled with a kind of character progression tree, the game encourages players to build upon and constantly refine their skill set, especially when newer abilities are discovered later on. This is incredibly important too as certain sections in the latter half can be unforgiving in its difficulty spikes, either through its combat or environmental hazards, although they thankfully don’t affect the overall flow of the gameplay too much.
The open world nature of the game is also it’s greatest strength. While this can prove to be tiresome as several missions require players to backtrack (and we all know backtracking to be one of the seven deadly sins in modern gaming), yet Prey manages to make each revisit a completely new experience and invoke different feelings. The backtracking levels are spaced out evenly enough so that returning to them isn’t merely a case of passing by, but rather a legitimate reason and seemingly different encounter, even if the enemies are still the same. This is because Prey allows players to get ahead of the tasks through easy-to-grasp learning curves and meaningful character development that empowers them. If an enemy was difficult to defeat in the past, on the backtrack journey, they might be a breeze. Unlike many open world games that require backtracking, Prey doesn’t downplay you in making the enemies more powerful on a second encounter, but rather let’s you bathe in the glory of your strength and adaptability to the battle. It also makes every enemy encounter, thanks to the clever AI and ingenious design, more of a chess game than a fight of mindless bullet showers.
However, the one issue that hurt the experience for me quite a bit was its underwhelming sound elements, either through soundtrack, voice acting or sound mixing. The soundtrack, done by Mick Gordon who also produced the score for 2016’s Doom, is a surprising departure for his guitar-shredding and massive heavy metal anthems. The score for Prey is a brooding, mostly ambient experiment in creating tension and atmospheric build-up, though it’s never quite as ambitious as the game expects of it, struggling to rise to the same level of all the great visual ideas it desperately tries to capture. Voice acting is fine, but much like Dishonored, does very little to feel organic. This is evident too in the sound mixing, sometimes escalating the cutscenes to blaring volumes while it jarringly shifts to the quieter, more intense moments of the gameplay without much in the way of a balanced, even flow. However, when the sound elements peak at their highest quality and work in tandem with the visuals or gameplay, they’re great.
Verdict: For all intents and purposes, Prey may as well be the third Half-Life game that we’ve never had. It’s a blend of the best elements lifted from the likes of System Shock 2, BioShock, Deus Ex, and Half-Life that all meld together for a very compelling, potent cerebral survival shooter. It may not be entirely original, but more than makes up for its lack of ingenuity by refining these elements to their utmost lurid and best, from the fluid, often surprisingly strategic gameplay to the vast amount of detail packed into the open world. Prey isn’t an experience that many will fully appreciate unless it’s given a chance to breathe so that one may really soak in all that it has to offer. Trust me, it’s a lot.