Prey’s opening hours show that the setting is the star

I thought the monsters and mimicry would be the stars of Prey [official site], but I was wrong. The real star is the Talos-I space station, which manages to be a convincing functional space and a delightful collection of hidden routes and challenges. In my first couple of hours with the game, I thought the setting was a too-predictable mixture of offices and industrial machinery, but six hours in, I’m finding it hard to hard to tear myself away.

Despite all of its powers and tricks, Prey is a game where I’m not so much interested in what I’m doing as I am in where I’m doing it. The combat irritates me more often than it excites me, the creatures pestering rather than petrifying, and the upgrade system hasn’t convinced me yet – but if Talos-I continues to be such a warren of possibilities, I’ll gladly spend another thirty hours or more there.

I didn’t expect Prey to make me laugh, but it has. There are audio logs and emails to find, and the tale of Talos-I and the tech that its owners are selling is told through darkly satirical fragments. Sure enough, there’s serious business layered on top of that, but Arkane are having a lot of fun with their awful corporation and its attempts to bring a frightening product to market. From the opening, the humour cuts through all of the grim events with scenes that are more Dr. Langeskov than System Shock, and there’s something refreshing about seeing the HR and marketing departments of a future-corp rather than just falling straight into some evil labs.

Even though I’m not sure I’ll ever care about the personal troubles of lead character Morgan Yu, I was sold on the setting quite quickly, and as a place to play, Talos-I is astonishing. More on that later though because first, I’m going to moan about the combat for a while.

After every fight, I go back through the room using my GLOO gun to put out fires and patch up cracked gas pipes that are spitting flames. My entire approach relies on making the environment as hazardous as possible to all life and then hiding behind something solid. I enjoy this approach and John, who is working on our review, has been lugging turrets around and playing what sounds like a very different game. What I don’t like is that I feel as if I’ve been pushed into a corner and forced to play this way because I hate going toe-to-toe with the enemies, and my pistol is the worst pistol in the history of pistols.

I found a Boltcaster at one point and thought my stealth alien assassination dreams were going to come true, but it turns out to be a toy crossbow, essentially a Nerf gun. That was genuinely annoying because I’d been struggling to see my pistol as anything more than a puny chisel that chipped away at health bars in the least dramatic fashion possible, and I was looking forward to having a proper weapon.

When I found out I was holding a toy, the whole situation felt like an extension of that sly humour that runs through the game, a punchline that hit my sneaky character build right in the gut, but to my surprise it’s become a useful tool. One of the things I love about Talos-I is that most doors can be locked after you’ve gone through them, which allows me to lead enemies into rooms and then trap them inside while I continue on my merry way. The Boltcaster lets me shoot the lock and unlock switch from a distance, which makes me the best monster-herder in the near-future. One time, a monster carried on shooting me through a locked door because its arms had clipped through so projectiles could be generated on my side. That was annoying, but it’s a one-time occurrence in the six hours I’ve been playing.

There are so many little tricks to learn and part of my frustration with the combat stemmed from being foolish enough to think the weapons might be worthwhile or enjoyable to use. In the opening hours there’s far too much wrench-whacking, which might be OK if most enemy types didn’t flow around like liquid smoke, making keeping track of them tricky enough even before extremely limited ammo and stamina are thrown into the mix. A few swings from the wrench and you’re panting for breath while mimics attack from multiple directions, and ammo is precious, at least in the early stages.

I’m hoping that the combination of a skill tree, unlocked using eye-piercing neuromods, and recycling units that can make ammo and other resources will tip the balance in my favour a little as I move through the game. As it stands, Prey seems to be aiming for a sense of vulnerability, forcing me to use whatever is at hand in the environment or my inventory just to stay alive and make progress. That’s a wonderful feeling, liberating in its tension, but I’d like to feel I can take the fight to the mimics and their monstrous mates at least once in a while.

System Shock comparisons are valid but where Prey falls down on that front in these early stages is in having enemies that are more annoying than fearsome. My struggles with combat and the way I have to resort to tricksy tactics to keep myself alive make me think of an immersive sim crossed with survival horror, and what a beautiful thing that would be, but so far Prey hasn’t been frightening at all. The creatures are lethal but the smaller variants, the mimics, are too squidgy and skittish to unnerve me even though they look like a bit like spiders. The only larger creatures I’ve seen so far could be bog-standard humanoid demons or aliens or just about any other kind of baddie. They’re called phantoms, but they’re not spooky in the slightest.

But look, I’m spending all of these words complaining about the monsters because they’re the one bad ingredient in an otherwise delicious cocktail, and despite my quibbles, they do add something to the overall flavour. As I said in the opening paragraph, the real star here is the station itself and it’s absolutely wonderful.

