Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Prey: My Favorite Game of This Decade

Prey is a science-fiction-themed first-person shooter from 2006, in which you play as a Cherokee named Tommy running loose on an alien spaceship as he tries to rescue his girlfriend, Jen, after they're both abducted in an alien invasion. Built on the Doom 3 engine, it plays pretty much like a standard Doom-style corridor-crawler of that era. What makes it noteworthy, besides its convoluted 11-year development cycle and infamously-canceled sequel, is its implementation of mind-bending alien technology that allows you to move through dimensional portals, change gravity, and shrink to minuscule sizes, in addition to its array of strange alien weaponry. I pre-ordered the "Limited Collector's Edition" back in the day and enjoyed the game well enough (it's still on my shelf), but never felt a fanatical attachment to it.

Prey is also a science-fiction-themed first-person immersive-simulator from 2017, in which you play as Morgan Yu making his (or her -- you choose your gender) inaugural trip to the moon-orbiting research station Talos I. Once you arrive, you discover that the station has been attacked by a strange alien lifeform; most of its crew is dead, many of its systems are out of operation, and you have seemingly no way off the station. The rest of the game sees Morgan piecing the history together of what happened to Talos I and its crew while combining stealth, combat, hacking, and alien abilities (among many other skills and options) in an open-ended system that gives you a lot of freedom about how you complete objectives and how you play your character. This new Prey, in fact, bears no resemblance to the original Prey, having absolutely no connection except for the name.

Conceived by developer Arkane Studios (Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Dishonored) as a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, the name Prey was given to the game by publisher Bethesda, who owned the trademark ever since they picked up the publishing rights to Prey 2, which they canceled several years ago. With no official work being done on Prey 2, I guess they wanted to get some kind of use out of the name that they'd already bought, and since Arkane's pitch of surviving an alien attack on a space station vaguely matched the theme and basic concepts of the Prey license (in addition to making linguistic sense -- the aliens prey on human life), they decided to go with it. Hence Prey (2017) having the same name as the 2006 cult hit, even though it is, essentially, System Shock 3.

None of that really matters, though, because the game is great. I'm a big fan of the style of games pioneered by Looking Glass Studios (and similar developers, some of them borne directly from Looking Glass survivors) in the late 90s and early 2000s like Thief, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Vampire Bloodlines, and so on, and I've enjoyed every game that Arkane has ever created. Putting Arkane in charge of a System Shock-like game is like a match made in heaven, and they pulled it off with near-perfect mastery. Prey is what I wanted BioShock to be, since it's a much more faithful adaptation of the System Shock 2 formula, and plays a lot like those games I mentioned previously, except with the added benefit of modern production values. It ticks every box for things I enjoy in video games; it's one of the most enjoyable games I've ever played, and it's my favorite game to have come out in this decade.

The official gameplay launch trailer.

Prey is set entirely on and around the moon-orbiting Talos I research station following an alternative history that branched off in the 1960s, in which US President John F Kennedy was never assassinated and the US-Soviet space race propelled human progress into space much sooner than in reality. Both nations eventually joined forces and collaborated on a joint research station, which was decommissioned in the late 90s but later purchased and put back into action by a private corporation, TranStar. By the 2030s, hundreds of scientists, engineers, staff, and crew were living on board Talos I full-time, developing advanced technologies. The most prominent of these projects are neuromods that allow consumers to remap their brain to gain newfound skills and intelligence; by scanning the brain of a skilled pianist, for example, scientists can map those skills into a neural mod which, when injected into the brain through the eye socket, grants another person the exact same skill and proficiency of the original subject.

Picking your gender: Morgan (male) or Morgan (female).

You play as Morgan Yu, the brother (or sister) of TranStar CEO Alex Yu, who's in charge of Talos I. The game begins with you finally deciding to join your brother as a high-ranking executive researcher for neuromods (which function as the game's skill system, allowing the player to learn new abilities throughout the game) on board Talos I, beginning your preliminary tests earth-side (which serve as an in-world gameplay tutorial) before shuttling off to Talos I. Before long, you're on board the station and find that it's been overrun by a hostile alien species known as the Typhon, who have killed or assimilated almost everyone on board, and that the researchers may actually have something to do with it. Guided by the voices of your brother and a mysterious ally named January, both of whom communicate with you remotely over your PDA, you're tasked with finding a way to stop the Typhon while either preserving the station and its research, or blowing everything up. You meet a few new characters and experience several twist reveals, while learning more about the history of Talos I and the Typhon along the way.

The entire game plays out in a persistent world on board Talos I, where you're always in control of your character and always free to go where you want (with limited restrictions) and do what you want (within the limits of the game system). There's a series of main missions to follow, but you also unlock numerous side-missions that you can pursue at any time. The world, meanwhile, follows a Metroidvania-esque "hub and spoke" system where you're initially limited to the station's central lobby and adjoining areas but can progressively branch out to more areas as you gain keycards, fix parts of the station, or devise clever ways to bypass the normal routes. While the different areas of the station are divided into their respective divisions, offering mechanical and aesthetic variety from area to area as you go from the crew quarters to the hardware labs to the life support systems (and so on), there are no "levels" or "stages" in the game; the whole station is one persistent environment (separated by loading zones) that you're always free to explore, backtracking to previous areas as you wish. It's often necessary for the various missions, and you unlock nearly full access to the whole station by about the midpoint of the game, repairing the central elevator and using airlocks to quickly navigate from one corner of the station to the other.

A map of the three floors in the lobby.

