Friday, 9 June 2017

Prey - Review

Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks 
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

It’s been eleven years since the last Prey game. To be fair, for a game that’s often forgotten as a relic of that awkward first year or so of a new console generation, the original Prey is a surprisingly enjoyable first-person shooter that works hard to create some novel ideas out of a well-worn genre. We never got to feel what the (pretty interesting) sequel would have played like. Space bounty hunter is an interesting hook for a game and it’s a shame that it never saw the light of day.

Third times a charm then...right?

Arkane Studios immediately shift the series in a new direction. The modern day setting and Native American elements are swapped out entirely for a near-future setting where humanity is now reaching for the stars after the development of neuromods; machines that alter the brain in order to enhance human abilities. After a brief opening sequence that’s straight out of Half Life, Prey 2017 makes its aim clear; it’s Bioshock with a hefty dash of Dishonored.

The developers aren’t subtle about it either; the first weapon you acquire is a trusty wrench. From then on it hands the controls to the player and leaves them to explore the station in which Morgan Yu (heh), be they female or male, finds themselves trapped in.

As is usually the case with these kinds of games, the setting is king. Prey’s ominous space station, Talos I, is surprisingly lonely for those first few hours, with only the gentle creak of machinery and the occasional boom of an asteroid breaking apart against the hull. It’s a setting that’s been done before, countless times even, but it’s no less impressive here.

Likewise, Arkane Studios’ work on Dishonored can be keenly felt straight off the bat. Areas can be approached in a bunch of different ways depending on your playstyle. Early on, Morgan gains access to the “Gloo” Gun, a traversal tool that allows you to stick balls of, well, glue, to the walls and floor and create your own paths around locations. Ostensibly it’s Prey’s equivalent of Dishonored’s Blink ability; a core mechanic that shapes the game’s level design, but it’s arguably more inventive and interesting to wield. With the Gloo Gun, you can technically go just about anywhere but there’s more to it than simply pointing on the ledge you want to get to and hitting the trigger button. Instead you have to plan your paths, keeping a look out for more efficient routes which you can build for yourself. The fact that the Gloo Gun also doubles up as a weapon is just icing on the cake.

Naturally, it’s not all about wandering around on your own. Prey’s enemies are primarily the Typhon; shape-shifting aliens that have infested the whole of Talos I. To begin with, it’s simply a handful of Mimics to take care of, skittish little headcrab-like creatures that hide in objects and then jump out and attack you. It’s not long however, until bigger foes start showing up.

Prey takes the unusual step of making its combat unique simply by being rather difficult, and by that I mean that even one lone enemy is likely to be a threat. It makes for a different kind of pace, rewarding players who plan ahead and make use of the environment around them. Ammo is rather scarce, especially during the game’s first few hours, making efficient combat an absolute necessity. Likewise, the focus on a few challenging encounters, rather than a constant stream of enemies, plays to the game’s strengths, whilst also making different playstyles more viable. It’s certainly possible, depending on your level of patience, to sneak your way through good chunks of Prey without firing a shot or swinging your wrench.

This is all stitched together with a fairly robust level up system. Neuromods can be found throughout the station and additional ones can be crafted from other resources scavenged up in the environment. As with Dishonored, Arkane Studios try not to pigeon-hole players by giving them plenty of different toys to play with. There’s the usual upgrades on offer, such as better medikits and more health, but there’s also the more bizarre alien upgrades that soon become available, such as the odd power to hide your body inside a coffee mug, amongst other things.

This level up system is also smoothly integrated into other aspects of the game. Rather than simply slap a morality system into a series of binary choices, it’s moulded directly into the game’s progression system. Take more “alien” upgrades such as the ability to transform yourself or launch blasts of psychic energy, and you’re literally making Morgan less human, a fact that the game outright tells you will influence the endgame. It’s a subtle change, but one that allows the way you play to affect the story being told in a way that’s organic and doesn’t break immersion.

Likewise, too many alien upgrades will register you as an alien to the station’s security systems, meaning they will then start identifying you as a threat. Again, it’s a simple addition but one that allows the game world to feel like it’s responding to you organically rather than simply existing as a static game space.

