Prey (2017)

It is well known that 2017 was an absolutely stellar year for games. One game that may have gone under the radar is Prey. There are a few theories for why Prey went so unnoticed, but the prevailing reason for it being overlooked is its name. Despite the confusion with its name, I think Prey is a solid title that definitely is deserving of more recognition.

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Prey shares its name with a 2006 game. Unintuitively, the games are in no way related, they are not even in the same genre. The Prey that was released this year feels more like three other series: System Shock, Bioshock, and Dishonored. Prey was obviously inspired by System Shock and Bioshock. The lonely, dark, and disturbing atmosphere portrayed in Prey is straight out of these series. You feel like you are trying to survive a utopia gone wrong, there is a heavy emphasis on survival compared to a standard first-person-shooter (FPS). You cannot tackle encounters with guns blazing like DOOM or Call of Duty, you must carefully and tactically use your resources and knowledge to proceed. Moreover, I say Prey is similar to Dishonored mostly because the level design philosophy is remarkably similar. That’s probably because they are made by the same studio, and if you’ve played Dishonored you will immediately recognize the hidden ducts and paths to sneak through the levels.

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The setting Prey is a space-horror and psychological thriller. You play as Morgan, a scientist with no memories as to what happened and what led to the dire situation at hand. There are mysterious aliens roaming the halls and the quarters are littered with corpses, and it is your job to decipher what happened. There are conflicting characters and perspectives that you weigh in your mind, somebody is lying to you about the situation. I’d argue that the story is simultaneously engrossing and lacking. The vast majority of the narrative and exposition is told at the beginning and the end of the story, and the entire in between section just feels empty. The opening to Prey is probably one of the greatest openings to any video game, or any media for that matter, ever.

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I usually loathe the slow and monotonous starts of games as a narrator or character spews expository dialogue at the player, but Prey starts differently. It feels simple and innocent enough, but the atmosphere just feels a little off and tension rises as you discover the reality that Morgan must now endure. As usual I really do not want to spoil anything, but Prey does an excellent job at building pressure and mystery for the first few hours. Sadly, after the initial introduction to the world there is not many narrative aspects to expand on the opening until the very end. The entire middle section of the game consists of “Do this, do that, find your way through the space station, and then I will tell you the truth”. This was incredibly disheartening and by the time I did reach the ending I feel like my interest in the outcome had waned after hours of being kept in the dark. That being said, the final sequences of Prey were phenomenal and were a great pay-off, but the middle section just left a bad taste in my mouth.

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The people over at Arkane Studios have built one of the most cohesive and intriguing worlds that I’ve seen in a game. The space station Talos I is a sprawling, living, breathing world that can be explored inside and out. The living quarters, lobby, arboretum, and other areas feel like a luxurious hotel that people actually lived in. Computer terminals with emails, innocuous notes, and the placement of objects goes a long way to make the world feel natural and realistic. Every corpse has a tag that can reveal their identity and you can uncover where that character worked, their background information, and possibly find terminals containing emails they sent or received. Again, this really ups the immersion that Prey provides. Also included are places like life support systems, the power reactors, and the­­­ maintenance tunnel that runs the length of the station. These areas are far sparser, as it should be. You can also visit the exterior of the station, and see all the sectors from the outside, and they make sense logically. The developers obviously put a ton of work into creating and maintaining this immersive universe.

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The meat of gameplay in Prey consists of three core elements: exploration, combat, and gathering/crafting. These elements work simultaneously with each other to create a gameplay loop in which the player explores a new area, dispatches of the enemies in the area, and then gathers all the resources to restock on ammunition and supplies. Early on, it feels like you are deprived of resources and you must conserve ammunition, grenades, and health packs because they are scarce. That aspect is certainly enjoyable as it makes the game tenser as each encounter no longer focuses on only survival, but also the cost of taking down enemies. You are encouraged to creatively kill enemies to save bullets, or even avoid the foes altogether. Despite this, as the game progressed I realized that I had a huge stockpile of health packs and ammunition building up since I was being so conservative, I almost wish the game did not give you so many resources. This way, creative planning would be vital and scavenge for resources would be a necessity.

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While Prey labels itself as a FPS, the shooting and gunplay is hardly a main focus. Prey feels more like a horror or thriller game than a classic FPS, and that’s a good thing. In DOOM for example, you blast through hordes of demons, you never really feel scared or threatened by these hellish creations. In Prey, the scarcity of the enemies is what makes them so dreaded. Most of your time will be spent exploring the station, cautiously looking out for any aliens, but for the most part the aliens are few and far between. This creates a psychological effect as you never really get comfortable at fighting these creatures. Furthermore, subconsciously you make the connection that if there is a lot of enemies, they must be weak so that you can deal with them in large numbers, and if there is only a single enemy, that enemy must be immensely strong. Prey falls into the latter category; any encounters are incredibly tense due to just how frightening these aliens are perceived to be. Moreover, a specific enemy can mimic regular objects in the environment, leading to fear even when you think you are safe. As you scavenge for resources, the coffee cup next to you could reveal itself to be an alien and strike at you. All these reasons just lead to an atmosphere of horror and dread. All that being said, the actual FPS features in Prey are rather weak. The gunplay feels unsatisfying as enemies do not even react to getting shot, it feels like there is no weight behind your bullets. If you are looking for a classic FPS filled with action and firefights, Prey is probably not for you. However, if you want a thrilling and fear-filled adventure, it may be right up your alley.

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The best way to describe the level design of Prey is that it mimics Dishonored. There are loads of alternate paths and routes through the levels. You can use your gloo-cannon to reach an inaccessible ledge, or you can use a special perk to jump higher, or you can find a keycard to unlock a door, or you can find a duct, or you can turn on the power an unlock another routes, or you can use your strength ability to move objects out of the way, or you can hack a terminal and unlock a path, and the list goes on. It feels like there is an immeasurable amount of ways to tackle any individual obstacle in Prey, and that philosophy also pertains to enemies. Using different guns, grenades, special perks, and melee attacks also remind me of the “playground” feel in Dishonored. The only difference is that in Dishonored you play as an elite assassin, the enemies are feeble compared to the player, but in Prey, you are the prey. The numerous options feel a little stunted in this game because you are not the hunter, so the player’s creativity is limited by the feasibility of their tactic. All in all, the level design is fantastic, but I wish instead of offering creative combat options which barely see any use, we instead had more polished and refined gunplay befitting of a FPS.

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Overall, Prey is a solid title that unfortunately did not get the attention that it deserved. Its name confused consumers and fans of the original Prey felt alienated by this brand-new game, while people who did not like the original did not give this game a chance. Either by branding itself as completely new entity, or perhaps by paying homage to System Shock or Bioshock, Prey easily could have gained a lot more traction and generated far more interest than it did. Prey tells a cohesive and mind-bending story, but unfortunately the pacing was slightly off. Moreover, Prey has some excellent gameplay elements to keep your blood pumping and heart racing, but the FPS aspects are just underwhelming. For these reasons I give Prey an 8/10. It is an outstanding and immersive psychological thriller with an unfortunate name. ­­

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