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Do alien powers make Prey more than another sci-fi shooter?

The Amazing Towel-Man

A few weeks ago, I played through the first section of Bethesda and Arkane's upcoming first-person-shooterbut Prey [official site] (no relation, other than in name, to the original Prey or its aborted sequel). I like it well enough, particularly the Total Recallish sense of intrigue it raised about what was really going on and whether the player-character was the person they believed themselves to be. At the same time, I'm not sure how much I truly had to say about it, outside of description.

It was there, polished and pacey, absolutely the kind of thing I traditionally enjoy in an action game - but it was guns and monsters and doorcodes. Where was the thing that made Prey unique? I've been back and played a later section of the game, amongst other things I've transformed myself into a stack of towels and now I have a much clearer sense of what this new Prey really is. I can show as well as tell you why.

The thing that we all got hot under the collar about when real details of Arkane's Prey reboot began to trickle out was the option for alien-derived powers, in addition to gunplay and Deus Exy hacking/strength/stealth abilities. Turn into a cup! Yeah, man. I'm down for that. That the idea of roleplaying as an inanimate object while playing an exciting action game is what most appeals probably says far more about me than I am comfortable with. Regardless of whatever unhealthy interest in kitchenware I might possess, it was a mild disappointment that my first hands-on encounter with Prey had all the alien stuff locked away.

The new section I played is, in terms of the game's internal chronology, about 45 minutes on from where the first chunk left off. I'll dodge story stuff, of which there was in any case less, this time around, and focus on features. Features like this:

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The absence of floppy cloth physics is mildly heartbreaking, but even so: I can roam around an alien-infested space station in the future while pretending to be a stack of towels. Dishonored has rats and fish, but not towels. I'm a fluffy, 100% cotton master of stealth. And I'm particularly tickled that I did this while Benedict Wong wittered exposition at me. I'm taking this seriously, bro, honest.

Three major questions are raised by the transformation power. One, how generous is the game about what you can turn into? Well, it's hit and miss, I found. There'll invariably be at least one object within sight range at any one time, but at the same time you'll spend some time fruitlessly waving your cursor over a lot of stuff, gradually learning about what is and isn't allowed. Transform power upgrades theoretically open up the options further, but I wasn't able to shove enough points into unlocking that during my hour or so with the game. For tier one transform, generally speaking it's small, light objects - the biggest thing I Optimused into was a desk chair. Speaking of which, let me demonstrate the answer to my second question, which is 'could you, in theory, play through the entire game as a random object?'

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As you can see, I'm able to rattle around the floor without issue, even performing small hops to climb up stairs, but catching a space elevator to the next floor reverts me back into bipedal form. Prey offers various routes around its levels, so possibly in that instance there'd be a way to progress without become dechairified, but the majority of those other routes involve being human so I can hack or repair or fire rubber arrows at switches from afar or build custom staircases with my glue gun.

The third question is 'what about combat?' Tragically, as a chair I'm not able to pummel foes with my aluminium legs, or try to suffocate them by wrapping my towel-form around wherever I approximate their noses to be, but there is scope to use transformation for stealth-based purposes.

Now, in my short time with the game, I can't say that I encountered any situation in which avoiding combat was at all necessary, and nor was there any story-based reason to leave Typhon - the collective name for the various types of murder-tarball aliens-or-are-they in the game - alone. However, I can well imagine that ammo shortages and larger enemy numbers and/or more dangerous variants later in the game might change that - plus I have good reason to believe that I'll end up facing humans as well as monsters, in which case my killer instincts may well be dulled for moral reasons.

In any case, stealth while transformed does not permit sneaking. The Typhon I was up against are not stupid, and will spring into lethal action if they see a cardboard box creeping along the floor, like so:

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Transformo-stealth is going to be more of a waiting game, either hoping enemies will leave the scene or that they'll wander into range so you can ambush them. Given the aforementioned presence of some NPC humans, I wonder if we might be in for a spot of Assassin's Creed-style tailing people and listening in on conversations too, though all this is merely speculation for now. A stealth element I'm more confident will come into play is body-morphing in order to avoid security systems such as turrets.