The biggest threat that comes from too much alien modifications however, is the Nightmare. It’ll show up regardless but (in theory), will stalk players more frequently if they’ve taken more exotic neuromods. As a gameplay concept, the Nightmare functions as the game’s Big Daddy spliced with Alien Isolation: a larger, more dangerous threat that will stalk you from zone to zone and must either be evaded, or, provided you have the resources, fought head on. Again, it’s a fairly simple concept but one that dovetails neatly with Prey’s focus on player choice, and how each individual player chooses to react to the game’s situations based on the upgrades that they have chosen.

Where Prey falters however, is in the fact that this fun level-up system is rarely put to the test. Enemies are tough in Prey but not so tough that they require different strategies. In fact, the variety of enemies alone is bordering on lazy. The main Typhon enemy comes in three different forms but the fundamental strategy to killing it will remain the same, regardless of what type it is.

Similarly, the Mimics, the headcrab-type enemies, are a poor way to create combat encounters. A good portion of Prey’s fighting will take place with you awkwardly scanning the floor as the enemy runs away, hides and then pops out now and again to hit you. Many of the other variants you encounter operate along similar lines. The Poltergeist, simply turns up, throws you in the air and then disappears, before doing the same thing again. It’s rarely threatening, in fact, a lot of the time, its attack won’t even damage you, it’s just annoying. Weavers meanwhile, spawn hordes of floating “cyst” enemies that simply explode in proximity. The end result is that combat rarely feels satisfying. Despite the weapons, gadgets and powers at your disposal, most enemies in Prey feel like pests rather than threats.

It also doesn’t help that many of Prey’s foes are idiots, the game’s A.I. is woefully inept, incapable, in many instances, of even following you through a room or two. Nothing robs the Nightmare of any threat quite like seeing it stood staring directly at you, and realizing it’s unable to attack because it can’t enter the room you’re hiding in.

It’s hard to accurately convey what’s wrong with Prey’s combat, aside from the dumb enemies. It feels bland, mushy, not all that fun to engage in, which is disappointing when you consider the genuinely diverse selection of toys and upgrades the game is happy to hand to the player.

This leaves the game’s story and exploration to pick up the slack, and, admittedly, they are handled more smoothly than the combat. Exploration is still the game’s strongest suit; Talos I is an engaging location to explore and it’s organically opened up to the player largely at their own pace as they progress.

Side quests are doled out every now and then, and more can be located if you have the inclination to go rummaging around and snooping on people’s computers and messing around with the game’s hacking mini-game. Side-quests, for the most part, avoid the padding and instead either expand the story or add new gameplay elements. One side quest for instance, has you faking a satellite broadcast that allows you to distract the Nightmare a number of times, meaning there’s genuine payoff for completing some of the optional content outside of simply doing so for completists sake.

Story beats meanwhile, are mainly handled with audio tapes, another Bioshock/System Shock staple that Prey is only happy to nab a hold of. Despite investing a good portion of its time immersing the player and creating a distinct atmosphere, the story that hangs over it struggles create any real emotional hook or sense of urgency. Morgan Yu and her/his brother Alex are the central relationship which the game focuses on, along with some (pretty fun) alternate history shenanigans involving JFK never being assassinated. There’s not enough meat to the story that’s being told, however, with the central thrust simply being that there’s an alien entity and it needs to be stopped, but lacking the more primal immediacy of something like, say, Dead Space.

The last few hours of the campaign are bogged down in too much back-and-forth nonsense, in addition to a host of extra side quests being made available just as the climax is about to get into full swing, dragging down the pace even further.

Oh, there’s the usual multiple endings and different decisions that need to be made prior to the game’s final outcome, but the final cutscene comes across as a lazy cop-out rather than a satisfying conclusion, regardless of your choices. As with Dishonored, there’s a sense that Arkane Studios want to create engaging worlds, but can’t be bothered to then write interesting stories within them.

Prey, more than anything, is simply bland. It’s occasionally immersive, has a fun set of toys to play around with, but struggles to do anything creative or original with them. It slavishly apes its genre forebears, be they Bioshock, System Shock or Super Metroid, rarely improving on anything those games achieved and instead becoming stuck firmly in their shadow.


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