Prey Review – Only a mimic of a good game?
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release: 5th May 2017
Price: 59.99 (PC) / 69.99 (Consoles)
Disclaimer: Review Copy provided by Bethesda Softworks
With Dishonored Arkane Studios quickly became one of my favourite developers to date. As one of the few developers, that know how to design sandbox levels and combine it with an unique gameplay, which sadly suffered from mediocre combat, they earned my respect. Despite its flaws, I love Dishonored 1/2, so the announcment of their next game Prey got me curious, can Arkane create a combat-focused game?
When Yu awakes aboard the Talos I, a space research station, everything he believed in changed. The station is overrun by a mysterious alien race, the staff wiped out and his brother Alex Yu works against him. Slowly, we uncover the truth behind the aliens, Talos I and the meaning of the experiments, conducted on us. With only one mission, we set out to eleminate the aliens, before they reach earth and wipe out the entire humanity. In a world, where we can only trust ourself, where even cups want to kill us and death awaits behind every corner, will we be able to survive?
Prey´s story starts off very strong, the first hour might even count to the best beginnings I´ve played since a long time, constantly throwing surprises and amazing sceneries at us. After the first 3 hours and its story twist, I was confident, Arkane finally improved on one of their biggest flaws, their lacking plot. Honestly, objectively it´s definetly not a bad story and definetly the best Arkane wrote so far, especially the dark and hopeless tone it established, really caught my interest in it, since it proposed a nice contrast to the “Living Weapon” theme of the trailers. Yet, it sadly suffers from the same problems Dishonored did, an uninspirired story-telling.
On the one hand Arkane tried to implement the story as natural as possible, forcing unskippable first person cutscenes or sequences, without much interaction, on us, which is simply boring, if you have to watch a 2 minutes long unskippable cutscene. For example, Dishonored 2 tried the same but gave us the option to skip them, Prey is actually a step back. On the other hand the silent protagonist doesn´t work with Prey´s intention, of a character focused tale of survival. How would you react, if you see, what science did to you and what sacrifices are necessary to save earth? Exactly, with absolute silence. Don´t get me wrong, on paper, Prey´s story is pretty good, often playing in the perfect grey-zone, it´s just not told captivating enough, to make me care about it after a while, as much as it needed to function properly.
However, that´s not the only aspect Prey shares with previous Arkane games, Talos I´s world design is absolutely amazing. Instead of severed levels, like in Dishonored, we´re thrown into a giant connected world. Every area is connected with the lobby and between others, through different shortcuts, unlocked by progressing in the story. The different main areas luckily don´t suffer from the exended world, remaining as open and well designed as known from Arkane, offering the usual amount of different routes and optional rooms or missions. Talos I feels like a giant collection of great designed independent levels, connected through a metroidvania styled tunnel and hub-system, making it a joy to explore every single area to its fullest, actively motivating you to do side missions. The thing I loved the most about Dishonored just got even better here, giving me a feeling for this space station, that could nearly be compared to my knowledge of Dragons Dogma´s world.
Luckily, these levels don´t only feel great but look stunning too, due to the artistic vision Arkane had in mind. Frankly, textures may not have the highest resolution or feature a lot of details but everything these lack, the lightning, effects and creativity compensate. The whole station features a very distinct style, from which the wide range of unique levels branch out, offering everything from a giant botanic garden to a zero gravity tunnel. Additionally, the menus, weapons and enemies are all enhanced with Prey´s artstyle, creating some very cool designed new guns and certainly creepy enemies. Overall, Prey features a very dark and atmospheric “Arkane”-interpretation of the future, with some unique designs and ideas, perfectly underlining the hopeless mood and levels but sadly can´t beat Dishonored´s remarkable look.
To motivate you, to actually explore Talos I, Prey nails the rewarding aspect every single time. Only reading the various e-mails and documents left behind, can be a reward by itself, giving you the opportunity to learn more about the fascinating world Arkane created with Talos I, maybe even surpassing Dishonored´s lore.
