Friday, September 14, 2018

Prey's "Mooncrash" DLC Perfects the Immersive-Sim Gameplay Formula of the Base Game in a Unique Roguelite Mode

Arkane Studios’ Prey (2017) was a surprise hit for me, mostly because it was such a great experience but also because it seemed to come out of nowhere with no real hype. I had barely heard anything about it when it was released, but the promise of it being a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 (one of my all-time favorite FPS games and one of the most highly regarded immersive sims ever created) immediately caught my interest. I figured it would be a good game, knowing Arkane’s pedigree (I’ve enjoyed every game of theirs that I’ve played) but I wasn’t expecting to be so thoroughly enamored with it or to have my mind blown by its creative twists and clever open-ended design. Sadly, I don’t think it sold very well, and so I was fully expecting it to be considered done and over with by publisher Bethesda, which then made the sudden Mooncrash DLC announcement even more shocking. After about a year of radio silence from Arkane and Bethesda, they began vaguely teasing something Prey-releated and then a few weeks later made the official announcement the very same day the DLC launched.

Mooncrash is a quasi-roguelite game mode featuring a new protagonist on a new level, the Pytheas moon base operated by TransStar rival Kasma Corp. You play as Some Guy in a small one-man satellite orbiting the moon, running through simulations as various characters trying to escape from a Typhon outbreak on the moon base. As a roguelite game mode, death is permanent and you can't save, while a lot of elements like item spawns, enemy placement, environmental hazards, and so on get randomized every time you start a new run, although the level layouts and the general objectives you’re trying to complete remain the same. The twist, compared to other roguelite games, is that you play multiple characters successively in a shared, persistent world -- what you do as one character affects how things will play out for another character, since someone else has already gone through and changed things by the time the next character’s run begins. Each of the five characters has their own unique skill trees, stats, and abilities which affect how you play the game as each character. Your goal is to find a way to escape with all five characters in one run, but you’ll have to run the simulation multiple times to unlock each of them, as well as to complete their story missions and to figure out a good strategy to ensure successful escape attempts.

This DLC is a very different experience than the base game. While they share similar settings and have a lot of the exact same gameplay mechanics, the base game focused more on slow-burn atmosphere and exploration with a lot of carefully scripted events, a linear main story, and a wealth of side characters, side stories, and side missions to flesh out the rest of the world. Mooncrash focuses less on the story and plays more like an immersive-sim sandbox; you’re dropped into four adjoining maps (which are themselves fairly spacious and open) with a bunch of randomized variables and given a single primary objective -- escape. There’s still a backstory that you can gleam from assorted emails, audio logs, notes, and even the five main characters’ personal story missions, but there’s no “main story” to speak of, since it doesn’t play like a straightforward campaign -- it’s a mashup of gameplay mechanics meant to bring out the best elements of emergent gameplay and fast-paced, improvisational thinking. In essence, Mooncrash takes the gameplay elements of the base game and cranks them up to eleven.

I’ll say upfront that I’m not normally a fan of roguelite games because I don’t always find satisfaction in just trying to see how far I can get before dying, and then doing it all over again and hoping to get a little further than last time in an all new randomized scenario where lessons learned in your previous attempts don’t necessarily carry over. Meanwhile, I’m also not generally fond of main objectives that consist solely of “beat the game” because it can often make the experience feel shallow and rote to me. Mooncrash, fortunately, addresses some of these key concerns I have with the genre by giving your characters concrete narrative-driven objectives (they each have a story objective they’re trying to complete) and because a lot of what you do and learn about as one character can have a lasting impact on future attempts, since the world state will persist between characters within a single run and because figuring out what you actually have to do is a bit like solving a puzzle; the more you play, the more you know, the better you do.

Overlooking one of the domed exteriors on the moon crater's surface. 

Although most things reset to a new randomized state when you reset the scenario, your character progression remains persistent; that is, all of the neuromods (ie, skills) that you unlock with a character remain permanently unlocked, even if you restart the simulation. Likewise, you can unlock schematics that allow you to use credits (earned by completing in-game actions, like killing typhon or discovering duplicate schematics or completing a story objective) to purchase upgrades before the start of a run, like starting your character out with a weapon already in hand, or buying extra medkits, or giving yourself a suit chipset to enhance your psi abilities. Fabrication plans (which allow you to craft items from base resources during the simulation) also remain permanently unlocked. These types of progression systems aren’t unique to Mooncrash, in comparison to other roguelites, but they help to ensure that you feel like you’re still making progress even when you fail. Meanwhile, the scope of the scenario is relatively small, at least compared to the base game and some other roguelites (it’s a 2-3 hour scenario that you’ll be running multiple times) with a lot of fixed elements, which means that when you die or when something goes wrong, it’s a bit easier to learn from the experience and use that knowledge to your benefit in future runs because certain elements will be the same every time you play.

