In the earliest moments of Prey’s opening hour, I found myself trapped in my own apartment. The windows were sealed, the doors were locked, and the elevator in the hallway was broken. Eventually I figured out I could smash my way through a sliding glass door, but I later discovered there was another possible solution: I could have escaped through the fish tank.
Like Arkane Studio’s other major first-person action franchise, Dishonored, Prey equips players with versatile tools and abilities that can be used to solve problems in a variety of ways. However you choose to approach its puzzles and attack its enemies, the game endeavors to ensure you can actualize your ideas, even if that means smashing a decorative aquarium and crawling through the resulting hole. It’s a textbook example of the “player choice” approach to game design championed by classics like System Shock, Deus Ex, and, of course, Dishonored.
But Prey also apes specific elements from other acclaimed titles, including BioShock, Half-Life, and Dead Space. All told, the game contains traces of stealth, action, survival, role-playing, and even horror games, all set within a single sprawling space station that rewards exploration. I spent more than an hour playing from the beginning of the game and still came away feeling like I’d barely scratched the surface of Prey’s ambitions. And while I’m excited about what the game could become should it successfully realize all of its ideas, it’s not yet clear how or if its disparate parts will gel together–or even if they succeed individually.
Some of its mechanics boldly deviate from genre norms, but it’s too early to tell if this will ultimately prove refreshing or just confounding. For example, Prey contains firearms, but unlike the vast majority of modern shooters, you cannot aim down sights. Instead, the left trigger is reserved for optional alien powers unlocked later in the game. “Once players acquire Typhon abilities, the left trigger becomes the means by which those powers are targeted and activated,” explained lead designer Ricardo Bare following my demo. “Holding left trigger freezes time and allows players to aim powers [like] Kinetic Blast or pick targets as in Mimic Matter. It’s similar to entering VATS mode in Fallout.”
This ability-focused setup worked out fine for Dishonored, but guns seem more central to Prey’s design: I acquired a shotgun, pistol, and multipurpose GLOO Cannon within the first half hour. Despite this abundance of weapons, however, ammunition proved extremely scarce, and the grid-based inventory system limited the number of items I could carry. Though by no means as a punishing as a true survival game, I still had to scavenge for health and ammo while juggling crafting materials to make room for more immediately useful items. And there’s another catch: strenuous actions like sprinting and melee attacks drain your stamina meter, which is quick to deplete but slow to recharge (at least early on). When it’s empty, you can no longer attack, and your movement slows considerably.
Altogether, design choices like the stamina bar, aiming, and survival mechanics constitute a gamble, and while I still can’t quite decide if that gamble pays off, I am impressed Prey refuses to be bound by convention. And though its opening hour left me feeling a bit underpowered, the game does provide plenty of options for growth as you progress. Prey contains two completely separate upgrade systems–one for human abilities and one for alien abilities–both of which comprise three distinct branches that all focus different playstyles.
Bare remained reticent about the total number of possible upgrades, but he did confirm that, “just based on the economy alone, you can’t acquire enough ‘neuromods’ to get every single power. You’d have to start a new playthrough. You could probably acquire enough to fully spec out all the alien abilities or fully spec out all the human ones, but not both.” Neuromods are collectible items scattered throughout the space station that allow you to unlock new powers for protagonist Morgan Yu. Sadly, none of the alien abilities were available during my demo (I couldn’t even find them in the menu), but I did scrape together neuromods to start exploring the human upgrades.
For the most part, the human powers provide simple but helpful boosts that unlock new options within the world. You can bump up Morgan’s strength, for example, which then allows you to move heavy objects and access rooms that were previously blocked. You can also improve Morgan’s hacking abilities, which you can use to open doors, decrypt passwords, and uncover hidden safe codes. You can even select a repair skill that lets you fix busted elevators and revive sentient turrets much like the ones you found back in BioShock.
It’s disappointing the more exotic alien powers largely remain a mystery outside of the few already announced, like the ability to morph into certain physics objects. Regardless of what those powers turn out to be, however, Prey’s extensive skill trees should support a variety of playstyles. When asked about stealth options, for example, Bare replied, “You don’t have to fight. There’s maybe a couple of instances in the game where you absolutely have to fight something, but you can definitely play stealth. It’s fair to describe Dishonored as a stealth game; this is a game with stealth. It’s just one of the branches of upgrades you can apply to your character.”
