Thoughts on: Prey (2017)

Prey went through some really troubled development times. Original game of the same name has been one of the longest games in development, announced originally in 1995, and finished in 2006, retaining a lot of the original ideas and a lot of core 90s FPS values (and if you can get it, get it, by the way). Then, a sequel Prey 2 was in development as a more action adventure-type game, closer to Deus Ex or, probably even closer, The Darkness in the mentality and design approach, by Human Head Studios. Yet, after years of development, it was quietly cancelled before being re-announced as Prey, now developed by Arkane Studios. And being a completely different game, highly influenced by “Shock” games and immersive sims. Still taking on the topic of alien invasion, but now from a more psychological thriller angle, similar to the cancelled XCOM FPS title (later completely remade into mediocre The Bureau: XCOM Declassified).

It set out to be something amazing – a very freeform “Shock” title, with all the metroidvania/survival horror exploration focus and even more on top, with interesting setup, with aliens who can look like normal items, with multiple approaches to everything, with nicely written small NPC stories and with the music by Mick Gordon. If only all of this worked.

The locations in this game are astonishing. Not visually, although the art style is a curious art-deco-influenced vision of the future, almost void of the usual trappings of predictable retro-futurism. But because of their scale and attention to details. It’s very easy to forget when playing that just looking around casually will probably show you only half the picture, with multiple layers of each location explorable by jumping, climbing and performing other actions. You may find yourself running in front of the door with a code trying to figure out where the code might be, only to then notice that you can actually move a crate to jump on the ceiling tiles and climb through several rooms and simply open the door from the inside. It’s not a novelty for games such as this, of course, but what’s novel is that you find situations like that even when you absolutely don’t expect that, and none of the routes feel “gamey”, but rather as natural parts of the environment that you simply didn’t notice.

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And to help with that, one of the first “weapons” that you get is actually also a tool that can help you reach those places. The GLOO cannon is a really cool idea for a weapon, that can foam-freeze the enemies, fix the gas/fire leaks in pipes and simply let you climb it’s foam to reach other places. I was always a fan of “weapons as tools” approach that some survival horror and metroidvania games had and this particular weapon is one of the best examples I’ve seen. Sadly, with the rest of the weapons, despite having some creative ideas, being rather boring. In fact, not just boring but often useless – most weapon you will probably be using for the most of the game will be shotgun that you should upgrade as soon as possible to shoot the enemies in the face.

Which is what you will end up doing most of the time. Game sets up being a thriller/horror slow paced experience, where you don’t know if there are mimics in the room and hit every item with the wrench. But then you can do very basic simple exploration and suddenly you can 3D print skill points and have a whole lot of materials to abuse that. Because, you see, almost everything in the game, apart from 1 unique weapon, can be recreated at special devices, as long as you have the schematic for it, as many times as you have the resources. And everything, in return, but the quest items can be recycled using another type of special devices into the resources in question. Which turns a lot of the game experience in the opening hours into your character walking with loads of junk in their pockets. Which, in turn, quickly gives you the ability (as long as you explore and find some schematics earlier than you eventually get them along the story anyway) to just print as much best stuff as you need as early as you want.

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I would call this a good thing for a game like this – being open, being “play as you want” is amazing and means that you shape your experience. And if you don’t want it to be easy, you don’t abuse the system or play on a higher difficulty, right? Well, thing is, there is no “challenge” in the game anyway. Stealth or action are both incredibly boring activities that feel unrewarding and just “yeah, whatever”. So you might as well make it as quick and painless as possible by abusing the system, which would give you a chance to explore more freely. Except, the exploration is also unrewarding and boring. Given that almost no item in the game is unique, you never really find something cool during the exploration. The locations are interesting on their own, of course, but then – only the ones along the main path usually get interesting stories tied to them. The rest are just throwaway logs and notes and things you find which don’t tell or show much you will care about. Usually going away from the story path means hours upon hours of next to nothing of interest happening, despite such potential to build an interesting world and story.

And whatever even happened to the original teasers mood and setup? The game seems to have some remnants of the original mood, where you’re meant to question the reality of things, but the story is written in a very straightforward and boring way otherwise, that more often makes you question the developers, rather then yourself and your knowledge. There are hints at interesting dilemmas and questions, there are a few really good side-stories, and the overall concept for the aliens and the events on the station are really-really good. But when experienced, it just happens mostly in the background as something hardly important or making you feel anything. Going from first experiencing System Shock 2, a game that is 19 years old by now, that despite a lot of issues kept me excited until the end, straight into Prey has been shocking (pardon the usage of “shock” here) – an older title is so much better at pacing and storytelling, hell, even at voice acting a lot of the time.

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Then again, so much is constantly wrong with Prey, that it makes me feel like the game might simply be rushed and unfinished. Despite many patches, the sound and audio mixing are still glitchy and while no particular music track or sound screams at you anymore, some sounds and bits may just suddenly become silent. Game also looks pretty crap from the technological point of view, especially for the fact that it’s using CryEngine, with no mirror reflections, often LOD issues, collision issues, animation issues, strange lighting choices and overall muddy feeling to it all, that ruins the detail and art design that was put into the locations themselves. And some items and dead bodies might just disappear out of the sudden, sometimes leading to the bugs in scripts or making it impossible to complete some side activities (happened to me with one). Some of the locations feel barely necessary and basically untouched in the main game path, with no real payoff to them if you do go to explore them yourself. And some of the dialogue and plot details just feel like they were done last minute or after quite a lot of the game has been redone or cut.

Prey feels like a mess. It’s hours upon hours of good ideas which remain underutilized, of concepts and threads that go nowhere. Almost none of the game feels bad. But then, almost none of the game feels good either. If you ever wanted to have a Shock-like game distilled to the bare concepts and turned into a game, a sandbox Shock title where you just do stuff and don’t need more motivation to continue doing stuff, you will probably like Prey. Otherwise, you will find it a very boring mediocre unrewarding experience.

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