The more time I spent on Prey’s Talos I space station, surrounded by technology and scientific wonders devastated by unspeakable horrors the less I wanted to leave. The gnarled bodies of the dead and suffering, the clicking of patiently waiting predators and the whirring automatons around me became a haven. In fact, I began to resent the game as the story began to draw it’s conclusions. I kept saying to myself “Why can’t I get a few more side-quests?” and “Shouldn’t I check over the exterior again?” just for the thrill of floating around in orbit of the space station. It is the same feeling I get from games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Metroid: Prime, and Deus Ex each time I return to them, only this time it seems Prey’s combination of exploration and task is so lush and compelling that the feeling intensifies. Even after working hard at the game for nearly 40 hours there were still things to see, options to consider, and achievements I could see myself returning to the game several times for. Not since Deus Ex: Human Revolution have I been so keen to get lost in a video game world.
The folks at Arkane Studios had quite a pedigree for this sort of thing well before they were acquired by Bethesda and although their cancelled Half-Life games with Valve sounded amazing they more notably worked on two very underappreciated games Arx Fatalis and some world building for BioShock 2. Of course they’re best known for the Dishonored series which felt like a supernatural extension of the Thief franchise and featured Harvey Smith, the godfather of these types of immersive simulation RPG games, at the helm. Having played Dishonored recently and not feeling quite ready to jump straight into another game in the series right away, I was convinced that Prey might be even more up my alley. Folks said it resembled System Shock in setting and Deus Ex mechanically. System Shock 2 and Deus Ex are two of my favorite PC games of all time and I love science fiction, what could possibly go wrong? As apt as those comparisons are, there is much more to Prey than the games it borrows from.
The absolute best trope of science fiction is the ‘something has gone wrong on the space station’ plot basis and leave it to veteran PC game storyteller Chris Avellone to pull off this kind of story while still subverting expectations regularly. Interestingly enough he’s been signed on to write the System Shock reboot coming out (supposedly) in 2018. The story is that of Morgan Yu a Chinese-German scientist, who can be male or female, working (with his brother Alex) on top secret experiments that involve technology derived from alien DNA extractions. These extractions are called Neuromods and they give superhuman abilities, knowledge, and what amount to ‘magic’ powers. What they don’t tell you, because you’ve lost your memory from experimental neuromod installation and extraction at your own order, is that they are all derived from alien DNA recombination. Starting the game in a repeating simulation you’re too amnesiac to remember sets a compellingly frightening tone for the first few hours of the game and invoked the terror of a survival horror game initially.
About halfway through the story these neuromods are given the distinction of human improvements that derive the potential of human beings and alien DNA improvements which merge with yours, allowing you to essentially enter their hive mind and control incredible powers. Human powers are what I focused on in my first playthrough and they included greater hacking ability, better jumps and perks for weapons like shotguns as well as improved health and stamina usage. By the end of the game I could leap and jet around areas that I’d previously barely been able to run through, slamming enemies to death with only my wrench and killing giant beasts with a single shotgun blast. I didn’t play around with the alien neuromods because the space station security systems consider you a threat once your DNA becomes more than 50% alien and turrets and security bots will attack you on sight. I will eventually do another playthrough only focusing on alien powers because they seem pretty amazing from psycho-kinetics, pyromancy, electrical blasts and even summoning aliens from the dead bodies of your peers.
Speaking of aliens, the mysterious Typhon aliens are initially skittering spider-like doppelgangers that can mimic small objects. As you progress through the game they become increasingly sophisticated and dangerous with thier presence culminating in a space station swallowing mass of black tendrils. Their presence was at first something like Alien: Isolation where I was better off running because I had no chance of killing the human-sized typhon that stalked every area. As you progress through what is absolutely a metroidvania game and back-track to previously explored areas it seems that enemies will intermittently respawn in set numbers and with occasionally increased strength. It gives both the feeling that exploration has reward for opening up more abilities that in turn lead to greater space station access, but also the feeling that the threat of the typhon presence is increasing alongside their awareness of you. I never felt like the typhon were overpowered but they always felt like a threat to the very end of the game where I had to resort to simply outrunning them to progress.
