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‘Prey’ Review: A Space Oddity

Before we dive in, feel free to forget all about the 2006 game with which the new Prey shares its name. And while we’re at it, just go ahead and let go of any memories you might still have of that intriguing reboot developer Human Head Studios was cooking up for us, for its connection to this game doesn’t seem to exist.

Rather than borrow from the games that came before it, the folks at Arkane Studios wisely chose to do something totally different. The result is a strange and wildly imaginative amalgam of various genres – sci-fi, action, horror – and even a few genre classics, such as System Shock, Dead Space, and BioShock. The similarities to the latter are particularly noticeable, as Prey pays homage to Rapture often enough that it may qualify as its spiritual successor. And why not? BioShock Infinite went from the murky ocean depths to the sunlit skies above, so in a way, deep space seems like the logical next step.

It’s more than a little disappointing that Arkane couldn’t successfully bestow their game with some more interesting characters. I don’t know what it says about a game when its world has more personality than many of the characters who reside in it, but it can’t be good.

With Dishonored, Arkane demonstrated an aptitude for building worlds that feel unique and alive. Despite its close proximity to our moon and the wonderful scenery it provides, I can’t say that I’d ever personally want to spend any significant amount of time aboard the Talos-1 research laboratory. I can certainly see the appeal, with its fancy elevators and retrofuturistic style. The place has personality, and that’s not something I can say about a great many other space stations video games have taken me to over the years.

What are these futuristic elevators, you ask? Please, allow me to explain. Prey is set in an alternate history in which JFK survived his attempted assassination, so rather than fizzle out for forty years, the Space Race accelerates quickly enough that it impresses a local extraterrestrial menace – the Typhon – who decide to pay us a visit. There’s more to it, but I had quite a lot of fun learning of the events in this new timeline so I won’t spoil all of it.

The point is, the Typhon are real dicks. And the worst of them is also the most common: Mimics. As their name would imply, Mimics are rather exceptional impersonators. They’re so good, in fact, that you could walk right up to one and be startled when you realize that mug was actually a Mimic. Neither was that chair, the trashcan, or that box of ammunition. Be prepared to endure an inordinate amount of jump scares right up until you acquire the ability to see these jerks before they can jump out at you like the serial murderer in a horror movie, or that friend we all put up with for some reason.

The Typhon come in a variety of flavors, from annoying little Mimics to the humanoid Phantoms. The Nightmare ultimately came out as my favorite, because he’s huge and terrifying and hunts you sort of like how the Nemesis stayed on Jill’s ass throughout much of Resident Evil 3. And like Nemesis, this big bad keeps coming back.

With all these enemies roaming about, getting acquainted with the strengths and weakness of Prey’s sizable arsenal should be the priority. The game makes this easy to do, as it introduces new weapons and tools at a steady pace. Some should be plenty familiar already, like the wrench, stun gun, handgun, and shotgun. And because this is a video game released in the 2010s, the presence of a bow weapon should surprise no one. I’m fairly certain the ESA has made including either a bow or crossbow in every action game a requirement.

Prey finds a nifty use for its crossbow, which is actually a Nerf gun. The foam darts are useless against Typhon – trust me, I tried, and I think if the Typhon had pupils it would’ve rolled its eyes – but they can be used to interact with distant touchscreen displays. The GLOO Cannon is similarly better purposed for non-offensive purposes, as it fires a stream of rapidly hardening goo which can be used to temporarily slow enemies or build platforms so you can reach faraway places.

It’s not all fun and goo bridges, however. Prey also suffers from some surprisingly prevalent performance issues, from an inconsistent framerate in busy areas to a broken side quest and the occasional crash. Over the course of my 30+ hour playthrough the game crashed on me twice and froze once forcing me to reboot. Thankfully, I have a tendency to save like a mad man when I’m not forced to conserve ink ribbons.

Over time, bugs can (and hopefully will) be fixed. The excessive backtracking, on the other hand, doesn’t have an easy fix, unless you’re not that interested in seeing everything Talos-1 has to offer. There’s always something to do, even if you’re slogging through the same series of rooms for the fifteenth time. It’s just a matter of whether or not you’re interested in going out of your way to seek out the game’s many side quests, secret stashes, and loot, or if all that’s worth enduring one overlong loading screen after another. Plus, the enemies respawn, and there’s always the chance encounter with the Nightmare to look forward to (or not).

This is one of the downsides to the non-linear design of Talos-1. It’s open enough to allow for much more freedom to explore than BioShock allowed with Rapture, or Dead Space 2 with The Sprawl. You’re even encouraged to do so, as the game rewards sleuth-like players with a steady drip-feed of new keys and quests to unlock more areas and toys to play with.

Have I mentioned how great the music is? Prey benefits enormously from a stellar soundtrack by Mick Gordon, who also composed id Software’s recent DOOM reboot. The two games couldn’t sound any more different, as Prey favors an eerie tension with its score that’s just as menacing. I wish I could say the same for the whole of its audio design, but I can’t. That’s not to say the game doesn’t sound great or that it doesn’t star some solid voice talent, because it absolutely does.

Unfortunately, the audio has a tendency to compete with itself. Talos-1’s chatty lady computer would often interrupt an audio log I was listening to so she could notify me of some hull breach or whatever, or she’d decide to tell me about a failing system when I’m on the phone being briefed on my next objective. This happened to me on a myriad occasions, and it’d often obscure important information, making it one of the more persistent and irritating issues I encountered. And don’t get me started on the NPCs you’re in close proximity with. They’re the worst. Fortunately, they can be silenced forever with a well-placed recycler grenade, so that’s an option.

Prey might not have the same level of polish as Dishonored, but the familiar unfamiliarity of its beautifully realized world does have a similarly powerful gravitational pull that makes it difficult to leave once it’s pulled you in. For me, my first time outside its walls, floating freely on the edge of deep space was my event horizon, my point of no return.

The Final Word: With Prey, developer Arkane Studios has delivered an enormously clever reimagining of a series that didn’t seem worth returning to – until it did.

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