As with System Shock 2's FTL spaceship the Von Braun, Talos I feels like a very real, plausible place. Arkane clearly put a lot of thought into how the station would operate on a daily basis; where the crew would work, eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom, how they would get around the station on a daily commute from the crew quarters to their workstations, what they would do in their time off, how different divisions would interact and perceive one another, how the station would sustain its power and life support systems, where all of this would be on the station, and so on. There's a lot of good environmental storytelling going on, too, with notes, emails, and conversation logs giving you a good sense of what life was like before the Typhon breach. It helps that every single dead person you come across is fully named, served an actual role on the station, and was involved in some kind of interesting side story, many of which pertain directly to the main premise. They're not just environmental scenery; they feel more like real people and make the station feel more alive and lived-in because you get to know so much about so many of the station's crew, even though they're mostly dead by the time you arrive.

A bunch of corpses in the cafeteria, with a view outside.

Environmental storytelling is top-notch in this game, with you discovering a ton of little story threads as you explore the station which all beg to be tied together, enticing you to hunt down more to the story by either tracking down specific characters mentioned in emails or audio logs, or by going to specific locations mentioned in these things. It turns out that every crew member is equipped with a tracking bracelet (for security purposes, they say), so if you know who you're looking for you can find their location by visiting a security station and tracking them. Sometimes this is necessary when you have to find a keycard or when a side mission tasks you with finding someone, but a lot of times it's completely optional -- it's just one more logical tool in your arsenal. It's actually quite remarkable how deep and interesting the personnel tracking is in this game, as evidenced by this user on reddit who tracked all of the security officers on the station, figuring out where they were originally supposed to be stationed and where they ended up by the time you arrive, filling in the gaps from emails and audio logs to figure out a lot more about what actually happened on Talos I.

These side stories prove genuinely interesting, if you find yourself engrossed enough by the game's setting, story, and atmosphere to care, which should be pretty easy considering how immersive the game is and how good all of these elements are individually. The main story has a lot of intriguing mysteries surrounding it, but the actual story (in terms of what you have to do on board Talos I) is a lot of runaround as you try to fix the various problems with the station's operations -- the side stories are what really build the game's atmosphere and backstory, and are what make the game so interesting and engaging. I remember finding a giant billboard that someone died trying to upload a new message to; I finished uploading the message and was shocked by the message that appeared. "There's something really sinister going on here," I thought to myself, and later found emails and conversation logs that shed new light on why he was uploading that message. Often times these story threads are found out of chronological order, which I find interesting because you need to piece things together in your own mind, a bit like solving a puzzle, and it's pretty satisfying to connect the dots, especially since it's something you do completely on your own for your own intrinsic desires to learn more, often times without even being prompted by a mission log.

A two-part note and email, from Scott to Annie.

Sometimes these side stories have nothing to do with the actual story of the game, and simply help to flesh out the world by bringing it to life. These stories range from fun absurdity with the station's crew, like people playing tabletop role-playing games and arranging Robot Wars-style battle arenas for homemade fighting robots, or the shenanigans of the hardware labs crew developing a top secret toy Nerf gun, and then more somber, serious stories as characters start to fall in love right as the Typhon breach occurs, mixed with darker, more sinister revelations about characters being put into quarantine when they start going crazy after being exposed to the Typhon, and how the TranStar corporation (and your brother, Alex) might actually be behind everything and are simply trying to cover their tracks, or is that just how it's meant to seem so that you get thrown for a loop later on?

As I said earlier, the main story is ultimately not that interesting, but the premise surrounding it and the way the mystery is built and progressively revealed over the course of the game is genuinely engaging. The game has a few critical twist reveals, one of which happens pretty early, which can radically change your perception of what's going on and make you feel a little manipulated. These twists are some of the best I've ever experienced in a game, rivaling ones like the Shodan reveal in System Shock 2, or the Andrew Ryan twist of BioShock. While some of its twists are indeed a little predictable, I still found some of them utterly mind-blowing; one of them may end up being one of my favorite gaming moments of all time. Questions of what was going on at Talos I, what the Typhon are, how they came on board the station, how they broke out, what Alex's goals are, who January is and why he's helping you, and yet others gave me a lot of strong incentive to explore and keep playing the game, if only to find the answers to these major questions.

The game plays with these concepts at times when you have to make a choice, simply using your best judgment of what you, personally, think is right. At one point you learn that a shuttle bound for Earth left Talos I right before everyone became aware of the Typhon breach, meaning it might (unknowingly) be carrying Typhon material to Earth. You know by that point how serious of a threat the Typhon are and how devastating it would be if they reached Earth, but that shuttle also has the only living people on board known to have successfully gotten off the station. You have the option to blow it up before it reaches Earth; do you? When you meet a convicted prisoner locked in an experiment chamber, do you let him out, even though you have his rap sheet right in front of you and know what crimes he's committed in the past (and might be wont to commit again), or do you let him go because he's one of the only living humans you've encountered thus far on the station? When it comes to the end of the game, do you side with Alex (to save the station) or January (to blow it up), or do you pick a third option and leave on the only working escape pod? These are just some of the choices you have to make; every choice in Prey is the good kind of moral choice, the kind where you have to think long and hard because there are justifiable reasons for every option.

Listening to the captain's log at the Detonation Controls.

