Prey

How much enjoyment you'll get out of Prey will depend on how much of a fan you are of System Shock 2. It's one of my favorite games of all time, and all subsequent games inspired by it, Doom 3, Dead Space, and Bioshock, were all diluted and lesser versions of it. Prey is the first game since to feel like the spiritual sequel I always wanted. But because Prey is so similar to the games preceding it, I've seen some people express exhaustion that we're getting yet another one of these sorts of games. But I'm totally fine with it, because of how disappointing every single one of these attempts have been up until now. I'm glad to finally see someone get what made the System Shocks good.

Even though I was on board with what the game is doing, Prey does a bad job of communicating how you're supposed to play it. Early on in a tutorial it says "Play how you want". But that creates false expectations. Not that any game allows you to play however you want, but in the case of Prey that's definitely not the case. Whenever you're confronted with a problem in Prey, whether it's a locked door, or an enemy, you have multiple ways of getting past. But there's always one solution that's better than the others. You have a range of options, but using the wrong tool for the job is a recipe for frustration. If an enemy appears ridiculously hard, it's because you're not dealing with them using the correct tool. And if you want to play the entire game only using a pistol or shotgun, you're setting yourself up for misery.

The whole game takes place on a space station, which you can look at from outside by going into space. Because of the chaos that has unfolded on the station, there's holes in the hull, some of which you can repair with the Gloo gun, or using the station systems. This adds a sense of coherency to the world, which appeals to that part of the brain that enjoyed looking at the deck plans of Star Trek ships, and keeping a timer to make sure the TV producers always kept elevator travel times consistent with the actual distances traveled. So in Prey, every human on the station has a tracking bracelet, and you can use computers to create waypoints and find every single person who worked on the station, if you wanted to. Some might find this kind of meticulous internal logic to the exploration tedious and pointless. But I like it, as it's the closest I'll ever get to visiting a space station in real life.

Movement in Prey feels more or less identical to Dishonored. Similarly the art style looks like the halfway point between Bioshock and Dishonored. Arkane are torch holders for the kinds of game design pushed by Origin, Looking Glass and Ion Storm, the so called Immersive Sim. So for example, the game tracks and remembers every thing you do in the world. Enemy corpses remain on the ground for the entire length of the game. In my playthrough, the remains of a larger enemy stuck around in the station lobby for over 15 hours. New enemies spawn in based on story progression, and there's a finite amount of items and resources in the world.

Prey improves on aspects from System Shock 2 in ways that seem obvious, like how it handles audio logs. In System Shock 1, audio logs were invented so the game could tell a story with multiple characters, without the player having to talk with anyone via a dialog tree. They were written as audio diaries, and in System Shock 1 & 2 their inclusion fit well with how the rest of the game was conceived. Ever since then, everyone has copied that model blindly over and over again, ad nauseam. Probably the worst example being Alien Isolation, where they harmed the pacing. What Prey does to shake things up, is to simply make the audio logs be recorded dialog between multiple characters, instead of just being diaries. The way they're written also conveys more character than they did in something like Doom 3, where audio logs were a personality black hole. This change is so obviously better I can't believe nobody has done it until now.

Another feature in Prey, which seems obvious in hindsight, is how the game uses player action verbs to branch the story. What I mean is that instead of having the story branch based on dialog choices, your ways of affecting the story are restricted to the actions you use when you play the game normally. So for example, you're free to shoot every NPC you meet in the game, and sometimes the decision not to shoot someone will have negative consequences down the line for others on the station. It's only in retrospect you see how someone will interact and come in conflict with others, and how you could have prevented it by being more trigger happy. It's similar if someone is unconscious, you can save their life by carrying them to safety, just like how you'd carry a box. Or if you level up and change yourself, that can have unforeseen consequences, depending on how you choose to improve yourself. So if you give yourself psychic abilities, turrets on the station become undecided on whether you're still human. And if you level up beyond that, they'll start firing at you, because by their estimation, you're not human anymore. What you can't do to affect the story, is talk to anyone. You're a silent protagonist. This feels very much like the devs experimenting to see how far they could take this idea. It's like a more extreme version of how the Deus Ex games have handled player choice. As much as I appreciate all this though, it's too bad the game feels like it was released 6 months early.

A lot of stuff in Prey feels unfinished, like the audio. The list of mistakes is huge, as enemies on a different floor sound like they're right next to you, some rooms have heavy echo, whereas most have none at all. On almost every map, I feel like I ran into some minor or major issue. Like Thief 4, this aspect feels slapped together in a hurry, and in no way matches System Shock 2. But even with these issues, the game has its moments when it all comes together as it should. Moments where the music creates oppressive tension, where the anxiety and paranoia spikes through the roof. Those moments made me more forgiving of the times enemies fell through the floor and kept roaring at me from outside the level.

But beyond technical issues, there's bigger problems, like how the story fails to build drama, especially in the second half. Normally the middle of a story would build a sense of inevitability to events, where you’d intuitively be able to tell how close you were to the end. Prey doesn’t succeed in this at all, making the ending feel like it comes out of nowhere. The middle of the story doesn’t so much build as it twiddles its thumbs as you visit all the locations in the station. This has been a common problem with Arkane games, that the story comes across as distant, and not dramatic enough. But I haven’t been blindsided like this before. Usually I had some kind of idea for how close to the end I was, whereas in Prey it just kind of happened. System Shock 2 certainly did this better, even if many of the details of how it told it's story was worse. In a macro sense, it had a better control of the basics of how to tell a story. The ideal game would combine the strengths of both, so I’m hoping it’s what we’ll see in the upcoming System Shock games.

Some of my favorite games have the worst problems. The final act in Vampire: Bloodlines is just awful, but I still hold it up as one of the greatest games ever made. Similarly, I think Prey is a superb game, even with its poorly structured story, and with how glitchy it is. Just the mere act of playing the game was so enjoyable that I wasn't phased by the problems. Of all the games of this type, this is the closest I felt to playing a real successor to System Shock 2. And that was enough for it to transcend its issues. Everything could have been better, had they been given extra time to work on it. But this is still fine. It's good enough.