Prey: the game that makes locked doors cool again

Prey [official site] isn’t the game I thought it would be. Clearly, Prey isn’t the game that anyone thought a game called ‘Prey’ would be until relatively recently, given its years in development hell and eventual total departure from both the first game to bear that name and the axed second one that was supposed to. But even when I played it twice over the past couple of months, doing so within time constraints, with my eye only on making progress, I formed an inaccurate impression of Prey. I thought I knew exactly what it was, and I knew I’d like it, but I wasn’t sure I’d love it. I certainly didn’t think it’d turn out to be the game I’ve enjoyed the most so far this year.

I haven’t finished it yet, though I’m getting close now, so I can’t speak to whether I agree with John’s complaints about how its story plays out, but I can say that I don’t care a jot about the story so far. I mean that only positively. Outside of the long and rather sterile introduction and occasional expository radio messages, the story has not gotten in my way, leaving me free to concentrate on the all-important task of finding a way into every locked room.

Metroid games, with which this has much delightfully in common, are not games we play for their story (though in fairness they do have a history of far too much unskippable text in the moments when they decide story is required), but for their environmental puzzling, using the slow growth of your power-set to enter previously inaccessible places.

The defining element of the best Metroid games (Metroid Fusion on GBA being the creme de la creme), for me, is finding a locked door or blocked passage in an early area, spending a good half hour trying and failing to find a way in, then storing it somewhere in the back of your head. Hours later, you acquire some new skill or even insight into alternative uses for an older skill, and the penny suddenly drops. All forward motion is instantly abandoned in favour of back-tracking to that door you saw so long ago. Prey, thus far, has been exactly this, and I love it for it.

I know my packrat/kleptomaniacal tendencies are being played like a cheap fiddle with this. I know that each of those locked doors or sealed rooms or blocked passages have all been placed strategically, to coax and torment me into finding a way into them, even if it involves hours-long treks back and forth across this vast space station. I’m one of those humans who feels compelled to collect, and I am far from alone in it. Prey has been created specifically for me and my itchy-fingered peers.

I have never much enjoyed the straightforward collectormania of, say, finding each of 200 bird feathers scattered across the rooftops of an Assassin’s Creed, but when it’s a matter of knowing that something is being kept away from me unless I can solve an environmental riddle, when I don’t even know what that something is but can’t bear the thought of missing out on it, then I am helpless to resist. I am the squirrel deciphering a huge and complex obstacle course to reach the pile of peanuts at its end.

I did not realise that this was what Prey truly was. I thought the alien-fighting would take centre stage, I thought that, despite talk of it all being set within one space station rather than a series of linked levels, it would still be a game played in stages, like BioShock or Dishonored or a latter-day Deus Ex. I enjoy those games, but their formula is becoming familiar – specifically, comb each place with a fine-tooth comb and then never return.

I hit some kind of psychological block when I played Dishonored 2, a wall that caused me to stop playing it prematurely, and I have been worrying about it ever since. I remember using the Heart to show me the locations of where each Rune and Bonecharm was on the third or fourth level. The dark truth it reveal to me was the distances involved, all the climbing and jumping and teleporting that would be required, all the hiding and throttling necessary to reach them safely, and the gloomy likelihood that I would not be able to figure them all out without external reference. Particularly, there was the knowledge that, in order to meet my own non-lethal criteria, I would have to methodically choke every single enemy on the map into unconsciousness before I felt free to explore and experiment without being constantly bothered.

And all I could see was the work of it.

I had done all this before, many times, in the first Dishonored, and the same experience again, even if prettier and in some cases more elaborate, suddenly seemed only like toil. I didn’t need all those power-ups, but my lizard brain could not leave them be, so I had to clamber across every rooftop and through every skylight and leap to every ledge to reach every one. These did not seem like puzzles, so much as an arduous search for the only correct route to them. No a-ha moments, but instead slowly locating the platform or window that led to them.

Between that, the surprisingly dreary Mass Effect: Andromeda and the overly-functional campaign in Dawn of War III, the poison seed grew – what if it’s me? What if I’ve suddenly ceased to enjoy that which I used to? What if all of this has happened before and has happened again, that I have seen the cycle of gaming return to its start too many times and can take no new joy from it?