Those gripping story elements help to tie everything together, but the actual gameplay is pretty addicting on its own because there's always plenty of interesting, worthwhile things to do that constantly entice you to keep playing just a little longer, without giving you so much stuff that you feel bogged down. There's the main mission, of course, but you've also got anywhere from two to ten side missions on your plate at any given time, plus constant opportunities to explore new areas, all of which is balanced against each other pretty well to create an engaging pacing to the game where you have a lot of freedom to explore side opportunities, while still keeping the overall momentum of the game moving forward at a brisk enough pace. Doing these various things (exploring, completing missions, gaining new skills and items), meanwhile, creates a satisfying feedback loop where these actions grant you some kind of reward which opens new avenues of opportunity that lead to yet more rewards; it's a cause-and-effect cycle where your actions lead to rewarding outcomes, which themselves act as the cause for even more rewarding outcomes.

Prey gives you a lot of choices about how you play the game (how you build your character, how you solve problems, how you go about completing missions, where you go, what order you do things in, etc), and these choices have a direct impact on how that reward cycle and feedback loop play out. In other words, the choices you make influence what other choices you can make, which makes your individual playthrough feel unique since you'll almost always be in a different situation coming up with different solutions compared to someone else. It makes it feel like you have a strong influence over the game because of how it responds to your actions.

Me mimicking a coffee mug so that I can fit inside a grated air vent, and push an item back towards the grate to get it within arm's reach. 

As an adherent to the design principles of "immersive sim" games like System Shock and Deus ExPrey is all about open-ended gameplay that allows players the freedom to decide for themselves how they go about solving problems. Players in these games are placed in an environment with a variety of tools where everything follows a firm set of rules, usually allowing for the most logical, sensible approach to a problem, while also enabling more creative solutions the designers may not have intended or even anticipated. When faced with a room blocked by heavy obstacles that would normally require a maxed-out "leverage" skill to move, you can instead try bringing explosive canisters into their vicinity and shooting them, hoping the explosion will dislodge the obstacles, or maybe you throw a recycler charge at them so that it converts the obstacles into smaller base materials. If there's a barred window looking into the room, you can maybe use the alien "mimic" ability to turn yourself into a roll of toilet paper and slip through the bars, or shoot your toy gun through the window to hit the door control switch, or maybe you hack the door controls from the outside, or maybe you find an air vent in the ceiling by using your GLOO cannon to create a set of stairs leading above the room.

There's almost always at least two (usually more) ways to solve a problem, allowing for a lot of possibilities depending on how you play, but every now and then you run into situations that require one specific skill or item, like a locked shipping crate that can only be accessed with level four hacking skill, or a mission that can only be completed with level three repair skill. While it's great for games to allow multiple solutions to things, that freedom of choice only really pays off if it's juxtaposed with occasional restrictions that lead to actual branching paths, in terms of what different playstyles are capable of doing. It's not really fun when "freedom of choice" means that every situation is designed so that every playstyle is capable of accessing the exact same content, because then you always end up in the same place with the same result no matter your choices. With Prey you still get the feeling that you have a lot of choices, but those occasional restrictions add significant weight to the way in which you build your character because you may or not be able to do certain things, depending on what skills and equipment you have.

Throughout the game you're rewarded with neuromods, one of the key pieces of technology developed on Talos I, which is how you learn new skills. You don't get experience points for killing enemies or completing missions or reaching certain areas; you never technically "level up" in this game, because improving your character happens primarily through neuromods, which are almost always found somewhere in the environment. This is the primary way in which the game rewards exploration, but I like how it doesn't force you into specific actions to obtain neuromods. For instance, completing a mission may lead you to a neuromod reward, but if you can find a clever way into that area without following the full mission sequence, you can get that reward early. Likewise, an area housing a neuromod may be guarded by a very tough enemy; you don't have to fight and kill that enemy to get the neuromods, if you're capable of sneaking past it or just running through and surviving its attacks.

Installing a neuromod. Long pointy needles straight through the eye socket.

Compare this to a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution which rewarded you with an abstract amount of experience points for performing a bunch of specific, individual actions tailored to specific levels, thereby compelling you to perform redundant actions like sneaking through an air vent into a room you'd already gained access to, or hacking a computer terminal even though you'd already found the password, just so you could earn the experience points for doing those actions. It was tedious and felt incredibly "game-y," and actually broke immersion by making you think of things from a more meta perspective, reminding you that you're playing a video game and "this is how you should do things" to get the most reward. Prey has some "game-y" aspects to it (like the fact that time stops when you enter the hacking mini-game or read a note, or how you can use quick-saves to save scum past death or tricky situations), but it's pretty good about not calling attention to its video game design roots because of how many typical gameplay functions it ties into the environment, and your actions within the environment.

A disabled Recycler, with my hoard of junk waiting to recycle.

The game has a crafting and recycling system, for instance, that allows you to convert almost every physics object (including scenery and usable items) into its base materials, which can then be used to craft new items like ammunition, weapon upgrade kits, and so on. The crafting system, rather than being done through an abstract interface window, is tied to machines scattered across Talos I called recyclers and fabricators, each of which requires you to manually input desired items or materials into one end, operate the control panel, and then collect the output items or materials from the other end. If you have a mission to find a specific person, the game doesn't just give you a waypoint marker; you have to find a security station computer, filter to the correct division, and find that person's name to uploading their tracking coordinates. When interacting with computers and keypads, you're left in your normal perspective; when you move the mouse cursor to select an option, it's your actual character moving their focus in the game world. If you want more "skill points" to gain a new skill then you have to find more neuromods, and if you want to learn Typhon abilities then you have to use your head-mounted psychoscope to scan enemies and bring up their research logs.