These fixed elements apply mainly in terms of the level design and objectives -- some things (like enemy spawns and item drops) will be randomized, but you’ll always know where the medbot in the Pytheas Labs is, or where the security locker in the Crew Annex is, or that you need to collect a certain amount of food and drinks to escape in the mass driver, or that you have to hack the terminal as the custodian before trying to escape through the mimic portal, and so on. As you become more familiar with the simulation, knowledge of these aspects can help you be more successful in future runs, but every time you run the simulation it also adds new variables -- one area will randomly be without power so you can't use any machines or powered doors until you get the power back on or find alternative ways around, or some areas will randomly be affected with different hazards like being on fire or overflowing with radioactive waste, or the location of the last remaining escape pod will change from run to run, and so on, in addition to a bunch of other variables. The game starts out in its most basic form and becomes increasingly more difficult and varied the longer you play, providing an almost perfect counter-balance by raising the challenge as you get better at the game. It's kind of surprising how many variables the game throws at you, actually; I had been playing for a dozen or more hours, and it was still throwing crazy new changes at me.

These stairs, for instance, are randomly on fire and crumbling.

It's not always great about explaining its rules and mechanisms, however, sometimes to your detriment. In my first run, for instance, it wasn't clear to me that the world state would persist from character to character, so I took my time looting everyone on my first character and then got on the escape pod with a full inventory, leaving pretty much zero loot or equipment for the next character. Then, when the corruption meter gets introduced, it says something to the effect of how the meter will continue to build while you're in the simulation, but I didn't realize those effects would be cumulative across all characters, so I took my time with my first character in a new run thoroughly exploring everywhere and then had very little time to do anything with subsequent characters. In both of these instances, it sort of forced me to start over, rendering a lot of what I was doing with subsequent characters in that run kind of pointless.

The most important change, which gets introduced early on, is the time limit. Dubbed the "corruption meter," the longer you spend in the simulation the more corrupt it gets, and thus the harder it gets before eventually crashing and kicking you out, forcing you to start over again. The corruption meter goes through five stages, refreshing each area with new, stronger enemies each time it reaches a new level, until eventually it's spawning Nightmares (the strongest enemy in the base game, who only showed up sporadically) to hunt you down. I was a little skeptical of this element at first, since the time limit seemed at direct odds with the base game's slow, careful, and deliberate pacing, but I came to realize that the time limit is a large part of what makes Mooncrash work so well, at least in the beginning when you don't have a lot of ways to reverse time. You see, the time limit forces you to think on your feet and act quickly, with a lot more of an improvisational feel, because when something bad or unexpected happens you don't always have time to do the most optimal thing. It's yet another resource that you have to manage, and I'm of course a big fan of resource management, especially in immersive-sims and survival-horror games, since it typically adds a lot more weight to your decisions, while also significantly boosting the tension and excitement as you race to get everything done in time.

Reading an email while the corruption level increases.

Mooncrash also introduces a number of survival systems that further enhance the feeling of stakes and tension. Now you can suffer various types of status conditions like concussions that affect your vision and accuracy, or broken limbs that hobble your movement speed, or hemorrhages that cause you to suffer damage when sprinting or jumping, and so on, and which all require specific items to cure. These add greater consequences for potential recklessness because the side-effects are such a hindrance, and also because the cures are relatively expensive or hard to come by. Weapons now have durability and eventually break from too much usage, which makes inventory management more interesting because you have to decide whether it's better to haul a backup shotgun for when your current one breaks, or not carry a spare and use the extra space to carry more crafting components or key items, and then improvise when your shotgun breaks. Weapons also have variable stats and rarities, so you have to go through the decision-making process of "This weapon has better stats but is in worse condition, so should I use it now or save it for later?" Plus, your inventory space is far more limited in Mooncrash, which makes the decision about what to carry that much harder, especially since anything you pick up will potentially become unavailable for future characters.

