The problem I always had with Dishonored is that I couldn't ever imagine anyone living happily in that world. That's sort of the point — the steampunk Victorian-era vibe was designed to force a clash within the Industrial Revolutionary class struggle. World traversal saw you flitting through (or above) Dickensian cobblestoned streets which framed the soot-covered hovels of the average citizen. This made the rampant murder inside the beautifully appointed homes of the ultra-rich elite so much simpler. Still, I know where I'd wind up in such a world — probably gutting whales — and so I never wanted to live there.
Talos 1, on the other hand, is a place I'd love to live. Well, before the… unpleasantness anyway. That's how you know Prey is a 'Shock' game — because key to those games is a feeling of a paradise turned bad. System Shock — which is clearly the primary source of inspiration for Prey — and BioShock both show you a wonderful, captivating environment and then fill it with nastiness.
It actually touches on one thing I wasn't crazy about with Prey. There are times, after you've normalised the presence of murderous aliens, where Talos 1 feels too empty. It feels dead, when it should instead feel simply… terminally infected. This happens more often upon revisiting an area late in the game, when the function of Prey has changed from tense survival game into a playground for you to experiment within as a Neuromod powered god. Prey is at its best when you're creeping slowly through it, staring intently at everything.
That in itself is a risky concept. Prey makes players study every single detail, question every inconsistency. The mimics — the most basic of the Typhon aliens you'll come across — take the shape of regular objects, which means seeing one too many mugs might mean you're in trouble. For that to work Prey needs to adhere to a keen sense of internal consistency — and it does. The opening sequence forces you to question what is real and what is not, which means anything that occurs outside of the internal logic of the game comes under extra scrutiny — which is an awe-inspiring prospect in a game as ambitious and large as Prey. The level design is such that you are constantly staring at otherwise unnoticed areas of rooms to find hidden items — blueprints, contraband Neuromods, stashed food — which makes hidden areas of ingress that much harder to hide.
The attention to detail is second to none. It's tricky making a space station feel like it was properly lived in, but Arkane manage it beautifully. The scientists aboard Talos 1 were humans, doing human things. Playing Dungeons & Dragons, holding secret Robot Wars, using fabricator technology to create and perfect nerf-style blasters. Stealing from the company and smuggling in contraband. Getting into petty office disputes. Falling in love. The brilliant thing Prey does is it melds all of this into the act of gathering quest relevant information, which means the more informed you become about how things on Talos 1 work, the more you peripherally learn about those who lived here. It does this via emails and audiologs, which I know some aren't crazy about, but it does it in a way that never seems to overlap or overwhelm any other information.
Instead it feels like every area on Talos 1 had a purpose and had people working towards that purpose. The people in Psychotronics, who develop ways to study Typhons — they were committed to their goal. Those in the Neuromod Division had their own stuff to work through — and they did it in their own ways. Arkane created a paradise in space and then filled it with petty human squabbling, and it's perfect. To contrast it against BioShock — Irrational's undersea epic did something similar, but the nature of its inhabitants (elitist libertarians) saw their squabbling become grander, resulting in the likes of Sander fucking Cohen. Those larger-than-life characters don't exist on Talos 1 — despite being much, much further above sea level, Prey is a more grounded environment.
Speaking of grounded, Prey's treatment of electricity might be one of my favourite things about it. Power is a critically important element in Prey, allowing you to do everything from operate the recycler/fabricator systems which provide you with survival tools, to being able to see anything at all. Unpowered parts of the station can be lit up again if you can find and turn on the power unit, which for me lead to some tense creeping around well after I'd already felt I was powerful enough to roam unhindered through most of the rest of the station. What I liked about power, however, was being able to destroy junction boxes and then lure the Typhons into their shocking
A lot of the combat in Prey, for me anyway, involved creating traps for my alien foes and letting them get themselves killed. Using the gas mains running through the station to create gauntlets of fire, or repairing, hacking and setting up chambers of turrets before luring as many aliens as I could in to their deaths. The trick to a good trap is that once you have the aliens where you want them, you need to keep them there. The Gloo Cannon allows you to make that a reality, freezing enemies in place as you paint them with your white, sticky… Arkane made a cum gun. Gross.
Anyway, the cum gun is fantastic when you're using it to hold tricky Typhons in place, but it's even better outside of combat. I spent nearly as much time trying to construct intricate bridges to areas I wasn't supposed to access as I did killing aliens. Because things on Talos 1 need to exist within the confines of logic, there was almost always a support strut I could attach globules of Gloo to as I clambered towards a goal of my own creation. It didn't matter if there was anything on the other side when I reached it — the traversal itself was the reward. This ability to play within the space even became useful later when I needed to circumvent some particularly nasty baddies.
