I accidentally killed a main character early in Prey. The game kept me playing until I lost my nerve and reloaded. I later made my way from the Talos space station before I should. Loot let me get there. I thought I knew what I was doing.
At best, Arcane's latest game is less a sequel to Prey from 2006 than a spiritual sequel to System Shock from 1994 and successors like BioShock from 2007. The Shock games are known for establishing a strong sense of place and give players the opportunity to fight their way through this room in a variety of ways. This is also the new prey. This new game consists of a series of interlocking systems that give players freedom at every opportunity. It's full of moments unique to each player, and it's a game that shines when you take the time and go your own way. It stops when it tries to tell you a story, but you only have to listen to that story as a last resort to see the end. It's better if its flexibility allows you to write your own stories, like the one I got out of the space station early in – and then died.
Prey is an ego game in which you play as Morgan Yu, a scientist whose gender you choose, although the choice has little effect on the plot. Morgan and her brother Alex are part of the family that runs TranStar, the powerful company that Talos I converted from an alien prison ship called Typhon to an expensive station to research. TranStar experimented on the Typhon to develop neuromods that improve human skills. With these neuromods, people can develop musical talent or even live longer.
The game begins with Morgan doing some tests before being allowed to board Talos I. An escaped typhon quickly stops the experiments and then we get our first action. We soon lead Morgan through Talos I, which was overrun by Typhon. The voice of someone named January is in our ear.
Loot takes place in an alternative future where Kennedy was not murdered, and even though you're at Talos 1 in 2032, the station is a mashup of designs from different eras. A break room for employees is full of retro fridges and coffee machines from the 1960s. The medical center has futuristic robotic doctors and experimental chambers that are controlled by wide touchscreen computers. Art deco prints and posters line the walls, and a huge brutalist sculpture hangs menacingly over the lobby. On one side of the lobby is an exhibition that tells the story of Talos I and TranStar: there are a number of historical posters that tell an adjusted story that you would see in any museum. Opposite, a sharp, threatening Neuromod injector pierces a human skull with an open mouth. Talos I is an expensive, complicated place that has to attract investors and liveaboard employees alike. It has to appear calm and powerful on the surface while concealing the dark, out of control reality that lurks beneath it.
This tension forms the backbone of the game, from the action to the enemies. The most obvious analogy is the first type of Typhon you encounter, the imitators. As a shiny black mashup of a spider and Half-Life's crabs, imitators can take the shape of objects around them. This could easily be played for cheap jumping fear, but instead creates an atmosphere that is tense and suspicious. The imitators transform everyday objects into fear: a trash can rolls down the stairs by itself, three shoes on the floor of a changing room instead of two, a strangely stuck object. Each of them could suddenly explode into a mass of waving tentacles. Mimics are hard to hit – worse if you thrash and run out of stamina – and they're deadly in packs. They create an unforgettable atmosphere of paranoia that permeates the game.
As you walk through Prey, the Typhon becomes harder and less shy. Humanoid ether phantoms divide in half and transform in space. Voltaic Phantoms short lights and your equipment. There are other, even less human enemies with their own attacks and weaknesses, but some of my favorite moments in Prey are due to the fact that I stumbled over them for the first time and lowered my stomach when I whispered, "What is this? .. “Prey leads you to the end of the new Typhon, and this makes turning around every corner a stressful surprise.
Combat is not Prey's most compelling feature, although you get enough weapons for this job. The most useful and unique is the GLOO gun, which shoots out a foam that you can use to freeze Typhon so you can beat it to death with your wrench. It's as useful for basic imitations as it is for the game's most powerful enemy. You can also use it to climb around the area and escape the fight altogether. Other weapons are the usual shotguns, pistols, stun guns, and EMP grenades, if you can find them at all. I found a shotgun early, while my colleague Jason Schreier never got one. Ammunition is also random, especially if you can't find the blueprints and manufacturing stations needed to create your own. I ran out of ammunition with difficulty, while my colleague Kirk Hamilton spent most of his game making his inventory full of bullets.
This open sense of opportunity creates hostile encounters where you compete against your own decisions as well as against the game's AI. The game is aggressively difficult and eliminating multiple opponents is less of an exciting challenge than a chore. However, the situation around the fight feels personal, as it is a non-choreographed situation that you create yourself based on your playing style. A fight is tough because you used all your ammunition in a previous room or because you don't have a powerful weapon. You approach an area that the conspiracy has not brought you to and face enemies that you are not equipped for. You put yourself in your own mess, which means you have to get out of the game instead.
You can also fight the Typhon by injecting neuromods that give you access to skills. Some of these skills are what you expect: hacking, increased health and stamina, the ability to upgrade weapons. You can later use Typhon powers with a device that you unlock by examining the enemies that lurk around the camera of Talos 1 a la Bioshock. This includes the ability to transform into objects, push back enemies and damage them with a kinetic explosion, or create phantoms to fight for you. While the more advanced ends of the skill tree cost a lot of neuromods, they are plentiful and you can make them yourself. I never lacked them. Late in the game I had more neuromods than I knew how to do.