Combine all of these elements (randomized item drops, enemy placements, and hazards, status conditions, weapon durability with variable stats and rarities, limited inventory space, world states that persist between characters, a time limit that makes the game progressively harder the longer you play) with no-save perma-death gameplay, and you get a game that's genuinely tense and exciting. You never know what to expect because of all the randomized elements, but also because the game is constantly evolving and introducing new variables as you play (every time you start to think you understand the game, or think you've "solved it," it throws you another curve ball), which has you constantly thinking on your feet and having to react to new situations in a quick and efficient manner. Every little decision gets amplified because you can't backtrack to correct mistakes, and because everything you do on one character will have lasting consequences for future characters. It's "risk versus reward" at the height of its execution, since the steep difficulty begs you to play it safely while the time limit forces you to be a little reckless, with decisions that either pay off immensely or that backfire horrendously, all based on how well you play the game.

Encountering a moonshark, a massive enemy that burrows underground.

The roguelite aspect does mean that the quality of a particular run will be somewhat dependent on how hard or easy the random variables combine to be, however. If you encounter a lot of technopaths while never finding a disruptor stun gun, you're going to struggle in combat, or if you suffer a bad hit from a moonshark (a new type of enemy introduced in the DLC) at the very beginning of a run and don't have access to coagulating gel, then you basically can't run or jump for the entirety of that run. This is where the real fun kicks in, though, because these random elements force you to think outside the box and find unusual solutions to problems that you normally wouldn't have even sought out. Maybe you'll sneak past those technopaths, or lure a static mimic into its vicinity, instead of just killing it. The five characters all have their own unique skill trees and abilities, too -- the mechanic is the only one with the repair skill, and the spy is the only one with the hacking skill, and so on -- and so they, too, put you in situations where a problem occurs and you have to find clever solutions that you never would've considered. In the base game, you were free to custom-tailor Morgan to whatever playstyle you wanted, so you could usually devise solutions in whatever way you wanted, but in Mooncrash the character limitations (combined with all the random elements) create more extreme decisions since you likely won't have a convenient solution built into your character's abilities, or for the inventory you happen to be carrying.

The flip-side to character limitations is that they also take away from your decision-making, sometimes in ways that defy the intentions of immersive-sim gameplay. Immersive-sims are supposed to be about giving you the freedom to solve problems in whatever logical way you might devise, but with Mooncrash you're sometimes railroaded into doing things an exactly specific way, particularly when it comes to certain escape methods or story objectives. Some things need to be done by specific characters in specific orders, which sometimes means you receive an objective and can't complete it because you aren't playing the right character, in which case it's less about your own creativity in solving problems and more about deducing the game's intended logic and order of operations, and having the right character with the right skills for the job, a bit like needing to have the blue key to open the blue door. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since there is still satisfaction in figuring these things out and coming to the intended solution on your own, a bit like solving a puzzle, but it can be annoying to face such restrictions in a game that's typically all about creative freedom and open-ended gameplay.

The character selection screen showcasing Andrius, who specializes in psi abilities.

My only real complaint with Mooncrash is that it can be a bit grindy and repetitive. Despite all the randomized variables, you're still going through the exact same maps every time, and any changes to the level design aren't that significant until near the very end when they start introducing major variables like certain areas being completely powerless, or engulfed in flames. Although item drops and enemy spawns are variable, they still occur in the same preset locations, so you always know where to find a valuable stash of loot, or where a strong enemy type will appear, which causes you to develop a bit of a routine as you become more familiar with the game, and go through a lot of the same motions in each attempted run. Meanwhile, certain characters require specific abilities to do their (or other characters') story missions, thus forcing you to spend a few runs basically farming neuromods just so that you can get the requisite skills to advance the game. Story objectives, likewise, usually take two or three runs to complete, since you first have to do a run to unlock a new character, then do a second run to escape with that character, then do a third run to do their story mission, and hope you didn't need to do something with a specific character before doing the story mission, in which case you might have to do yet another run just to set yourself up to actually complete the story mission on yet another run.

