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Prey

Score: 80%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Arkane Studios
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG/ First Person Shooter/ Action

Graphics & Sound:

Arkaneís latest game (its second in a year) may bear the name of a science fiction shooter from 2006, but it has absolutely nothing to do with it. While Human Head Studiosí bog standard tale of a Cherokee alien abductee may have ended with a post-credits stinger (complete with the phrase "Prey will continueÖ"), that property is, for all intents and purposes, defunct. All thatís left is its name, which has been picked up by Bethesda and attached to a very ambitious but deeply flawed single player shooter/RPG hybrid. Prey should satisfy most fans of the genre popularized by the likes of System Shock and Deus Ex, but it doesnít quite earn a place among the greats.

Preyís visuals are appealing without being extraordinary. It looks like a standard current-gen game as far as tech goes. Easily the best aspect of Preyís visual component (and easily the best thing about the game as a whole) is the environment. Talos-I is one of the most impressive examples of open-level map design Iíve seen in a while. It marries a keen sense of style with the same kind of sprawling, labyrinthine layouts youíd normally see in a Metroidvania game. This is not a linear experience by any stretch, and the sense of exploration and discovery are heightened by Talos-Iís segmented but cohesive layout. As you progress through the game, the station undergoes some changesÖ and thatís about all Iím willing to divulge at this point.

Character models are generally middling in quality, and enemy design is all over the place. While I love the way Typhon organisms pulse and effervesce with alien energy, the forms they assume range from fascinating to dishwater dull. All of them are some variant on an amorphous, flowing black mass. Phantoms are the high point; their humanoid appearances and wandering, confused gait make them creepy enemies that are usually fun to fight. Mimics instill a similar kind of fear to the type induced by the facehugger from Alien; anything thatís small, fast, and scuttles about like a crab is guaranteed to freak you out. And the ubiquitous Operators look like floating laptops. Everything comes together to produce a world you want to explore.

Mick Gordon is one of the best musicians working in the video game industry; his work over the last five years, in particular, has been nothing short of incredible. His soundtrack for Prey marks a dip in that consistency. When heís got a guitar in his hands, itís magic, elevating certain moments to a greater emotional height than the writing and graphics manage. That being said, the synth-heavy tracks have the potential to annoy. You see, Preyís soundtrack has a tendency to inform the on-screen action in ways that threaten the suspense and fear that everything else works so hard to achieve. The moment when a Mimic springs out of its camouflage and attacks is often accompanied by a shrieking blast of aural cacophony, and while itís thematically appropriate, itís no less painful to the ears.

Voice work is solid throughout; I canít really blame the performances for the mostly uninteresting storytelling, and the cast does a fine job of selling each situation as it presents itself. I particularly like the distorted mutterings of the Phantoms; the confused echoes of the poor souls theyíve consumed are a horrifying touch.

Sound effects fare much like the voice acting; they get the job done without too much fanfare and ensure that interacting with the environment offers the right kind of aural feedback. While certain games have done a better job of capturing the certain "sound" of the vacuum of space, Prey does well enough.


Gameplay:

Prey has a phenomenal opening hour that really sinks its hooks into you, and itís worth going in totally blind just to experience it for yourself. Iím going to get into some light early-game spoilers in the next paragraph, so if your interest is piqued, stop reading this review now and find a way to play that opening hour.

You are Dr. Morgan Yu, Vice President and Director of Research for TranStar, a Research and Development megacorporation. After a series of extraordinarily bizarre events, you come to learn that youíre aboard Talos-I, TranStarís massive space station/laboratory complex in orbit around Earthís moon. And your memory has been reset to what it was three years ago; functionally rendering you a blank slate for everything thatís about to go down. You see, TranStarís main line of research these days involves the Typhon, a collective of hostile alien species that possess strange powers. Powers that, through years of study, we have discovered can be applied to human beings through the use of an invention called the Neuromod. Unfortunately for Morgan, the Typhon have broken containment and slaughtered most of the inhabitants of Talos-I. Since your brother Alex (the President of TranStar) seems to consider you part of the situation that needs to be contained, you basically havenít got a friend in the world to help you. That is, save a robotic Operator programmed by your past self to essentially be your past self; itís got your voice and past personality. And it has a mission for youÖ

Unfortunately, the rest of the story fails to live up to the expectations instilled in the player by the end of that opening hour. There are some human elements to the narrative, but they arenít handled in a way that feels fresh, and some even feel a bit like cheap attempts to manipulate the player. Lots of readable lore and audio logs make the world feel believable, but when you compare it to its contemporaries, it just feels like itís going through the motions at times. Though some of the choices you make influence the ending you get, you may not feel that invested by the time the credits roll.

Iíve mentioned before that Prey proudly wears its inspirations on its sleeves. The two games it borrows most heavily from are System Shock 2 and Metroid Prime. Itís ultimately a role-playing game with shooter elements and a deep character growth system. Youíll always have a primary objective, but as you explore Talos-I, youíll inevitably stumble upon opportunities to seize and mysteries to solve. Questing in Prey is handled much as it is in other open-ended games. Most of them are generally a matter of chasing the waypoint and interacting with the environment, but you usually come out of these quests better off than you were when you started them.

Preyís combat is a mixed bag that stretches to both extremes. Morganís offensive and defensive capabilities are a matter of choice, but regardless of your attempts to be well-rounded, combat just never feels quite right. Most of it comes down to enemy behavior and how your abilities struggle to stack up against your foesí at any given time.

