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Space is a divisive subject. To some, it’s the source of an immeasurable amount of inspiration and wonder. To others it’s a dark, all-consuming void filled with unspeakable horrors. Prey seeks to subject you to both of these schools of thought, but only occasionally manages to capture them properly.
The intro to Prey gives quite the strong first impression. The escalation of events leading up to the first big reveal is paced fairly well, and the payoff is extremely memorable. However, some of the more interesting themes and concepts end up either getting lost along the way, or getting tossed completely as a one-off.
Prey essentially tells the story of a tech organization experimenting on an alien organism and using it to produce mind and body enhancements, which results in the creature escaping and multiplying. Not a terribly original trope to be honest, but the way it was initially presented was very effective in grabbing my attention.
You look at the world of Prey through the eyes of Morgan Yu, employee of tech giant TranStar, and sibling to its CEO, Alex Yu. You work on the company’s personal space station deemed “Talos-1” and are one of the top minds behind the company’s greatest breakthrough yet: Neuromods. These devices can imbue those who use them with instant mastery in any number of subjects and skills. Remember the “I know kung fu” scene from the Matrix? It’s a bit like that. Except instead of uploading this knowledge through an outlet in the back of your skull, you put a suction cup on your eye and let it slide a few 8-inch-long needles into your brain. Hate needles? Well too bad! Jam this in your eye! There’s science to be done!
After a seemingly-normal day at work testing Neuromods while smug scientists talk down to you, things suddenly go terribly wrong. It’s at this point that you get your first look at your primary foes in Prey, aptly named “Mimics.” They get this designation because they can take the form of everyday objects and hide in plain sight, which suddenly makes every chair and potted plant a potential threat. These creatures look a bit like melted cotton candy mixed with motor oil. They also scurry along the ground like gooey spiders as they contort and twist their form in unnervingly bizarre ways.
Mimics ultimately turn out to be the bottom of the alien food chain though, as you discover they are part of a larger group of organisms deemed the “Typhon.” This is where Prey begins to lose me a bit. Although there is a good variety of terrifying Typhon, none of the larger variants ever use the “Mimic” ability. This feels like kind of a wasted opportunity, because after a while, the smaller foes serve to be not much more than an annoyance and the occasional jump-scare. If larger, scarier Typhons were able to morph into larger objects like a crate, then entering a warehouse full of identical crates would immediately instill a sense of dread.
Hate needles? Well too bad! Jam this in your eye! There’s science to be done!
Unfortunately this isn’t the case, and the survival-horror vibe that Prey begins with eventually gives way to something more akin to the original Bioshock. Run around, look at dead bodies posed in funny positions, scrounge up what little you can, and try to survive. This inspiration becomes fairly apparent from the start, as one scene in particular presents a not-so-subtle nod to the series. This isn’t to say taking inspiration from Bioshock is at all a bad thing; it’s wonderful. I just feel that, at times, it can be a bit on-the-nose with its homages.
Prey does plenty of things on its own to make the experience memorable, however. Most of the weapons you use initially are pretty standard (wrench, pistol, shotgun, stun gun, EMP grenade), but there are plenty of unique “tech” weapons that spice things up. The stand-out hit for me was the “Gloo gun,” which lets you freeze enemies in place by covering them in gunk. It’s also a very versatile tool, as you can use it to plug up hazards, or even create makeshift platforms to climb high walls. Do yourself a huge favor: always have a loaded Gloo gun on you.
Between dousing the station in gloo and punching every coffee cup you see, you’ll also be channeling Sandra Bullock and trying not to die in space. In order to get to certain locked-down areas of the ship, you’re forced to venture outside and crawl your way around to various hull breaches in the station. I have to admit, one thing Prey gets very right is the feeling of aimless disorientation in zero gravity. I can’t tell you how often I lost my bearings flying around trying to find my objective, which I feel was by design. I do wish your space suit’s thrusters weren’t so weak and slow though. The space station is absolutely massive, and this becomes even more apparent from the outside.
Space isn’t the only place I got extremely lost. Probably the biggest problem I have with Prey is how poorly it directs you to your next objective. This is especially true later in the game as your goals get more complex. Often times additional steps cropped up on my way to complete a task, which usually isn’t a big deal. However, rather than getting a clear explanation of these extra steps, I usually got a snippet of NPC dialog and an extra sentence added to the end of the objective description. That’s it.
For example: One objective had me simply going to the next area. Once I progressed so far, I hit a giant locked door. A nearby NPC told me they’d give me the code, but only after I fetched some spare turrets to help kill the enemies behind said door. The NPC mentioned that the plans to construct the turrets were somewhere outside the ship, but they didn’t know where. After this, rather than showing me where the plans might be, the objective marker still pointed at the door and said “open it.”
I was able to find one working turret to place at the door, and only then did the game tell me I needed 2 more. Seeing as the others lying in the area were broken, it was time to go outside to find the blueprints. After about an hour of wandering aimlessly, I discovered the plans for the turrets just around the corner from where I started. This was infuriating because if I had gotten even a tiny hint at their location, I would have had them in literally 5 minutes. I’m all for games not holding people’s hands, but there were several instances of this happening. It felt more like I was being given bad directions than actually being challenged.
However, the real challenge in Prey is dealing with the Typhon, as several of these altercations are very tough if you choose the Rambo route. Between the dead-eyed mumbling Phantoms and the floating telepathic tanks that are the Technopaths, you’ll have your work cut out for you in a fight. Hiding and sneaking can be a viable option, although you won’t be able to tip-toe past every encounter. For amorphous blobs of chewed-up licorice, the Typhon have spectacular eyesight.
The space station is absolutely massive, and this becomes even more apparent from the outside.
What’s baffling, though, is how tepid any human resistance is against you. Stories of this nature often explore the fragility of humanity, and how we are one big disaster away from tearing each other apart like frightened animals. Outside of your brother Alex remotely impeding your progress from his director’s chair, you never encounter any people willing to betray or cut you down to satisfy their own ends. There are a few packs of people who are mind-controlled into attacking you, but even they are fighting it the whole way.
Alex ends up being a bit of a weak pseudo-antagonist, and always sounds like he just got off a 12-hour flight from Tokyo and just wants to go to sleep. There’s never any passion in his voice, no sense of urgency. Stack this on top of your robot companion January constantly dumping exposition into your ear, and there are virtually no characters to connect with or care about. You could argue that there are a few good stories buried in the audio logs and emails, but even those aren’t terribly compelling. You ultimately have little reason to hesitate when January says the only way to stop the spread of Typhon is to blow up the station and die. OK, off I go then.
Prey is a good game. It has a lot of interesting ideas and a small handful of memorable moments, but I can’t help but feel that it could have done more. The enemies are intimidating and unique, but by the end, the survival-horror elements that make them genuinely terrifying are more or less abandoned. It definitely looks great, plays smoothly, and has plenty of cool aspects to it. But Prey feels more preoccupied with hitting all the beats than exploring what makes its world genuinely interesting.