Prey should have been an easy home run for me.
Nearly every facet of the game, from its presentation to its mechanical structure feels like it was designed specifically for Will. Though after 18 hours of the reported 20 hour run time, I’ve decided to throw in the towel. The staggering beauty of Talos 1 and the glee with which I spent my first five hours is miles away in the rearview mirror, replaced by a slew of systemic issues.
Prey is gorgeous. It’s rendered similarly to Arkane’s other core franchise, Dishonored, which is to say, softly. It doesn’t share the same quasi-cell-shaded appearance of Dishonored but retains the same sense of abstraction. Objects in the environment are just smooth enough to give the impression that what you’re playing is a painting, rather than something hyper-real. This rendering style enhances and feeds directly into Prey’s art direction.
Aesthetically, Prey has high highs and low lows. Much of the opening 5-10 hours of the game is a brilliantly stylized mixture of the early 90’s Art Deco renaissance, and the mundanity of the contemporary workplace. Gilded moulding crests most walls. A soft light consistently renders surfaces in a warm haze. The music is a swarming miasma of Com Truise synths and Alien orchestration. Despite its aesthetic influences, they’re merged into something completely owned by Prey. Everything is so specific.
But that’s the first ten hours. As you unlock more of Talos 1, the mundanity I mentioned earlier becomes eerily predominant. Gone are the decadent foyers of the Talos 1 Lobby, or the Neuromod Division. They’re traded for self similar hallways, ventilation shafts, and laboratories that seem to have been designed with much less eye for detail. There are a few visually interesting set pieces in the latter half, but most fall prey to just “looking like a video game.”
Prey’s failure to maintain its aesthetic vision throughout is a symptom of its greatest endemic issue: pacing.
When games are poorly paced, and knocked for it, generally that criticism is relegated solely to the pacing of the game’s narrative or gameplay arcs. Prey is odd in that everything seems poorly paced, not just the narrative structure. The art direction. The character design. The level layout, the plot beats, the enemy encounter design, everything, begins to decline steadily through the course of the game. You can feel a Bethesda rep reviewing a milestone in Prey during development and saying “this game isn’t long or diverse enough, but we need it done soon.” I say this because compared to its sibling Dishonored 2, which while a tad over-long, was masterfully paced and constantly injected itself with new ideas the moment you began to feel fatigued with its design. Prey, on the other hand, never has those moments. Barring a handful of plot beats and new powers you receive in the first quarter of the game, what you see in the first five hours of Prey, systemically, is what you get for the rest of it.
The most important part of an immersive sim game, to me, is that its environment and world design is so rich that I want to take my time and engage with every system available to me. Even Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, while a rather stock-standard take on cyberpunk, is at least diverse and strange at times. The king of the hill in this regard is still Bioshock. Fort Frolic is radically different from Arcadia, and gives the feeling that Rapture is a completely self-contained world, full of different cultures, areas, and people. Those dynamic shifts in environmental design ignited my imagination. Aside from its opening, Prey never did that for me. It might be easy to blame Prey’s pacing issue on that it’s a self contained environment: because its backdrop is a space station, there’s no diegetic reason for it to be diverse. But that’s simply not true, especially considering Prey’s adjacency to Bioshock. The game seems to want to be diverse in its environmental design. But fails at every opportunity to do so. The Arboretum, for example, is a chance to inject a new color pallet, or aesthetic sensation, anything, really. But the Arboretum is simply another drab collection of security stations and wood-paneled offices.
Navigation and wayfinding are also stumbling points for Prey. It’s frequently difficult to decipher what, exactly, a quest wants you to do, or where it wants you to go. Normally, that’s fine. I don’t mind having to do some investigation of my own, but when you’ve wandered around the same interior for hours, it contributes to the inconsistent pacing of the game. Also, wandering isn’t the most tactically advantageous activity when the area you’re wandering is populated and re-populated, by enemies. And the enemy design in Prey are its best and worst features.
The most basic antagonistic force in Prey is the Mimic, and it’s the most inventive enemy design I’ve seen in years.
They can take the form of any adjacent object in the environment. When you come too close, they explode into their true form and attack. This is a brilliant design decision because immersive sims, as a genre, constantly have the player pouring over objects in the environment. Picking up trash, weapons, money, etc. is a core part of the experience, and the omnipresent threat that any object could be an enemy is nothing short of unique. It captures the constant paranoia of films like Alien. That there could be a threat anywhere, at any moment. That nothing is to be trusted. It’s doubly commendable because, if executed poorly, the Mimics could have been frustrating at the least. Which is why it’s so disappointing to see that precision of design doesn’t translate to the rest of your encounters in Prey.
Aside from the Mimics, enemies are remarkably uninspired and often frustrating. Visually, they’re just bipedal smoke-things, as if the homogenous enemies of Resident Evil 7 were bedfellows with the smoke monster from Lost, which is to say, boring. Combat interactions with them are messy – their attack animations don’t have the tells necessary to counteract, dodge, or respond to them – and they hit hard. While NCG editor Colin Mumma managed to reach a point where combat became trivial, I never found that to be the case.
Resource scarcity is a feature I generally really enjoy. When done correctly, every shot should feel dire, but you never feel totally boned — resource scarcity can fuel a heightened sense of drama. Every encounter in Prey left me depleted of resources. Often forcing me to simply reload the game, hunt around for small objects to recycle for supplies, and try the fight in question again. It didn’t feel thrilling or tactically rich, fighting the Typhon was simply a chore and often an exercise in frustration.
That said, as an immersive sim, Prey is stacked with fresh ideas. Rather than simply finding audio logs of past residents like its genre peers (though there are plenty of those to listen to), Prey builds a model where every individual on Talos 1 is accounted for through their security tracking devices. If they’re not still alive, you might find their body and learn more about them through the circumstances surrounding their death, or an audio-log they’ve left. Or, more likely, you might find a Typhon that was once a crew member. Prey constructs a healthy chunk of its world building through the artifice left behind by a handful of crew. That through-line, while sometimes hard to follow, does a lot to bill Talos 1 as a living, breathing space. What Prey lacks in environmental diversity to sell its imaginary habitat, it makes up for by creating believable people inside that space.
Prey is also notable in its genre because it allows for a large degree of player expressivity. Immersive sims hang their hat on player agency as a design pillar — there should never be just one answer for any given scenario or situation. Much like Dishonored rewrote the rules for the immersive sim with its “blink” ability, Prey follows suit with a handful of tools that allow for some really zany shit. Instead of the answer to problem X being either A, B, C, or D depending on your character build, it shifts the conversation to answering X with A+1+E+4, or C+B+2, or any other combination of abilities and tools. It feels like a relatively constrained version of Breath of the Wild’s set of interlocking verbs.
Considering the checkered past of the Prey IP, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Prey (2017) has issues, despite changing hands and only being “Prey” in name. Prey takes a handful of tropes of its genre and turns them on their head to great effect, and is (sometimes) drop dead gorgeous in its art direction. The points at which it falters were, for me, enough to call it quits.
It’s really a shame, Prey has an immense potential energy that remains unrealized for the most part. And given its sales figures, it might be another 7 years before we see another.