Skills are broken into two main categories (human and Typhon abilities), each with three subcategories (science, engineering, and security for human abilities, and energy, morph, and telepathy for Typhon abilities). Human skills allow you to do things like enhance your suit for greater inventory space, or upgrade your weapons to improve their stats, boost your maximum health, increase your stealth attack damage, increase your hacking ability, and so on. Typhon skills give you "magic" abilities that use your brain's unlocked psionic powers to do things like create columns of fire, or shoot electricity, or turn into nearby objects, or summon phantom allies. When you gain neuromods, they stay in your inventory until you're ready to use them; skills cost varying amounts of neuromods, requiring more per skill as you gain more advanced skills. Hacking level 1 only costs a single neuromod, for instance, whereas level 4 costs eight, thus putting you in situations where you have to decide how to spend neuromods, like whether it's better to invest in several lower-level skills or a single, more powerful skill, and if it's worth handicapping yourself in the short term while you save up neuromods and plan for the long term.

The Engineering skill tree from the human side.

You start with full access to the entire human skill tree, but have to unlock Typhon powers later in the game by researching individual types of enemies. As with Dishonored's chaos system, the game suggests there will be consequences for learning Typhon abilities, because you're infusing yourself with their essence and becoming more like the enemy, but those skills are pretty powerful, and also a lot of fun. You'll want to research enemies anyway, since doing so not only reveals each enemy type's name but also shows you their strengths and weaknesses, in addition to explaining some of the lore and backstory, which I found decently interesting.

Besides the station, the Typhon may be the next-best aspect of Prey. The Typhon, of course, are an alien species from another galaxy, and they serve as the game's primary enemy forces. The Typhon come in many different forms, from different types of humanoid-looking Phantoms that can shoot electricity or energy beams, create fire columns, or lay down pools of corrosive ether, to Weavers that create phantoms and other Typhon from human corpses, to Telepaths that mind-control humans and emit telepathic blasts, to Technopaths that take control of robotic turrets and operators and use them against you, to Cystoids that form nests which explode if you get too close, emitting radiation and dozens of smaller kamikaze cystoids, to Poltergeists that turn invisible and use telekinesis to mess with you, to perhaps the best enemy in the game, Mimics, which make themselves look like ordinary objects in the environment and ambush you if you get too close. It's a fair amount of variety, and each one of them has its own special modes of attacking, ways of interacting with the environment, and special weaknesses.

The game introduces the enemy variety steadily, building them up as you go. You start out fighting just basic mimics, and soon you're fighting basic phantoms, then you run into stronger elemental phantoms, and eventually you're dealing with the bigger ones like weavers, telepaths, technopaths, and even a massive boss-like enemy called the Nightmare that periodically appears to hunt you, such that the power curve of the new enemies being introduced roughly matches your own growth as you get better skills and equipment, with the Typhon staying one step ahead of you for at least the first half of the game. Many of these stronger enemies are actually present on Talos I well before you're really ready to fight them, sort of allowing you to custom tailor your own difficulty by how much you challenge yourself to fight (or get around) these tougher enemies before the game expects you to be able; if you manage to do so, then you can earn some pretty great rewards earlier in the game, which needless to say is immensely satisfying.

A mimic mimicking a nearby chair.

Of these enemies, the mimics are probably the coolest because of how effectively they synergize exploration, combat, and looting, while injecting the gameplay with an extra dose of tension. Mimics take a small form, looking like a black, four-legged spider quickly scuttling around and hiding by transforming into an exact copy of all manner of ordinary objects in the environment, ranging from office chairs to trash cans to coffee mugs, and even loot-items like medpacks or crafting parts. The game sometimes telegraphs these enemies by showing them scurry across the screen and disappear around a corner, letting you know that stuff in the room can possibly jump out and attack you, but you're not exactly sure what or where. Other times, there's no warning at all. So, exploring and looting has this extra layer of gameplay where you have to pay close attention to the details of the environment, listening for subtle audio cues, watching for something to shift its position ever so slightly, or making logical guesses that something looks suspiciously out of place. All-the-while you're holding your breath hoping that you'll spot them before they jump out at you, always wondering if there's still one more you didn't know about. If they get you, then a short battle will ensue, or else they'll run and hide as something else. And when you return to an area, it can make you a little paranoid wondering "was that fire extinguisher always right there?" It puts you constantly on edge.

Although the enemies feel like a mechanical necessity to give you patrolling obstacles to avoid and/or things to shoot, you get a good sense that the Typhon are something a little bigger, narratively, than just cliche video game enemies. As with all of the ship's dead crew, there's a story behind the Typhon -- sometimes even individual Typhon enemies. With most of the station's crew having been killed by the Typhon before you arrive, there's a story as to why there's an enemy in a specific place, and why it's that specific type, which you learn through audio logs or simple environmental deduction. Sometimes the phantoms you fight are actually the crew members themselves who've been turned into Typhon, and you get to learn more about them by looting their corpse when they die. Meanwhile there's an entire backstory that develops as you discover what the scientists on board Talos I were actually researching and as the Typhon threat escalates over the course of the game. With the Typhon growing in size and strength, and you watching as the entire station slowly gets consumed by a massive Typhon conglomerate that's seemingly trying to use the station as some kind of host, the threat of what they could do to the station (or even Earth) feels real and genuinely intimidating.

Leaning around a corner to sneak a peek at a Thermal Phantom.