There is a moral dilemma in the heart of the Neuromods that is about how much of your humanity you will keep. Characters in loot regularly remind you of this. I didn't fight morally as much as mechanically. If you install too many Typhon powers, the security of Talos I is against you. I did not want. I had a habit of hiding behind towers that I didn't want to give up. But I finally decided to install some Neuromods to take me to new areas or clear the way for places I wanted to go, thinking more about navigation and stealth than fighting. It wasn't a moral decision at all.
Navigating and exploring Talos I is by far the best feature of Prey. Why fight when you can slip into a hidden air channel to avoid a fight and go back to a list of side quests at will? The game leaves it up to you to decide what you want to do with each closed door. You will rarely find an easy way, but there is always one. If you don't have the right key card or code, your route may be a lot more tedious depending on how you play. You can break a window and press the door button with the dart weapon. turn into a coffee cup and slide through a gap; hack a computer console somewhere else after the code; or find an alternative route rooms or even floors away. With one or two exceptions, you can go anywhere with any power available if you are patient enough. You will often find a key card or door code on the other side of the station, and you can go back to investigate or move on towards the end.
Booty doesn't separate you. You can more or less explore the entire station in any order, even outside. Unlocking airlocks in certain areas is a kind of fast drive when slow drifting through space is considered a fast drive. This is useful if you want to avoid traversing certain areas over and over again. Despite the attention given to the surroundings, I never had a really good feeling for how the whole station would fit together, even when I looked at it from space. Long loading screens between the areas further interrupt the flow. The areas feel complete, but I wish the transition from the lobby's hub area to the guts of the Talos I power plant would feel more seamless. Several time-controlled side quests required support from different station areas. I skipped it. I didn't want to deal with loading screens and my own vague idea of Talos I's layout.
Even so, I kept going back. I went back to use the recycler and processor in Morgan's office to turn the garbage I had looted into ammunition, to retrieve a weapon or information that I had gotten to know while exploring another place, or just the atmosphere to enjoy an area that I wanted to spend more time in. Curiosity is what moves you through Talos I and through prey itself. There is a strong sense of your own journey at the moment that is more compelling than the scripted plot of the game. In the early game, the main story is slow. Things later become more limited and action-packed. In between, you can go anywhere you can work your way into. Prey expects you to do this, but it won't help you.
The game's plot includes twists and turns, moral choices, and characters who run errands. All of this felt like a chore and an unwanted distraction from my self-directed adventures. This was especially true when I came across other characters. For much of the game, you get to know the people of Talos I by reading their emails and discovering audio logs. It's a standard way of rendering video games, but I liked this illegal glimpse into the characters' inner workings, the freedom to fill their personalities in absentia. When I actually met her, I was disappointed that it was just video game NPCs that were in place asking you to do things for them. Whether or not you include them in your job depends on how you feel about them based on past information that you may have gathered. As with everything, Prey hardly tries to guide you. I let a character die because I knew Morgan didn't like her, but another player might never have found out and saved her and opened a side quest that I missed. I didn't like it when other people were on the station asking me to be responsible for them with the types of polling quests I had seen in other games. I didn't want to get her medicine or find her wedding ring. When Prey focuses on Morgan's interactions with the crew, the game becomes busy and general. The whole story just didn't grab me. The end was predictable.
The high point of my loot game was about 12 hours after my 30-hour playthrough, when I first went through the arboretum to the crew's quarters. There were enemies in the arboretum, but not too many. It was full of lush trees and a view of space through the vault. It was almost peaceful and it was such a unique, strange area that I hid in a tree for a while to record everything. When the game was loaded into the team quarters, I was faced with a terrible, inevitable enemy. I ran through the team quarters in panic and cried out loudly as I encountered more enemies at every turn. At some point I used my imitation power to dress up as an ashtray. What followed were two tense minutes of Typhon lurking around me walking over me as they slowly understood my trick. It was probably the most terrifying thing I've seen in a video game. I had to turn off the game and go for a walk so my heart stopped pounding.
From there, I explored the team's quarters down to the smallest detail, sneaked into every room, dealt with enemies, and followed a delightful storyline about a game of dungeons and dragons. I was excited to ask my colleagues how they dealt with the area, but when we talked, I found that we all had completely different experiences. Kirk, armed to the teeth, found it a breeze; Jason was in there, chasing a main plot point that I hadn't even reached. Jason had met the enemy that scared me so much in the arboretum. I knew what it was because I saw it in the hardware labs. Kirk hadn't even heard of it. We all played the same game, but we weren't.
The worst version of Prey is the game, which the end believes is an action game with stealth elements about humanity and moral choices. The best version of Prey is the intermediate game in which you completely ignore the action, take time to explore every corner, and hide in a tree to watch the stars. It fails on its own to tell you what to do, but you have many options for not listening and having a great time.