Prey unfortunately plays its hand a little too early when it comes to enemy types, and the most interesting ones are introduced almost right away. Mimics are Preyís most common enemy type. These small, spider-like critters are often incredibly difficult to track, but when you factor in that theyíre capable of shapeshifting into inanimate objects, each encounter becomes an exercise in paranoia. Phantoms are by far the most engaging enemies; many of them are aspected to some sort of element, and their abilities are thus influenced. Telepaths and Technopaths are capable of directly controlling humans and computers, respectively. Depending on your attitude towards the survivors and the machinery, this can strongly influence how you approach each combat encounter. At the bottom of the barrel is the Cystoid, one of the worst enemy types in any game to date. These ball-like creatures spawn indefinitely from special nests or from fear-inducing monsters called Weavers. They track you, roll towards you, and explode, inflicting massive radiation damage and physical trauma. They drop no loot upon death and often attack in groups. Just thinking about them boils my blood; their absence would have resulted in a better game.


Difficulty:

Prey is not an easy game. It is also not a balanced game. Its default setting will have you well acquainted with death, sometimes due to fault of your own, but sometimes for some arbitrary reason. The Typhon hit hard, from your first encounter with Mimics and Phantoms to your final struggles against Nightmares and Weavers. Thankfully, this is a game that rewards experimentation, and the quick save/quick load mechanics are incredibly helpful.

In the first few hours of the game, stealth is Morganís best option. Firearms and melee weapons generally lack power until youíve upgraded them a handful of times, and ammunition is pretty rare early on. Additionally, the alien powers at your disposal are somewhat awkwardly implemented, with areas of effect and iffy targeting proving a wonky combination. The sense of progress is palpable, especially towards the end of the game. Thereís a definite sense of progression as you complete questlines and advance the story. Itís intimidating at first, because you begin the game woefully underpowered and understocked. But that which doesnít kill you makes you stronger; as you explore Talos-I, youíll come across numerous items that will exponentially increase your survivability.


Game Mechanics:

Most of Prey is spent figuring out where you need to go and figuring out exactly how to get there. Talos-I is an intricately-designed space station, so there are usually multiple ways of getting around obstacles. Itís always a good idea to keep an eye open for maintenance hatches and catwalks, as certain areas are either hazardous or blocked off entirely. And while you can often fix certain hazards with the proper skills and materials, itís never your only option. There are a lot of ways to use brains and/or brawn to get where you need to be. That being said, special mention goes to the Gelifoam Lattice Organism Obstructor, better known as the GLOO Cannon, a weapon/multitool that shoots blobs of flame-retardant foam that quickly solidifies upon impact. This can be used as both an impromptu platform generator and a means of incapacitating Typhon organisms.

Character growth is facilitated through the use of Neuromods, the pinnacle of TranStar technology, which takes knowledge (human and alien alike) and directly implants it into the userís brain via an intraocular needle. As far as the gameplay is concerned, Neuromods are used to unlock nodes on a series of skill trees, half of which relate to basic human ability (health, hacking, skill with guns, etc.), and half of which are powers normally reserved for the Typhon. By scanning specific Typhon with a device called the Psychoscope, the resulting research makes those powers available to Morgan. However, Talos-I is heavy on security systems, and they are good at detecting alien contaminants.

Most of the NPCs aboard Talos-I have fallen to the Typhon outbreak, but that doesnít mean you wonít need whatís on their persons or computers. In an interesting touch, most TranStar employees bear tracking bracelets. By going to special security stations and consulting the crew database, you can instantly place a waypoint to their tracking bracelets. Itís a really clever idea that works very well for this kind of game.

Talos-I is big. Really big. Though itís broken up into segments (as most interdisciplinary laboratory complexes tend to be), thereís no fast travel system, per se. However, as you explore, youíll find a series of airlocks at certain parts of the station. Not only is everything a spacewalk away, but the exterior of the station is actually worth exploring. Itís no substitute for an actual fast travel system, but it works in context.

Preyís loot system is fantastic. Talos-I is overflowing with objects both instantly useful and ostensibly useless. Food, Medkits, PSI Hypos, and Suit Repair Kits keep your health, psionic potential, and TranStar uniform in top condition, though you can also get a free refill when you find a friendly Operator (Medical for health, Science for PSI, Engineering for suit). On top of that, upgrades for your weapons, uniform, and Psychoscope are in no short supply. But Prey goes micro with loot in a way most games barely attempt; even the most useless piece of trash has value. You see, the station is populated with Recyclers that break down all input into elementary components (Organic, Mineral, Synthetic, and Exotic). These components can then be inserted into special 3D printers called Fabricators and instantly transformed into usable items. Itís seriously cool that you can pick up a bunch of destroyed metal appliances and process them into shotgun shells, but itís even more useful to recycle Typhon material and build as many Neuromods as you can carry.

Interface problems persisted throughout my first playthrough. The pop-up loot window is usually convenient, but sometimes it gets stuck and remains on the screen well after youíve moved on. And while the grid-based inventory system is pulled right out of its biggest inspirations, it sometimes fails to stack certain items unless you fool around with the sorting mechanics. Harvesting Typhon organs with the Necropsy skill is a must if you want to fabricate lots of Neuromods, but having to go in and out of the inventory over and over again is a serious pain in the ass. This will likely be patched out in time, but as of this writing, itís an unnecessary hassle.

Thereís a lot to like about Prey, but itís got some pretty serious problems. In terms of level design and world-building, itís excellent, but when it comes to storytelling and gameplay, itís a bit of a mess. Despite my frustrations, it earns my recommendation. Overall, Prey is a solid entry into a genre that doesnít have nearly enough representation, and itís competent enough to earn your time and attention.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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