Although it doesn’t quite match the palpable atmosphere of Creative Assembly’s Alien Isolation or Dead Space’s USG Ishimura, there is still much to be said for Prey’s strikingly remote habitat. A gargantuan space station orbiting the moon, Talos I plays centre stage to the aftermath of a research experiment gone horribly awry as Prey’s main character awakens aboard the almost completely abandoned research facility following an outbreak of deadly alien species known as Typhon in Arkane Austin’s picturesque sci-fi thriller.
More than a decade on from 3D Realms and Human Head Studios’ absorbing first-person shooter, players are introduced to Talos I. Arkane’s reimagining of Prey departs both story and setting as one Cherokee’s fight against alien abduction makes way for a devastating alien outbreak aboard a large research facility. Completely distinguishable, Arkane’s reimagination of the 2006 IP takes place in the year 2032, creating an alternate timeline where John. F. Kennedy was never assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, rather, America’s 34th President teamed up with the Soviet Union to form the unlikeliest of bonds and launch Talos I into space.
Prey: Xbox One [Reviewed], PlayStation 4, PC
Developer: Arkane Studio
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: 5 May 2017
Price: £49.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
Taking its early cues directly from Bioshock, Prey arms its protagonist, like Jack, with the familiar feel of a wrench for protection as players are steered towards their next objective by a mysterious sounding voice; no not that of Atlas, although you could easily be fooled into thinking you were being welcomed to ‘Rapture’ rather than Talos I. An intangible mixture of anxious anticipation, self-discovery, morality and compelling narrative drive Prey’s superb opening few hours, but while its opening forays might borrow from Irrational’s sumptuous underwater seminal masterpiece, Prey encompasses familiar assets far closer to home later to great effect.
Prey’s opening hours offer arguably the game’s finest segment of narrative as Morgan Yu, Prey‘s multi-choice gendered protagonist awakens aboard the sparsely populated space station with no memory of the events that transpired prior to arriving at Talos I’s catastrophic predicament. With little to go on, information is threaded through to Yu in broken, fragmented pieces by human voice, transcripts or files obtained via computer screen. Largely alone throughout the experience, Yu must rediscover concealed memories that essentially paint a better picture of the character, which is balanced nicely against the vast horrors harbouring aboard Talos I following a breakout of Typhon, Prey‘s intelligent and different formed enemy.
Following early exploration of the facilities testing area, the player is pressed towards Talos I’s cru de gra; a sprawling lobby fitted out with winding staircases, museum and working elevator, which act as the main focal point of the station’s traversal routes. It’s from within this vast and stylish welcoming lounge that I encountered a series of doors or office spaces that are almost entirely closed off from the player; requiring a keycard to bypass. In Prey though, a locked door doesn’t represent the end of the road, rather, challenges the player to gain entrance via different means.
Anybody familiar with Arkane’s recent body of work will know of the studio’s capacity to craft large playfully designed spaces, areas that question the player’s ability to discover ways through its meticulous level design. Talos I is eye-catching; its distinctive art style blends science fiction tropes with neo-art-deco perfectly to breathe life into what is a vastly desolate space station. Talos I is a visual spectacle, a well-oiled machine that will have the player eager to inspect every nook and cranny while immersed in all that the plagued station has to offer.
Later I learned of security terminals with the option to track specific personnel with keycard access to closed off areas, I would also learn to use upgrades (Neuromods) to gain various skills including hacking improvement to Marcus Holloway my way inside many doors; but with access to security booths largely limited early on I was forced to get creative to locate an alternate point of entry. Like Dishonored, or its sequel, Prey truly excels when pushing the player to use their intuition, making use of out of the box thinking to achieve entrance to previously closed off spaces, and through Prey‘s myriad of pathways, I began to discover that no area aboard this floating nightmare remains inaccessible for long, even without a keycard, and if you’re willing.
Laboratories, a Medical Facility, Gymnasium or Workshop; Talos I is littered with brash exploratory spaces, Prey makes good use of these large areas, narrow corridors and of course, shafts and hatches for alternate access to many of its closed off rooms. Equipped with Yu’s unique GLOO Cannon, I was able to fire off bursts of solid forming foam to bridge a pathway to inaccessible areas, create walkways to reach precarious ledges and reach and enter through ventilation or maintenance openings that would lead me to areas I couldn’t otherwise pass by.
It’s while pushing the boundaries of Prey‘s meticulous level design that Yu encounters Talos I’s first Typhon threat – Mimic. Parasitic by appearance, Mimic’s are, as its name readily suggests, able to imitate objects in Talos I’s environment. In the presence of Mimic’s, these mould coloured form of Typhon create an anxious atmosphere all of their own as the spindly critters begin to play with Morgan’s mind; manipulating Prey‘s leading character from a calm questionable individual into a frenzied, paranoid wreck as the player journeys Talos I’s foyer and labyrinth of rooms.
Discovery of Prey‘s most interesting of enemies brings about a sudden shriek of noise that pierces through the player with uncompromising ease. Worryingly though, it’s from the players very desire to discover or want to interact with Talos I’s many inanimate objects that will ultimately push the player to the brink of madness as Yu struggles to decipher if the coffee mug on the desk is just that – a beverage container, or a fiendish Mimic masquerading as one to fool the player. There are no words to put into context the nervous disposition that can be felt by simple examination of the most arbitrary of objects as Prey pokes away at the foundations of the human psyche.
Initially disturbing, Mimic’s breed both fear and panic; a novelty that regrettably wears off too soon as I became tuned to that horrible spine-tingling noise or accustomed to the creatures devious ways as I caught one switching out a lamp for a cardboard box as it attempted to outmanoeuvre my advances. In spite of the fact it loses its early appeal after a period of time, Mimic’s remain a fascinating enemy design, sadly resigned to the background later to make way for a variation of new threats.