Prey has proven that all it takes is the right game at the right time. It is the games, it is me (after all, Dishonored 2 was loved by many, whereas the other two proved divisive), but most of all it’s both. I’ve had this with music and books and film at various points in my life too. Sometimes, a once-beloved activity stops making sense, it loses its thrall, nothing seems to stand out, a point of connection cannot be found. Until, one day, it is, and the gates are open again.

I am enjoying myself far more than I had expected, but I don’t know that Prey’s a masterpiece. In its latter half the puzzlebox element has faded in favour of a more familiar power fantasy, while its storyline works too hard to conjure mystery without making me care first, and its lead characters lack much personality to speak of. But it realises that other element of System Shock, its shared heritage with Dishonored and BioShock and Deus Ex, so well – mind-mapping a large space, making it very slowly your own rather than leaving it behind.

The choice of skills, whether to pick locks or hack terminals or kill or sneak, and of paths through a self-contained level? I know all that almost too well now, as much as I used to desperately crave more games like it. Prey’s differences are subtle but crucial. I inhabit this space for dozens of hours rather than merely vacuum-clean it for a handful of them. One giant puzzlebox to solve.

I resist most of the alien powers, the psychic bolts and mind-control and EMP blasts and all that, because they feel like vestigial incursions from a completely different game – one far more about action than exploration. The only ones I did pick are Mimic, because I can use it to transform into a tin can or potted plant and so fit through small openings, and the ability to use items remotely – enough to activate a door lock from afar. The ones that get me into places, in other words. I fight, of course, with my shotgun and my silenced pistol, but I fight to remove obstacles to my exploration, and secondarily to harvest resources that I can then spend on Neuromods which will upgrade my exploration powers. I do not, however, fight for the sake of fighting, even if my cleansing the place of all enemies might outwardly seem to be pathological.

Prey is not the game I thought it would be. Prey is a game of exploration rather than of progression per se. Most of all, Prey has been a profound relief. Me and games are still OK. I just needed the right game.

33 Comments

  1. President Weasel says:

    I hate being this guy, and I have the horrible feeling you might have put it in on purpose to make me be this guy, but it should be “fine-tooth comb”. Sorry.

    Also, Prey has made barely a ripple on my awareness til now but I’m starting to think I should be buying it and playing it.

    • Tycow says:

      I was exactly the same as you; Prey wasn’t even featuring on my radar because I bounced hard off Dishonoured. Despite this, I purchased the game a few days ago off the back of an RPS article (pre Wot I Think), and I haven’t regretted it.

      It’s engrossed me. :D

    • tasteful says:

      this article is very well done and has filled me with the pack rat lust

    • Parallax.jr says:

      It’s even worse when you’re “the guy” who gets it wrong, although possibly even worse to be “the guy who registers to tell you you’re wrong on an act of orthography pedantry.” It is, correctly, a fine tooth-comb, because it is a tooth-comb which is fine, not a comb with fine teeth, if you get my drift.

  2. Tetrode says:

    “Between that, the surprisingly dreary Mass Effect: Andromeda and the overly-functional campaign in Dawn of War III, the poison seed grew – what if it’s me? What if I’ve suddenly ceased to enjoy that which I used to? What if all of this has happened before and has happened again, that I have seen the cycle of gaming return to its start too many times and can take no new joy from it?”

    This is exactly me too! And Prey is the game to bring me out of it as well. I was getting worried that maybe I wasn’t enjoying games as I used to, but holy shit Prey has brought out those wonderful, familiar feelings that I hadn’t got in a good few months.

  3. causticnl says:

    this the better WOT.

  4. Kingseeker Camargo says:

    I’m kinda burned out on modern day immersive sims because I always find them lacking, so I haven’t even paid any attention to this one until now. BUT! the three pieces I read here at RPS (including this one) make it sound like it would scratch a particular Dark Souls itch, of all things; since apparently Prey actually gets what made navigating Lordran great much better than Dark Souls’ very own sequels, if that makes any sense. As in, the space station in Prey sounds like a more deserving heir to Lordran than Drangleic or Lothric (or Yharnam, for that matter) were.