It took me a while to acclimatise to a game that actually let me play how I wanted to play. It’s a strange feeling asking for games that don’t provide constant guidance and then finding myself reaching for a reassuring hand in the dark. I’ve become so accustomed to freedom being a choice of two corridors and a vent that when Prey confronted me with a big ol’ section of space station to explore, I froze. There are objectives to follow, and plenty of side missions including a smart method of hunting down crew members (both living and dead), but if you’re anything like me you’ll often find yourself far from the signposted path.

I’ve turned away from a door because I don’t have the required keycard or a strong enough hacking skill to break in, and then found myself on the other side of that same door without realising I was heading there. Everything feels connected to everything else in such a natural way that there’s this constant amazing feeling of having made discoveries rather than having followed a trial of breadcrumbs.

You know that feeling in a great RPG where you wander into a high-level zone and realise, “SHIT, I’M DEFINITELY NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE”, but then you decide you’re going to try and survive anyway, and then you’re basically a hobbit who simply walked into Mordor and you’re probably doing the best quest ever and the best thing about it is that it was totally unscripted? Prey is that, hopefully for hours and hours and hours.

It’s also a game that gives you a skill tree to work through (two skill trees, really, once the alien powers come into play) and though I found the initial choices underwhelming, I’m already starting to see the strengths and weaknesses of my build. There’s no question that building up the neuromod tech and the horror of jabbing it into your eyeball is slightly undermined when the initial hit lets you pick between +1 Hacking or +1 Repair, along with a few other skills, but all of these choices feed back into the design of the station and how you make your way around it.

I haven’t reached the alien skills yet, so I can’t turn into a mug. That’s the big gimmick everyone knows about, right? Imagine thinking the game is so brill when I haven’t even been a mug for a second. And it is brill. All my uncertainties about the creatures and the combat might diminish or become more acute as the game goes on, but at its core Prey is closer to the Deus Ex and System Shock heir that I’ve been waiting for than anything that I’ve played in the last ten years.

Where Dishonored and its sequel treated their cities as playgrounds, and gave you the abilities to test each space to its limits, Prey is a more tight and tense design, though also far more open. That might sound contradictory but it’s all in the design of the spaces you’re given to explore and inhabit. I’m not just looking for new ways to make use of my toys, I’m looking for ways to survive and progress, often limping from one area to the next, or dragging myself back to safety. But every time I approach an area, new or old, I figure out new possibilities.

That’s the key to it. Prey gives me space to think and to figure things out rather than providing constant prompts and guidance. All of that relies on extremely clever level design though and whether the rest of the game can keep up the high standards of its first big open space, I can’t say just yet. So far, it’s a masterpiece of showing rather than telling though, and if it continues in that vein, I might even learn to love the mimics and all the other horrible little leftovers from a vape festival that pass for monsters.

Prey is available now for Windows and is available via Steam for £39.99. Our full review will be with you early next week.

45 Comments

  1. Walsh says:

    The mimics have made me jump several times, god I hate them. I just start hitting everything, chairs, cups, lamps, etc, with the wrench to ensure they aren’t a mimic. They’ve driven me crazy.

    • ColonelFlanders says:

      You know a horror game has succeeded when you bash every single fucking object out of paranoia.

    • Crimsoneer says:

      Yeah, I’m definitely scared of those things.

    • Solgarmr says:

      Haha, glad I’m not the only one. I love wrenching things

    • spoofzor says:

      I really love there gameplay aspect. Looking forward playing this game. it kinda reminds of half-life to a degree and bioshock. really love these kind of games. Also its in space i love the space setting!

      Its a good way to pass the time till June when star-citizen will launch patch 3.0 with a ton of new content. :D
      Btw if anyone is interested in that game. I’ve got a code for people that consider joining up: STAR-ZZMS-GGMK
      or just here link to robertsspaceindustries.com

      Anyway i really miss these awesome single player games these days. So this will be a delight. Horror is always nice but this setting really grabs me :D

      Good read aswell!

      • ape_escape says:

        ^^ unmarked referral link in that post. Seems CiG are attempting to create an army of human spambots with their $150 million rather than a videogame.

  2. gwop_the_derailer says:

    The first time I saw the Boltcaster, I burst out laughing. The squeaking sound effect of each shot’s impact was just… perfect.

  3. Chaoslord AJ says:

    I never realized they were going for a System Shock 3/Bioshock 1.5.
    Always expected a native american magicks man-eating portal aliens-type “Prey 2”, lol.
    Really excited waiting for the reviews now…

    • J.C. says:

      I for one want ‘that’ game as well. Not enough FPS games with Native American badasses and Magicks.