While the story elements are certainly present, the story is not a major point of emphasis in Mooncrash. It's entirely possible, in fact, to complete the whole game without even noticing the story, if you aren't paying attention to every little detail that you can gleam from emails, audio logs, or the characters' story missions. The story is more implied than told in this DLC, and it’s not the easiest to follow since the time limit is constantly pushing you to keep moving forward and doesn’t allow you much time to slow down and focus on the story. Not that it matters, since the DLC isn’t really a continuation of the base game’s story, but more of a new type of gameplay mode -- I don’t think you’re meant to dwell or focus on the story, as it’s just a backdrop for the gameplay and a way to subtly expand on the lore of the universe.

The simulation chair in the satellite orbiting the moon base.

What frustrates me about the story is the framework in which it happens. Since you play as Some Guy in a small satellite pod orbiting the moon running simulations of what happened on the moon base (as five different people), you have the over-arching story of what’s happening to Guy in the satellite juxtaposed with the story of what happened to the five moon base survivors, and it gets really annoying having the game constantly pull you out of the simulation to read an email as Guy, or go flip a switch to fix the gravity, and then go right back into the simulation. You spend 95% of the game in the simulation and so that would seem like the main focus of the game, but the framework constantly breaks the flow of the gameplay and disrupts immersion by pulling you out of the fun part of the game to go do tedious chores as Guy.

Mooncrash is absolutely not what I was expecting from a Prey DLC -- I was basically expecting something pretty similar to the base game, but in a new, smaller environment and with a shorter campaign -- but I’m glad Arkane chose to do something almost completely different with the DLC because it might not have been as unique if it had just been “more of the same.” By being something radically different, it offers a brand new experience while still retaining a lot of the same mechanics (plus the general atmosphere/feeling) that made the base game so enjoyable. It’s even more impressive how much I enjoy it, considering how strong of a roguelite feeling it has, because I don’t normally care for these types of games. Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s Prey and Arkane Studios (two things that I love), but I kind of feel like Mooncrash breathes some refreshing new life into a genre that was always a little stale (or just generally unappealing) in my eyes. This is immersive-sim gameplay distilled down to its purest and most potent form, with all the mechanical systems ratcheted up to exciting new heights.

Unlocking a new playable character by discovering his corpse. 

As an added benefit, some of the survival mechanisms from the DLC have now been patched into the base game as free upgrades, adding things like weapon durability, oxygen limits, and the status condition traumas in to the base game’s campaign as part of the new “Survival Mode.” One of the few major complaints I had about the base game was that it just didn’t feel hard enough, and I wrote specifically in my review that things like weapon durability and oxygen limits could go a long way in bolstering the survival tension that I felt was sometimes lacking in just the base game. There’s also a New Game Plus mode that allows you to begin a new game with all of your Neuromods and chipsets already unlocked, enabling you to sequence-break the game and do things in a whole new way, thanks to having all of your previous abilities already unlocked from the get-go. So, even if you have no intentions of buying the DLC, these new features might just be incentive to go back and replay the base game again, while Survival Mode, I think, would make the base game even more enjoyable for a first playthrough.

If you enjoyed the base game, then I think you’ll enjoy the Mooncrash DLC. I’m not sure I’d call it “essential,” considering it’s basically just an optional game mode, and what little story there is in this DLC doesn’t expand on the base game’s lore that significantly. But man, I sure had a lot of fun playing it, and with an extra 15-20 hours of content it certainly felt worth it to me.


  1. I would love if you do a brand new editorial, you haven't done those in a while!

  2. Reading you Fallout 4 review, I realised that you make a record of your game time. What are you top 10 most played games? I know Killing Floor is number 1 with somewhere around 700 hours.

    1. According to my steam stats:
      1. Killing Floor (792hrs)
      2. Borderlands 2 (339hrs)
      3. Fallout 4 (238hrs)
      4. The Witcher 3 (204hrs)
      5. Dark Souls 3 (200hrs)
      6. Killing Floor 2 (181hrs)
      7. Elex (160hrs)
      8. Fallout: New Vegas (144hrs)
      9. Skyrim (132hrs)
      10. Dragon Age: Origins (131hrs)
      11. Pillars of Eternity (118hrs)
      12. Borderlands (114hrs)
      13. Wizardry 8 (101hrs)

      Those are the games on Steam that I've logged more than 100 hours on. Note that some of these inflated playtimes are due to multiple playthroughs (Borderlands 1+2, Elex, Dark Souls 3) or because of online components/multiplayer (Killing Floor 1+2, Dark Souls 3, Borderlands 1+2) or because of modding (Fallout 4, Skyrim).