Life can be pretty stressful, can’t it? I’m sure that you, like me, sometimes wish for nothing more than to briefly transform into a roll of toilet tissue. Imagine; rolling around in 2-3 ply bliss, temporarily free of all the cares and worries that come with the human condition. Well, great news – Prey allows you to simulate this!! It’s not too long before you can unlock the right power and, once you find some of that magical absorption material to emulate, off you go.
Oh, also there are some aliens and guns and stuff.
Prey is a science fantasy game set in an alternate reality. Although the bulk of the explaining is rather oddly done in the loading screens, this imagines a world where America and the USSR formed a short alliance during the space race upon discovery of a powerful and unfriendly alien race; the Typhon. Eventually, the decision is taken to store and study a large number of these mysterious, supernaturally-powered, shapeshifting, rapidly asexually reproducing lifeforms on a space station close to Earth. What could possibly go wrong?
Luckily for us things go spectacularly wrong, and you’re right in the middle of it. After a brief, surprising, and imaginative intro, you find yourself trapped on the aforementioned space station – Talos 1 – and of course virtually all the alien nasties have escaped and multiplied. You begin with nothing more than a wrench to defend yourself, but as you progress you’ll have access to a wide range of weapons and abilities. The first projectile weapon you get is the Gloo gun. Despite dealing precisely no damage, this will prove a vital bit of kit throughout your journey.
Gloo can be used to temporarily incapacitate any enemy (with one spoilery exception), but it may well be the second use that you rely most heavily upon. This stuff will adhere to any surface except glass in big chunks that bear an uncanny resemblance to popcorn. You can in this way plug pipes spitting out fire or gas, but more interestingly it allows you to build your own little platforms. This allows you to make your own shortcuts or reach otherwise inaccessible places and, as the demo proved before the game even released, even give you access to areas the developers never intended (or at the least, much earlier than they intended).
“Bioshock in space” isn’t quite right, but it gives you a good idea of the atmosphere and gameplay that await you. In place of Plasmids we have here Neuromods, one-time consumables used to unlock abilities within several skill trees (including, after a while, alien powers). This is a game crammed full of secret stashes, entirely optional rooms and missions, alternate routes, and that kind of malarkey. So for example, do you want a strong hacking ability to get through doors and safes? Or build up those muscles so you can move heavy objects blocking doorways, and hurl them at enemies? Maybe you just want more inventory space, or the ability to fully upgrade weapons, or maximise your ability to morph into objects that you find, or nab every offensive upgrade possible, or some mix of all this. Prey is keen to encourage you to personalise your experience.
As part of this, Talos 1 is an open-world-ish environment. It’s possible – likely, in fact – that you’ll finish the game without seeing everything, and without even exploring certain areas. I have to say in fact that I’m genuinely impressed with what was clearly a painstakingly designed game world. I can’t remember exploring one before that felt more like a real place (despite the shapeshifting aliens, etc.). What I mean by that is, while you’re obviously poked in the right direction in various places as the story demands, there are big chunks of game world that you only have cause to briefly pass through, if at all. With rare exceptions, you can make your way to your next destination as slowly or as quickly as you like, and toddle off elsewhere if you get distracted without consequence. The environment dictates events rather than the other way around.
It’s also great how completing side missions can sometimes have further-reaching consequences than you might expect. It’s not a simple case of “thanks for saving me, here’s a medkit. Now I’m going to glue my backside to this chair and spout the same two lines of dialogue if you try talking to me again for the rest of the game”. Help a survivor out, and hours later you might be rewarded with items and/or yet more optional quests that would’ve otherwise been blocked off to you. Maybe you’ll be rewarded with another way to finish a mission, or even the opportunity for an alternate game ending. Or, perhaps, altruism will be punished…
At first, enemies are primarily Mimics; the spider-like beings that can take the form of virtually any small-to-medium object not nailed down. Chairs, weapons, medkits, mugs, boxes; anything and everything could be a Mimic. Expect to get ambushed often. The tension doesn’t so much come from creeping into a new area blind, as it does when you know that there’s definitely a Mimic (or two) somewhere – because it’s already attacked you before scuttling off, or you saw movement at the edge of your vision – but you don’t know what it is. You might attack a banana peel in a blind panic, only to have a nearby crate reveal itself to be a monster determined to attach itself to your face.
Mimics don’t take too many hits (although there’s a stronger version that pops up later), but the camouflage combined with speed and agility means fighting them is far from easy. It’s fairly early on in the game that the focus of combat switches to Phantoms, Telepaths, Technopaths, and a few other types. Phantoms are anthropomorphic teleporters with projectiles, split into normal, electric, and fire types. They don’t go down easily, and can be annoying to fight in the early stages if you don’t have much in the way of health or weaponry. Telepaths can mind-control any nearby humans (except you for some reason) and send them after you. As a nice touch, the heads of said humans explode if they get too close to you. Technopaths can hack nearby turrets and ‘operators’ (hovering robots) to turn them against you and, frustratingly, they also have an attack that works at both short and long range which temporarily disables your guns. They keep you on your toes, but to be honest it’s much better when it’s just you versus Mimics.
Sadly, this isn’t the most technically stable game. More than once, I experienced an extended period of terrible frame rate for no obvious reason. The game crashed on me during what was supposed to be a dramatic late-game twist. I once accidentally glitched through a door. Actually, I gratefully quick-saved immediately after that glitch, because I’d spent about twenty minutes trying to work out a way into the room. Maybe the game just felt sorry for me.
Depending on your playstyle and chosen difficulty, Prey could last you anything from 15-25 hours. However long it ends up lasting you, it’s going to be about two hours too long, because toward the end of the story there’s some cheap forced backtracking. There’s a regular supply of surprises and neat ideas to prevent this from being too painful, but it’s still disappointing to see. Overall, though, this is a memorable experience crammed full of good ideas that I encourage you to try for yourself.
What’s the bottom line? Handling freedom of choice better than most games, Prey makes close to two dozen hours on and around a space station more fun than it should be.
Review by the always amazing Luke Kemp (editor of Criticalgamer.co.uk and contributor to other sites), and the thanks to Xbox for providing the review code!