  4. Biggus_Dikkus says:

    Looking glass server, nice one

    • haldolium says:

      well its the entire screen tech of Talos 1, which basically gives you kind of a 3D-mirror video screen (pretty nice, and definitively less harsh on the performance as that one Dishonored 2 level) so in that regard it might be more then just an homage. But they do play a lot with those, so it might as well be both.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      It’s almost as if they’re wanting the looking glass fans to buy it. ;)

  5. AutonomyLost says:

    I’ve concluded I’ll absolutely be buying this game, barring wall-to-wall panning by critics; this little bit of review helps reinforce my excitement. I think the deciding factor whether I’ll be playing this weekend or not, however, is if it runs well and supports native 21:9. Gotta check on that… Anyway, thanks for the write-up, Adam!

    • Unclepauly says:

      It runs well, that much has been established. People are getting over 60fps ultra settings at 4k with 1080’s. At 1080P I think gtx 760’s are getting 60fps. The flip side to this is that the graphics aren’t the best ever. Personally I wouldn’t have cared if they upped the graphical level a bit and sacrificed a little performance but whatever, it is what it is.

      • AutonomyLost says:

        Yeah, it does seem that it is running rather well across a variety of systems and I found out that 21:9 was confirmed a couple days ago and is performing as promised… downloading now:)

    • vahnn says:

      Well John’s doing the review, just wait for the 3,000 words of him shitting all over it then a single sentence at the end saying “it’s a good game, though.”

  6. haldolium says:

    I wholeheartedly agree on the level design point, it’s marvelous and the station feels very natural and well designed in terms of getting around.
    It was even awkward the first time I noticed that I actually can go where it looks like I can go and am not blocked by invisible walls. And then the game even takes a step further and encourages you to think out of the box. The Gloo gun can make stairs, pretty nice.

    Wouldn’t agree about the combat so far though. The scares lie mostly within jump scares and overly extreme music/soundfx, but I really like how pretty much every encounter is a small challenge/riddle that you can solve in different ways. But usually I’m lugging turrets as well. Feels safer :>

  7. Cerulean Shaman says:

    I don’t really share your dislike of combat, but I also hate stealth and find it cowardly so I guess we’re just different.

    I find the difficulty of the enemies refreshing; like you said they could have easily gone with making mimics slow moving zero-threat crabs that you could easily and happily whack away at.

    But they didn’t and I appreciate that.

    That very fact that they’re difficult to hit with your most efficient (because it uses no ammo) weapon means even us veterans used to strolling through the early portions of an “ammo-scarce” game with nothing but the default melee weapon (I used the knife for the first half of RE7 on max difficulty) and skill, then unleashing a bullet hellstorm when someone truly difficult strolls along, have to now play slightly better than we’re used to.

    Even then, on Hard, it really isn’t actually all that hard. So I don’t know what to say. Frankly I’m really enjoying the enemies and, in a direct mirror to your experience, don’t particularly find that Talos is anything special. I’ve been in more fantastic places that also mattered more to characters and plots, but I do appreciate the fact that it is well designed and the atmosphere is superb.

    My only complaint, as you said, is that you don’t much care about Morgan, but then again I didn’t much care about silent superhero Gordan Freeman either and still consider Half-Life to be a phenomenal game.

    The same could be said of all the Bioshocks save for Infinite, where Booker kind of had a lot to do with, well, everything, and a lot of emphasis was placed on Elizabeth, but that was a first for the series at that level.

  8. Otterley says:

    Thanks for the preview, Adam. Bought the game earlier based on your impressions and I’m having a great time. Totally love the start – great idea.

    Performance is also great – constant 60 fps @1080p with vsync on an AMD RX 470, 12 GB RAM and an ancient CPU.

  9. criskywalker says:

    This seems to be the Half-Life 3 that people were waiting for!

    I was totally not hyped for this game, but it seems to be all we needed and more.

    I would like if developers started rethinking their focus on combat in games though. Bioshock Infinite was ruined by its combat, in my opinion (amongst other flaws), as these very interesting worlds would be much more interesting if you could simply explore them with the occasional combat. Not that I want FPS games to become walking simulators, but fewer and more quality combat would make a lot to improve games.

    • Cerulean Shaman says:

      Can’t really agree with you there. Half the time I just kill stuff and then take a breather while looking around. You CAN have your cake and eat it.

      While I also prefer meaningful betters less action is not the way to do it in an action oriented FPS which is pretty much all the ones that aren’t horror or stealth games.

