After last year's Dishonored sequel, Arkane's stock is pretty high. The studio is back with its second game in six months, then, and in Prey they have left the confines of terra firma far behind and are this time taking us into outer space, specifically aboard a space station called Talos 1, upon which takes place an immersive sim that puts horror and challenge at the forefront of its design.
The studio's trademark visual flair is there in abundance, and Prey looks and feels fantastic. Talos 1 is a beautiful and engaging play space, and while it lacks a little coherence at times, and even frustrates at others, nuance, detail and purpose have been woven into its construction. This is clearly the work of the same studio that crafted Dunwall and Karnaca, and despite the differences in terms of setting and tone, it's unmistakably Arkane.
What sets Prey apart, beyond the science-fiction setting, is the level of challenge. In Dishonored, Corvo and Emily - and by extension, you - were the hunters, but in Prey you're often very much at the mercy of your new enemy, the sinister Typhon that have taken over Talos 1. Some of the alien variants that you stumble upon seem extremely overpowered at first, and it often takes experimentation and repeated attempts to overcome them. Most of the time this challenge is fairly implemented, although at times it can feel like these difficulty spikes are placed in positions to create maximum friction and, dare we say it, elongate the experience a little.
Some of the Typhon are hard as nails, and to get past them you'll often need to combine cunning and ingenuity. Arkane has given you everything you need to succeed, though, and often it's simply a case of looking at the tools at your disposal, many as they are, and trying out something new. The same tactics won't work time and time again, and like the enemies you'll meet along the way, you've got to change things up if you're to thrive and survive.
The Typhon are a great enemy, and they come in many different flavours. They multiply, they take different forms, they use elemental powers, and some even have psychic abilities. These mysterious beings were prisoners aboard Talos 1 - "were" being the operative part of that sentence - and it's up to the player, in the role of all-action scientist Morgan Yu, to restore order one way or another. Morgan can be both male or female, although gender pick makes no real difference to the overall story.
Morgan has a lot of potential, and using neuromods the player can specialise the character in a number of interesting ways. We'd argue that progression is a touch too slow and it takes too long to learn and upgrade your various abilities, especially in the first half of the game. Arkane should be commended for the depth they've built into this aspect of the game, but it often feels like the rate at which new abilities unlock is a bit miserly, and it's hard to shake the feeling that more powers sooner would have made for a more satisfying overall experience.
Player choice is a central design tenet for Arkane, and the slow and steady pacing of character progression is undoubtedly to encourage a second play-through with a different focus. However, even taking this into account, we think that they built enough depth into the upgrade system to facilitate a more liberal unlock rate. Neuromods give you game-changing abilities, and after a while you can even scan the various types of Typhon and use the information gleaned from those scans to give yourself alien powers. These powers can then be combined with each other and with the rest of Morgan's arsenal to create even more tactical options for the player to explore.
There are a lot of choices when it comes to building your Morgan, but surely the most significant is the decision of whether to go alien or stay purely human. Going alien unlocks a range of new abilities, such as the ability to mimic items in the environment or use psychic powers, but as your DNA becomes increasingly alien the station's defences start to see you as more foe than friend. You can further enhance Morgan by using chipsets, a system similar to the bonecharms from Dishonored. Throw in weapons you can upgrade, various grenades with specific functions, and a crafting system that lets you turn junk into meaningful gear at machines dotted around the system, and you've got a huge array of options when it comes to customising the experience to suit your play-style.
Combat is punchy and challenging, but not always as satisfying as it could have been. Ammo isn't as abundant as you might like, but that in itself gives your actions purpose, and ensures that you weigh up the pros and cons of each potential encounter. If you've got enough shotgun shells and a grenade, for example, defeating an enemy or group of enemies might be possible, however, if all you're rocking is a silenced pistol and half a magazine of ammo, you're probably better off sneaking past if you can.
The game's most important gun doesn't deal damage. The GLOO Cannon fires a foam substance that hardens upon contact, and if used liberally it can fix an enemy in place while you switch weapons and inflict some real pain. It has more uses, though, and can be utilised for things such as creating ad hoc steps to get to out-of-reach platforms and shortcuts. Once again it comes down to choice, and giving players the freedom to use the game's many systems to interact with the world as they see fit.
While player choice might be Prey's raison d'être, this is also a game that's going to be judged on a look not dissimilar to that of Bioshock. The art deco style of Talos 1 plants it firmly in the same camp as Irrational's splice-infused shooter, and it's clear that the games are cousins, but they're also not as similar as the many Bioshock-in-space comparisons have made out. Notably, whereas Bioshock is more action oriented, Prey puts horror and survival at the forefront, and as such Arkane's adventure is slower, more methodical.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of Prey is the way the player interacts with the AI. The enemies aren't as easy to manipulate as they are in either Dishonored or Bioshock, and apart from turrets dotted around the station there's no second faction to play them off against. This means that the emergent fun that helped define both of those games is harder to find here. It certainly doesn't help that the mimics are, at times, pretty stupid, and even ducking under a table is often enough to convince a patrolling enemy that you were never there in the first place. At least that makes the stealth less punishing, which goes someway to balancing out the occasional harshness of combat.
Another criticism is the way that challenge has been spaced out. We mentioned the difficulty spikes and the friction they cause, but this is reinforced by the sometimes long distances between in-game safe havens where you can refill ammo, med packs, and the like. Tackling a room full of Typhon when you're armed to the teeth is a challenge that will often take multiple attempts and the odd tactical rethink, but we don't mind failure when we know that there's a solution out there and we just have to find it. Tackling the same encounter on half a bar of health and with depleted resources, on the other hand, is difficult almost to a fault. Those moments ended up with us banking our progress by repeated use of the quicksave, where we'd save after each and every piece of incremental progress made. This stop-start approach disrupted the flow of otherwise engaging scenarios, leaving us with a feeling not that we'd beaten the game, but that we had instead dismantled its challenge piece by piece.
That's enough complaining, because we like everything else that Prey does. The zero gravity traversal and combat is great; the blend of gameplay systems allows for variety and player agency; the overall visual design is fantastic and creates a space that feels unlike any other; the enemy is suitably menacing and challenging; loading times might be laborious but everything else seemed well optimised (and we've been keeping an eye on the PC version, which looks to have launched on Steam in decent condition); there's a surprising amount of side content to distract you and the optional missions genuinely enhance the experience; all aspects of the audio are top class with pulsating music, eerie effects and quality voice acting helping set the mood; and the story and setting are interesting and thoughtfully implemented, even if some of it is hidden away and needs to be sought out by the player for a truly cohesive narrative experience.
In many (nay, most) ways Prey is a resounding success, offering a complex challenge that pushes the player in new and exciting directions. It's a shame, then, that we're left ruing a couple of design decisions that, in our opinion, hold it back from greatness. It would have benefited from snappier pacing, and from once or twice cutting the player a little slack, empowering us sooner with just a touch more opportunity to explore the many systems that have been layered on top of each other for our enjoyment.
It's a very good game, then, but not quite an exceptional one. Exploring the darkest corners of Talos 1, fighting this new alien threat, and becoming immersed in this space-age adventure has largely been a pleasure, but every now and then we were left wishing that things had gone in a slightly different, more streamlined direction. However, when it clicks and everything works as you want it to, it feels brilliant. Striking visual design and thoughtful gameplay systems have come together to create a unique and engaging experience that once again highlights the creative talent over at Arkane Studios. Prey might not be an instant-classic, but it does enough right to warrant your attention.
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