Everyone has one; they’re like creepy uncles and weird fetishes in that way.
In a year that has caused me to lose a job, lose my mind and lose a couple of family members, I thought, screw it, why not try and lose some of those games in my backlog too.
It’s hundreds of games deep, featuring classics and stinkers in equal measure.
Which brings us to the first of, hopefully, an ongoing thing I hope to do, where I take a look at some of these games on my backlog that I consider to be worth talking about.
Given that I have never actually loved an Arkane game before, why not start with Prey?
You are Yu, Morgan Yu, local rich kid and genius scientist who has been brought aboard the space station Talos 1. Together with his very rich and very smart brother, Alex Yu, Morgan has been making some very intriguing progress in neuroscience and also experimenting on alien lifeforms known as the Typhon.
As you can imagine, recreating a Weyland Yutani-esque business strategy goes about as well for the Yu family as it did for the characters in the Alien franchise.
Morgan is then tasked with mopping the station up, escaping as he sees fit and helping out anyone he may come across who is still alive.
Before you get to all the fun space stuff though, the opening of the game consists of you dicking around in Morgan’s apartment, before going out to be tested before boarding the shuttle to take you to orbit.
These tests consist of physical tests, allowing you get to grips with the controls, and psychological evaluation, which allows you to get to grips with the narrative aspirations of the plot moving forward.
Unfortunately for Prey, it was in this opening that I guessed the ending of the game (and guessed correctly too, I’m not bragging just dick swinging), but it wasn’t a deal breaker, because I had the ending to Dead Space spoiled for me years before I played it, and it did nothing to alter my opinion of that game.
Accidentally spoiling yourself, or guessing the ending, doesn’t matter so long as the journey to get there is intriguing and well crafted.
And is Prey both of those things?
Well… Let me put it this way.
The psychological evaluation section of the opening twenty minutes delivers intrigue and props up the thematic exploration of Prey as a whole.
It seems to state to the player that life is a linear line, with birth at one end and death at the other; it is the microscopic choices that define our humanity, and Prey chooses to believe that these choices are the most important to assessing who we are as people.
It doesn’t believe in the idea of “deep-down” but simply that you are the things that you do.
Within the opening twenty minutes of Prey, Arkane Studios stamp down a statement of intent.
Prey will be deliberate, methodical and driven by the actions you choose to take despite the story progressing in a linear fashion.
Prey tells the player that it will be judging you not on world-saving story beats, but instead in what you choose to be the lesser of two evils.
The game uses Morgan as our token “blank slate” protagonist for the player to impress their own opinions upon and this is both a core concept of the narrative, but also a bit of an issue when
In fact, the game itself isn’t really all that interested in a compelling, overarching narrative, instead Prey seems satisfied with presenting conundrums for the player to overcome and occasionally throwing in a moral choice here or there just to keep things spicy.
This might turn some players off, specifically those looking for a strong narrative thread to keep them interested throughout the fairly lengthy run time. For everything else Prey cribs from Bioshock, Deus Ex and System Shock, you’d think “narrative reason to keep the player engaged” would have been right up there, but alas, was not to be.
So forget about the story, the writers certainly did, and instead focus on what Prey excels in and that is the level design and world exploration.
Saying that Arkane are good at level design is like saying I’m good at receiving restraining orders, it may as well be a law of science at this point.
I might never have loved their previous efforts, but their ability to walk a fine line between crafting levels to feel both organic and carefully constructed is nothing short of genius.
Prey is no different, with various levels of Talos 1 featuring self-contained little labyrinths that are a joy to master and explore. The way that corridors weave in and out of one another rewards careful exploration and a keen eye, while the hidden goodies in locked-off rooms and weapons laying in the far-off crevices allexist for the methodical player who wishes to explore every inch of the map.
And why wouldn’t you want to explore as much as you can?
Talos 1 is gorgeously rendered, looking like you’ve just walked into Mark Zuckerberg’s shag-pad, with its plush furniture, and slick computer screens humming with a constant light, illuminating the aseptic interior walls that have a colour scheme commonly spotted in the home of technophile dentists.
