This review contains spoilers for Prey.
My first impressions of Prey where sort of mixed. On the whole, I liked what I saw, but it felt like something was off. After having played the full game (18 hours – and that’s breezing through some areas!) I’ve figured out the root of my feelings surrounding the game. In short – Prey is a PC game first and foremost, and it reminds me of the days I’d play System Shock 2 late into the night. It’s been a very long time since I’ve played a game like this.
What is it?
Prey is an alt-history, cyperpunk-lite, survival horror FPS. It’s a mouthful, but that’s the only way to describe it. Alternative: Prey is System Shock 2 with a different setting. Prey puts you in the shoes of Morgan Yu, who is apparently going to work at the Talos I research facility with his brother, Alex Yu. In actual fact, Morgan Yu is a brilliant scientist who was studying the Typhon.
The Typhon are an alien race that attacked humanity during the US-USSR space race. In this alt-history timeline, Kennedy isn’t assassinated and the space race receives a lot more funding, leading to a period of higher technology. The Typhon attack Earth, and the US and USSR form a sort of alliance to fight them off – while disguising the threat. The Typhon are contained aboard a space station orbiting the moon, called Kletka. The USSR dissolves in the 1960s and the US attempt to use the Typhon to create new technology – which fails miserably.
The game itself takes place in the year 2035, by which point a corporation called TranStar (headed by the Yu family, including player character Morgan) have taken over the old Kletka and turned into into Talos I, a research facility that produces Neuromods. Neuromods give humans new abilities harvested from other humans… and then the Yu brothers try to integrate the Typhon as well.
Long story short, Morgan ends up being subject to a lot of these trials and loses his memory (when neuromods are removed, memory is lost) – so he imparts his knowledge and personality into a robot called January, with instructions to destroy Talos I. His brother, Alex Yu, wants to preserve it and believes the Typhon can be controlled. You now go about the station with the overall plot line being to either preserve or destroy it, along the way linking up with other crew members, uncovering nefarious and petty plots aboard the station, and getting chewed up by the various Typhon and robots. Along the way, you’ll have to collect Neuromods to give yourself new abilities.
By and large, Prey’s plot is somewhat predictable, but it does have a few decent twists to it. It’s not quite like the Polito-SHODAN reveal, but they’re entertaining. There’s also an obscene number of side quests that pop up – some of them on a timer (Prey runs in real time – the seconds tick down from when you start), some of them well worth doing, and many of them more like a chore. There’s lots to do in Prey, lots to explore, and multiple paths to your objectives. The game can be as straightforward as you like, or you can spend hours getting lost in the game. Hell, if you really want to, you can just board an escape pod at one point and disappear from the station. There’s no resolution and it’s a crap ending, but hey, you’ve got that option…
Performance and fidelity?
Graphically, Prey runs on the Cryengine (an interesting choice) but it’s remarkably well tuned. On my gaming laptop (6700HQ, GTX 1070, 16GB RAM, SSD) it ran almost flawlessly at 1080p 60FPS. There was occasional stuttering that I couldn’t pin down, and occasionally I saw texture streaming errors which didn’t seem to have a reason (e.g. they didn’t occur when I was turning around quickly). There’s one section in the Reactor Core where the framerate turns into a sub-20 FPS slideshow, but this is the only area where it occurs (and it’s the worst when looking down at it from the top, getting better as you get towards the bottom).
By and large, Prey’s gameplay is excellent and like a refined System Shock 2. That said, it’s more like a survival horror sort of game. I’ll talk about the combat a bit later (because I don’t think it works particularly well), but by and large avoiding direct confrontation until you’ve got the capacity to fight is the better option. Taking on anything other than the base Mimics in groups is ill advised and usually leads to taking a lot of punishment or death. You really need to use the environment and all of your toys to your advantage.
Prey gives you lots of options. For example, I wanted to get into a morgue at one point. There’s a robot that will go in there to do some cleaning, but it only goes through every half hour on the hour (so 04:30 or 05:30) – so waiting is an option I guess. I used an ability called Mimic to turn myself into a bundle of eels, which allowed me to slip between the bars of a broken window. Another person used the toy crossbow to shoot a foam dart at the lock button from between the bars. All valid ways to get what you want. Many objectives offer these multiple pathways, and it’s rare that you can’t go somewhere or do something because you lack the ability to do it. Sometimes it takes a bit of thought, but many things can be bypassed or attacked from another angle.
Another thing I like is the attention to detail. There’s one sequence where you encounter a ‘cook’ who turns out to be an impostor. He sends you to his quarters to retrieve an award, and when you come back, you realise he’s actually trying to kill you. If you look on the desk in the cook’s quarters though, you can see a photo of the actual cook – and he looks nothing like this guy! That’s a clue to the storyline – something the developers could have easily left out, and yet they put it in.
The exploration aspect of Prey is great too. I loved simply walking around, looking at things, getting immersed in the lore of the world. As an extra nod to detail, the people mentioned in the logs, emails and voice recordings are usually physically present in the game world. You can find their corpses, and sometimes even the living person. It adds to the immersion, the feeling like this is an actual place that exists. I also like how you’re not the only person aboard the station – there’s quite a few people you can interact with aboard the station.
The Typhon are an interesting set of enemies and some are quite inventive. There are the regular Mimics, the Phantoms (which come in a few varieties), and a bunch of other special types like the Technopath (which can turn turrets and bots against you), the Telopath (who can control humans), the Weaver (which shits out exploding egg sacs and creates Phantoms), and the Nightmare, a hulking overlord who will start hunting you down periodically once you get far enough into the game.