As with everything else in the game, Prey gives you a lot of options about dealing with Typhon enemies. In the beginning, however, you kind of have to rely on stealth because you don't have strong enough weapons or abilities, or enough ammunition to fight everything you encounter head-on. Stealth seems on par with what I remember of the first Dishonored; enemies have varying degrees of alert status, triggered by line of sight or noises made by the player in their vicinity, first moving to investigate and either losing alert status if they can't find anything, or becoming more alert if they do. As with most stealth games, you can halt the progress of their alert meter by breaking line of sight and being quiet. The stealth mechanics are by no means anything special, but they're functional and enjoyable. The level design is what really makes stealth shine, on account of its complexity; every area of the station has a variety of routes, obstacles, and vertical levels that allow you to make a stealthy approach or getaway, and it's usually possible to get everywhere you want just by avoiding the patrolling enemies. Prey is really not intended to be played as a pure stealth game, though, as evidenced by the occasions when you're forced into combat; it's really just meant to be an option for those times when you can't or don't want to fight, as opposed to a core gameplay mechanism.

You start the game with just a basic wrench, which is really only good for fighting mimics; it can be useful against other enemies, too, but you need some way of incapacitating them first, such as by zapping them with the stun gun, or knocking them down with an explosive, or by encasing them in glue with the GLOO cannon. The GLOO cannon is Prey's closest thing to a "killer feature," if you can even call it that, just because it's so unlike anything we've ever seen before in a video game, while also singularly showcasing the game's approach to open-ended gameplay with its versatile and dynamic tool sets. The GLOO cannon shoots globs of glue that immediately solidify into a solid structure, allowing you to temporarily "freeze" enemies if you hit them with enough globs; this also causes you to deal increased damage with other weapons as long as they're incapacitated by the glue. It's not just a "weapon," though, it's also a utility tool; you can use it to create stairs or ramps to reach inaccessible heights, or to put out fires or stop electrical discharges, or to seal a doorway so that enemies can't get through as easily, or to create improvised cover sources. It's a great inclusion because it can be used in so many creative ways, and Arkane just hands it to you and says "have fun."

Making a walkway with the GLOO cannon.

The only conventional FPS weapons in Prey are the silenced pistol and the shotgun; there's nothing special about them, but I really like their audiovisual design, particularly the deep, booming sound effects of the shotgun combined with its heavy recoil, making it feel like a beefy, powerful weapon -- as a shotgun should feel. The falloff in damage over longer distances is significant as well, making it almost completely ineffective at anything other than close range, which is not only appropriate but also good for balance. The shotgun is arguably the most powerful weapon in the game, and since it's only effective in close combat, it forces you to get in close enough for enemies to be able to hit you more reliably. Some enemies emit constant close-range area of effect damage, like for example voltaic phantoms that shock everything in close proximity, meaning you'll take damage just by getting too close to them. That, for instance, is where the GLOO cannon comes in handy. The pistol functions better over longer distances (the fact that it's silenced also makes it useful for stealth attacks), but does so little damage that you have to dump tons of ammo into enemies -- another balancing feature.

You've also got the Disruptor stun gun, which shoots bolts of electricity over short distances to temporarily stun biological enemies, and which deals a ton of damage to robotic enemies, in addition to stunning them, plus the Q-Beam that shoots a beam of energized particles and causes enemies to explode from within if they're hit with enough energy (the enemy's health bar starts filling up with green, and if the enemy's total remaining health turns completely green then they explode). The Disruptor is found pretty early, while the Q-Beam is supposed to be more of an end-game weapon (though, like most things, you can find it really early if you explore creatively enough). Finally, there's the Huntress bolt caster that shoots foam darts, like a toy Nerf gun. It does zero damage, but can be used to distract enemies if you're trying to lure them somewhere (useful against cystoids), but can also be used to press buttons and interact with computer screens from a distance.

Breaking the window and shooting the door controls.

Add to that arsenal an assortment of grenades (EMP grenades that shut down electric enemies, Nullwave Transmitters that block psychic abilities, Typhon lures that attract typhon enemies to a specific spot, and Recycler charges that convert matter into its base materials, effectively dealing damage to enemies) and you've got quite a lot of diversity for dealing with Typhon without using a bunch of typical FPS weaponry. I really like how most of the "weapons" feel more like tools, and that they have a practical in-world use -- outside of combat -- by the Talos I crew. Many of them are technologies developed on-station and you get to hear about their entire development cycle. It gives the game a more improvisational feel, that you're making do with the random things you find on the station, and contributes even further to the game's strong immersion factor since everything has a reason to exist within this world -- they aren't just shoehorned in "because it's a video game."

All of these items take up space in your inventory, which is never really big enough for everything you might want to carry. In addition to your primary usable items like weapons, grenades, medkits, and psi hypos, you can also pick up all manner of random junk items (like Typhon tissue samples, rubber hoses, burnt circuit boards, etc) that you can take to a recycler to convert into base materials (organic, synthetic, mineral, and exotic material), which is used to craft things like more ammunition, medkits, and even neuromods, among other things (fabricating all of these things requires that you first find the blueprint somewhere on the station), and which take up inventory space themselves. Then you've also got food items, which can be used to heal lost health or to treat the fear condition, mission items that you need to use or deliver somewhere specific, weapon upgrade kits, neuromods, ammunition, spare parts (for repairing things around the station), suit repair kits (for fixing your suit), and so on. With a grid-based system that has different items using up different amounts of space and an upgradeable max inventory size, managing your inventory is not as much of a puzzle as in, say, Resident Evil 4, but it does add extra weight and significance to your decisions about what you choose to carry around, as well as how you loot and explore the environment.

Finding the Q-Beam.

