When it comes to basic sci-fi setups, nobody would ever accuse “fighting for your life on a space station that’s been taken over by aliens” of being particularly fresh. Whether you’re talking about movies, books, or games, it’s the kind of premise that serves as sturdy scaffolding — a framework on which to hang what are (hopefully) much more interesting ideas and interactions. So when I sat down to preview the first hour of Prey, Arkane Studios’ upcoming reboot of the mid-aughts shooter, I didn’t quite know what to expect. What I found was a first-person action game, with some solid role-playing elements, set off by some creative narrative twists. Well, enough twists for the first hour, at least.
To start off, Prey has nothing to do whatsoever with the original game, or its canceled sequel. When asked by journalists why the game has the title it does given the utter lack of connective tissue, lead designer Ricardo Bare was honest: "Because Prey is a really good name for a game." This version takes place in the year 2032, in an alternate reality timeline where the player takes on the role of Morgan Yu. (Players can select either a male or female version of the character; I went with the latter.)
When the game begins, Morgan is preparing to undergo some strange psychological and behavioral tests at the behest of her brother, Alex. Everything seems to be going fairly smoothly until an alien creature attacks one of the doctors. Soon, Morgan finds herself on the space station Talos I, which has been completely overrun by a shape-shifting alien species called the Typhon. It turns out that Morgan’s been the subject of these mysterious experiments far longer than she realizes, and has suffered massive holes in her memory as a result. She begins chasing down the clues and videos that she’s left for herself in order to understand what’s going on — and, one assumes, to eventually stop the Typhon.
Despite the look of some of the early footage, Prey isn’t a horror title; it’s an action game, though it does utilize handy jump scares from time to time as random objects suddenly morph into the scurrying, multi-legged Typhon for an attack. It has a semi-open-world feel, allowing players to explore the space station largely at will. Most obstacles in the game offer multiple solutions. A locked door can be accessed by finding a keycard, for example, or by exploring an alternate route to circumvent the issue altogether.
The role-playing side of things comes into play with what Prey calls “neuromods.” In the game, humans are able to give themselves enhanced skills by collecting what are essentially cybernetic implants. They cover a trio of skills sets — hacking, engineering, and combat — with branching skill trees for each discipline letting users shape their character as they see fit. It’s another way in which Prey lets players solve problems in multiple ways. I unlocked a pesky door by upgrading my hacking abilities. A hard-to-reach second floor in an atrium could have been reached by upgrading one’s engineering skills to repair the lift, or by creating a makeshift platform using a weapon that shoots rapidly hardening foam. (According to Bare, there’s an elaborate crafting system in the game as well, though it never came up during my hour of gameplay.)
While the notion of an overrun space station isn’t particularly novel, Prey does stand out by creating a world with some beautiful aesthetics that look both believably near-future, and lived in. According to the game’s backstory, the Talos I started as a government space station in the ‘60s before being taken over by a private company in 2030, and the design melds the design language of 1960’s science fiction — large, magnetic tape storage systems and retro hardware litter the place — with the kind of wood panelling and gold trim you’d expect from a gaudy hotel.
In terms of sheer gameplay, nothing about Prey was particularly mind-blowing in the time I spent with the game. It’s using concepts we’ve seen before, put together in combinations we’ve seen before. But there’s a polish to the whole thing that makes it undeniably fun on the most basic level; the kind of game that you can just pick up and dive into with total and complete familiarity right at the top. But much like the premise itself, that easygoing gameplay feels like it’s there to set up some larger aspirations: the ideas behind the narrative itself.
I’ve been trying to stay away from too many plot specifics, because the first hour of Prey turns out to be filled with more than its fair share of twists and turns — and one of the early reveals was one of my favorite moments of the game. It’s safe to say that there is an overarching mystery, and it’s not really about the alien creatures at all. It’s about Morgan Yu herself, with the player thrown into the role of a character who can’t trust her own memory or perception of reality. She ends up relying on clues she has left for herself, a kind of unreliable narrator that adds a Memento-esque twist to the fighting, exploring, and side missioning.
Arkane has also made a point of noting that players can choose either male or female versions of the lead character. Morgan was picked as the character’s name precisely because it was gender neutral, and in terms of representation, the move is to be applauded. However, despite that choice, Bare says that swapping gender roles doesn’t actually change the story in any appreciable way. Different pronouns are used when characters address Morgan, and family photos that appear in the game reflect the player’s choice. But other than that, there’s nothing about the ways in which characters interact with Morgan that shifts. For a game that is purportedly about identity, it seems like it could end up being a missed opportunity — particularly given that Bare says the story can be impacted by the ways in which the player interacts with various survivors they come into contact with.
Of course, depending on how the mysteries of Prey play out, that issue may not be as problematic as it seems at first. And that’s assuming the narrative actually continues to fire throughout the entirety of the game in the first place. Bare says the average time to finish has been running between 14 to 16 hours, though some players have needed 20 hours or more, and that could end up being a lot of mystery to string out depending on how engaging the pure gameplay is unto itself. No matter what happens on that front, however, one thing’s for certain: it’s certainly going to look glorious.
Prey is scheduled for release on May 5th for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.