Prey: hands-on with Arkane’s shapeshifting shooter

The game I was most reminded of when playing the opening hour of Arkane’s upcoming sci-fi shooter Prey [official site] was Deus Ex: Invisible War. No, don’t panic.

I’m going to talk fairly frankly about what happens in this first hour of the game, as dancing around it for fear of spoilers would leave me with little useful to say. In other words, here be spoilers. If you want to go into totally blind then fair enough, walk on friend – but I promise I’m only talking about the first hour, as I’ve not seen anything beyond that. At the other extreme, if you want to know everything but don’t want to read all these damn words, here’s a full recording of my play session for you to watch.

Though it shares Dishonored’s generous servings of incidental environmental detail, Prey almost immediately goes out of its way to demonstrate that it is not simply a sci-fi version of Arkane’s other, more steampunkish series. We’re in the year 2032, or so we’re told, in a high-rise apartment on Earth, or so we’re told.

After a quick choice between a male or female protagonist – who is named Morgan Yu and has the same abilities and capabilities whichever you choose – we’re given freedom to poke around his or her fancy pad on a bright and sunny morning. While the game doesn’t make any overt reference to which variant of Yu you chose, I did notice that, because I’d gone for the woman option, there was a necklace hanging by the sink and heeled shoes by the door – a neat and subtle touch.

The flat’s a treat to nose around too. High-level science books placed just-so (alright, alright, we get it, you’re smart), Alexa-style systems controlling the apartment, ice-cool future-music playing, the view outside the window suggesting a healthy and ordered society (guess everything turns out OK, huh?). You can pick up and throw around almost anything, treat yourself to a glug of breakfast wine and, yep, the toilet flushes. While later sections of the game see it move closer to BioShock than System Shock, you can certainly tick off a few boxes on your immersive sim bingo chart.

There’s no hurry, but a character called Alex Yu – an email on a nearby computer suggests he’s Morgan’s sibling – whose voice sound suspiciously like that of Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks calls up chummily to say that Morgan should head to their shared workplace. There’s a helicopter on the roof, and already I’m thinking Deus Ex and how its initially quasi-corporate heroes get their own private choppers, then we’re treated to a dramatic flyby over the city. It’s a decent futurescape, clean and shining, closer to Mirror’s Edge than Blade Runner, though nothing like as stylised.

For all this, I’m not getting an especially clear sense of place, and this is true throughout the session. Even though Prey repeatedly goes out of its way to show me incredible detail and striking setpieces, it didn’t communicate anything like the same sense of thereness as Dishonored’s suffering city of Dunwall does. Though there are plot-based reasons for sudden switches in environmental style, the first hour did come across as a selection box of aesthetics rather than one overarching visual language. For this reason, it’s hard to get a bead on what Prey’s vibe is – but hopefully it settles down and pursues something more singular later on.

I digress. Prey has its own smart take on the tutorial, which sees Morgan a willing participant of unspecified lab tests that investigate, among other things, his/her understanding of how to hide, rapidly traverse the environment and use in-game PCs. This is followed by a Voight-Kampff-style morality/empathy test-cum-Kobayashi Maru impossible choice dilemma. No consequences of your choices are detailed, but whether or not they come to bear later, what this does do, together with a few cryptic comments from your watching colleagues, is convey that there’s more than meets the eye to what’s going on.

Clever clogs who’ve picked up on this stuff only get a few moments to celebrate their perception before Prey pulls back the curtain – or, at least, a curtain. I won’t go into complete detail, but you can catch every moment of it in the video here. Short answer though: Morgan is even more of a labrat than she realised, having been unwittingly living out some groundhog day scenario in which her apartment, workplace and even the cityscape seen from the helicopter were all part of an elaborate, monitored Truman Show facade.

It’s in these slow reveals that the visual design is most successful – showing the shifting walls of the complex she’s been kept within, the theme park pistons and motors that made the helicopter ride feel real, and the darker, more ramshackle behind-the-scenes rooms.