Your arsenal builds over the course of the game -- you can even improve individual weapons with upgrade kits that improve any of their four stats a number of times -- until about the three-quarter point when you have basically everything unlocked and your favorite skills and weapons maxed out. So while you start out feeling incredibly weak and underpowered, forced to rely on stealth and borderline exploit-level tactics to deal with enemies, you eventually reach a point when you're so overpowered that you can fearlessly run around the station killing Typhon with impunity. I loved every moment of that progression because you really feel yourself getting stronger, and it's so immensely satisfying to go from running in fear at the start of the game to completely destroying everything in sight by the end.

Prey actually invokes a pretty strong horror vibe, even though it's not a true horror game. Mimics instill a sense of dread and tension as you explore ordinary-looking areas of the station, and there's a strong "fear of the unknown" in effect when you first encounter a new enemy, in large part because of how alien they look and sound, which combined with their health bar displaying their name as "???" until you scan them leaves them feeling like a complete mystery. I usually felt anxious approaching a new enemy for the first time wondering what it was capable of, how strong it was, and reacting in controlled terror when I saw them start to do things I never expected. Poltergeists, in particular, feel like they were taken straight out of a more conventional horror game. A lot of the game's horror vibe stems from its atmosphere which is dark, oppressive, and mysterious (in addition to being so rich and immersive, which is what enables you to feel scared and vulnerable), but it also employs some good scripted jump scares with the occasional corpse falling out of the ceiling, or having enemies ambush you in creative ways you would never expect. Jump scares are usually considered a cheap trick in horror games, but I was really impressed with the way Prey executed its jump scares; there are only a limited few in the entire game, but they're extremely effective.

Viewing the top-third of the station from outside, over 1000 feet away.

The level design pitches in when it comes to the horror vibe, too, most notably when it comes to moments when you're in "micro gravity" (it's basically zero gravity except objects in motion don't have complete inertia). At times you have to leave the station through any of its five airlocks and float around in space, outside the station, to reach another airlock, to seal hull breaches from the outside, or just to explore for secrets or to complete side missions. Prey, as such, covers the entire spectrum of intimidating level design ranging from claustrophobic corridors in the station interior to agoraphobic expanses beyond the station. Going outside, you feel incredibly vulnerable because you have so much less control over your movement, and it's not as easy to run and hide because there's usually so much open space between you and the Typhon enemies that hang around outside the station. You also get disoriented pretty easily, with it being harder to judge distances and you getting turned around losing track of which way is "up." You really get a good sense of scale for just how big Talos I is, and how small you are in comparison, when you get to see it from the outside, never mind the vast emptiness of space spreading out in all directions making you feel even more small and vulnerable.

Your controls for navigating micro gravity are actually surprisingly good, maybe the best I've ever experienced in a game (that includes game sequences set in zero gravity as well as those set underwater). Even though your movement is slower and more awkward, as compared to being in normal gravity on the station, you have enough control that you never feel like you're out of control. Normal movement keys will let you move forward and backward and strafe left and right, while the jump and crouch keys let you move straight up or down, respectively. Most importantly (this is where other games don't come in as clutch as Prey) the lean keys can be used to rotate your orientation so you can get a better angle at where you're looking, and if you press both of them simultaneously you'll execute an automatic break, which is way easier than the usual method of trying to stop by moving in the opposite direction of your current velocity, especially considering how easy it is in first-person games to be looking one way and moving another.

Floating around, inside the GUTS.

Some areas inside the station are also subject to micro gravity. The "GUTS" (Gravity Utility Tunnel System), for instance, serve as maintenance tunnels that run up and down the central column of the station, connecting most of the major areas almost like a nervous system, all of which is in micro gravity. The tunnels twist and turn in some really confusing ways, plus it has some of your first encounters with weavers and technopaths, making the GUTS one of the most grueling sections of the game. These moments of micro-gravity, particularly being able to float around outside the station, are what really set Prey apart from other games; if you take that stuff away then you're basically just dealing with a more modern version of System Shock 2, or a "better" version of BioShock, and other looser comparisons to games like Dead Space and Alien: Isolation. I'd already experienced a few moments of utter shock and surprise during my playthrough of Prey, but setting out into space in nothing but my suit for the first time was a truly mind-blowing moment, and a moment that I realized this game was truly special.

As much as I love this game, it does have some notable flaws. My biggest gripe has to do with the physics engine, which can be pretty wonky and make certain gameplay aspects inconsistent and incredibly frustrating. Early on I decided I was going to invest in the Leverage skills so that I could move heavy objects, opening up areas for exploration and throwing said objects at enemies in combat to conserve ammo. It seemed like (and was) a great plan, but objects that you try to pick up get stuck on the terrain so easily; you pick up a couch, for instance, but a tiny little corner of it gets stuck clipping through a cardboard box and so it never goes into your full possession to move or be thrown, and you end up standing there like an idiot for several seconds holding the action key and left-clicking, getting blasted by enemies while you struggle to figure out why you can't pick up the couch. Meanwhile, a thrown object will bounce off other objects no matter the weight -- a refrigerator thrown across the room that bumps into a rolling office chair will bounce and go flying at a crazy angle, only slightly bumping the chair and most likely missing your target, as opposed to preserving its forward momentum and pushing the much lighter chair with it. Sometimes you pick something up just to move out of the way, and when you set it down it randomly decides to "bounce" and knock half your health out because you just got "hit" by a "projectile" object.

Meeting a few survivors in the Cargo Bay.