While these things are ostensibly on your side - i.e. they're there to protect the station from Typhon - the trouble is that sticking too many alien modifications into your brain makes them read you as being alien too. So you have a choice to make - an easier life but no towelling, or access to the game's most playful powers but a harder time getting around the place.

If you do go for the latter approach, and I'm reasonably sure that anyone with an ounce of joy in their soul will, the good news is that the mimic power isn't purely about avoidance or homeware cosplay. It can also be used to access places that are otherwise out-of-bounds. For instance:

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I have to make a confession here. I did not make that connection without prompting from a nearby Bethesda bod. Which speaks to my lack of ingenuity as much as it does that, hopefully, Prey isn't being too obvious about things. It's shooting for a sci-fi place that feels plausible, not one full of 'yoo-hoo!' giveaways like mansize vents and doorcodes scrawled on the floor in bits of lower intestine. Of course, I can only speak to what I saw in an hour-long chunk of the game, however.

Another example of that sort of thing is breaking into a locked morgue. I spent ages scouring the ceiling for ventilation shafts before finally finding a use for a dartgun that had thus far proven entirely useless in combat:

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So yes, in some respects this is more of a sci-fi remix of Dishonored than I'd thought it was in my first play session. Nowt wrong with that, quite the opposite in fact. I didn't click with Dishonored 2 to the extent many people (rightfully) did, purely because the setting and structure felt a little too similar to Dishonored 1's.

The idea of transplanting the same ethos into a very different environment, with very different powers and foes, appeals that much more. At the same time, it doesn't feel like Dishonored - this is more like the haunted spaces of Bio- and System Shock than the living cities of its stablemate or its other key touchstone, Deus Ex.

That said, as I've previously alluded to, it's not a complete ghost town. Various apparently friendly NPCs chat to you via radio, in what I'm afraid was pretty much exclusively exposition during this segment, hovering helper bots will restore your health and armour and, occasionally, you might encounter a test subject. I ran into a convicted criminal, locked in a glass cage by the TranStar corporation (who protagonist Morgan Yu works for), into which a Typhon can be released in order to monitor the combination of assault and mimicry that follows.

Only that hasn't happened yet, because the station got abandoned when other Typhon got loose. So it's up to you. You can read his rapsheet on a terminal nearby, and decide whether you believe his protestations of trumped-up charges, or decree that he's scum of the earth and deserves to be torn apart by fractal slime. Or you can strike a deal with him. I happened to encounter him after I'd found my way into the armoury by sneaking through its letterbox (as seen in the fourth video above), but had I not, he could have told me another way in.

As you can see, I set him free anyway. Of course I did.

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I should mention that the game didn't seem entirely sure what to do with him thereafter - he just sort of hung around - which was a shame, and not for the first time makes me understand why BioShock didn't let you meet sane characters face to face, but I like the idea that this is still a living space, not just a haunted house. Fleeting choices that build up who you are as a person, not just what kind of killer you are. I suspect Mr Ingram above will crop up in some capacity later in the game, however, given that he's voiced by Walton Goggins (that guy with infinite teeth from The Shield, Justified and the last couple of Tarantinos).

The best thing, though, was that I had a character screen full of powers I'm yet to experience. From the more traditionally Deus Exy, such as hacking and heavy lifting, to more alien fare such as telekinetic blasts and time-slowing - nothing else as a transformative as transformation, at least not that I could see, but it's all about these things in combination.

Powers are dual-wielded with weapons, BioShock 2/Infinite-style, and many of the weapons function more as a tool than a killing device. The gloo gun that locks Typhon in place, a silenced pistol, a zap-ray for humans (not that I've encountered any enemies of that type as yet), that rubber dart gun you saw earlier, a gravity mine that pulls everything not nailed down towards it... Yes, there's a shotgun too, but it almost feels like that's there as a shrug: "well, if you must have a standard weapon, here you go - but look at all these toys!" Lots of combinations, both in terms of combat and in terms of navigation.

That's Prey, then. Not just a game about finding a way around a space station, but perhaps one that's far more meaningfully about creating your way around it. While pretending to be laundry, ideally.

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