Prey’s trump card, in what I’ve seen, is paranoia. Every aspect of Morgan’s life, shown to us in painstaking detail (presuming we chose to look at it) is a lie, with what few characters we’ve met so far a key part of the deception. A helper character soon makes themselves known, but my memories of both Bio and System Shock couldn’t help but cast suspicion on them too. Turns out, I rather like not trusting anything or anyone – though systems-wise Prey is more action-centric than either System Shock or Deus Ex, it certainly has something of their tone.

Again though, it’s Deus Ex’s first, unloved sequel Invisible War that I was most reminded of, which also sees its protagonist’s apparently comfortable life in a well-equipped future-apartment turn out to be part of an elaborate experiment run by apparently sinister forces. There are a great many similarities in Prey’s opening feint, and it’s worth knowing that Arkane’s Harvey Smith was a major force on the Invisible War dev team – though it must be said that Prey is handled by Raphael Colantonio’s Austin branch of Arkane, whereas Smith’s Lyon team was busy working on Dishonored 2.

The similarities soon fade, however, as Prey broadly becomes a BioShock-style action game set within a large but contained, monster-filled environment, rather than depositing you on the streets with a choice of shooting, speaking or stealthing your way to success. Turns out we’re in space, and there are tar-like, shapeshifting aliens all over the place – able to transform into various innocuous objects, an ability they use both to hide from you and to ambush you.

Sadly, the much-ballyhooed ‘turn into a a cup’ hero powers were not available in this build, but the xenos were certainly at it. By and large, I didn’t find that the hiding presented a new strategic challenge per se, but it does remix the flow into something quite different from the shooter norm. Headcrab-like enemies that emerge from nowhere, then scuttle away and disguise themselves before you can hunt them down – there’s a sort of call and response element to combat. Ah you bastard, I’ll get you, wait where did you go, aaaah not again, OK starts randomly thumping everything.

A little later on, we get the GLOO weapon, Prey’s own slightly contrived attempt to have its own Gravity gun, which can temporarily stick the little bleeders in place. Useful both for stopping them doing the Decepticon thing and for simply slowing them down, as they’re damned fast. Larger, bipedal variants turn up before too long as well – deadlier and harder to contain for sure, though I’m yet to get a handle on whether they have increased transformation powers.

Another comparison – the all-black, almost fractal enemies put me slightly in mind of the weird, shifting monolith creatures in 2K Australia’s doomed first pass on the game that eventually became The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. Those were striking beasties, though did raise the question of whether fighting a big rectangle could be all that much fun.

Prey answers this by making a faintly similar concept more conventionally monstrous, but without their hiding-in-plain-sight powers I’m not sure how much of an impression these creatures would make. They began to feel routine oddly quickly, but fingers crossed these tarballs become more visually interesting as the game wears on – and that Prey drops some bombs about their true nature.

In the absence of access to my own shapeshiting powers, it’s the GLOO gun that opened up the widest array of possibilities. I will admit that, because my own mind is often barren of creative instincts, this particularly penny did not drop until a Bethesda staffer expressly told me that, if you shoot it at a wall or ledge, the GLOO can create solid platforms that you can jump or mantle onto.

And so it was that I essentially built my way to hitherto out of reach areas, both to make shortcut to objectives and to access secrets – a little bit of Minecraft inside a glossy action game. The GLOO gun does come across as a touch gimmicky, a bit Back Of The Box Feature, but hey, in these po-faced military shooter times I most definitely do not object to a resurgence of mid-noughties silliness.

Outside of that and the shooting, there was a strong emphasis on hunting for keycards and door codes in the age-old ‘Shock Ex paradigm. It’s here that the otherwise faint Dishonored similarities most revealed themselves, and it’s a structure which does now feel familiar – though combing together faint pictures of people’s lives by reading their email or eyeballing all the meticulous detail in their offices remains a key strength, and the main way in which Prey is not ‘just’ a shooter. Hopefully Prey can sustain sufficient variety of alternate methods to navigate through and to closed environments, and I suspect that’s going to come down to the ‘alien’ powers I didn’t get to dabble with.