Next up on the list of complaints is the design of NPC interactions, which are consistently obnoxious and unpleasant. It's common for people to call you up on the radio right when you're in the middle of fighting a room full of enemies, or listening to an audio log, making it really hard to actually hear what they're saying, and if you're in a room with multiple people they'll constantly talk over each other, without any kind of prompting. If you're standing right in front of someone pressing the action key to talk with them, someone on the other side of the room will randomly burst into idle chatter and their monologue will take priority in the sound mix over the conversation you were actually listening to. Then there's the fact that people's voices always sound like they're right next to you, almost like they're inside your head -- not just in terms of volume, but also in timbre -- even if they're all the way across the room or, sometimes, on the other side of a wall. They sounded the most natural whenever I stood at a distance with my back turned to them. Some of them also stand in really awkward idle stances, shifting around like characters in Mortal Kombat before a fight, or insist on walking around while you're trying to talk to them. It's a good thing most of the station's crew is dead by the time you arrive, because interacting with the few remaining survivors is pretty bad.

I also think it's way too easy to fabricate neuromods, to the point that the satisfying difficulty curve actually peaks way too early, while also enabling you to get virtually every skill you could possibly want. I, for instance, was able to find the plans (and the infinite license) to print neuromods really early -- I think before I even reached the main lobby -- and therefore realized I was going to be needing a lot of exotic material to fabricate those neuromods and rushed for the necropsy and recycler skills to maximize neuromod production. I ended the game with 258 neuromods installed and enough leftover materials to print dozens more. After a while I was taking skills I had no real interest in, just because I could. I learned almost every human skill and almost every Typhon skill. As a result I felt insanely overpowered much too early in the game, finding neuromods in the environment stopped feeling as rewarding (because I could always print more), and I was able to experience almost every gameplay style in a single playthrough. I really feel like the cost to fabricate neuromods should be much higher than it is, and that it shouldn't be possible to find the infinite license and blueprint so early in the game.

Fabricating neuromods. So many neuromods.

The whole game, I feel, is really not as hard as it should be. The beginning is tough as nails, of course, but you get stronger a little too fast, in my opinion -- even without finding the infinite license to fabricate neuromods right from the start. Even in "nightmare" difficulty, the hardest mode, it's still too easy. Even fighting the Nightmare enemy -- the boss-like uber Typhon that the game actually tells you outright "don't even try to fight it, run and hide" -- in "nightmare" difficulty, is surprisingly doable by the time it's first introduced, and becomes laughably easy well before the end of the game. Apparently the difficulty modes only adjust how much damage you deal and receive -- they don't do anything like reducing the amount of useful loot you can find, or putting more limitations on fabrication, or spawning extra/stronger enemies, or removing the bots that can fully restore your health, suit, and psi levels to max, for free, an infinite number of times. In nightmare mode, you still fight the same number of enemies and get the same overabundance of ammunition, neuromods, and healing supplies as you do in easier modes.

And once you've figured out the strategies for how to handle the different types of enemies, dealing a little less damage and taking a little more doesn't really matter because an effective strategy is going to take care of enemies with ease, no matter the difficulty. Since many of the effective strategies revolve around incapacitating the enemy in some way and/or out-maneuvering them with Combat Focus, there's really nothing the enemies can do to stop you; in the end it's just as hard/easy in nightmare mode, it just takes a little extra time and ammo, and you'll be swimming in that stuff no matter what. The only way to really make the game harder is to deliberately handicap yourself by saying you're not going to use certain over-powered skills or equipment combos (like Combat Focus and the shotgun), or by not using fabricators unless required to for a mission, or by not using operator bots, or by doing a "Typhon skills only" run, or by doing a "no needles" run where you take no neuromods whatsoever. I can see these being fun challenges, and when I inevitably replay this game down the line I'll definitely challenge myself to these kinds of restrictions (or install mods that restore cut gameplay features like the so-called "survival mode"), but I don't think this is stuff you can or even should do on a first playthrough. As a single-player game it doesn't have to be perfectly balanced, but the fact that the game's hardest difficulty isn't really that difficult is a problem.

The nightmare is almost a full building-story tall.

There's good replay value to be had with Prey, at least. There usually is with these types of games, because they tend to have so many different ways to play. With Prey you can take a completely different approach to exploration and combat, picking different skills or using different items and weapons, you can do things in different orders, you can make different decisions when it comes to resolving missions, you can challenge yourself in any of the ways described above, and so on. I watched an entire "Let's Play" of this game in the background while writing this review (and I mean the entire playthrough -- that should give you an idea of how long it takes me to draft, write, edit, and format these reviews) and was surprised at how differently things played out during critical moments. Even though he and I ended up with nearly the exact same ending (that's somewhat surprising in and of itself, since it can change a lot depending on your actions), how we got there was extremely different. Obviously making different decisions will lead to different branching paths and different endings, but surprisingly even making the same decisions as someone else, how we played the game as individuals changed the way those decisions played out in the game world.

These next thoughts are more "wishful thinking" than criticisms, but I wish Prey had a weapon degradation system, similar to the one in System Shock 2, where your weapons got damaged and became worse over time, requiring you to use repair kits or spare parts (and/or tie it to the repair skill) to keep your equipment in proper working order. That would give you one more resource to manage and another reason to invest in repair (which, sadly, isn't that useful), while enhancing the survival feel of the game. It would also add some extra depth to the gameplay with being low on inventory space and possibly having to drop your upgraded shotgun, which has now become completely broken from excessive use, or drop several other items, to carry a second one if you don't have the supplies to repair it on hand. I can see why people might consider that tedious, but that's another example of something that could've been part of a harder difficulty.

Getting destroyed by a Technopath in the early game.

