Ambitious scientists construct a vast facility beneath the New Mexico desert, on Mars, orbiting the moon, or on the ocean floor. Freed from the bondage of conventional ethics, they carry out bizarre experiments. A mysterious alien, transdimensional being, or demonic lifeform is discovered and its life-force harnessed – ostensibly for the betterment of humanity. By the hubris of their leaders, the inhabitants of said facility are slaughtered by ideological civil war, malignant black goo, headcrabs, slugs, or 9000 degree radioactive plasma.
That old chestnut.
The premise of Prey is the same recycled Mad Libs page as Half-Life, Doom and BioShock, a trio notable for being the three most iconic first-person shooter franchises defined by their single-player campaigns.
Such a premise simultaneously endows a game with a strong inciting incident, a compelling setting and a supernatural threat to populate its various atriums, staff kitchens, conference rooms and corridors. No wonder endless science fiction stories share the structure.
Prey is set in 2032, in an alternate history where President John F. Kennedy was never assassinated, instead cooperating with Russia to construct the immense Talos I space station. You play as Morgan Yu, sister or brother of the CEO of TranStar enterprises – the company that currently controls the facility.
Frankly, there are too many twists even in the prologue of Prey to explain its story in a way that I am comfortable is sufficiently devoid of spoilers. Suffice it to say, the game is 30-40 hours long, and is a tale characterised by genuine moral ambiguity. There are no true villains in Prey, only a species acting on instinct, and scientists with differing but valid ideas about the future of humanity, motivated by distinct risk-benefit calculations.
Prey has the right kind of moral choices. It never asks the confounding question of whether to set fire to a bus full or orphans or give them sandles. Instead, the decisions have no simple answer. Is it better to be a strict utilitarian even if it means being directly responsible for immediate harm? Should you bother saving a life that will in all likelihood be lost in a few hours anyway?
Talos I itself is the heart of Prey. The game as a whole works as well as it does thanks to the lust you have to wander the bowels of this wondrous structure. Essentially, there are two tiers of rewards for exploration in Prey, each of which would be more than enticing enough on its own.
Obviously there is a direct benefit to looting stashes of medkits, guns and neuromods to upgrade your various powers. Even banana peels and faulty electrical components are useful. Tossed into industrial “recyclers” scattered through Talos I, they are reconstituted into cubes of substrate stamped with the TranStar logo. In this way, you can literally construct 9mm ammo from old electrical coils and empty food cans.
This satisfying mechanic is also the source of my greatest frustration: limited inventory space. Early on the grid seems spacious, but in later areas it becomes saturated by weapons, consumables and quest items. At times I would literally clear a single room and immediately need to backtrack to a recycler to offload my stinky loot.
Providing a second and even more compelling reason to explore Talos I are the endless stories that can be uncovered detailing TranStar employees immediately before and during the fall of the station. Arkane’s best new idea in Prey was to gift each character, from executive suits to mere atmosphere technicians, a tracking bracelet. Scattered throughout Talos I are security stations listing nearly every employee on board. Mostly tagged as “no life signs”, the game nonetheless allows you to select and track specific individuals.
One example: I found a locker in the Trauma Centre labelled “Secure Pharmaceuticals”. A cursory search of the immediate area did not unearth a keycard. I turned instead to a security terminal and identified the only pharmacist on board, tracking her to the other end of the station.
Prey’s corridors are adorned with corpses, but none are mere set-dressing. They are specific, named individuals with defined occupations and collegial, friendly, loving or adversarial relationships with one another. Morgan frequently comes across messages in both scrawled and in audio-log form. You can also locate a personal computer terminal somewhere on the station for every character with a vague reason to have one, which can then be hacked to peruse their emails. The crew quarters area contains the bedroom or sleep-pod of what feels like (but probably actually isn’t) every named character in the game littered with their belongings.
Tidbits of a single personality can be accumulated across all four corners of Talos I. These tales are equal parts sad, funny, poignantly frivolous office bureaucracy, and shameless exposition. They can be rather charming too. A drunkard obsessed with eels and an entire table-top roleplaying group spring to mind. Eventually their ghoulish bodies can be found inches from an escape pod or cowering helplessly in a maintenance shaft. Drained of their essence by the alien threat. These are genuinely melancholy moments thanks to the context you have already uncovered.
This cast of posthumous side characters is Prey’s greatest strength because of how grounded they make the world feel. All this high-concept science-fiction lunacy has real consequences on lots of average people who just wanted to go to work without having their oesophagus pulled out by a space-crab.
The environment design is excellent too. Talos It could fairly be described as “space-Rapture”; varnished mahogany and ostentatious glass sculptures class up its lobby, and its conference rooms are a counterpoint to the chrome of its claustrophobic laboratory corridors. The facility is littered with wonderfully imaginative sci-fi gizmos too. Room-filling looking glass panels function as perfect 3D screens, able to portray a scene so accurately that it appears to the viewer that they are simply looking through a window. Recycler grenades are a portable form of the stationary recyclers, as useful in combat encounters as they are in reducing heavy crates in your path to cubes of mineral and synthetic materials.
Prey comes with a sparse electronic soundtrack. Early in the game, blocks of swelling synthesizer chords underline a feeling of awe in the face of extraordinary scientific possibilities. Later these give way to brittle static textures and droning bass tones, evoking a sense of isolation and technology gone awry. Even the second-long musical motifs triggered when the player dies or completes an objective are a treat to listen to.
Prey is not an Infinity Ward game. The combat is awkward. Aiming and moving feels stiff. The bulk of the enemies in the game are “mimics”: rudimentary tetrapods composed of strands of writhing darkness, so-called for their habit of morphing into replicas of mugs, chairs or medkits and leaping onto any hapless lifeform that strays near.
They are small, erratic enemies with larger relatives that teleport every few seconds, and that emphasises the stodgy cadence of your attacks. The very substance of these aliens, known as the Typhon, morphs to escape the kiss of your clumsy wrench.
Dishonored shared this mechanical awkwardness, and it was actually a bigger issue in the context of playing as an experienced assassin. Playing as an untrained scientist in a fundamentally bizarre situation, Prey’s combat encounters feel appropriately frantic and imprecise, adding to the overall tone and atmosphere of the game.
Prey’s larger humanoid “phantoms” can soak up a whole clip of pistol bullets before bursting into a satisfying ink-blot. They can empty a health bar in a couple of hits too, which encourages the player to spend more time on preparation than on the actual combat encounters themselves. Movable turrets, burstable gas pipes and arcing electrical transformers are thankfully not in short supply.
Morgan’s foes are a bit like Pokemon, in the sense that they have identifiable weaknesses to specific damage types. Prey functions poorly as a pure stealth game, but it is useful to employ the barest smidgen of sneakiness to position yourself favourably. Opening the fight with an appropriately chosen column of fire or salvo of psychic energy.
Prey’s premise might be well worn, but it has produced many of gaming’s most iconic settings and stories. Come to think of it, there is no more perfect developer that you could choose to produce a game using this proven template. Arkane Studios has always nailed world building, and its level-design since the first Dishonored is simply second to none.
Where Arkane has historically stumbled is that their games have a paradoxically weak core narrative, and perplexingly boring main characters, as if the primary storytellers only ever worked on crumpled love letters and suicide notes, dedicating resources to extraneous vignettes the player might bypass entirely, while outsourcing the story itself to writers with less skill.
Prey represents Arkane studios shattering that trend. Delivering the cohesive experience it was clearly capable of all along: a game with a plot and characters that can finally hold a candle to the compelling universe they reside in. A driven, engaging central narrative informed and enriched by a hundred elegantly told smaller stories that surround it.