When Ken Levine left Irrational he said that he was winding down the studio in order to start up a new team that would focus on replayable narrative-driven experiences. Fuelled by expectations of what that might mean based on his work on the Bioshock series, we're sure we weren't alone in daydreaming about what he might come up with. Fast forward a couple of years and Levine's dream of a replayable immersive sim has been realised, just not by him (yet, at least). Step forward Arkane Studios which, fresh from creating the almost-incredible immersive sci-fi shocker Prey, has returned with a DLC expansion called Mooncrash.
A fully-formed experience in its own right but that's available as a DLC for the base game, Mooncrash builds on the first-person foundations of Prey with a new setting, new mechanics, a couple of new in-game items, and a replayable twist that could well keep you coming back for more even once the scenario has been completed.
It's very much built on existing foundations, however, and you'll almost instantly feel at home on this TranStar Moonbase. There are a few spaces, like open areas on the surface linking the different sections of the base, that look distinctly different from Talos, but inside the architecture and design feels very Prey. This is by no means a bad thing; on the contrary, the environmental design was one of the strengths of the original, and once again exploring one of Arkane's off-world stations is a lot of fun.
What makes this different to Prey is the structure of the game, and we really like the wrapper that holds Mooncrash together. The player takes on the role of a contractor working for Kasma Corp who is investigating what happened on the secret TranStar base. You do this by entering a simulation of the events that took place on the surface of the Moon, experiencing things from a number of different perspectives. It's a great way of dropping us into an ever-changing scenario, with enemy placements and so on different between playthroughs.
As you complete objectives in the game you'll unlock different characters, each with particular strengths that play to certain styles (for example, some characters have better psi powers, others more health) and every full run at the game lets you play with all of the characters that you've unlocked so far. There are five all told, but you'll have to jump through some hoops to get them all, and therefore most people will probably spend a lot of their time walking in the moon-boots of just three or four of them.
One thing we liked was the way that items collected by one character remain in the game world once they've died, so as you load up the next one you've got the option to reclaim your gear. This persistence offers up a tempting risk-reward decision, but it's countered by the fact that there's constant time pressure, and as the clock ticks down your overall campaign goes through different phases of corruption. Each phase of the simulation sees enemies level up, so while you have better map knowledge and more gear, there's a constant flow of hardening enemies for you to overcome.
The idea - like all good roguelite experiences - is that the game is tougher than you, especially when you first start out and you haven't learned the little tricks needed if you're to survive. You're going to die and you're going to die a lot, but Arkane has done a fine job of making death a necessary part of the experience that actually fuels your progress, rather than a constant stream of frustrating failures.
Once you've either burned through your lives or escaped from the station one way or another, the game resets and starts again, with the proverbial deck shuffled to keep things interesting. It's not a full reset, however, and your assembled crew of simulated characters does enjoy some progression, and the points you unlock for in-game actions (like killing powerful enemies, for example) is available to spend on gear that you've also unlocked in previous lives. If you play well and invest with care it means that each time you head back into the simulation you'll do so a little bit stronger than you did before.
That added strength means you'll be better equipped to deal with the late-game phases and the more challenging enemies that await there, and so the cycle continues until you're done. The procedurally populated levels will certainly keep you on your toes throughout, and Mooncrash captures the spirit of Prey despite the structural changes that have been made at the expense of a more strongly guided narrative. That being the case, if you've got the base game and fancy revisiting the immersive delights of Prey, this self-contained expansion has plenty to offer and we think it's reasonably priced (around £13) considering what it offers. The game's clever interlocking gameplay systems return in style, the experience is intense and engaging, and while it might not be as infinitely replayable as Bethesda suggested when the DLC was announced and released last month, the overall structure does a good job of keeping you coming back for seconds.