I also would've liked to have a limited air supply in your suit when you're in a vacuum. There are already so many oxygen canisters lying around the station, and an important NPC is implied to have run out of oxygen by being outside the station too long; it's kind of weird that that person has an oxygen limit, but you don't. I could see this becoming tedious too, but I think it could work if they let you carry those oxygen canisters in your inventory and had a free dispenser at every airlock. I'd also like it if the hacking mini-game were either better or non-existent. It's not bad, but it's not very good either. It's basically just a matter of navigating through an obstacle course under a time limit; higher difficulty hacks just require you to repeat the process one, two, and three more times while adding proportionally more time to your limit. It's not challenging in any way, and hacking a level four terminal isn't any harder than hacking a level one terminal. It also pauses time around you while you perform the hack, which is immersion-breaking if you think about it. Repairing things, for instance, just costs time and resources and plays out in real time, so hacking could've used a different consumable resource and also played out in real time, with more difficult hacks requiring more time and more hacking tools.

It also feels like a shortcoming in the game's design, both narratively and mechanically, that it forces you in at least two instances (that I can think of, there might be more) to "play dumb" because there's seemingly no gameplay option not to. There are a couple occasions when the game sets a trap for you, and it's possible for you to see through these traps if you explore enough, are perceptive of certain details, and remember certain things. I sniffed out both traps, and in one case where I was face-to-face with an impostor and had evidence on-hand that could prove he wasn't who he said he was, I had no way of bringing that up. Even playing the audio log right in front of him seemed to do nothing, leaving me to either kill/knock out the guy preemptively (and potentially miss an entire mission sequence) or play dumb and go along with his poorly-planned trap, just so I could see the story unfold. For a game that likes to emphasize freedom and player-choice, these were two not-so-shining moments when I felt like I really didn't have a choice. I'm alright with not always having choices -- as I've written above, being occasionally restricted to one option is what allows you to appreciate having choices in other situations -- but it felt wrong in these cases.

The arboretum at the top of the station.

Finally, there's the name. This game absolutely did not need to be called Prey. I've complained before about the recent trend with reboots having the same name as the original game in the series (Doom, Thief, Shadow Warrior, Tomb Raider, etc) making it harder to differentiate in a conversation or in a search engine, and now Prey (2017) has the same name as Prey (2006) despite not being a reboot and having absolutely nothing to do with Prey (2006). All the Prey name does is confuse potential buyers and alienate fans of Prey (2006) who were expecting a reboot or a remake or a sequel. They could've easily called this NeuroShock or PsychoShock, following BioShock's lead of spiritual successors to System Shock 2 being named "SomethingShock." Instead Bethesda went with Prey, forcing me to use these ridiculous parentheses or constant qualifiers like "the original" to differentiate this Prey (2017) with the original Prey (2006). Maybe with the actual upcoming System Shock (1994) remake named System Shock (2018), Bethesda didn't want to step on the toes of other "Shock" titles, or maybe they just wanted to make use of the name they'd already invested so heavily in, after canceling their own sequel to Prey (2006), Prey 2 in 2014. I actually really like the name Prey for this game -- it sounds cool and it's a good fit -- but all of this nonsense I've put myself through writing this paragraph is absurd, and they really should have gone with something else.

So why do I like Prey (2017) so much? Well, it's pretty much a perfect game, if someone were to make a game custom-tailored to my interests. I'm all about games that give players choices and the freedom to do things your own way; I love it when games actually react and shape themselves based on your actions; I love exploration in games, especially when it's in a contextually-driven and structured environment that allows for non-linear progression; I like branching skill trees that really make you strategize and prioritize your development; I enjoy a good mystery that unfolds over time; science-fiction (especially when it's set in space) and horror are two of my favorite themes in media entertainment; I really like role-playing games, survival-horror games, and "thematic" first-person shooters; I've liked every game that Arkane Studios has ever developed (Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, Dishonored); and I consider all the games they've taken inspiration from (Thief, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Vampire Bloodlines, etc) to be among my favorite games of all time. Prey has all of this in its DNA; I love (nearly) everything about it. It's not perfect by any means, but its problems are mostly blemishes that I can tolerate in a game that demonstrates such mastery in its core game design. This is a game that I would play until four in the morning, and not feel tired. I seriously enjoyed Prey, and consider it among the best games I've ever played. And compared to all the games that have come out since 2011, I think Prey is the best one that I've played. If you like any of those games that I mentioned above, or if your tastes align closely with mine, then you owe it to yourself to play this game.


  1. Could you play and review Bloodborne? I know it's been out for a decent amount of time but I've played it and I'm interested on your thoughts of the game.

    1. I would like to, but I don't have a PS4 and can't justify spending the money on a new console just to play one (or three) game(s). That's part of the reason I started a Patreon, so I could take these kinds of requests more easily. In other words, a Bloodborne review is unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever.

  2. I note you mention the 'upcoming' System Shock remake. Yeah... wouldn't hold your breath on that one, it's basically dead. Any studio that puts a post up saying 'we need to take a step back so we can move forward' has screwed up to the point where the game is officially dead, no matter what platitudes they try and mollify angry backers with.

    I'll be 'extremely' surprised if that game is ever finished at this point.

    1. LOL, about a week after I posted this. What's more interesting (that I'm surprised I hadn't heard) is that Warren Spector and other former Looking Glass people are apparently working on System Shock 3. I knew about Underworld Ascendant, but had no idea they were also working on a new System Shock, or that Spector was involved. That bodes well, and hopefully will turn out as good as (or better than) Prey.