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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. ­­

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Following my playthrough of Mass Effect, I noted that while the game told an intriguing story, its gameplay was clunky and needed to be streamlined and smoothed out for a sequel. Luckily, Mass Effect 2 achieves exactly that. The gameplay of Mass Effect 2 greatly improves upon its predecessor by cutting out filler and creating a more fulfilling experience. That being said, there were still a few minor issues in Mass Effect 2, some gameplay related, others story related.


By far and away the largest improvement in Mass Effect 2 was the improvement of the side missions. In the original Mass Effect, most side missions consisted of dropping down to a desolate planet, driving the frustrating-to-control Mako around for a while, and then clearing out a copy-and-pasted base of enemies that must have been reused a dozen times for these side missions.  Luckily in Mass Effect 2, the Mako has been removed completely and each side mission is individually crafted for a more unique and engaging experience. Some other gameplay improvements include weapon upgrades, squad power usage, better level design, smoothing out the movement, and the switch to an ammo system. All of these functions serve to make combat far more entertaining than the original game when it comes to combat.


The weapon and upgrade system in the original Mass Effect was clunky and required a lot of time just navigating the hundreds of upgrades that the player would acquire. There were a ton of different guns and upgrades that the player had to sift through to find what they would want, and a limited inventory meant that you had to frequently throw out many of these items just to keep clear space for new upgrades. In Mass Effect 2, this process has been streamlined so you no longer have to navigate menus for long intervals to pick out upgrades for you and your squad. Another big change was the switch from guns having a heat system to guns having ammo. I mostly enjoyed this change, as the heat system further increased how long you had to sit behind cover for weapons to cooldown. Ammo on the other hand lets you stay shooting for longer, and a reload is quick than waiting for your gun to cooldown.


All those improvements in mind, one design choice is particularly baffling. In Mass Effect 2, the player must pilot their ship through space to land on the different planets. What is strange is the decision that the player must constantly purchase fuel. Fuel is remarkably cheap in this game so I really don’t understand the purpose of including it. It doesn’t gate the player using money or anything, all it serves to do is waste your time by making you visit a refueling station once in a while. The other bizarre addition was the method for collecting resources. In order to upgrade your weapons, armor, and ship, you must collect a few different types of resources. There are minute amounts bit of these resources lying around for you to collect when you’re on a planet and exploring on foot, but the vast majority of these elements are found by probing planets. Essentially, you must buy probes, fly to a planet, slowly move your scanner across the surface, and launch a probe whenever it detects an abundance of resources. Similarly, to the fuel, the probes are incredibly inexpensive, so this system only serves to waste time. If you need any resources to upgrade your equipment you essentially have an infinite amount, you just have to painstakingly probe planets to get those resources.


These minor complaints aside, Mass Effect 2 massively improved upon Mass Effect in every way. The only exception to that was that I personally enjoyed the original’s story better. The bulk of the main missions in Mass Effect 2 were recruiting your squad and doing their loyalty missions. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed recruiting all the different characters and then doing another mission to make them loyal. There were all interesting from both a gameplay and a narrative perspective. However, I have two main issues with this system. The first issue is that it felt completely disconnected from the main plot. In the original game, most companions were recruited organically through the main plot. You would be doing a mission and meet these characters naturally. In Mass Effect 2, the game outright tells you “Go here and recruit this character”. This feels far more artificial than original, and to make it worse, most of the characters are disconnected from the main plot entirely. In the original game, characters often felt more invested in the plot and just felt more connected. In Mass Effect 2, I felt like only two or three of the characters impacted the plot in a significant manner. The rest just felt glued on and just served to help the player in combat. The second issue with making so much of the game reliant on the squad missions is that the actual main plot of the game is ridiculously short. There are only five main story missions (six if you count the introduction). I think the developers counted each of the self-contained squad missions as main missions, leaving the central plot very short. That being said, all of the subplots and even the main plots itself were strong, I just wish there was more if it.


My final issue with Mass Effect 2 is coincidentally with the final mission in the game. Without spoiling anything, you essentially assign your squad mates to different tasks throughout the mission. For example, you have to pick a technological expert to do a certain task. I thought this was an intelligent design decision, as it rewards players who learned their partner’s strengths and did the additional mission to make them loyal. If you pick incorrectly or your squad is not loyal, there is a chance that one of your squad members will die. Again, I quite enjoyed figuring out who is best for what role, but the final “selection” does not sit well with me. Mostly because it is not communicated to be a selection at all. Instead, you pick your standard two squad mates to go and fight the final boss, and the rest of the squad is left behind to watch your back. If you bring two of your best fighters to take on the boss, one of your other squad mates who you left behind to watch your back will perish. To me this felt incredibly cheap, if it were properly communicated that you should leave behind strong members, this would have been completely fine. Furthermore, the game kills off an important squadmate rather unceremoniously and when it happened to me I was confused as to what had just happened. Overall, this final selection was just poorly implemented and need to be better communicated to the player.

All in all, Mass Effect 2 is a strong entry to the series, and a definite improvement over the original game. While the episodic short stories that were told throughout the squad missions were engaging, the main plot felt a bit lacking. However, massive improvements made to the gameplay elevated Mass Effect 2 above the original. As a whole, Mass Effect 2 has solidified itself as a classic sci-fi RPG, worthy of the praise that it has received.