Prey is a mixed, flawed experience that overreaches for success by borrowing elements from many successful games. Considering its troubled development, that started out years ago as a sequel to an entirely different franchise from 3D Realms that was also called Prey, it’s no surprise that this new and completely unrelated release struggles so much to find its own identity: it’s a first-person game that wants to be many things, but ultimately fails at delivering in just about every department.
Set in a space station called Talos One in an alternative timeline future where both the United States and the Soviet Union are working in tandem in order to research a hostile alien race in order to harness their powers. While that’s not exactly a damning factor that would make this a terrible game, it’s certainly what holds it back from being regarded in the same awe as its influences are, namely the System Shock, Thief, Dishonored, and Bioshock series. It’s just very bland.
Prey starts out extremely well. Stepping into the shoes of one of the Yu siblings — you can pick from male or female ‘Morgan’ Yu — it’s apparently your first day on the job, as you leave your apartment to work with your older brother Alex. That’s when Prey is at its best, when the rug gets pulled out from under Yu (hah!) and things start going bananas. It’s at this moment, though, when the alien threat called the Typhon are introduced, that the cracks start to form.
That’s when the game begins throwing its different systems at you, starting with the stealth, in the way the first enemy turns out to be a sneaky squid-like monster that borrows the shape of nearby objects in order to ambush and pounce on you. Although enemies quickly escalate in size, their threat is present from the get go, if you take into account how much damage the mimic aliens are able to deal, and just how weak the protagonist is. Vulnerability is an issue that permeates throughout the entirety of Prey, forcing you to try and approach situations more carefully, preferably from the shadows.
Sadly, for as much as I tried playing as a stealth-oriented character putting stat points in the respective skill trees, or neuromods as they’re called in Prey’s fiction, where they’re basically self-injections that give you special abilities you don’t naturally possess, such as playing a piano flawlessly. In a gameplay sense, you can use them in whatever skill tree you desire. Sneaking, hacking and repairing were my choices. And even though they’re elements that the game even praises itself for having as alternatives for any given situation during the game — in its long load screens — there are spots in the game where you’re just forced to fight enemies regardless.
That’s when Prey’s flawed combat comes into play. Even though neuromods are pretty easy to come by, putting their points into combat stats does little to improve the overall experience of pointing a gun and shooting anything that stands in your way. That’s because for 98% of the time, you’ll be attacking some form of the Typhon, and regardless of the kind of monster, they’re usually just bullet sponges meant to dry out what little ammunition you might happen to be carrying. Even with a fully upgraded weapon, be it the surprisingly convenient silenced security gun, your trusty wrench, or even an equivalent to the Ghostbusters’ proton pack, you’re likely not to kill them very quickly or efficiently. The GOO gun is one the exception I appreciated having ammo for: it allowed me to slow down enemies enough to make an escape, even though its primary use of creating impromptu platforms only factored into a handful of situations.
After acquiring a certain piece of equipment early on in the game, you’re able to scan the Typhon in order to learn what their weaknesses are, as well as unlock special powers with the use of neuromods. These range from passive skills like assimilating the mimics’ shapeshifting ability to more offensive ones, namely mind control that you can use against other humans in the station, and shockwaves, to name a few. But even with these powers, fighting isn’t very engaging, because in some situations even exploiting those weaknesses doesn’t seem to do much to help you defeat any threats.
Even if you do manage to scrape by these encounters towards whatever your next objective is — and boy, there are a lot of missions to partake in — you’re guaranteed to run into a similar situation when you eventually make your way to the same area of Talos One again later in the game. For as gigantic as the physical space feels when Prey starts out, it quickly shrinks into a series of obstacles that stand between you and the other spot you have to run to. Bioshock suffered from backtracking as well, but there was a sense of awe every time you arrived somewhere new, even if it admittedly went away during repeat visits. Prey’s Talos One, on the other hand, although beautifully realized in a style that makes incredible use of a 1960s vision of the future, ultimately just ends up looking the same anywhere you happen to find yourself in, first time or not.
With rare exceptions like the spacious Arboretum, an eco dome with an awesome view of the stars and nearby planets that houses many of the structures you’ll visit during the course of the game, every other section of Talos One features very few unique visual or environmental features to set it apart. Once I downloaded all of the map pieces and eventually learned the critical and most efficient paths through sheer repetition, these places which are supposed to be memorable and have a special feel simply devolved into corridors I simply did not care to fight or sneak my way through, something that proved even more true once I figured out that it didn’t matter how many times I would clear a path: the Typhon would always come back.
Still, there’s one bit to Prey’s hodgepodge design that ends up being somewhat fun, in an extremely simplistic and silly sort of way, without any of the science that’s seemingly injected everywhere else. Practically any of the crap you pick up along the way in the game can be recycled into material that in turn can be replicate all manner of useful items, from bandage kits and ammo to even neuromods, as long as you have enough. This pretty much turned me into a human vacuum cleaner, grabbing every bit of junk I came across in order to toss into the handy recycler — unless it was edible — just to see what wonders I could pop out of the replicator. That mindset eventually proved to be slightly troublesome, because just like real life, Prey doesn’t allow you to infinitely hoard all the shit you find, even though that’s not the case for the raw materials for crafting, thankfully. The special machines that break down and craft items are few and far between in Talos One, and for some reason, there’s no way to store anything for later outside of your inventory, which forced me to run back and forth to these apparatuses at the most inopportune of times because I didn’t have enough room to play inventory Tetris with whatever quest item I had to pick up.
Lore-wise, Prey has a lot going for it. The setting and its fiction fit well among Arkane’s main influences for the game, with an extremely detailed, thought-out and refreshingly pessimistic view of humanity that manages to inject deep philosophical issues with plenty of humor to boot. I cared about reading and listening through much of it via books and voice recordings, and for as repetitive as the gameplay was during most of the side content, finding out more about the people that worked at Talos One proved to be somewhat worthwhile. Your situational approach leads to interesting moral quandaries during the main story and side quests that affect how other characters look and act towards you — if you leave any of them alive that is — all throughout Prey. Unfortunately, these choices eventually play very little in how the story ends. I was disappointed in the way my experience with the game was boiled down to a few different lines of dialogue in an after credits scene that seems to go the same way regardless of which path I could’ve taken in during my twenty three hours playing Prey, with a couple of minor exceptions.
In the end, Prey feels like a product that was based around the idea of trying to please as many different tastes as it can, which it obviously fails at achieving. It’s not a fun shooter, nor is it an enjoyable stealth game. It’s pretty cool to dig into its unique fiction, making exploring Talos One’s nooks and crannies more rewarding than a chore. But even then, it doesn’t really end up anywhere worthwhile, with an ending that could’ve been built as another clever twist that really made your choices throughout the game really matter. It just falls flat.