Circumventing baddies is the best way to go about approaching combat in Prey. It's not bad, just tough. Arkane's latest prides itself on being a survival game, challenging players to make their way through the station on whatever scraps they can find. The recycler and fabricator allow you to construct Medkits, ammo for your weapons and other assorted goodies, but I rarely felt I had the resources required for a fabricator to be the solution to my problems. And there was never one around when I really needed shotgun ammo anyway.
One thing I appreciated about the scarcity of resources was the fact that it forced me out of my comfort zone. In most games I'll just adhere to whatever it is I find to be most efficient — in The Witcher 3, for example, that means I Quen, Dodge, Chop, Repeat. In Prey I found the most efficient strategy to be a Gloo Cannon/Shotgun combo or to Q-Beam big nasties to death from afar. Thanks to repeatedly running out of ammo for everything above, however, I was forced to experiment. I took down one particular scary alien by throwing objects at it — I'd used all ammo for everything (except the Boltcaster) and all I had access to was my Wrench and some Neuromods. I used the Neuromods to buy the ability that allowed me to throw heavy things, and that's how I made progress. At other times I found myself specifically circumventing fights by using the Gloo Cannon to climb up and around them.
There are definitely balancing issues. This never gets me many friends, but — like The Witcher 3 — Prey is better played on Easy. Prey doesn't modify difficulty based on tactics or numbers, just health pools and damage. This means on harder difficulties Prey's enemies just hit harder and are harder to kill, which can be tedious when you're also trying to manage resources. Dropping the game to Easy lessens the burden on resources, but never fully alleviates it.
Still, the combat is really a sideshow for Prey. Neuromods, by design, are supposed to make you feel like a badass the further you go in which makes dropping the difficulty more justifiable (in my opinion anyway). Eventually the difficulty spikes and the decision to drop it to easy makes even more sense.
The real star is that sense of exploration, that idea of an epic playground. The first time you head out into space, into zero-g, is phenomenal — but what's better is when you return to the confines of the station and realise you're not exactly restricted. Sure there's fall damage, and reaching the edges of the play area requires a bit more work, but in a lot of ways that enhances the feeling of exploration further. Nearly every upgrade I committed to focused on heightening my ability to reach areas I felt the designers didn't want me within. I upgraded my strength so I could stack large boxes, my jumping to reach new heights, my hacking to get through the toughest door locks. And I acquired the alien power to become a mug, telling myself it was so I could squeeze through small gaps, but mostly because I really wanted to become a mug.
The story can't quite compete, though it is fantastic — full of twists and turns as you eke out the details of what went wrong aboard Talos 1. There are known quantities — you are Morgan Yu, voiced by Sumalee Montano as a female Morgan and Tim Kang as the male version — an Asian-American overachiever who at some point decided to be their own guinea pig for a highly experimental procedure. I played as the male Morgan, mostly because Tim Kang's Kimball Cho is one of my favourite characters in any TV show ever, and the voice acting by everyone in the game was pitch perfect. Benedict Wong plays your brother, Alex Yu, and he shares the bulk of the narrative (alongside a robot with your voice) as you ping throughout the station. There's an air of unreliable narrator involved in everything that happens — as an amnesiac in a hostile station, the only person you can really trust is yourself. Everything else feels suspect, and thanks to spot on writing that feeling never lets up (until the end).
It also nails the way it uses the medium of games to tell its story — other games in the immersive sim genre have done it better, but I don't think any have created such a well-realised world for it. The blend between what Morgan experiences and what you think about rarely splits, forming a bond between player and player character — and that's an essential part of what games bring to the table in my opinion.
I'd say 99% of the time Prey manages to get away with all of this without any missteps. A few glitches spoiled the illusion a little. One major one that sticks with me — a high traffic area at the end of the game would routinely spawn me inside the level geometry, and if I hadn't found a way to squeeze back out again I'd have been unable to finish the game. Still, Prey operates mostly flawlessly. One area, under heavy action and admittedly massive, saw me drop frames — the only time I'd notice the game dip below 60fps my entire playthrough. A few times I wasn't able to traverse in the manner I wanted because the slippery geometry was being inconsistent. In many ways those geometry glitches simply enhanced the challenge of exploring, but I'm not going to pretend they were on point.
Two days after finishing it, I'm still having Prey dreams. I'm still thinking about the ending, still wondering about the places I went to, the things I did. I'm itching to talk about the things that occurred within it and similarly knowing I can't because nobody I know has yet finished it. It took me 24 and a half hours. I loved every minute of it. I woke up early to play it and went to bed late because I didn't want to stop. Play it now so we can talk about it.