Is Arkane Studios having an identity crisis? It’s a question that’s inherently difficult to answer, but one that seems particularly relevant given the ways in which Prey succeeds and fails. For all that the game does well – particularly the ways in which it strikes a balance between a yearning for knowledge and a drive for survival – Prey is never quite able to escape the long shadow cast by System Shock. That isn’t merely a symptom of thrusting a wrench in your hand and setting an immersive sim in the stars, but a problem directly brought about by Arkane and its incessant attempts to become the torchbearer of the Looking Glass legacy.
Prey isn’t some bizarre epiphany of that fact, but more a casual confirmation of it. The first indication that the framework popularised by Irrational Games and Looking Glass, later perfected by Ion Storm, can hinder creative design just as easily as it can propagate it. Where the Dishonored titles looked to the ideas and themes underpinning Thief II: The Metal Age and sought to build on and advance them – the resulting experience a masterful stealth game that simply couldn’t have existed two decades ago – the elements that are formative to the design of Prey feel exposed and raw. Prey may have the fundamentals of the genre locked down, but it doesn’t have the spark that made them legend so many years ago. Perhaps it’s ironic: for a game so inherently focused around the question and exploration of identity, Prey sure seems to be lacking one to call its own.
Set in the year 2032, you take on the role of Morgan Yu; a scientist that finds herself – or himself, it’s up to you – trapped on board the space station (turned secret research lab, turned extraterrestrial murder zone) Talos I. With the station now overrun by a highly intelligent race of aliens, called the Typhon, you must work to survive a disaster that you may well be responsible for incubating, but have no direct knowledge of unleashing.
You see, Talos I is the home of the Neuromod. That’s a technology derived from the DNA of the Typhon, giving humans the opportunity to augment their bodies and minds with powerful abilities. This can be as awesome as making you strong enough to pry locked doors open with your bare hands, or as truly ridiculous as letting you transform yourself into a fully-functioning desk lamp – both are skills with practical application in Prey, should you choose to invest in them.
Morgan, as chief architect of the Neuromod, and lab rat for the initial testing, comes to discover that removing a mod rolls the user’s memory back to its pre-installation state. Prey picks up with Talos I on the verge of collapse, its crew either dead or MIA, and a protagonist that has no recollection of what has transpired. Prey quickly establishes a world in which you must call everything you see into question. Every person, artificial intelligence and piece of data you discover seems to have its own agenda, and figuring out who (or what) you can trust as you fight for survival and clarity is a big part of Prey’s narrative drive. It means you must scrutinise even your own perception of events, calling into question your involvement in the disaster, the echoes of your previous self that seemingly haunt you in the world, and your agency in the moment-to-moment action of the game – a smart subversion of BioShock’s ‘Would You Kindly’ twist delivered at the outset rather than the end. At least, that’s how it seems on the surface. The further you delve into the mysteries of Prey the more it seems to lose its grip on its own narrative ambitions, eventually pouring everything into the whims of simplistic environmental storytelling.
That wouldn’t be a huge problem in itself, but Prey lacks the variety or focus to ever truly settle into a comfortable rhythm. With a disaster looming, your goal flitters between survival and gathering information, trawling through bins and briefcases and pumping shotgun rounds into shadowy monsters. It’s a familiar blend, but one that can too often feel at odds with itself. Prey never quite captures the unease or tension of the horror experience it presents itself as, nor does it find the energy or tempo of the action game it clearly is. The resulting experience is uneven, then. At times impressive in its capacity to foster fear, pushing you to utilise every (limited) resource available to you in an effort to survive for just a second longer, and at others excelling at pushing you into frantic fights against hordes of unruly enemies, but those moments of accelerated excitement seem to be few and far between.
What’s left between all of this is a rather pedestrian set of main objectives and side-quests set in one of the most magnificent pieces of structural design we’ve ever seen in a videogame. Talos I is a vast and interconnected space that feels real, a place where people could have lived, worked and, later, died. But even that works against Prey eventually, with Arkane focusing too heavily on the utilitarian nature of the station. The lack of variety in the station’s locales makes sense – it is, after all, an installation that was designed to house scientists before it became the site for alien genome splicing – but the lack of variety in objectives or the stories they lead to does not.
