Prey is the latest “choose your own playstyle” adventure from Arkane Studios, although this time around the developer leaves behind the murky, whale-oil-powered world of Dishonored in favor of a more standard sci-fi setting. Arkane knows how to do the space thriller thing (the studio’s founders worked on System Shock) and are masters of creating innovative weaponry and abilities, but do they manage to combine those two strengths successfully? Is Prey more than the sum of its parts?
As has become their policy, publisher Bethesda didn’t provide advance copies of Prey, which is why I’m only rendering my verdict now, a week after release. My early impressions of the game were that it was a solidly constructed, but ultimately bland, sometimes frustrating, experience. Has my opinion of the game grown since then? Let’s head back to Talos I for a second assessment…
Prey (PC, Xbox One, and PS4)
Prey begins with a fairly standard sci-fi setup. You play as either a male or female Morgan Yu, who’s been recruited by their brother to join the research team aboard the moon-orbiting space station, Talos I. What are they researching on this space station? Weird, shape-shifting aliens called the Typhon, which break free and plunge the station into death and chaos. Probably should have seen that one coming.
Very little about Prey’s premise is particularly original or gripping and the game’s main character is largely a blank slate. That said, Prey does serve up a few decent twists, and I have to admit, the game’s ending does pack a punch. Make no mistake, Prey is a slow burn, but it does eventually find some interesting things to say.
Prey is a clean-cut, stylish game, but it’s no technical marvel, and lacks personality and atmosphere. Based the game’s less-than-subtle sound design, I get the sense the makers Prey wanted their game to be scarier than it is, but the Typhon flop hard as horror baddies. Sure, they’re fast and deadly, but they all look like similar black masses and their impact dissipates quickly. At least their abilities are varied – as you progress you’ll encounter Typhon types that phase in and out of existence, take control of human minds, and spawn swarms of robots to attack you. The Typhon aren’t scary, but they are challenging.
You'll learn to hate this smug face.
Mechanically, Prey feels a bit overly familiar at first. It’s a first-person action game, with some stealth elements, item crafting, and a branching skill tree. Just like most triple-A games these days. Prey does contain hidden depths, but you may get a bit impatient waiting for them to be revealed.
Frankly, it takes a shockingly long time for Prey’s abilities and character customization to really start to click, as the game forces you to spend an inordinate amount of time clonking most enemies to death with a basic wrench. The game does give you the plastic cement-shooting GLOO Cannon early on, but other than that, innovation is in short supply in the early going.
Fortunately, Prey really starts to bloom once you finally start unlocking a decent number of Typhon abilities roughly halfway through the game. The Typhon powers are simply more interesting than the human-developed ones you’ve been unlocking up to that point, allowing you to do stuff like fire off powerful kinetic blasts or transform yourself into a coffee cup and roll through tight spaces. After you gain access to a few of these Typhon powers you finally start to get a bit of that Dishonored mix-and-match mayhem going, which is as fun as ever. It’s just a shame that it takes so long to get to that point.
Things can get a little frantic.
Around the time Prey’s skill tree really starts to open up, the game’s level design also takes a turn for the better. Early on, the game boxes you in, often locking you into areas without access to health, ammo, and other items, which need to be created at crafting stations. There’s almost always a way to get out of whatever situation you’re in, but progress can be slow and require a lot of trial and error.
But then, suddenly, crafting stations, life packs and medical robots become a lot more common. In addition to your badass Typhon powers, you’ll also get your hands on powerful weapons like the shotgun and Q-Beam. You’ll go from barely scraping by, to scraping alien guts off your boots. Talos I will also start grow on you, with sterile early areas giving way to more “lived-in” environments with lots of fun backstory to uncover. Heck, you’ll even start encountering other living, breathing human beings, and face handful of tough decisions.
Prey has seemingly been built in reverse. The game starts off uninviting and challenging, then turns you into an alien-conquering beast in the back half. Of course, you don’t want to give everything away right off the bat, but a game shouldn’t take 5 to 10 hours to get going when its campaign is only 15 to 20 hours in total. Prey finally starts to hit its stride, and then, abruptly, it’s over. Sure, there are plenty of sidequests and multiple endings to extend your experience, but your reward for the early trudge still feels a little thin.
Prey is a hard game to assess. It starts off frustrating, unrewarding, and rather bland, lacking much of the personality and verve of Arkane’s previous titles. Thankfully, its disparate pieces finally start to come together, and by the time the credits roll, you’re fully invested. Should the game purely be judged based on its positive final impression or should its first half being kind of a drag be taken into account?
Ultimately, I’m playing it cautious and going with a lower score, as I think players just looking for a fun Dishonored-like romp will find themselves somewhat disappointed and annoyed by Prey. That said, if you’re interested in exploring the game’s depths, rounding up all its sidequests and endings, and pushing its systems to the limit, it’s worth waiting for Prey to show its true spots. If you’re the dedicated type, add another point to my score.
Score: 3 out of 5 stars
This review was based on a PS4 copy of Prey provided by Bethesda.