    I wish the WIT was made by someone with a Dark Souls background, so maybe I could know just how off-mark (or not) I am with this unexpected newfound hope.

    • Alec Meer says:

      I’ve got a reasonable amount of Souls experience these days (Bloodborne’s more my weapon of choice, mind). The comparison starts and ends at the fact that you open up new connections back to earlier areas as you ‘complete’ further-flung areas, and to some extent can wind up facing new threats in old places. It doesn’t feel Soulsy, however.

    • Howl says:

      I wouldn’t try it, looking for Dark Souls. I must be the only person in the world that didn’t like it and perhaps I haven’t given it enough time. It’s linear for quite a while until you hit what seems to be a large hub that clearly opens the game world up. I glanced over all the available paths and instead of being filled with a sense of exploration and adventure I was mainly just wondering when the fun would start and if I even cared. I had opened about 500 drawers and cupboards by this point.

    • Daymare says:

      Since I’m playing Prey on Nightmare as a “relaxing” pause away from Bloodborne, there are some things that I find Soulslike about it, though I agree that you shouldn’t look for a Sousborne in it, specifically. As Alec mentioned, there’s interlocking, back-looping enviroments, which I enjoy in both.

      What else reminds me of Souslbornes: huuugely satisfactory exploration and environmental storytelling (though in a different way). I also find that I have to improvise and consider my surroundings a lot, being able to defeat extremely intimidating foes with tricks and patience, which is something Souls have taught me, tho it’s much more noticeable here.

      And they’re both quite gorgeous and hard.

    • vahnn says:

      The only games I can stand to play any more are the Soulsborne games and Arma 3 KotH.

      And now Prey.

  5. Scare Tactics says:

    At first I thought I’d play a lovechild between BioShock and Dishonored in space, especially since the NPC characters looked like they dropped Dunwalls/Karnacas beggars clothes, hopped into a space jumpsuit and hoped I wouldn’t notice (I know, DH and Prey were both made by the same studio, so I don’t condemn them for recycling a few assets).

    But then the game opened up and I agree with most opinions, it’s just so well designed and executed, providing me almost more freedom of choice than some open world games and gives me a good blast from the past, where game designers treated players as people with fully developed brains, introducing and explaining the games features briefly and then telling him “That’s all you need to know about the mechanics. Now hush, get out there and have a good time!” (which Prey almost literally tells you at some point).
    No cutscenes, no “HEY LOOK! LOOK HERE! FIREWORKS, GRAPHICS, GORE!”, no pathos, just gameplay, exploration and immersion.

    I hope more developers take note of Prey’s success and emancipate their game design formula away from spitting out yet another beautiful but ultimately shallow and uninspiring collectathon (Have a seat Ubi…).

  6. nattydee says:

    “Prey has proven that all it takes is the right game at the right time. It is the games, it is me […], but most of all it’s both.”

    Is it though? I recognize Prey’s gameplay roots in Deus Ex, Dishonored, Metroid, Bioshock etc, but to my eye Prey does a much more effective job (IMO) at melding those influences into a coherent system. One of the big differentiators I think is that those games pose the PC as a superhuman who could at any time go on a lethal rampage and slaughter everyone in their path. Stealth/non-lethal playthroughs then become more of a test of the player’s self-discipline and skill than something that’s grounded in the setting.

    Where Prey exceeds is by (at least on the harder difficulties) making enemies quite deadly and the PC relatively weak. Combined with the puzzlebox nature of the rest of the game, you have a very effective survival horror game. All the other stuff – the compelling nature of the setting, the SCP-inspired aliens, the neuromods – are icing on the cake when the core gameplay loop is so satisfying.

    I think Prey does some things amazingly right, and it should be recognized for it :)

  7. Daymare says:

    Dear Alec,
    Starting Dishonored 2 I was also worred that, being the peace-loving assassin I am, I dreaded I would have to choke each and every single guard in the whole of Karnaca. I loved it though, because there’s there’s a bunch of tools to help you with your pacifist choking — especially if you play as Emily. Maybe you didn’t know about some of those?

