The original Prey, announced way back in 1995, starred a Cherokee Indian by the name of Tommy. Tommy could enter the spirit realm when he needed to, and this ability formed the core of both the narrative and the gameplay, as Tommy leveraged it to defeat an alien life form that was otherwise going to consume the earth.
Or something like that; it released in 2006, after all. What I remember more clearly is the rather cool in-progress demo of Prey 2 that I saw at E3 a few years ago. Announced soon after Prey's release, the noire-ish sequel saw its protagonist stranded on an alien planet in perpetual twilight. You played a bounty hunter of sorts, moving through the environment like a lead from Assassin's Creed. It was, rose-tinted memory glasses aside, badass.
The game Bethesda recently flew me to Sydney to play was not Prey 2. That game, in all its apparent glory, is dead; the victim of some combination of license transfer and/or quality inadequacies. Will this Prey be a worthy replacement?
Playing as Morgan Wu – a clever name, as you can choose a male or female avatar – I started the game in my bed at home, reaching for the alarm clock that had just rudely extracted me from my slumber. While I could grab a spacesuit hanging on the door and head out immediately, exploration rewarded me with some additional items and my first taste of how richly detailed and interactive Prey's environments were. Many things could be picked up, tossed around, turned over, read, and in the case of Morgan's desktop computer, logged onto and then used.
I headed to the roof, which kicked off a very Half-Life-like introduction sequence during which I was flown by helicopter to my brother's office to complete some simple testing exercises. Instead of feeling derivative, however, this narrative-rich sequence helped scratch my itch for the surely-it's-coming Half-Life 3. In fact, this part was so good, it made me wonder if in fact the game might serve as a replacement for that long rumoured, apparently non-existent sequel.
The exercises I was tasked with were simple; jump over this, press that – you get the idea. Of course, as you might expect, something went wrong, and things escalated pretty quickly from there. The opening section of the game helped to establish the narrative beats of the game, before smashing apart my perceptions with some cool twists that I won't ruin here.
Once I completed the tutorial section, I travelled to an area of the game referred to as "the hub". There were numerous things to do in this large indoor area, many of which I couldn't do until I'd expanded my selection of abilities. The hub's richly detailed environment was very distracting, packed full of nooks and crannies to explore. For example, there was a nifty museum-style display that revealed much about the game's alternate history and dystopian future.
Combat-wise, the gameplay felt a bit like a combination of Half-Life and Resident Evil, thanks to a goo gun, wrench, ammo scarcity, and powerful enemies. Like Half-Life's gravity gun, the goo gun changed the way I approached both enemy encounters and the environment. While freezing then bashing enemies was important, the ability to lay down piles of goo that hardened into traversable platforms allowed me to look at the hub's open atrium in a completely new way.
That's not to say Prey felt purely like a nod to Half-Life. The way in which much of the environment concealed information about the story will feel familiar to fans of games with "Shock" in the title. There were computers to hack into – should you spend your skill points on hacking, of course – and multiple paths to objectives.
While there was also a shotgun and a pistol, ammo for both was extremely limited, ruling out any kind of guns-a-blazing tactic. Given Morgan's scientific background, the cautious approach this forced on me actually made good sense. Later, I found a turret that I could pack down and carry around with me, setting it up where I thought I might encounter aliens. Again, this is the kind of thing you might expect of someone who's using their intellect rather than combat experience to do.
Prey's enemies are far more than your typical space marine. Even basic headcrab-looking nasties have a unique skill, in that they can mimic pretty much anything in the environment. As a result, you need to be careful when approaching a chair, as it might just morph into an alien and rip your face off.
Many of the random pieces of junk like circuit boards and loose wires I found while poking around could be converted into basic supplies, which then formed the building blocks of a crafting system. Unfortunately, the guided part of the demo ended when I found a recycler, and there was no info on just what kind of shenanigans I could get up to with my newly liberated materials.
Once I'd completed the core path of the demo, one of the most enjoyable things I found to do was simply to hunt around for access codes so that I could read people's emails and watch videos they had saved on their computers. As in Doom 3, these little nuggets of narrative really fleshed out the wider story, compounding much like a JJ Abrams movie and leaving me with more questions than I had when I started.
Outside of the intro sequence, I didn't encounter another living soul. The world Morgan inhabits feels dangerous, broken, and on the brink of a cataclysmic disaster that there will be no coming back from. This lent a feeling of urgency to events, to the point that I actually felt guilty when I strayed from my mission to take a look around. As a result, my hour of game time was over quick as a flash, and my mind was left racing, thinking about what other neat things might lie undiscovered in the hub.
While it's too early to draw any absolute conclusions about Prey, especially considering this was a tightly-curated slice of play, it is fair to say that it is looking very promising indeed. It will be interesting to see how well Arkane balances the combination of System Shock depth and Half-Life accessibility, but that's pretty much the only thing I'm unsure of right now. Prey is otherwise looking to be at least a very good game when it hits the shelves in May, and there's no reason to doubt its potential for inclusion in accolades lists later on this year.
◆ Alan flew to Sydney to check out [i]Prey courtesy of Bethesda.