There's a sinister atmosphere aboard the Talos 1 space station, and it goes far beyond that found in the murky underworlds of Dunwall and Karnaca, the cities that played host to Arkane's Dishonored games. Yet for all the differences in terms of location and setting, this is still clearly the work of the same studio; it's dripping with the same style, the same underlying sense of opulent corruption, and the same attention to detail. However, even if the studio's DNA is plain to see, there are some subtle differences that separate Prey from its forebears.
The most obvious is the science fiction setting. We've covered the background before, so this time we'll be brief: amnesiac character fights shape-shifting aliens aboard a station orbiting Earth using future tech and strange powers. You wake up as Morgan Yu, a scientist with a memory block. You can pick the gender of your Morgan, and while the experience is largely the same regardless of which one you pick, there are a couple of subtle differences (for example, if you pick fem-Yu, the AI that assists you also has a female voice).
During our final hands-on with Prey ahead of next month's launch, we played through the opening of the game (which we've done before LINK), and then skipped ahead to a new section, set a couple of hours further into the story. It was early enough that Yu was still unprepared for the adventure ahead, with little in the way of unlocked abilities, and so we got to take those first steps and play around with a couple of new powers, discovering the world around us as we went.
The first thing that impressed us - and that continued to impress us throughout - was how Arkane has managed to justify the gameplay systems, grounding them in the reality of the game. We've played as a forgetful hero many, many times before, but rarely has our in-game memory loss been explained away so thoughtfully. The narrative fits the gameplay like a glove, and everything, including the much-discussed neuromods, is grounded in plausibility, which in turn leads to greater immersion.
The other big difference between Prey and Dishonored comes via the atmosphere. In Dunwall we felt like the hunter, but on Talos we're very much the hunted. Like something out of a creature feature made in the '90s, our enemy here is a shape-shifting alien race called the Mimics. Larger variants can assume anthropomorphic forms, whereas smaller enemies have the ability to replicate everyday items and hide within the environment. This clever little trick has a profound effect on the player because you can never really trust the world around you not to suddenly burst into life and attack. Everything and anything could be an enemy.
The Bioshock-in-space comparison has been made before, and with good reason. Looking past the gameplay similarities and their shared heritage, these immersive sims both ask questions of the player, at times even going so far as to challenge our morality. In Rapture it was little sisters and big daddies, whereas on Talos it's creepy criminals and scientific experiments. We can't say for sure just how regularly these decisions will present themselves, but we got the distinct impression that, from time to time, we're going to be given a morally-questionable choice to make, where we'll play judge and jury (and maybe even executioner) at key points in the narrative.
When we're not making moral choices, we'll be tackling aliens and solving environmental puzzles. Arkane has ensured that for each problem, there'll be multiple solutions. In terms of combat, mixing up the GLOO Gun (which does exactly what you think it does) with melee and projectile-based weapons and unlocked abilities, gives you a variety of ways to take down a Mimic foe. Similarly, when it comes to navigating the station, there'll be alternative routes to explore. You might be able to get into a room using a pass-code, but alternatively you might find a line of sight through a broken window and fire a bolt from a crossbow to hit the button to open the door from the inside. As you've no doubt already seen, you'll probably just turn into a coffee cup using your Mimic powers, and roll through a small gap before assuming your human form once again. There are options waiting to be discovered everywhere you look, and it looks like the Texas-based branch of the studio has built a game that empowers player choice.
Choice is a key theme in Arkane's game, and here it will be facilitated via a wealth of abilities to be unlocked over the course of the campaign, along with secondary upgrades that work similarly to the bonecharms in Dishonored. Like its whalepunk predecessor, players will be able to choose how they play, either adopting powers, or shunning them completely. Here, though, that choice might be even more tied to your moment-to-moment experience, with the world becoming increasingly reactive to your presence depending on which way you advance your Yu; delve deep enough into the Mimic skill tree, for example, and eventually you'll find yourself targeted by station safeguards designed to contain the alien menace.
During our hands-on, we only scratched the surface of the various abilities, alien or otherwise, and it very much remains to be seen how many there are, and what exactly they'll allow you to do, especially when mixed together. Interestingly, you'll have to scan Mimics or station droids to unlock new tricks, with that requirement ensuring players stop and think before leaping into combat, or else pass on valuable intel from scans that can be used to unlock new powers/abilities. It's a design choice that further fuels the methodical and thoughtful approach that players will have to take if they're to make the most out of the experience.
Having played this near-final build for a couple of hours, we're very much looking forward to sitting down with the finished game next month. A couple of issues we noted with the demo may well ease after prolonged exposure, for example, the UI felt a little busy and at times it was clunky to navigate, and so some of our actions didn't feel as intuitive as they might have done otherwise. We're also curious about the New Game+, or a potential lack thereof, because Dishonored 2 was an amazing game, but it lacked this key mode at launch. Finally, we're intrigued to see whether Arkane can build on what was undeniably a strong start, maintaining that level of quality through to the game's conclusion. We'll find out whether this seemingly happy marriage of style and design has the legs to run until the end, when Prey lands on PC, PS4 and Xbox One on May 5.
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