Now, I’m not sure if there’s a medical term for ‘fear of opening a bathroom door and anticipating the swift removal of your face at the tentacles of an alien’, but there damned well should be after playing Arkane Studio’s latest offering.
I’d scuttle around Talos-1, creeping into restrooms, no, not because I’m a peeping-tom but because this particular space station just so happens to be teeming with a collective of aliens called Typhon. One of which, the aptly named ‘Mimic’, has the paranoia-inducing ability to transform itself into inanimate objects, making me more suspicious of toilets than usual. I was certain a porcelain pest would pounce at any moment and necrotise my face. Yet that moment never came. Every time I tentatively opened a cubicle, I let out a sigh of relief, having been given the opportunity to continue my journey with my face intact. Like all irrational fears, however, I’m still convinced it’ll happen the next time I open that door. Therein lies the essence of Prey: a game which captivates until its final moments but lacks a satisfying pay-off.
Prey is a compelling first-person science-fiction action shooter in which you play protagonist Morgan Yu, a scientist and daughter – or son, depending on your initial choice – of the Yu family. Set in an alternate universe where JFK survived his assassination attempt, which in turn launched the Space Race into overdrive and caused humanity to ping on the Typhon’s ‘radar’. Thankfully, with the help of Russia, the US were able to fight off the alien invasion. Fast forward to 2035. Space station Talos-1, owned by megacorporation and Morgan’s employer, TranStar, is your home and research facility of the Typhon. Shortly after making contact with your brother, Alex – voiced by Benedict Wong – things quickly go mug shaped and you’re propelled on a mission of survival, self discovery, and escape.
Interestingly, the majority of the story is not told though direct interaction with other characters but rather second-hand through audio logs, emails, post-it notes, etc, which give you a better insight into what happened to the denizens of Talos-1 and is one of Prey’s biggest charms. Scouring through messages and putting together the pieces to the puzzle of their lives is an engaging experience. A particular highlight was following a treasure hunt left behind by an endearing group of dungeons and dragons players.
Fragments of people lives aren’t the only things to scavenge on Talos-1. The whole place is littered with items and you get two trusty machines to make picking them up worth your while. Fabricators and Material Recyclers scattered throughout the facility allow you to 3D-print your own items – provided you find the plans and raw materials to produce them – and turn any item you find into a variety of said raw materials, respectively. And what would a shooter be without its weapons? Most of the ones you find are pretty standard – pistols, shotguns, various different grenades, and even a wrench – but the addition of the Geliform Latice Organism Obstructor, or GLOO Cannon to its friends, mixes things up a great deal. Firing a foam which quickly solidifies, this curio can be utilised in a multitude of ways: A quick blast toward the smaller Typhon slows them down to a freeze, giving you the opening you need to whack them with your wrench and if your quick, finish them off; spray a stream of it across a wall and you’ve just made a makeshift platform to reach those coveted hidey-holes.
This is where Prey thrives, both its level design and use of weapons and abilities encourages you to explore and excavate. Perfect for anyone, like me, with the natural tendency to search every nook and cranny, and scrub a room clean of its items and secrets, because more often than not you’re rewarded for your efforts. Along my travels I discovered a few hidden locations, with notes and messages from a crew member called Clive who had been hiding from the Typhon, a la Rat Man, from Portal. This is just one example of the many things you’ll find. I must admit, I got ahead of myself a couple of times and scooped up quest items before being tasked with finding them, but NPC’s usually addressed this with surprise, so don’t be afraid to channel your inner treasure hunter.
If exploration is the heart of Prey, then Neuromods are most certainly the lifeblood. Found all throughout Talos-1, Neuromods imbue the player with a variety of new abilities that come in two distinct flavours; human, and alien. The latter of which are only available once you obtain the Psychoscope; a handy piece of kit that scans the different species of Typhon and, in essence, steals their unique abilities.
But be warned, apart from a moral standpoint, Typhon abilities have other consequences. Once installed, the fabric of your DNA changes, making it more alien. At first I refrained from installing these types of abilities as I was concerned about forfeiting the use of the deployable gun turrets, of which I became so reliant in my alien skirmishes. If the turrets detect any Typhon presence in you they’ll treat you as a threat and filling you with bullet shaped holes will be their favourite pass time. But that abstinence didn’t last long, the alien abilities looked like far too much fun for me not to get a bit recreational. Besides, I discovered that as long as I didn’t mind getting stung a little when running towards a live turret, thanks to the human ‘hacking’ ability, I could just open them up and we’d be best pals all over again.
I didn’t obtain every ability up for grabs but I did manage a wide variety that offered me many different ways to overcome any obstacle. Those who are a little more thrifty will fare better thanks to the help of the aforementioned Fabricators, as you’ll get the chance to create your very own Neuromods. This does come with one caveat: create too many and you’ll be sent on a quest to obtain a new licence to produce any more, slowing your characters development. But once completed, you can recommence your Neuromod abuse at your leisure.
Speaking of abuse, the crouching and covering mechanism was painfully temperamental at times. Approaching a railing or desk while in crouch mode would intermittently force me into a lower crouch, and right back out again. I was bobbing up and down as if interpreting my fear through the art of dance. This is particularly infuriating when desperately trying to hide from a murderous Typhon and need to take a peek out of cover just to see if the coast is clear. Even up until the final moments of the game I wasn’t able to fully control this.
But the worst offender on the list of things that make you clench your fists so tight your knuckles are at risk of popping out and rolling onto the floor, are the loading times between sections. They’re monstrously long. It wouldn’t be a problem if they were few and far between, but unfortunately you’re required to backtrack to different areas throughout the entirety of the game. Each transition results in excruciatingly long loading times. This gets progressively worse toward the end when you’re bounding through sections during time sensitive events. At one point I spent more time within the loading screens than I did playing the game.
“The journey is more important than the destination”. This old quote rings particularly true with Prey in that I thoroughly enjoyed almost every moment but was left underwhelmed with its resolution. I became invested in the characters I met and the lives I went out of my way to save, but they, as well as my actions, made very little impact.
From its character development to level design, comparisons can be made with BioShock (System Shock if you prefer), Deus Ex, and Metroid, but despite this and its melting pot of genres, Prey holds its own. A visually arresting title filled with exploration and intrigue, peppered with some genuinely terrifying moments – wait till you see a ‘Nightmare’ – and a rich set of characters, most of whom you never actually meet. Not a terrible game by a long margin, but I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth, brought on by occasional frustrating controls, frequent painful loading times, and an anticlimactic ending. Given some time to cleanse my palate, I’m sure I’ll return and confront my new-found phobia, so that one day I can live in a world where the extent of my surprise in restrooms will be little more than finding the loo-roll on backwards or catching Alex Yu sitting on the toilet, picking at the wallpaper.