When I think about Prey, comparing it to BioShock and System Shock 2 seems a little lazy. Not because they’re easy reference points, but that Prey follows so slavishly in their footsteps that it becomes hard to pinpoint where it differs and becomes its own beast. Much like the Mimics which have become this game’s selling point, Prey is happy to imitate rather than innovate. If you’ve played either of the above titles or indeed the likes of Deus Ex, you should have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting yourself into with Prey.
The key hook where Prey attempts to differentiate is in the both the locale and the premise. It’s an alien invasion aboard a space station, which is so far, so System Shock; The sort of thing we’ve endured for years. However, it proves itself to have a little more substance than that, effectively stripping the player of any knowledge as to how or why they are there, and indeed who you even truly are.
Set aboard the space station Talos-1, Prey is a first-person immersive sim in the vein of Thief or Deus Ex, with a smattering of BioShock. You play as Morgan Yu, either male or female depending upon your choice at the start. Over the process of an absolutely fantastic intro sequence, you discover you’re a scientist on a spaceship engaging in some… risky experiments. Naturally, no one seems to have learned from Gordon Freeman yet, and the experiment goes wrong, letting in alien infestation of creatures known as the Typhon. With the once immaculately gleaming space station now in tatters and the shape-shifting Typhon causing chaos, Morgan must find a way to get off this space station alive. The Typhons are probably the stars of the show, each with a range of powers such as mimicking, teleportation, telepathy, and invisibility. With time Yu can actually inject himself with these very powers, turning the tables on your alien foes.
In Prey you have set objectives to follow, but how you do them and more importantly, how you get there, is entirely up to you. Talos-1 is absolutely jammed with detail; computers to poke around, secret passages to find and vaults to unlock. It’s a sprawling network of interconnected areas, and there will even be some you never end up going depending on what path you take with your skill unlocks. There’s often so many directions to head off in and play around that it could be a little bit bewildering for my inner OCD. If you’re the sort that likes thoroughly poking every level and making sure you’ve uncovered every scrap of incidental detail, you could be stuck playing Prey for a long, long time.
You’re also free to game the system, utilising some neat weaponry and unlocked Typhon powers to brute force alternate routes. The GLOO Cannon in particular is a force to be reckoned with. This fires out globules of hardening foam, letting you create your own staircases and walkways to reach seemingly inaccessible areas. Different weapons have different strengths depending on the enemies, so it’s important to experiment and try to discover their weaknesses. When I first found the shotgun its immense power caused me to fall back on it a lot, but limited ammo means this isn’t the wisest move - there are few shrewder ways to take out a Typhon than a shotgun blast.
Despite utilising the same formula as other immersive sims, Prey does offer its own refreshing takes and interesting scenarios. The powers, for one, are an absolute joy to use, and understanding how the systems can connect from these basic building blocks calls to mind Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Say you spot an office covered in bars and you can’t hack the entry pad or guess the code. You can lug over a big desk and a mug, placing the desk underneath the window and the mug on the desk. You can then use mimic to become a replica of the mug, using your vantage point on top of the desk to wriggle through a gap in the bars. Voila, you’re in. You get what you put in on this front, and Prey can either be a bog-standard shooter or a fun exploration title.
Fortunately, just poking around Talos-1 is a joy. It’s visually varied, there’s lots to see and do, and you can instantly recognise one part of the giant space station from another. My only major gripe on this front is that you’re basically just trekking from waypoint to waypoint, with a series of enforced lockdowns making sure you have to take the long route around and through a new area. It becomes eye-rolling in the extreme when you get told for the umpteenth time you can’t go straight through this door to your objective because there’s been a fire, or a cave in, or 21st century Yu has forgotten how a door handle works. Prey is a little by-the-numbers on this front, a criticism which unfortunately stretches to most aspects of it.
Despite absolutely adoring the setting and what Arkane is trying to achieve here, the truth is that Prey has never truly felt like it’s got its hooks in me. I’ve never been desperate to boot it up and play it, and I don’t feel inclined to sit there for hours and hours playing it. I just sort of bounce off it a bit, but it’s difficult to pinpoint why. A large portion of this likely comes from its derivative nature. There are precious few surprises to be found in Prey, it’s just a pretty good retread of the mechanics of popular sims which have come before it.
It doesn’t help that there’s a bunch of niggling problems. I’ve had it flat out refuse to load once or twice. Switching between mouse and keyboard and gamepad can be a pain. Using a Steam Controller requires going into the control settings, turning on Steam Controller support, and then restarting a game. Switching back to other control means you have to reverse this process. I’ve never played a game on Steam in which the Steam Controller didn’t just work. It also doesn't have the slickness we've come to expect from a Bethesda-published product. Dishonored 2 and DOOM felt good to play, Prey just makes me feel little sick. Movement feels like sludgy and restricted, and wildly flailing with a wrench hardly makes you feel like a badass. Not every game should be a power trip of course, but a little more finesse wouldn't have gone amiss.
Fortunately, the soundtrack is a high point in Prey, which is to be expected when Mick Gordon is weaving his magic. He hugely impressed me last year with DOOM, and he’s done it here again with Prey. I have to admit I was a little bit worried when I played the PS4 demo; Prey’s soundtrack was super aggressive and unrelenting. However, it turns out this was a bug with that version, and final drops in thudding beats and ambient noises appropriately, ratcheting up the tension.
Prey then becomes a difficult game to recommend at full price. You get a decent 15-hour or so adventure out of your $50, but there's not a great deal here to set it apart from 1999 game which so heavily inspired it. We think of Arkane doing fresh and innovative takes on well-worn genres, but Prey will perhaps adhere too closely for some.
That said, if you aren't overly familiar with some of the immersive sims that are out there right now, you'll be in for a heck of a ride. There are precious few games right now which do what Prey is trying to do, preserving the core single-player FPS experience for those who don't want to just blast everything in sight. I wouldn't say Prey is the thinking man's FPS, but it's certainly got plenty of substance. In the absence of BioShock 3, this is going to be as good as it gets.