Generally speaking, the game feels fair – there are times when you’re down on ammo and resources, but a lot of the time it’s because you’ve let yourself get into a crap situation, and it’s up to you to figure out how to get out of it. Prey is unforgiving and damn difficult at times, even on the easier difficulties. While there are multiple paths to an objective, some are easier than others and leave you with more resources. Ammo for conventional weapons in particular becomes scarce unless you start crafting it yourself.
By and large, Prey is fun and engaging to play… so long as you don’t treat it as a first person shooter. It’s more of an action adventure sort of game – and in that way, it’s very much like System Shock 2. Instead of running down corridors, blasting away every threat that you meet, you tend to have to sneak around, observe your enemies carefully, and try to use the world against them. Head on confrontations where you have no real advantages will either get you killed, significantly hurt, or drained of resources. Combined with an engaging storyline, Prey is the spiritual successor to System Shock 2 that we’ve all bee waiting for. It’s tense, it’s unforgiving, it’s non-linear, and it’s satisfying.
Prey isn’t flawless, but I think these flaws are overshadowed by how great the game is. A sort of minor flaw is how many side quests there actually are. It sort of clutters things up quite a bit and you end up with a mission log filled with countless side quests. Now more content is usually a good thing, but it suffers a little bit from the same problem that Mass Effect: Andromeda has – most of them aren’t very interesting. Many of them have a useful reward (usually neuromods) but by a particular point in the game you’re swimming in neuromods and they stop being useful. Most of them boil down to “Go here, retrieve this, oh wait now it’s over here! Go over there, find reward, end.” Sometimes they have plot exposition (and these are worth doing) but usually it’s nothing exciting.
Also the hacking minigame feels silly. You throw a little puck-like thing around a sort of maze and press a button when you get within a circle, trying to beat the clock. It’s dumb.
By far the weakest part of Prey is the combat, and this is one where it diverges somewhat from System Shock 2. Prey seems to want you to avoid combat – or where you have to engage in combat, it pushes you towards unconventional combat styles. Enemies generally have weaknesses that can be used to sort of counter them, but by and large they’re tanks and require some preparation to take out. I don’t have an issue with this.
But where I do have an issue is that combat in Prey feels more like it’s forcing a particular method on you, rather than giving you freedom of choice – in stark contrast to the rest of the game. For example, conventional bullet weapons basically become useless later on – either because you’ll have trouble keeping ammo stocked, or because they’re simply weak. There are perks to upgrade them, but they’re limited in their effectiveness. The enemies keep getting stronger, so you never really feel a sense of progression.
Weapons include a pistol, a shotgun, the wrench, a beam cannon called the Q-Beam, and a stun gun (which is super effective against robots). The beam cannon and the stun gun are great – the pistol is only good for long range stuff, and the shotgun was the one I found to be the least useful. There are also a bunch of different grenades, the best of which being the Recycler Grenade which sucks things in and turns them into useful resources. Outside of that there’s an array of offensive psychic powers, which are the most effective. Finally, there’s the GLOO Cannon, which fires globs of white stuff. This can be used to deal with environmental issues, but it can also stick some enemies in place.
Playing a combat-focused character is the more challenging route, because your conventional weapons quickly become useless. The Q-Beam and Stun Gun remain useful during the whole game. The pistol and shotgun do not. The wrench is useful for taking out Mimics and little else – even with neuromods invested into the wrench or “security” weapons, they feel positively anaemic. They’re more like finishing weapons than anything else, and it’s almost like Prey discourages their use. Once the early game is over, they rapidly lose their utility. If I go through another playthrough, I won’t invest into them – it’s a waste.
If you do take a combat focused route, you’ll find Prey becomes more difficult and it’s at this point that the game starts to feel unfair. It’s really not – you’re just using a playstyle that the developers apparently don’t want you to use. But it’s odd that you’re given an inferior option to sneaking around or investing in psychic powers when the rest of the game presents many, equally valid options. I don’t quite get the design choice. I’m not asking to be a gun-slinging juggernaut by the end of the game, but I’d like to feel a bit of progression! A lot of the combat thus devolves into one of two options: significantly stacking the playing field against the enemy (which feels formulaic and tedious), or using what feel like exploits by spamming particular skills or items (which destroys the challenge).
But with that said, the combat is largely overshadowed by the rest of the game. When you’re being hunted with limited resources and you come up with an inventive way to beat the enemy, that’s a great feeling! That’s where the game shines. But when I end up tearing through ammo beating my way through a bunch of minor enemies that are just getting in the way, or repeating set steps to blast away the arbitrarily high health bar, it stops being fun.
Prey’s an awesome game. Prey is a PC game. I can’t imagine playing this on consoles, and I’m not awful with a controller. It’s the sort of 1080p 60FPS game that PC gamers love. It’s the true spiritual successor to System Shock. Bioshock is like System Shock Lite, while Prey is like a direct successor except with a new story. If it does well, it proves there’s still a market for these kinds of games. It has a good storyline, a great environment, and overall good gameplay with the caveat that the combat is quite stale and annoying. But that’s only part of the story. This is one of the best action-adventure games to come out in a long time. The thrill of exploration, of coming up with new ways to do things, and learning how to exploit the environment is what makes the game fun. Prey is a great game, a game I’ve been waiting for without even knowing it. It’s not totally flawless, but I think the sum of its parts elevate it above the rest.
The PC had two golden types of FPS. One was the Doom-like FPS, which saw a stunning return in Doom 2016. The other was System Shock 2 style games – which Prey has brought back. There have been many attempts to emulate those games, from both the AAA sector and the indie sector, but they all fundamentally misunderstand the core aspects and screw around with them. The indie sector focuses on a narrow facet at the expense of everything else, and the AAA sector simplifies all the mechanics in a misguided attempt to create a broad appeal. Prey proves that you can have a complex game without too many compromises.
If any of this sounds good to you, get Prey. It’s a contender for Game of the Year.