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Prey is a complex, tense, and scattered piece of survival horror

Prey is a complex, tense, and scattered piece of survival horror

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Prey

A protagonist wakes up in a space colony after a disaster, with a blank in their memory. An artificial intelligence informs them that aliens on board have transformed the crew into monstrosities. It’s up to them to destroy the threat, using an arsenal of conventional weapons and psychic powers. But a seemingly simple quest sends the protagonist trekking across the entire facility, caught between conflicting ideological agendas. This setup may sound familiar to players of 1999 survival horror System Shock 2, and you’ll find echoes of it in a whole mini-genre of spiritual sequels, like BioShock and Dead Space. But few have followed the formula as closely as Prey, a new game from Dishonored studio Arkane.

Some of Arkane’s founding members worked at System Shock 2 studio Looking Glass, and the studio hasn’t been shy about its intention to re-create the qualities that made the games and its studio great. (Nor has it been subtle with cheeky references: the computer system in Prey is actually called the “Looking Glass.”)

Dishonored, a perfectly tuned puzzle box, established the team’s methodology. Prey — which Arkane Austin took on instead of Dishonored 2 — is different than fans might expect. It’s a slightly messy, nail-biting action game that goes in a lot of different directions, leaving some elements underdeveloped. But it still bears Arkane’s uniquely craftsmanlike approach: not too flashy, groundbreaking, or self-consciously clever, but solid, complex, and thoughtfully built.

Minor spoilers for Prey follow.

Prey is set in the year 2035, in a world where the 1960s Space Race escalated more quickly. Protagonist Morgan Yu works on the corporate space station Talos-1, where her family’s company — or his, depending on player choice — has rebooted a secret government program studying a race of aliens called the Typhon. When they inevitably break loose, Yu learns that she was helping test Typhon-derived human augmentations, but had parts of her memory wiped in the process. And an artificial intelligence named January, created by a pre-amnesiac Yu, tells her that the station must be destroyed.

To survive, Yu harnesses the power of these augmentations, called neuromods. The basic neuromods are straightforward upgrades to health, equipment effectiveness, or technical skills like hacking. A series of experimental Typhon neuromods include exotic elemental attacks and abilities like shapeshifting, unlocked by scanning enemies with the same powers. (The “psi hypos” that power them are an explicit System Shock 2 nod.)

Talos-1 doesn’t have a strong visual identity, but its spaces are memorable

Inky, fluid, and shimmering, the Typhon themselves break the body-horror-heavy mold of most survival horror monsters. And unlike many video game alien races, there’s no Typhon version of the thoughtlessly dispatchable grunt. The weakest early-game enemy is one of the most maddening: a Headcrab-like mimic that disguises itself as ordinary objects — a stapler, a coffee mug, a chair — until you’re close enough for it to lash out with inhuman speed. In a game where you’re supposed to explore every corner for side quest clues or supplies, the mimics can make just stepping into a room nerve-wracking.

Prey’s environments don’t have a strong visual identity; their art deco design feels too much like a cross between System Shock 2’s spaceship and BioShock’s underwater city. But the station’s big, interconnected levels still feel intensely memorable, because moving between them requires so much planning. A long list of side quests can send you all over Talos-1, for important tasks like following a killer and minor ones like growing a super-tomato.

Typhon become more powerful and numerous with every major quest you complete, though, and fighting or evading them requires a full array of weapons and abilities. Prey isn’t as stingy as System Shock 2, where running out of supplies could render the game unwinnable. But I still had to plan my routes to best conserve ammunition, parts, and health packs, while searching every area for scraps I could recycle into new materials.

Prey

This makes Prey’s gameplay feel deliberate, instead of flattening into generic open-world meandering. If you’re progressing through the main missions at a decent clip, though, Typhon can multiply to the point where these side stories feel like Herculean trials. I waited on some early sections, figuring I’d be powerful enough to come back and try them later. By the time that weaker enemies were less threatening, though, I was sprinting through waves of ever-deadlier creatures to reach objectives.

If you focus on human abilities like gun modification and stamina, as I did, late-game fights also aren’t as satisfying or well-paced as earlier ones. The largest Typhon with the most theoretically interesting powers, like “technopaths” that control machinery, end up just feeling like bullet sponges. The non-traditional weapons are powerful, especially grenades that cause heavy damage or nullify enemies’ powers, but they can also feel situation-limited and inconvenient. And the game lightly discourages players from using the fascinating Typhon neuromods. Installing them adds roadblocks by turning turrets around the station hostile, your sympathetic AI companion tells you not to use them, and their presence factors slightly into the tone of the ending.

The GLOO gun is a piece of whimsy in a grim situation

But a few non-neuromod weapons are both creative and practical, especially the foam-shooting GLOO cannon. Its yoga ball-sized globs of goo hold fast-moving creatures in place while amplifying damage from other weapons, and they’re also an all-purpose environmental puzzle-solver: you can shoot foam at walls to create makeshift stairs, patch fire-spitting pipes, block electrical discharges, or even fix a breach in Talos-1’s hull. In an often grim world, the GLOO cannon is a piece of Portal-like whimsy, covering the station in dried puffs that looks like giant pieces of popcorn.

Part of Prey’s fun is just learning the layout of Talos-1. It’s invaluable knowing which doors you can lock to hide behind, where you can restock at item replicators, and where different levels connect. Shortly into the game, you can start spacewalking between airlocks, which adds an entirely new way to navigate the station. Talos-1 has the same kind of physicality as System Shock 2’s Von Braun or, before it, System Shock’s Citadel Station — which is something that the mostly linear Dead Space and BioShock never captured. It’s not “real” in the sense of feeling like a place people lived in, but by the end, it felt like a place I had gotten to know.

Prey

Talos-1 isn’t just full of Typhon. There are also survivors, and your decisions to help, ignore, or kill them make up a large part of the game. In some ways, these ethical quandaries are the corniest part of Prey. The game doesn’t explicitly tag you as good or evil, but the AI January analyzes your actions at length, speculating on the nature of your moral compass. One of your first tasks is taking a trolley problem questionnaire, but in the actual game, you’re given the kind of basic good and evil choices that have come to symbolize video games’ simplistic approach to social commentary.

‘Prey’ asks players to pick between the right thing and the easy thing

On the other hand, the choices are more mechanically interesting than “press X to kill, press Y to spare.” In most cases, the game asks you to pick between the right thing and the easy thing. Do you undertake a dangerous journey to recover medication for a colleague, or press on toward your goal? Do you go out of your way to kill a telepathic Typhon without hurting the mind-controlled humans in its thrall?

And without going into spoilers, their corniness serves a purpose that’s emblematic of Arkane’s approach to storytelling. BioShock is famous for its metatextual deconstruction of false choice in video games, and there’s a hint of that deconstruction in Prey as well. But where BioShock presented its revelations as deep philosophical insights, Prey casually uses them as a plot device that casts the game’s clichés in a more interesting light. It’s part of the game’s weird, slightly silly sci-fi milieu, along with things like the pulpy space opera novels scattered around crew quarters. And it makes me want to play through the game again to explore the consequences of my actions.

Prey isn’t as distinctive as Dishonored, BioShock, or several similar games. It’s hard to make anything about monsters on a space station stand out, especially when it’s such a direct homage to an earlier project. But it manages the task of feeling both massive and compact, with a clear purpose but lots of interesting detours to explore — much like Talos-1 itself.

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