      • jeremyalexander says:

        Isn’t Half Life just shooting things and taking a breather to look around, repeat?

        • Cerulean Shaman says:

          That’s my point. You can still enjoy the environment and have lots of combat too.

          But that’s a balance every game has to struggle with. Too much too boring and it becomes tedious, too little too easy and it becomes boring.

        • waltC says:

          Absolutely not…;) You are thinking of the Doom games, maybe. HL is a fantastic single-player experience with a story behind it that sets it apart. If you haven’t played through the HL games–HL Source and Episodes 1 & 2 you are missing a gaming landmark–gaming history, slice of.

    • waltC says:

      No way this is HL3…;) Expectations for that are so high that I have little faith that Valve/Newell have any inclination to work their little tails off to bring us a HL3 that lives up to the title…;)

    • fish99 says:

      Sounds closer to System Shock 3 than Half-Life 3 TBH. HL has always been linear, and with no RPG elements.

      • criskywalker says:

        Well, yes, I agree. I only mentioned HL3 because this seems to be the sort of classic, epic game that only comes in a while and because, well, we are never really getting Half-Life 3, so this is the next best thing.

  10. Justin Keverne says:

    I had similar problems with the combat until I slowed down and took a more methodical approach. The Mimics are the basic enemy but they aren’t cannon fodder and trying to take on multiple at once will get you killed. If you have Weapon Upgrade kits use them, increasing damage and range on the pistol is really useful.

    Also, if you’ve found your way to the foyer area – with the lifts – then you can find a shotgun in one of the side areas that does exactly what you’d expect.

    You can also take Neuromods to give you bonus stealth attack damage.

    I’m around six hours in, and the pattern seems to be that I’ll feel comfortable with the combat and have plenty of resources, then I’ll encounter a new type of enemy, use all my resources, and have to scavenge until the cycle starts again.

  11. BenWH says:

    Apologies to those who came here to comment on the game, but this feels like one too many articles about Prey folks, can we stick with wider coverage?

    • Otterley says:

      Articles like these are the only way we can find out if the game is good enough to take the plunge. I’m glad Adam gave us his initial impressions so quickly.

      • fish99 says:

        Agreed. With the weekend ahead and the game just launched a bunch of people will want some solid info and opinions on the game right now.

    • Jac says:

      No. Apology accepted.

    • duffster says:

      Why? You can just scroll past the article you know.

  12. Pizzzahut says:

    I’m not interested in buying this game, but it’s pretty clear that the publisher has stayed out of the way and let the developer use their creativity where they saw fit. A lot of games are going to copy from Prey, I think.

  13. The Bitcher III says:

    Buying tommorrow – just the game I’ve been waiting for.
    (Populated) Space Station – Check
    Explory – Check
    Stealthy Shooty – Check
    Wierd gameplay and NPC stuff – check

    Also loving the retro design. As much as I adored my time in the gigantic organic, feature-rich, detailed, hand-crafted worlds of The Witcher III and GTA V, I groan every time I see another open world full of clutter and MOAR GRAPHICS.

  14. Zhiroc says:

    I played about an hour of it, and wasn’t too impressed. I can’t say I really like the character designs, and the story just didn’t grab me. I know that an hour isn’t really a fair test of the story, but after playing the amount I did, I felt a bit queasy, and so I’ll have to peg this game as one of those (relatively few on console) that give me motion sickness, even with camera bob turned off.

    • haldolium says:

      Prey has motion blur enabled by default an no option for it, maybe that is the cause (and the lower FOV). Try disabling it adding the line “r_motionblur = 0” to your config file where you can set the FOV as well (under User\SavedGames\ in your win user dir)

      • Zhiroc says:

        I was playing the trial on a console, so I only have access to standard options.

        • haldolium says:

          In that case may consider trying the PC version if you can. From all I heard the PS4 demo had major input lag issues and both consoles manage only 30 fps with no room for drops. I would assume this game might play better on PC, even if the 30FPS are usually stable for xbox/ps4.

  15. ResonanceCascade says:

    This game definitely feels like it’s meant to be played on Nightmare difficulty. I’m not a gaming masochist at all — and I play most things on Normal — but here, Nightmare forces you to slow down the pace, be deliberate, soak in your surroundings, and take full advantage of the game systems. It doesn’t make the game harder so much as slower, as long as you’re paying attention.

    Anyway, it’s very, very good so far – on track to be my favorite Arkane game.

  16. Premium User Badge

    MajorLag says:

    Honestly I’m a bit surprised, I was expecting this to be total crap just from the amount of hype. I’ll add it to my mental “when you can get it for a fiver” list, though, because it’s not the kind of game I get really excited about anymore.