Of those threats, Phantoms – a different variation of Typhon – play arguably the biggest role in Prey‘s action sequences. Appearing via 3 different forms: Etheric, Voltaic and Thermal, all 3 types of Phantom boast the ability to teleport around the player, making for uncomfortable combat as Yu looks to pulverise the hulking aliens to a pulp of mush with the deafening crack of a single shotgun blast. Elsewhere, Poltergeists levitate objects in a room, lifting the player off the ground to hang in the sky. Cloaking their visibility makes Prey‘s Poltergeists one of its more difficult enemies to pin down, but Talos I plays host to many unique horrors like this.
Prey can be a tough slog in the beginning as players fight for a collection of ammo and materials to build up a steady arsenal of protection. One feature that better aids Yu’s journey come from Prey‘s multifaceted skill trees that allow the character to learn a collection of new traits to combat against the environment and its many horrors. Split into two sections – Human and Typhon abilities offer three trees respectively, making six in total. With a plethora of newfound Human abilities acquired by Neuromods, Morgan can lift heavy objects blocking a path or door, hack and repair turrets to protect the protagonist from being blindsided, hack a selection of doors as well as expand player inventory and improve on their health gauge.
Morgan Yu’s ability to learn these superhuman powers will no doubt come in handy in what can be a tough, unforgiving affair, however, as enjoyable as they are, Prey‘s Typhon perks shine the brightest. There is a downside though. Morph, Energy and Telepathy offer Yu the chance to absorb a large bevvy of Typhon powers to turn the enemies powers against them. The flipside: acquiring these powers come at a cost as friendly turrets you might have used to help defend yourself as you proceeded to hack a computer terminal now see Morgan as a Typhon entity and proceed to fire at the protagonist at every opportunity, which can make life difficult with little resources early on.
Prey‘s powerful abilities can, of course, be side-stepped entirely thanks to Talos I’s multi-pathed layout structure, but will require a careful balance to ensure that you’re not seen as a threat if you opt to beef up your character for an easier life.
What is an undeniably stellar early showing of narrative ultimately fails to snowball into something far greater as Prey frequently diverts the player from the main quest line to embark on a series of obligatory side quests that will have Morgan fetching and delivering objects across Talos I like a faithful galactic lap dog.
Without Prey‘s stackable side-quests though, players could comfortably miss out on some of its best story building. The chance to meet and greet with fellow survivors, yes, some are actually still alive, shouldn’t be avoided. Not only do these objectives question the players morality as Yu weighs up the option of whether or not to retrieve medicine from Talos I’s exterior to prevent an injured allies death or to save crew members from certain doom or kill off a human test subject begging for their life, but it also gives players the chance to enjoy Arkane’s environmental storytelling, which by itself, is a thing of beauty.
Talos I is more than just a hauntingly spacious space station, it represents a home from home for every single inhabitant residing on board. Before the cataclysmic events that now render the station an near empty vessel, Talos I was a floating metropolis. In spite of its almost barren state, Talos I truly feels as though it has been lived in and you’ll feel this with every room explored and each corridor navigated. Journey through Talos I’s Crew Quarters and you’ll spot signs of life at every turn. An electric guitar rests on top a bed, personal items decorate individual cabins; Talos I’s inhabitants made the station their home from home, but more importantly than that, because these individuals lived in coalition with each other prior to the deadly outbreak, they communicated with one another via many means.
Post-it notes pinned to desks and computers offer Yu codes and passwords, emails detail back and forth communication between co-workers, add depth to character profiles while audio recordings laying beside bodies tell tales of love and romance on board the station; Talos I is a booming repository of human activity. The sheer amount of detail that Arkane undertook to thoroughly flesh out the history of Talos I and its many inhabitants is stunning but could be easily overlooked and underappreciated without a healthy amount of exploration, or partaking in Prey‘s many side-ventures.
If you have read comments from numerous forums, Prey isn’t without its bugs. My initial experience was blemished by corrupt save files which would occur after a quick save or after Prey autosaves, which it does at regular intervals.
At around the 20-hour mark of my first playthrough, my save file refused to load. At first, I was able to select one of my many save files but Prey‘s loading screen would eventually crash, sending me hurtling back to the Xbox One dashboard. At first, I thought I’d resolved the issue, only to then find myself unable to travel outside of Talos I into its exterior. While I could freely traverse Talos I from the inside, the station wouldn’t let me leave and with Talos I’s exterior a strong feature of Prey‘s storyline, I was eventually forced to restart the campaign, an issue that thankfully didn’t return.
I’ve read varied reports that Prey‘s loading screen time differs dependent on the platform. Although the PC version appears to load in at a reasonably fast rate, the Xbox One version clocks in at around a minute to a minute and a half, which dramatically kills the pace of Prey as it draws to a conclusion with players forced through a succession of main doors which act as a loading screen. Other than the aforementioned issues, Prey‘s framerate remained stable throughout.
Prey is a grand example of what Arkane Studios does best. This intelligent, picturesque science fiction thriller doesn’t quite match the level of System Shock, but its timeless visuals, interesting enemies, environmental storytelling and provoking level design will push and challenge players to its fantastic conclusion. While its loading screens and save bugs blight the experience somewhat, Prey‘s caters to a range of playstyles and features a replayability level that ensures players a unique experience full of value.
*Prey will receive an Xbox One patch later this week to address issues*
- Timeless visuals bring Talos I to life
- Myriad of pathways always provide a challenge
- Typhon Powers are fun to play around with
- Environmental storytelling
- Game breaking save bug caused me to restart campaign
- Strong narrative wavers in middle act
- Prey's most interesting enemy fades away later in storyline
- Loading times are frustratingly slow