When I first booted up Prey, I promised myself I would do my best to approach the game without miring myself in constant comparisons to System Shock 2. Prey made that no easy task. The protagonist, after waking from some sort of simulation, finds a space station rapidly becoming derelict. Mutants and aliens stalk its halls, equipment is going haywire left and right, and you’re quickly guided by a mysterious construct.
I understand that this sort of reductive description skews towards a comparison to System Shock 2. Frankly, I don’t have much of a problem with Prey being a similar game to SS2. I think SS2 is beautifully made game, and deserves an homage beyond whatever the Bioshock franchise has become. The areas I really find fault with are those in which Prey deviates from resemblances to SS2 – namely in difficulty and in atmosphere.
At the very beginning, Prey had me feeling tense and anxious. Confronted with the idea that any object could be an alien in disguise had me slapping everything with my wrench, and second-guessing whether or not that tipped over stool had been there before. I snuck through vents, scurried across catwalks, and slinked through shadows, all to prevent being taken by surprise. For a while, Prey really had me on my toes. Unfortunately, my constant anxiety was short lived.
Before long, Prey had decided to give me the keys to the kingdom. In a design choice that I have difficulty understanding, Prey gave me the blueprints for every resource I could possibly need, and then let me pump them out using its crafting system. Soon I was spamming shotgun shells and neuromods – the latter allowing me to upgrade the protagonist to heroic levels somewhat early in the plot.
I blame part of this problem on Prey‘s efforts to create an “open station” out of its main locale, Talos 1. Most areas are accessible at any point within the game. While this definitely helps give Talos 1 the feeling of an actual space station, it allowed me to collect blueprints, weapon upgrades, and neuromods very early on. Beyond that, however, I think the game just wasn’t very difficult. I ratcheted the difficulty up to max, and I was still able to find and craft a surplus of materials. I quickly discovered that a quick stun gun zap and a couple blasts from an upgraded shotgun would make quick work of most enemies.
The open-station concept also eliminated any real sense of urgency from the plot. I spent so much time exploring and completing side missions just after starting the game, that I soon realized I couldn’t remember my primary goal. Because the station is almost entirely available, and because there’s no real rush to move on to the primary plot, the game loses much of its bite. In fact, eventually I didn’t feel stressed at all. I felt as if I could mosey around the station for as long as I wanted, blasting the occasional spawned enemy with my shotgun, otherwise unperturbed.
It didn’t take too long for the side missions to lose their allure, however. Prey made an admirable effort to create a world with a backstory. An alternative timeline in which JFK was not shot, and in which the Cold War lead to vastly accelerated space-age technology was interesting at first blush. Combined with the various book excerpts, notes, and audio logs left around the station, I felt there was a kernel of something fun to grasp onto. However, these various threads eventually lost themselves in the weave of the game. Each of these efforts at historical revision, glimpses into the surrounding world, and humanizing NPCs felt as if they were started, but never finished. In the end, it seemed as if Arkane thought to themselves, “Well, we’ve got to be different somehow. Let’s try all of these!” and then threw a handful of darts at a board without aiming. NPCs who fostered relationships – with me or their compatriots – felt two-dimensional, placed there with the intent to pluck at heartstrings or a sense of morality, rather than to actually create a character.
At one point, I was tasked with hunting down a murderer who had killed and taken on the identity of an NPC’s lover. Having had minimal interaction with the NPC in question, and having no real connection with the killed individual beyond a few notes or emails, I felt utterly uncompelled to follow this quest to its end. Obviously the killer was a bad person, but the game did nothing to make me really care that this happened. By the end of the game, the killer was still running around the station somewhere, occasionally sending me cryptic but unimportant transmissions.
This lack of real development meant that most quests ended up falling a little flat. Eventually, I got to the point where I didn’t care about them anymore – a bad sign. It also didn’t help that, at times, Prey felt like an underprepared or vindictive game master. Too many times I was tasked with something that was actually quite close to my current location, or seemed easy to solve – only for Prey to suddenly drop some new “problem” halfway through the solution, as if it had realized it was too easy a task after all.
A prime example occurred near the end of the game. I had to transfer between areas in the life support section of the ship. Typically this means activating a panel and waiting for a loading screen. For some reason, the game decided that it needed to throw a little hiccup my way. This time, the panel was swathed in cloudy black shadows. I had to scan it to recognize that it had been “corrupted” by an enemy, and I had to eliminate the enemy to proceed. Too bad it was an enemy I’d already encountered and defeated several times before this, and that it was in a room right down the hall to boot. What was the point of this exercise? Two grenades and a few shotgun shells later, I was in the next area. Why waste my time this way?
The very fact that this minor interruption featured an enemy I had already dealt with multiple times really got under my skin. Prey has some serious problems with repetition and variety when it comes to enemies. At first, the mimics seem like a really interesting concept. They really had me feeling paranoid. I was sneaking around every inanimate object in sight for a while. However, once the player is given the psychoscope helmet as part of the main story, they’ll also soon run into a plugin that lets the scope detect mimics. So what’s the point?
The humanoid enemies, or phantoms, were also rather dull. They come in four varieties – vanilla, electric, ethereal, and fire. Why? I don’t know, they just do. And it’s not very exciting either. It’s the same enemy with a slightly different model, and an extra ability or two tacked on. Occasionally Prey throws some more unique opponents at you, but even these become repetitive and more of a chore than anything – especially when you can fabricate all the resources you need to take them out.
One of the repeat favorites seemed to be a cyst node, which would burst into spherical cysts attracted to movement. They would explode if they came too close to you. At first, this was a fun challenge. A few hours later, and they were everywhere. It became too much of a hassle to sneak around them, so I’d just dispose of them in any of the variety of ways available to me.
Prey‘s failure to create any real sense of urgency, or a believable threat, was made utterly manifest when I was faced with a near-final choice in the endgame. I was given the option to eliminate the alien biomass, or to utterly destroy Talos 1. This choice was presented to me as if they were mutually exclusive options. However, there is no plot-relevant or logistical reason why destroying the biomass couldn’t be attempted, and then, if it failed, the station destroyed. It’s completely within the bounds of reason to try one, and then the other. Prey kept trying to force this feeling that I could only choose one, and it felt like such a massive oversight that the exclusivity of the choice would be left unexplained.
To top it all off, once I finished the game, I was presented with the typical Bethesda/Arkane report card – a recap of all my choices over the game, and how “good” or “bad” they were, from other individuals’ perspectives. This steams me in most games. I know what I did, and why I did it. I was there for that. By all means, tell me how it might have had an impact on the future in a large way, but don’t just give me a recap of everything I did. It left me feeling frustrated with the game – as if a lot of excellent potential had just gone to waste.
On the whole, that’s how I feel about Prey – the ghost of wasted potential capers around every corner in this game. It opened so many interesting avenues, but all of them quickly deteriorated into unpaved country roads. Prey ended up with too little valuable content, and felt shallow. The game entertained me for at least half of its duration. By the second half, I was just sprinting through objectives at neuromod-induced superhuman speeds, hoping to cross the finish line sooner rather than later.