Thanks to Dishonored, we know Arkane does powers and playstyles well, so I’m anxious to see what’s still to come from Prey. In the meantime, the game already contains a few brilliant ideas, most notably its abundant Mimic enemies. Prey takes place on a space station in the grips of an unknown catastrophe, so it’s crawling with creepy, spider-like aliens. In groups, they’ll swarm you with a front frontal assault, but when you catch them alone, they may choose camouflage instead since Mimics can disguise themselves as any physics-based object in the game: chairs, trash cans, potted plants–you never know when something’s going to spring to life and try to rip out your throat.
To make matters worse, Mimics are indistinguishable from the objects they emulate–a Mimic disguised as a trash can will look identical to every other trash can. As a result, the random clutter we ignore in every other game suddenly becomes a source of constant suspicion, brilliantly turning our ingrained expectations against us. Even more impressively, Mimics pick objects procedurally, meaning if you die and reload an earlier save, there’s no guarantee you’ll find hidden Mimics in the same locations. And more than once during my demo, I chased a Mimic into a room only to find the room empty when I burst through the door, meaning the Mimic was smart enough to hide convincingly in the split second it was out of my sight. That’s both impressive and terrifying.
Mimics aren’t the only enemies after you, though. Bare also teased a late-game enemy that sounds an awful lot like Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis: “There’s this creature called the Nightmare that is specifically designed to hunt you. They made it to come after you. And it’s a dynamic system, so you can do things to trigger its appearance. And when it shows up, it’s like this huge roar [and] a giant creature, and it is looking for you specifically to kill you. And if you do things like install alien powers, it’ll show up in the map that you’re in and try to sniff you out.” Bare declined to elaborate on who “designed” the Nightmare, but it sounds pretty menacing regardless.
Outside of its enemies, Prey’s world–the expansive, varied Talos 1 space station–is also shaping up to be a major highlight. Like BioShock’s Rapture, it mixes harsh industrial laboratories with the art deco detailings of a fancy cruise ship, a juxtaposition made even eerier by the mangled corpses and unexplained smears of blood scattered throughout. Though moodier lighting might have bolstered the tension in certain areas and occasional load screens dampened the atmosphere, Talos 1 contains plenty of secrets to uncover. Despite combing every area during my demo, I somehow missed an entire basement segment and walked right past a few carefully concealed ducts that would have allowed me into areas I assumed were off limits.
Clever, careful exploration will clearly play a key role in the overall experience, which means your path through the campaign could easily differ from your friends’. “Some of it does depend on what abilities you chose,” said Bare. “So if I chose the ability to hack then I can probably get to this area before other players. Some of it is the progression of the story. And then some of it is just what side quests you did. There’s an elevator in the main lobby that, if you fix it, it actually opens up huge amounts of the space station, and if you do that early, then you’ll have access to more of the space station initially than somebody else who didn’t.” [WARNING: The following video contains the game’s surprising opening sequence. If you’re worried about spoilers, skip the video and continue reading below.]
“A lot of the side missions serve to flesh out the space station,” Bare continued. “You can just hit the main beats and finish the main game, but you can spend many many many hours going down side trails, like finding missing people.” Unfortunately, I didn’t encounter any of these missing people during my demo, but they’re potentially one of the most interesting things about Talos 1–and Prey itself. According to Bare, “How you treat the human beings on the station matters. There are consequences throughout and at the end, especially for what you do with the survivors that you meet. There are definitely multiple endings–a wide variance. There’s two main branches, mostly centered around the fate of the space station and the survivors, but then within those branches, there’s tons of little permutations.”
I’m not going to spoil it here, but Prey’s superb Portal 2-esque opening sows the seeds of paranoia that will no doubt take root as you dig deeper into the story. And while Bare assured me that storytelling is “not our key drive” and that the game won’t “have a bazillion cutscenes,” the idea of branching endings is still incredibly intriguing given the conspiratorial nature of the intro. Regardless of how the narrative plays out, however, Prey’s ambitious blend of genres combined with its open-ended exploration and emphasis on player creativity made my demo an unusual yet remarkable experience. With any luck, the final game will synthesize these ideas into a cohesive package worthy of Arkane’s reputation.
Prey is scheduled to launch on PS4, Xbox One, and PC on May 5. For more on Prey, be sure to check out our recent video impressions as well as our interview with lead designer Ricardo Bare and creative director Raphael Colantonio.
Source by gamespot….