As I progressed in the game the foreshadowing of the introduction loomed in the back of my mind. The first thing you do is take a general physical aptitude test and then a multiple choice personality test that is meant to ascertain your psychological profile. It is so clearly aimed at your intentions towards the greater good that it becomes highly suspicious. In fact at some point you can retake the test in a doctors office in order to unlock a safe in the wall, but you have to answer in the most destructive way possible. What the game immediately tasks you with once you’ve acquired a robot operator (looks like the little wheely guy from Borderlands, sounds like Half-Life 2 tech) who informs you that you’ve programmed him in your image to ensure nobody prevents you from destroying the space station to eliminate the inevitable typhon threat upon Earth. Talos I orbits the moon over earth, as you’ll immediately see once you explore the outside of the station. So, will you simply get the two keys (yours and your brother Alex’s) and detonate the space station? Hmm? I was sure that would get the ‘bad’ ending if I blew up the station and made sure I had every other option available to me until the last possible moment. Spoilers are going to come in droves after this, just a warning. I had to choose between destroying the ship, ejecting myself from the ship, or finding a way to save everyone on the ship and eliminate the typhon threat from the station so that research could be saved and those choices were always in the back of my head as I played.
About halfway through this game (14 hours or so) I realized how good it felt to play Prey. Sure the shooting isn’t as tight as Counter Strike or whatever but the platforming and weaponized gadgets reminded me of an alternate reality Half-Life 2 with the additionally complex level design of Deus Ex minus the vent crawling. Each new area felt like a sandbox and a puzzle at the same time and it was never as simple as just hacking, or just platforming with the Gloo Gun, but a combination of many abolities that lead to greater exploration and problem solving. Sure I could hack my way into a lot of secret areas but if I’d chosen certain typhon powers I could open doors from across the room or transform into a coffee cup and bounce through a small opening in a window. Having so many options and all of those implementations being so well thought out is a testament to the incredibly successful level and meta-game design of Prey. It goes above and beyond what was done in say, System Shock or Deus Ex in the distant past but also improves upon the tight controls, freeing traversal, and open-ended nature of Dishonored.
Of course Prey isn’t just you and robots trying to kill off aliens. The human element of the game is remarkably well written. The heart of Talos I’s story is within the crew of the station who are not only numerous but all generally distinct in personality. Even if you’ll only ever see them as a psi-blasted corpse, thier faces contorted in fear as they were frozen in death by a murderous typhon, you will know them from their audio logs, e-mails, handwritten notes, and video messages. I became so enthralled in the e-mails and personal relationships I ended up reading every single electronic mail message in the game as well as getting the achievement for finding every audio log. None of them feel superfluous to the experience as you’ll learn about affairs, love, competition between scientists that turns deadly, and paranoia from every level of security clearance. Not to mention access codes, voice commands, passwords etc. It turns out nearly everyone knew something was amiss on the station but many of them didn’t know about the typhon research and threat until it was too late. Alongside the stories the game has to tell are some thrilling enemy encounters including the Dhaka-like (see: Prince of Persia: Warrior Within) Nightmare typhon which chases you around an area with the ability to kill you in one hit. Enemy encounters always provide additional difficulty alongside exploration and while puzzling through areas and questing. The typhon and the Talos I station feel organically designed and of the same world alongside the stylized character design of Prey’s human leads.