If you take your time to do a side mission or to figure out how you can open a door, there will be something in for you, often more than you spent. Be it neuromods, your upgrade point for your abilites, ammo, guns or crafting materials. Yes, Prey features a basic crafting system, for all sorts of different weapons, ammo or repair/medi-kits, you can craft out of 4 main materials. Said materials can be either found in the world or made by recycling found trash. It´s easy to use and works pretty good, providing a nice assistance in your hard fight, in which you won´t often have a lot resources. Medikits and ammunition are rare, making it an almost essential tool because of the huge benefits gained from it. However, as simple as it might be, it just does an awful job at giving you an image of your resources, By recycling your items, you will otften gain obscure amounts of materials like 1.68 organic matter, leading to a weird amount of hex-numbers in your inventory, you´re forced to store, since the crafting system only accepts “whole” numbers. I can´t quite understand why they came up with this weird system to balance the amount of materials you gain, it confuses more than it helps.
As said, Prey isn´t an easy game, resources are scattered and rare, weapons are found slowly and don´t do much damage alone and Yu isn´t the most robust guy, dying in only a few hits. First of all, it´s important to understand Prey isn´t a “normal” Shooter but more of a combo-survival-Shooter, I guess. Nearly the whole combat is designed around disabling your enemies, with either your Goo gun or different types of grenades, before you actually shoot them. Since disabled enemies recieve way more damage, it´s crucial to develop different tactics for each alien and their weaknesses, creating a new and fresh experience. The abilites, of which Prey offers a ton, are designed to help you, by providing new skills to unlock paths, increase health or damage. After some time, you will also be able to scan the typhons, copying their abilities, often granting you great new ways to experiment and kill them. Overall, the amount of freedom offered here works fantastic with the abilites and tactical combat, allowing some great ways to experiment with the turrets of Talos I or explosive containers etc. Even hours into the game I still discovered new things and strategies, making Prey a dream for sandbox-lovers like me.
Last but not least, let´s thematise the highly advertised aliens themselves. At the beginning you will mainly encounter the famous mimics, small aliens able to disguise as any object. They might seem great, providing some cool shock moments in the first hours, unfortunately, the more the game progresses, the more these little things get annoying. I won´t get scared by the 200th mimic popping out as an object with the same sound over and over again, I just get annoyed, Prey can´t use this great idea in a cool and fresh way. During the ~15-30 hour long campaing, depending on your speed and side mission activities, the game will throw a handful of aliens at you, like the big and stronger Typhons or hovering, EMP shooting ones. They´re all great and unique, forcing you to react accordingly and catching you off guard.
Everything at Prey´s combat and enemies may sound great, cool and awesome but in practice, it can´t succeed at creating a proper balance between fairness and difficulty. Particularly on console the combat isn´t designed to be fast, it requires you to properly aim and react with weapon and ability changes, a system that works against the aliens´s design. Mimics are fast, jumping and moving around you, always attacking from another side, providing a challenging but still fair enemy, if it´s not mixed with a typhon or worse.
Prey´s biggest problem are mutliple enemy scenarios, where mimics jump around you, while a typhon is shooting at you or robots shoot flames at you because they require not only fast reactions but also different tactics. Combined with the low health pool, poor resources and poor hit-feedback, replaced with a little red bar at the top, you quickly loose the overview and are surrounded by enemies, killing you in an instant, forcing you to restart the fight over and over again. The further you progress, the more often these will occur and the more often Prey will feel unfair, frustrating you way more than needed. I really love the combat in concept but the way enemies are placed and designed show the lack of real understanding behind their system.
Prey is truly an unique game, featuring one of the best designed space stations I´ve ever seen, along with the characteristic artistic vision of Arkane Studios. Yet, it also copies so many flaws from their previous Dishonored series, like the lackluster story-telling and most importantly, the mediocre combat. The point, where Prey simply fails is to keep the thin balance of fairness and difficulty. When the combat works, it both looks and feels great but these moments are just too rare, switched out by too many frustrating moments, overshadowing all the great things Prey implemented.
Overall, I still really enjoyed my trip to the Talos I, be it, due to the amazing sandboxes or level design, the sheer amount of possibilities to experiment or the lore behind it. I was often frustrated with it, no doubt, I was often annoyed but also enchanted and stunned by it.
It´s not an experience for everyone but for those, seeking more of Arkane or just a good sandbox game.