There’s only one thing you can truly trust in Prey and that’s your curiosity. You’re encouraged to pay close attention to everything that you see and hear; every locked door, password-protected computer and environmental barrier can be overcome if you approach it in the right way, and it may just be hiding the secrets you so desire. That’s empowering and impressive, but quickly diluted as you come to realise that the hundreds of emails you are trawling through are fairly forgettable: employees embroiled in workplace dramas, trading gossip on former colleagues and openly discussing the combinations to the restricted lockbox or door inevitably located just a few feet away from you. The mundanity of all of this goes a long way to establish a sense of place and realism, but it doesn’t bring much to the game or narrative.
It’s a great shame, because so much of Prey revolves around Morgan rebuilding her memories and making sense of her own morality. The way the game asks you to do this, however, is through the emails and audio logs you’ll find across Talos I’s abundance of corpses. The rare characters you do meet are often cardboard cutouts, part-players in an overarching narrative that feels stretched thin. It’s through these encounters that the game asks you to help shape your personalised ending; making moral decisions after, at best, a bit of busywork or, at worst, after a series of anticlimactic events. Arkane does a good job of raising the profile and importance of these characters, especially as the game switches up a gear in the final act, but they ultimately feel like disposable pieces of the larger puzzle – a direct result of the game being so open and reactive. Everyone on the station can be killed if you want to go psychopathic, or you can go out of your way to save them, should you feel so inclined.
Here’s the thing with Prey – all of this can be ignored. It affords you a baffling amount of freedom, giving you the opportunity to dive deep into the mystery. While you could avoid much of the environmental storytelling, it will ultimately restrict you from getting to the heart of what makes Prey great. The more weapon upgrade kits you discover, the more Neuromods you install – granting you a host of enhanced human and insane alien abilities – and the more resources you obtain, the more the game will begin to shed its annoyances.
The Typhon are a powerful foe, able to take more than a few rounds and send you hurtling back to a respawn without much trouble. It’s here where you’re really given the space to play, to push the various systems to their limits and enjoy one of Arkane’s stronger areas: combat, weapon and enemy design. While the AI isn’t as varied or intuitive as the equivalent in Dishonored, they still come together to provide quite the threat. The weapons feel powerful and wonderful to wield, while the powers themselves offer an ingenious array of gameplay possibilities. When Prey steps into its element, it can be an exercise in excellence. It’s just such a shame that it takes so long to get there.
Depending on your history with videogames, there are certain elements of Prey that might not make sense, or seem like strange design decisions. Ultimately, that’s because Prey owes a lot to the likes of System Shock, Ultima Underworld and Deus Ex. You can see the marks of these games all over its basic framework, referenced in everything – from system design to plot, to dialogue and mechanics – and that works as both a strength and a weakness. Immersive sims were always designed to encourage player expression, to let players follow their whims and see where the resulting experience will take them.
To an extent, Prey succeeds with this. The space created is gorgeous; it has a consistent rule set and objectives that can – largely – be tackled in any order. Like any good immersive sim, it doesn’t tell you to fight through nests of enemies, nor does it point you towards the maintenance hatches, the hidden walkways or the walls you can ascend with your Gloo Gun in hand and a little ingenuity. It lets you decide how you want to play and it adapts to it. Where it falls down, however, is that the ways in which it adapts aren’t always that interesting, or communicated, such is the problem with the narrative here.
Just as in the immersive sims that Arkane is so dutifully paying homage to here with Prey, it’s a game that feels like it has been designed to let the player fight back against the developer and find their own way through. Talos I is a broad, but claustrophobically combined, space that showcases a real, genuine sense of creativity from the team. It captures the vibe and greatness of System Shock‘s own haunted station, or perhaps even Deus Ex’s incredible cyberpunk-infused cityscape. Talos I feels lavish and haunted, the perfect location to let players explore the mysteries of the mind with a shotgun in hand, but the pieces don’t quite fit together in the way that Arkane clearly intended. Everything Prey needed to succeed is in there, somewhere, but it doesn’t gel. The game is too undefined, too broad in its ambition and application of its powers, spaces and weapons, that it fails to find and carve out its own identity.