I did get to choose between, speaking very broadly here, hacking, crafting and combat abilities which, among other things, would allow me to progress by e.g. repairing broken lifts, improving my gear or bypassing security. Very Deus Ex, but with an added crafting element – for instance, I can lob all sorts of junk, from banana skins to circuit boards, into a recycler that converts them into nuggets of various raw materials I can then build with it. There wasn’t too much available to experiment with in that regard in my hour, but it speaks to later possibilities.

Basically, the opening laid a certain amount of groundwork for how I believe Prey will play it out later on, which is to say plenty of freedom to move around a very large space station space in an order and method of your choosing. It’s the sense of uncertainty which most appealed to me though, the creeping awareness that nothing can be trusted. Perhaps not even yourself, with the session culminating in another curtain-pull that goes Full Total Recall.

I simultaneously feel as though I know exactly what Prey is and that I’m still in the dark about its true nature. Keycodes and goobeasts vs a pile of ambitious do-it-yourself features and a world I can’t trust. There’s a lot going on here, many intriguing questions posed and its essential exploration+combat balance feels good in the hand, but I’m still waiting to see precisely which shape Prey ultimately takes.

Prey is due for release on May 5 this year. Here’s a video of what I played so you can get a sense of it for yourself – my plan is to put up a second version with narration on what I’m doing and what I think in due course.

From this site

42 Comments

  1. Halk says:

    >Deus Ex: Invisible War. No, don’t panic.

    Huh?

    • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

      Apparently nobody liked it.

      Nobody is, of course, an idiot.

      • Vandelay says:

        Its hatred is a little bizarre when you consider the love that Human Revolution received. Both games suffered from a few similar issues (smaller levels and an illusion of multiple paths really just being three different funnels to the same place,) yet HR was a return to form and IW was dumbing down and an insult to the original.

        To me, both games were good to great, but could of been better.

        • Halk says:

          Agreed.

          I would even say that IW was a better game than HR as it felt a lot less generic and had a pretty convincing atmosphere.

          But of course neither of the two comes even close to DX1.

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          Don Reba says:

          Invisible War certainly has a better ending. I played it after Human Revolution and felt it was the Deus Ex sequel I’ve been waiting for.

          • Halk says:

            >Invisible War certainly has a better ending.

            That’s not saying much though. ;-)

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            Don Reba says:

            That’s not saying much though.

            The Human Revolution game designers decided we’ve been playing that game all the time secretly wishing it was a zombie survival. 🤦

        • KenTWOu says:

          Both games suffered from a few similar issues (smaller levels and an illusion of multiple paths really just being three different funnels to the same place)…

          Because Human Revolution was way, way bigger than Invisible War. While HR used a couple of floors to make Detroit police station, IW used a couple of tiny floors to make futuristic downtown Seattle. IW felt so claustrophobic, it was hard to believe in anything. In contrast, Thief: Deadly Shadows turned out to be so much better, because everything happened in different districts of one city.

  2. TΛPETRVE says:

    The roughly one hour of footage pretty much affirmed my expectations. This is basically “BioShock remade in the actual image of System Shock“. In other words, an instabuy for me.

    • haldolium says:

      It does look entirly absent of genuine ideas though.

      Weird minglefest of Bioshock, some stuff from other Arkane games, some desing elements from The Darkness… and suprisingly absolutley nothing from PREY.

      Well, hope it turns out to be more than that.

      • TΛPETRVE says:

        We’re talking Arkane here. Refurbishing and rebranding old Looking Glass stuff, that’s their entire MO.

        And as for the original Prey, it literally does not exist anymore. Bethesda have stopped distribution in its entirety, they have effectively removed it from the history books, and they prohibited Arkane from making any reference to the 2006 game whatsoever, even if it was just an easter egg.

        • Halk says:

          >We’re talking Arkane here. Refurbishing and rebranding
          >old Looking Glass stuff, that’s their entire MO.

          Yup, quite literally so.

          It’s not that stealing from geniuses is a bad strategy, but unfortunately Arx is the only game where Arkane ever achieved LGS-comparable quality.