My personal favorite quest involves saving a Ukrainian crew member who you don’t initially remember, despite dating her immediately before you’d undergone the neuromod experiments. After saving her medication from outer space and returning her to your office she tasks you with finding her father, who was believed to have been included on the ‘volunteer’ portion of the crew. Of course I’d already gotten into the volunteer section and learned the horrors and side-effects of the experimentation which almost always lead to death for the volunteers who are mostly ex-convicts being cruelly used to test typhon interactions with human biology. Soon after I was in the crew quarters killing giant Telepath monsters and happened upon an impostor chef who tried to kill me as revenge for what I’d done as a lead scientist on the ship. He had a Russian accent and I was sure that the game was tricking me into killing her father before helping her find him but it turns out it was simply part of another side quest in helping get revenge for the faux chef killing a lesbian human resources database director’s girlfriend. The two quests actually crossed paths as I needed to locate the fake chef and kill him, locate a different escaped defector, and find the information pertaining to the Ukrainian woman’s father. It turns out I had actually killed the father in the past during an experiment, quite coldly too. The story just kept unfolding from there and as it branched off into unexpected paths I had to remind myself that I could have missed most of it by simply ignoring her request and letting her die.
It turns out Prey has good reason to give you a lot of moral decisions to make for/against the greater good and offers many chances to show empathy for other human beings on the ship. The biggest spoiler I have to mention here is the actual ending because regardless of whether you choose to destroy the ship or destroy the typhon threat you’ll end up in a medical chair and have your situation explained to you. You’ve already been through the initial introduction that subverts expectations and frees you from an eternally repeating simulation and it turns out Prey has yet another mind-blowing revelation to punctuate the story: You were not Morgan in this grandiose simulation (the actual game), of course, but rather his memories and consciousness implanted into a typhon. By implanting typhon DNA into a human Alex and the others have made an attempt to appeal to the typhon hive mind with the human perspective as a way to create an ambassador, a social link, between the two species. At this point several key characters in the side-quests and main plot come together to assess your level of compassion to determine if you are fit to be that ambassador. You’re given what feels like a job performance review pertaining to the major actions you took throughout the game. The banter all depends on how many people you saved, who you killed in cold blood, how you helped people rather than hurt them. This is my favorite way of ending a video game that I can recall and it is different depending on your valuation of life, moral decisions and whether or not you blow up the station.
So, I’m enamored with this game but it did have its flaws. I played this game on a PS4 Pro on a TV capable of HDR and 4K but I was never sure if the game was simply up-scaled, it never glitched and I never had trouble with the performance of the game. The real trouble came towards the end of the game when I was not only able to move much faster but I needed to go between areas quickly. The problem is that load times between areas were often 25-30 seconds or longer so backtracking across the ship using the main lift would involve 3-5 minutes of load screens as I went to complete optional tasks. I haven’t experienced anything like this since the initial release of The Witcher on PC, especially not with the PS4 Pro which typically speeds up things like frame-rate and load times. It became frustrating and I’d end up fiddling with twitter or looking at iPhone porn as the game loaded. It was less than immersive by the end of the game. Also, not all of the characters are well-voiced: Walter Dahl shows up and is supposed to be an asshole that you hate, but fuck did I find his accent cheesy and his dialogue poorly written. Everyone else up to that point had been a thoughtful scientist, a keen security guard and the women in the game are so smart and powerful… and then Dahl is just a fucking goon bag. Thankfully the quest involving him was really the sort of chaos the game needed at it’s climax and he served as truly scary escalation at just the right time. I just thought the voice acting was trash.
Prey is a game I want to talk about more, it is a game I want to keep playing over and over. I’m obsessed with trying all of the neuromod typhon powers and seeing what secret areas I missed. I still have to find every single dead or alive crew member and it is a shame I will likely wait until after I’ve played Dishonored 2, Persona 5, and Wolfenstein II to come back to this game for another round. I was sure that Nioh was my game of the year for 2017 but it is entirely possible this is the finest game for my tastes this year. If you love games like Bioshock, Deus Ex, and even Metroid: Prime and the thought of a science fiction metroidvania that combines those elements with Arkham Asylum style connected semi-open world sandboxes you really owe it to yourself to give Prey a try. If the 70’s sci-fi aesthetics and skin-crawling horrors mixed with a far-future human augmentation plot aren’t enough to draw you in, you’re crazy.
Note: First draft accidentally posted 11/17. Now updated and edited.