    – You can multi-choke linked with Domino enemies.
    – After a successful block you can put guards to sleep even in combat (wasn’t in Dh1 afaik).
    – Sleep darts combine nicely with Domino.
    – Shadow walk can be used to non-lethally take people down, too.

    • timsmith says:

      I’ve not played Dishonored 2 yet, but if it plays like the first then I’d like to add that I think there’s a more fun way to be playing than Thief-style unconcious body stacking. I played through Dishonored 1 as a truly silent assassin, aiming to never even be spotted. I thought its skill set and generous quantity of stealthy routes encouraged that – most of the time it felt like it would be pointless to stop and incapacitate guards. Obviously it was designed to allow multiple playstyles, but I’ve been surprised at previous RPS articles (can’t remember if it was Alec) talking about snoozer stacking.

      That said, I took advantage of the DLC’s protagonist swap to role play a more violent character and play with the combat mechanics more.

      • Daymare says:

        You know, I’d like to Ghost a stealth game one day, but with Dh1 and 2 I put most enemies to sleep so I could explore undisturbed.

        Dh2 is a wonderful game. Clockwork mansion was one of my favorite gaming experiences.

  8. ariston says:

    What I want most out of games is immersion… to completely lose myself in somebody else’s world, and to have the tools, knowledge and capabilities necessary to do things RIGHT – potentially, at least. I hate dying in games, so I prefer it if dying is something born of my own stupidity or oversight, rather than something inherent in the game design. I want story, and mystery, and, yes, locked and/or secret rooms that are begging to be discovered. I hate it when games take control away from me, and give me limited options that are meant to prod me in the one direction the game designer had in mind. Safe to say that I utterly dislike rogue-alikes, frequent dying, cutscenes, quick-time-events and survival games.
    Prey is fantastic (10 hours in so far, and I’m taking my sweet time), in that it elegantly circumvents all of the above. This is the game I was hoping it would be, and no, I haven’t even turned into a cup yet. I really do hope, as others have said, that other devs will take note (and that Prey will have the success it deserves, although I suspect that the frantic shooter crowd won’t have the patience to appreciate its beauty).

  9. Greg says:

    IGN gave the game a 4 out of 10. I’d give it a 4 out of 10 too, if it corrupted my save game files 30 hours in.

    • Blad the impaler says:

      I didn’t think that was possible on that website. I am more intrigued than ever now.

    • Chitzkoi says:

      Is this the new Alien Isolation-gate?!

    • haldolium says:

      They should acknowledge the bug and fix it soon. Seems quite a few people got it.

      Savegame corruption is the worst that can happen. Thankfully it didn’t happen to me on a permanent base, but it once crashed while saving and when I tried loading it, it told me “save corrupt, gonna delete it now”. The quicksave from 3 seconds earlier worked just fine.

    • Simplex says:

      That 4/10 score was there for 1 or 2 days, when the bug was fixed the score was updated to 8/10.

  10. Chitzkoi says:

    It’s like Alec read my mind on Prey and Dishonored 2! I gave up in the third level because it felt like work rather than fun.

    Prey, on the other hand, has me utterly hooked only a few hours in.

    Good article!

  11. john_silence says:

    I totally play games like Alec. For me Prey’s open-ended architecture is a paradigm shift in immersive sim design, or rather a return to that sound Metroid-like paradigm: if you can’t be bothered or are unable to reach something right now, YOU CAN DO IT LATER. That’s how it’s done, folks. Let us backtrack.

    What a massive relief to the compulsive explorer. I still struggle leaving an area with a couple of things left to access, but the mental exhaustion is nothing compared to Dishonored for instance. In Bioshock you could backtrack to many areas previously explored, but it wasn’t engineered to accommodate that in the way Prey is.

    Also let us run into things too early; taking down an enemy I initially chose to circumvent because it took me down in a single swipe is absolutely wonderful. In the quarantine area pictured above, I shot someone and, from what I read, now think he would have been a very interesting subject of study later on. That’s another way to create mystery, another kind of secret beside the hard-to-reach areas, something you’ll think about later on and go “mmmmh…”

    The weird flipside is that I find it important to invest in the combat branch of character development, since I need enemies not to bother me while I ponder the navigational puzzles. I’m like an Einstein-mech who swats badass aliens like flies on the one hand, just so they let him goddamn think quietly. Cool alternative power fantasy right there.