          • TΛPETRVE says:

            Well, it was the product of a generation before games as a whole became increasingly streamlined. Prey at least follows in the footsteps of the original System Shock (which was nowhere near as complex as people seem to remember it), and comes with all the psychedelic and esoteric weirdo trash factor that’s largely missing in most modern non-indie products, including the insufferably self-important BioShock series.

          • TΛPETRVE says:

            And speaking of which, I’m now even more convinced that this game was at least partially made on the whim of flipping the bird at Irrational Games. Arkane pretty much took all the things they liked about BioShock (the alt-history scenario, the weird Art Déco style, the whole splicer doodah) – and also the canned XCOM shooter, because why the fuck not – and then draped it nicely over ye olde System Shock skeleton, which was so sorely missing in BioShock.

          • Xocrates says:

            canned XCOM shooter? Unless there was a second one I don’t know about, that one came out.

            Everyone forgot about it immediately after, but it did come out.

          • Josh W says:

            I think in the context of this game it’s pretty reasonable to say that there was another game; before the xcom shooter that now exists came out, there was another game being built more in the style of bioshock and the quiet bits from F.E.A.R, (in the sense of a mostly linear game making the most of weird atmospheric level design) that was revamped after xcom started doing so well that they decided to port over some of it’s mechanics and style in the form of a mass-effect-esque pause-tactics shooter.

        • haldolium says:

          >>We’re talking Arkane here. Refurbishing and rebranding old Looking Glass stuff, that’s their entire MO.

          I disagree. In particular in the way “Prey” (am I the only one absolutely hating the name-abuse for reboots for proper discussions? I feel forced to add “2017” behind it only so it’s clear what I am talking about -.-) is currently revealed in Bethesdas 2nd tier pre-launch marketing campaign. That might be due to the way its handled, or the game actually won’t be that great. I hope for the former.

          Sure Arkane didn’t reinvent the wheel (who did), but they have had their own approach on things which I currently do not see in Prey (2017) whatsoever. DMoMM was based on a very well known franchise, but offered a really interesting and for that time rather unique approach on first person meelee combat combined with physics. Dishonored certainly stands out in terms of world design and mixing up stealth and action, even though the groundwork of LG titles can be seen. Arx Fatalis is too long ago, I don’t remember details but it sure wasn’t your everyday action RPG.

          It’s never inheritely “bad” to build upon other peoples work, especially in games thats a rather natural way of development.
          But that is not even what I meant here, so far it looks entirely uninspired and without any individual touch that you cannot deny any other Arkane title (since there are only 3 (4 with DH2 and then 5 with Prey). They all have some unique taste and style and beauty in their details.

          Prey currently just looks like a lose mix of known ideas and known design (both visual and mechanical) with nothing really standing out.

          • TΛPETRVE says:

            The last few years saw a bit of a weird trend in game design, which was arguably first made obvious with BioShock Infinite‘s narrative; I’m talking about this meta-approach to creative lineage. Last year had a few very notable examples: Dark Souls III did it the most ostentatious way, presenting itself a a “best of” with both more and less successful references to its entire franchise history, including Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne. DOOM was a bit more subtle about it, but similarly celebrated its legacy. Abzû was a continuation of Thatgamecompany’s legacy, distilling fl0w, Flower and Journey into a single new game that was obviously derivative, but worked brilliantly when viewed as an interactive postmortem.

            I see Prey in a similar light; it feels like the personal work of someone who was very disappointed in how BioShocky had ultimately turned out, and who decided to go all the way back to its initial pitch, and remake it into the System Shock successor it was envisioned as before the whole narrative-driven shooter took over. I mean, there’s derivative, and then there’s Prey. This game is so unabashedly, flamboyantly ostentatious about its templates that it has to be a commentary.

          • GepardenK says:

            Rebranding Looking Glass ideas but making them more “modern” is definitely Arkane’s MO. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, It’s why I always keep an eye on their games. Arx Fatalis in particular is a sucsessor to Ultima Underworld in almost every conceivable way. The similarities between Dishonored and Thief both in lore and gameplay need not be mentioned. Suprisingly Dark Messiah might actually be Arkane’s most “original” title, though classic Looking Glass stuff like rope arrows and walking corpses still make their apperance.

