Another perspective on Arkane Studios’ latest immersive sim.
As homage to System Shock, Deus Ex, and other games under the immersive sim banner, Prey fares well. That’s not just because Arkane Studios’ latest release sates an appetite for entries in a genre that sees disappointingly scant additions. Rather, the joy of Prey is found in the exploration of beautifully rendered, detailed environments that reward investigation. Yet, while considered level design — easily Arkane’s most identifiable forte — goes some way to making Prey a memorable adventure, not enough is done to expand on the genre or play on the player’s expectations of its formula. The result is a well-crafted but predictable experience that invokes its inspiration with poise, but ultimately fails to carve out a meaningful identify of its own. It’s an unexpected thing from a studio with an established record of adding interesting wrinkles to the classic immersive sim formula.
Prey places players in the boots of Morgan Yu, a researcher stationed on-board Talos-1, a lunar research facility. Talos-1 has become infested with Typhon, an antagonistic alien species that plunges the moon-orbiting station into chaos. Morgan’s work involved harnessing the Typhon to produce Neuromods, devices which augment innate human abilities by way of stabbing a big gross needle into the user’s eye. Though Neuromods dramatically enhance a person’s capabilities, they come with a pretty major side-effect; removing one wipes away swathes of the user’s memory, reverting it to the moment of installation.
In the game’s opening moments, Morgan finds himself trapped in an endless cycle of Neuromod testing — experiments ran, mysteriously, at the behest of Morgan’s older brother and colleague, Alex. Prey’s opening gambit offers players plenty of tantalizing questions. Unfortunately, the opening moments are also Prey’s most focused and intriguing from a plot perspective. Soon after its introduction, Prey’s story meanders between pedestrian side objectives that, while occasionally important to the main narrative, often feel underwhelming.
Having players discover — and break out of — the simulation in which that testing takes place is a great way of conditioning them to approach environments and characters with a more inquisitive manner than usual. The very revelation that Morgan is in a simulation is an early “a-ha!” moment for players that Prey, disturbingly, fails to capitalize on, or even subsequently match, throughout the remainder of the game. Nonetheless, maintaining a degree of vigilance as you explore the ransacked corridors and ornate halls of Talos-1 pays off — you’ll frequently discover hidden passages and alternate routes that are easy to miss at first blush. The act of discovery is rewarding in itself, but you’re also usually treated to an audio log or a few rounds of ammunition for your trouble.
Good thing too, for there’s plenty of exploring to be done. Talos-1’s many nooks and crannies present dozens of avenues for exploration, though many of these require investment in Neuromod abilities, meaning you’ll have to decide whether you’d prefer to hack security systems, lug heavy objects that form impromptu barriers, or repair machinery to restore power to previously inaccessible areas. You could invest in a bit of everything, but the most prized rewards — and less perilous routes to your objectives — are sometimes locked behind obstacles which require more than a Jack-of-all-trades can muster. By now, these are fairly routine modes of exploration for an immersive sim. It would have been interesting to see options other than hacking a terminal, dragging heavy furniture, or finding a vent to crawl through in some dark recess.
Sometimes, the trusty GLOO cannon — a gun that fires fast-hardening glue which can be used for climbing, as well as to solidify enemies in combat — is all you’ll need for exploration. The platforming involved in clambering up your makeshift bridges is clumsy, but it’s satisfying to pull off, lets you find a unique solution to an obstacle, and showcases the strength of Prey’s interconnected level design. Occasionally, you’ll leave the station to float between airlocks, and these moments offer an exciting glimpse of the scale of Talos-1. They also demonstrate the logical consistency with which the station has been designed, helping to make its areas feel connected and tangible.
Making choices about what you can and can’t access during exploration is interesting and gratifying, while it lasts. Later, you’ll be tripping over Neuromods, which somewhat dulls the importance of your skill choices compared to earlier, more palpable decision-making. Eventually, you open up the possibility of crafting Neuromods, and from that point on you won’t need to worry whether you’re missing out on goodies stashed behind a skill-based obstacle.
Building out your character for combat feels more limited than your options for exploration. There are only a handful of weapons to use, one of which is a wrench and two of which are conventional firearms. The Huntress Boltcaster, a toy crossbow that fires foam darts, seems narrow in its usefulness. It can be used to distract enemies, but the Typhon Lure grenade already serves that purpose, and the boltcaster’s inability to cause damage makes it feel like a waste of inventory space for the majority of the game.
Aside from physical weaponry, Morgan can eventually harness the Typhon’s telepathic powers for his own use. However, investing heavily in these alien abilities will cause Talos-1’s defensive systems to recognize Morgan as the Typhon menace, turning the station’s security measures against him. It’s an interesting trade-off in theory, but in practice the system made me feel obligated to avoid investing in the Typhon abilities during the early game for fear of contending with the many security turrets dotted around the station.
With a controller, Prey’s combat feels frantic and imprecise. Running into battle, wrench flailing, is a sure-fire way to wind up dead on even the default difficulty setting, making deliberate play a necessity. For genre fans, this likely isn’t an issue, but if you were expecting to play the game with guns blazing, Prey won’t deliver — at least not early on.
Managing the ammo, health, and psi hypos needed to see a fight through, and considering the sequence of your attacks, yields more fortunate results, making the rhythm of careful planning and frantic execution an occasionally entertaining one. On the Xbox One, where this game was reviewed using a code provided by Bethesda, the game targets 30 frames per second. The frame rate limit makes keeping track of Mimics — small, spider-like Typhons that disguise themselves as ordinary objects before jumping out and darting around — difficult. In more intense fights involving flashy telepathic effects, the otherwise tolerable performance begins to buckle.
There’s a strange loneliness to exploring Prey’s world. Despite the unavoidable comparisons, Prey doesn’t introduce memorable characters with the same frequency of a game like BioShock. There are huge stretches of game-play where you won’t encounter another human at all. While BioShock gave us iconic personas and striking speeches that have remained in the popular consciousness, now, for a decade, Prey is content to feel quiet, almost ambient, in its storytelling. Most of the story is gleaned from the disembodied voices of the crew’s audio logs, piped into your ears from someone removed from you entirely. The logs you find repeatedly assert what you already know — that the station was overwhelmed by Typhon — but offer no greater insight than that. Every crew member you encounter, whether they are alive or a corpse to be looted for ammunition, has a unique name. That’s a neat touch, but it’s no substitute for actually portraying some human drama to add depth and context to Prey’s world.
Various minor issues add up to detract from the overall experience. On Xbox One, load times are long enough to make back-tracking in search of Fabricators and Recycling Stations, essential machines used for crafting ammo and supplies, a nuisance. Sometimes, the audio takes longer than normal to load in, making environments deadly quiet. Infrequently, quest triggers refuse to update, causing confusion about what to do next.
It’s funny — when I sat down to write this review, I thought I had a positive impression of Prey. But as I organised my thoughts on the experience as a whole, no single feature stood out as exceptional. Simply put, Prey isn’t more than the sum of its parts. It’s not even less than the sum of its parts; it just is its parts. It’s entertaining and well-made, because it’s built using the blueprint of one the best games of all time by a talented studio that shows remarkable attention to detail. But in its unwavering commitment to that blueprint, Prey forgets to shock, delight, or even repulse its players. I don’t think I’ve ever had such an indifferent response to a game — and I’m not sure that’s a point in Prey’s favor.