Prey’s existence, is… complicated, to say the least. The first game to carry the trademark was a first-person shooter originally designed by the Duke Nukem team, and it took nearly a decade to see the light of day. Prey 2 looked like a weird alien bounty hunting game that was eventually canceled by its publisher Bethesda. Now, we have Arkane (makers of Dishonored) giving us a completely new experience with zero ties to the original games. Setting all of this aside, what exactly is Prey? Well, it’s an immersive sim that clearly draws inspiration from System Shock and its spiritual successor Bioshock. The best news, however, is that Arkane’s latest is pretty dang fantastic and definitely worth your time.
Prey puts you in the spacesuit of scientist Morgan Yu, a researcher on the orbiting space station Talos 1. In this alternate history, humans made contact with a deadly species of alien called Typhon and then devoted a hell of a lot of resources to studying the creatures and learning to use their special psionic powers. Would you believe me if I said a freak containment accident has left the vast majority of the station dead, and you struggling to survive? Yeah, okay, the story isn’t anything new, but the narrative and setting help to establish the feeling of isolation and resourcefulness necessary to walk away from the incident without becoming dead.
Two things set Prey apart from its various influences. The first is the retro future setting, as Prey looks like a 1960s version of the space age. Art deco is the name of the game, with lots of squares and symmetry making Talos 1 feel both old and new in equal measure. The environments also focus on utilitarian design, often showing exposed piping or computer terminals to give off the science fiction vibe. It may not be as immediately recognizable as Bioshock’s Rapture, but Talos 1 quickly becomes your home and you’ll recognize environmental markers to help your sense of navigation. The other key difference is the Typhon threat you’re constantly dealing with. The aliens exist somewhere between classic HR Giger horrors and more ethereal or Lovecraftian threats. The various Typhon move spastically and also have access to magic-like attacks that will keep you on edge. The basic mimic enemies constantly transform into pieces of the environment, which will have you nervously eyeing up an errant wrench on a desk when you should have been paying attention to the can of tea that’s rolling towards you.
Prey is an immersive sim in that various systems work together to create a sense of player choice and agency. You won’t find much in the way of big setpiece moments; instead, you’ll have to navigate rooms filled with aliens or environmental hazards in whatever way you see fit. A locked door leading to a wealth of resources can be overcome in a number of ways. Maybe you try to suss out the access code by checking the emails on a nearby terminal. You could hack the door if you have the necessary skills, or perhaps there’s an access panel you can reach by using your Gloo Cannon to create a makeshift ladder. Oh, how about using a security terminal to locate the AI persona responsible for the door in question? You may have to make a slight detour in each case, but this kind of open design helps to create various stories for players that will be unique to everyone’s personal experience. Prey trusts you to find the solutions to these problems, and it might prove a bit frustrating for players more accustomed to following checkpoints or pressing X whenever they’re prompted.
The early hours of Prey are tough, and could very well lead to some thrown controllers and exacerbated swearing fits. Enemies hit hard, resources are extremely limited, and your best bet when faced with a particularly nasty Phantom is to turn tail and run. In the beginning, Prey feels more like a survival horror title than the empowering fantasy Arkane’s known for with the Dishonored franchise. Personally, this was probably my favorite part of Prey. I loved how intense everything felt at the start, how precious every shotgun shell seemed, and how satisfying it was to slip behind a Typhon and blast it in the back for double damage. Playing on normal difficulty, Prey feels like you’re constantly balancing resources that make you dangerous but easily overwhelmed should you forget to manage what’s been given to you.
Carefully selecting upgrades made up the bulk of my “decision making” in Prey. Neuromods scattered around Talos 1 allow you to enhance abilities amongst six eventual skill trees. This will let you hack higher level doors, collect more raw materials when using recyclers located around the station, and carefully plan out your proper playstyle. I focused on stealth in the first two hours, and then I went for some equipment upgrades that would let me dish out a bit more damage. Exploration upgrades came later, as I was constantly revisiting areas to make sure I had picked the place clean. The introduction of the Psychoscope gave me access to Typhon abilities (so long as I scanned living creatures wandering the station, of course), and this is where the real fun starts. I was a little put off considering how much success I was having with my basic setup, but you’d do well to invest in some of the more esoteric powers. I personally fell in love with the electroshock skill, which let me zap an area to stun enemies for easy shotgun blasts. Unfortunately, to work down the Typhon path draws the ire of a particularly dangerous enemy that, oh, I’ve already said too much.