          • haldolium says:

            @TΛPETRVE
            Thanks for bringing up that viewpoint, I didn’t think of that aspect but now you mention it I would rather agree with you there. And in that light, Prey could be definitively seen that way. I’m still curious how it will play out at the end of the day.

      • Urthman says:

        No ideas? The idea of an environment filled with physics objects, any of which could be a shape-shifting monster in disguise, seems like a pretty great idea to me. Whether they use it well or not is another thing, of course.

        • Faults says:

          I don’t know, I’m still not really sold on the idea of battering fuck out of a bin to find out if it’s an alien or not.

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    phuzz says:

    So is this related in any way to Prey (the one from about ten years ago)?

    • Xocrates says:

      Hasn’t Arkane essentially said that it’s a completely new game, but since Bethesda had the Prey name hanging around they used it?

      • TechnicalBen says:

        I learnt something interesting the other day. You know you see films with really good actors, paid loads of money, then they turn up in a load of rubbish, and seem to not care?

        Well, turns out to be in the Actors Guild (or whatever), you have to have been in a film within the last year… so no “breaks” or days off it seems. So if time is running short, they go for one of those straight to DVD, let’s hope no one sees it, but I’ll give you a 5 min phoned in cameo!

        I guess the same happened here… “quick, use that game name!”

        • Halk says:

          So they can remain members of the Preymaker Guild?

        • Xocrates says:

          With regards to names, that usually happens when licensing some property and you need to keep making stuff or lose the license – which is why they keep making terrible fantastic 4 movies.

          In this case, I think it was literally “meh, might as well use this for whatever brand recognition it might have”

    • fish99 says:

      Well, the spelling is kinda similar.

  4. Faults says:

    Questionnaire in the tutorial does not have a “MULTI-TRACK DRIFTING!” option. Deep disappointment.

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    Lars Westergren says:

    Fine writing Alec. Thank you.

    As for the game, my expectations are very high, and they haven’t been shaken yet by this article.

  6. kud13 says:

    After the “you can be a cup!” thing, I’ve had next to no expectations for this.

    Now I’m hearing very distinct System Shock vibes. So i’m cautiously optimistic.

  7. Frosty Grin says:

    Am I the only one who finds Dishonored-like faces kinda… distracting? Weird?

    They were fine in Dishonored, but seeing them in a different game is weird.

  8. ColonelFlanders says:

    I know exactly what you mean. They are kinda cartoony, almost like a hi-res update to GoldenEye or the original Max Payne or something.

  9. Frank says:

    I’m immediately distracted by how much that is not Morgan. You know, the Morgan who was Morgan three months ago: link to gameinformer.com

  10. Raoul Duke says:

    You know what isn’t at all compelling? Enemies that are generic blobs of grey/black stuff moving around really fast.

    You would think the failure of that awful XCOM reboot would have been enough to teach that lesson.

    • N'Al says:

      That’s my main concern as well. As much as I loved the idea of it at the time, I can see why they ultimately scrapped the amorphous aliens in the XCOM shooter.

      Hope Arkane pull off something compelling with the idea, regardless.

      • Josh W says:

        I’m hoping that the existence of weaponry/tools with effects on the motion of enemies, and/or wide area of effect will do something to help with this; I always remember that game that gave you a magical sword and asked you to hit tiny frogs with it, but then on the other side you get luigi’s mansion, a game about dealing with ghosts using a vacuum cleaner, (there’s probably a good FPS example that should be coming to mind with homing bullets or something, but that’s what I’ve got). Having odd enemies is fine so long as your level design and tools are designed around that.

    • TΛPETRVE says:

      If it was so generic, it would’ve been done countless times before. I’d say it’s the exact opposite of generic. Form follows function. I’ll take mechanically interesting enemies over the umpteenth visually overdesigned bullet sponge anyday.

  11. DancesWithSheep says:

    I don’t want to be a cup, I remember what those two girls did with one.

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