  12. Blake Casimir says:

    I’m just completely thrilled that we have a new immersive sim to play. And a sci fi one at that. Prey is marvellous. Sure it has some small issues, and I’m still not convinced about the sound design and visual feedback of some of the weaponry, but it’s an explorer’s paradise. Walking simulators hang your heads in shame, for Prey is a game that truly REWARDS exploration. Open world games, hang your heads in shame, for Prey has one of the most compelling and well-realised, hand-crafted game worlds ever designed. One that actually has compelling things to do in it, and isn’t just a list of collectable crap that adds nothing to the gameplay experience.

    I’m not happy about the difficulty balance with gun-based combat, I’m not happy that Bethesda didn’t allow pre-release copies / reviews / hype, and I’m not happy with the idea of running a Denuvo-DRM-laden game on my computer. But bravo Arkane for making one of the greatest immersive sims ever. Steam tells me I’ve been playing for 37 hours and I still have lots of side quests to do and I haven’t visited all of the exterior, the GUTS, or the Bridge!

    • Marclev says:

      Regarding the gun based combat, I would say that I don’t remember any other game where I was so grateful the moment I finally found an actual gun next to a body. Running into my first Shadow with only the wrench as an offensive weapon is a gaming moment I won’t forget soon.

      I would have been happy with that thing if it shot at 45 degrees!

  13. polarnomad says:

    After reading this article, I have no option but to get the game for myself. Downloading now! \o/

  14. pip3dream says:

    This was a good read. In the last few years, I’ve been increasingly unimpressed with my experiences in gaming. I thought, somewhat depressingly, that perhaps I’ve just finally outgrown the hobby. But more recently, I’ve been starting to consider that this isn’t just on me, but that there is a bit of an innovation problem with gaming… One game in particular that just came out, completely captured my attention and gave me a bit of relief that it’s not just me… but that we’ve really had a few waves of mediocre games and nothing thats really pushed into new territory.

    I’m looking forward to trying out Prey.

  15. fenum says:

    Basically arkane knows player’s action pattern. Knowing pattern lets them play with our minds, by simple mechanics For example they know where and when you are going to save/load and what specifically for. But first lets try to deal with one thing, prey have two active “save” systems aoutosaves and quick”save”/ quick load they are here for making a checkpoints not saves, only manual save and aoutosave saves properly. F5 and F9 works like markers or dots on timeline, in other words and putting it simple, if you Quick save and then kill an NPC Quick loading after that game will take into considiration that you tryed that action, and it will react to this action in many ways possible, ether by text messeges that will print on your brain and no matter wich save file will you load that text will be printed on your brain and wont go anywhere. ( e.x. text about smuggling drugs to earth and bribes amonge security) or by dead body appiring out of nowhere turning its head and looking right at you.
    The game gives you some hints about its knowledge of player’s pattern and about it’s save system via Intentionaly placed bugs, randomly opening and closing/doors ,sound effects glitches, ghost, moving objects, adding objects, altering quest loot even making your character interface work diferentrly.
    After some wierd shit happens i alwyas say “maybe its just my mind playing tricks on me”, thx god game alwyas brings proofs that it is not my imagination but the game itself built that way.

    And only by doing unpredictable actions like not picking up drugs so conveniently placed to test a player, by not opening door that requers hack skill 1 and looking for keycode insted you make the game flow differently.
    THX ARKANE, thx for empty, a lil bit graphicly unfinished, dull rooms for payers who use hacking skill and for great design and interesting storyes for those who gets around without hacking.

  16. ravenshrike says:

    So, the most useful skills so far are repair, necropsy, and leverage 1. Most useless skills are the other leverages. Why? Because with any leverage 1 item you can beat the shit out of the heavier items and move them.

    • Simplex says:

      Or you can throw recycler grenade.

      However later in the game there are grates requiring higher leverage skill which need to be picked up, so they cannot be shoved out of the way.