The power dynamic shift occurs gradually, but eventually you’ll be laughing at the dangers that once had you quaking with fear. Prey never fully shifts into a full-blown shooter, but you gain access to new grenades, powers and weapons capable of putting down the more dangerous Typhon lurking in the shadows. This makes for some pretty dynamic combat situations. I found myself stalking through a corridor to mark targets, picking off the errant mimic with my silenced handgun, throwing a recycling grenade to take several enemies out quickly (and give me a ton of resources, to boot), and finally blasting the ringleader with a psychic burst to take it out quickly. Prey consistently rewards careful strategy, but it doesn’t pat you on the back for such achievements. Breathing for another few minutes and moving on to the next mystery is your reward.
While there aren’t any high octane moments to speak of, Prey does offer a few more subtle experiences that will keep it in the back of my mind for awhile to come. Your first sojourn into the exterior of Talos 1 is particularly memorable. You can tell Arkane put a lot of time and effort into recreating the feeling of weightlessness and disorientation that comes from the lack of defined directions. You can pitch and roll Morgan in full 3D glory, and the sense of momentum as you guide your motion using careful jump jet maneuvers puts just about everything in the Dead Space franchise to shame. It’s a hauntingly beautiful experience that makes you feel small and incredibly isolated. There are also several narrative points that get the story’s point across without directly smacking you over the head with the artist’s intent. I’m really dancing around specifics here, but I would highly recommend rolling with the punches and doing what you think is right in a given situation. Prey is certainly better at handling moral quandaries than either Dishonored games, and it (hopefully) shows that Arkane is growing both in terms of storytelling and nuance. The ending, in particular, is probably going to draw some ire, but it really fits with everything that came before it and ends things on an intriguing note.
Unfortunately, there are some technical problems that often broke my immersion. The music is absolutely stunning (and brought to us by Doom 2016’s composer, Mick Gordon), but it’s often undermined by terrible sound mixing and balancing issues. I’m glad I wasn’t playing Prey with a headset at first, as the musical strings and chimes when you run into a mimic or complete an objective are likely to deafen any unsuspecting gamer. Voiceovers have a tendency to play over each other, and you’ll often hear a person speaking as if right next to you after you’ve moved three rooms down the hall. Arkane went with CryEngine (seemingly leaving behind Dishonored 2’s Void engine and all of the problems associated with it), and, while Prey runs quite well on my aged PC, there are hiccups here and there with basic functionality. Morgan has a habit of ducking and weaving should you get too close to anything scalable in the environment, and I had some bad experiences hopping over and over again to try and latch on and pull myself to a nearby ledge. The biggest issues thankfully didn’t affect me, as some early buyers faced crippling save issues during the first week of release. Things seem to have settled down with the addition of a recent patch, but I still encountered an uncomfortable number of crashes to the desktop during my twenty hour campaign. Load times are also a serious drag, especially when you’re trying to quickly move from one part of the station to another in order to complete a side quest. Even with my PC’s SSD, I spent just a bit too much time waiting to move from place to place. I also wish there were a few more enemy types. To be fair, there are several standout baddies, but there are far too many elemental palette swaps that could bore instead of intimidate.
There’s a casual voyeurism to Prey that’s immensely satisfying for this type of immersive sim, and it also ties directly into why I enjoyed it so much. I really got to know some of the people on Talos 1, and finding their lives in various states of disarray had more of an impact on me than the immediate story taking place between Morgan and the aliens patrolling the halls. The amount of restraint on display here is also admirable. There’s nobody quite as deliciously over the top as Fort Frolic’s Sander Cohen, but that’s kind of the point with Arkane’s space odyssey. Prey is satisfying for anyone looking for a deeply immersive gaming experience, and it might just make you think a bit more than the surface-level tension would lead you to believe. Prey is not only smart enough to let you figure out how to get into a locked room, but it also lets you decide what the point of that locked room is. That may frustrate some, but Prey is a very special game with guts to treat you like an intelligent human being.