Exploring the world of Prey is itself, the core experience, and the more you explore, the more side-stories you discover, each with their own beginning, middle and end, and you can opt to save human crew members whenever you see fit to do so, with their own side missions unlocking after their rescue.
These side-stories aren’t necessarily anything to write home about, but I very much appreciated the amount of various endings that Arkane has written into the game, for both the main narrative and the side content that you come across, as you carefully comb through the entirety of Talos 1 dodging death with every turn.
To be honest, I kind of appreciate the inclusion of living, breathing NPCs; far too often, these types of "immersive FPS-RPG" games throw a map filled with uninspired enemies and not much else.
In fact, it probably would have been far easier for Arkane to simply dump you in an empty map from a production standpoint, cutting down on time, cost and man power in the process. But Arkane filled the world with NPCs to discover and interact with, some on a superficial level, others with side-quests all their own.
What I really appreciated though, was that Prey rewards you for making the choices (and murderous rampages) and changes the circumstances and attainability of the side-plots accordingly.
So if you decide to murder a bunch an innocent crew member, and they were the only person who knew the key code to the captain’s personal porn stash, then jokes on you, better get those detective specs on, because now you need to find that stash the hard way.
Yes, this approach to gameplay design locks you out of content if you’ve decided to go all blood-crazed on your fellow crew mates, but I genuinely appreciate that, instead of holding your hand, Prey holds you accountable.
Being able to literally murder everyone aboard Talos 1 is quite a feat to be honest, but like with any mass murder it certainly isn’t as easy as it sounds, with some characters hiding in odd places, others popping themselves before you can kill them.
It all feels very trial and error, but at the same time provides a nice change of pace to the usual RPG fare, where some characters are simply unkillable because otherwise the game would break down Doki Doki style.
What I will say though is that, whether you save everyone or kill everyone, or save a few and kill a few, having options is part of Prey’s strength.
Options to explore, options to quest lines, options to how big a bastard you want to be; it feels like you actually impact and influence how the story plays out, even if the ending is relatively the same each time.
So whereas one play through of Prey's story might allow you to feel like you're sitting on the helicopter as you leave Jurassic Park, another play through would allow you to live out your dream of playing Anakin Skywalker as he slaughters a bunch of unsuspecting cretins.
Due to this, the replay value is high for those wishing to indulge in such an experience, and this replay value goes hand-in-hand with the games promotion of careful exploration and back tracking.
As an aside, it would be criminal not to mention the GLOO Gun, a weapon that now I wish for an equivalent of in every game I play.
Essentially it allows you to build stairways to access areas of the map that otherwise would be closed off to you, creating optional traversal routes that open up the map in organic and natural ways. It basically gives the player the ability to never be left without options; whether you’re stuck at the bottom of a reactor, the stairs to an upper level give way or you just want to see whether you can explore the roof of that nearby terminal.
The GLOO Gun combines really nicely with the twisting level design to make the entirety of Talos 1 feel as if there is always just one more secret lying somewhere that you have yet to discover.
However, it was upon my fiftieth GLOO staircase that I came across a rather nasty bug when mantling objects after a jump. It was then that I noticed it happened a lot when I was trying to mantle things and it became abundantly clear that it isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
Good lord, is it bad.
First-person platforming sections are never exactly what I’d call “great” by any stretch, even the relatively good examples like Dying Light and Doom have some moments that make you want to quit the game and kick it into a ditch.
Prey’s mantling mechanic isn’t anywhere nearly as good as those games, in fact I’d go out of my way to say it’s bad, and that’s mostly because in order to mantle you have to hold down the same button that you use to activate your jetpack, which is always a good idea.
So say you’re trying to climb up a very long elevator shaft.
Morgan hops towards a climbable object, the mantle mechanic helpfully pulls you up and then the game proceeds to dump you over the other side of the object to your death because you held onto the X button for just a little too long.
If it sounds like a minor point to get hung up on, that’s because it is minor.
But I'm nothing if not a cynical asshole, and it frustrated me so much that I don’t care how petty it sounds.
This criticism however, does segue us quite nicely into the rest of the criticism I have of Prey and hoo-boy do I have a lot of that.
Combat, for one, lacks refinement and gives the player little satisfaction or feedback when fighting an enemy. To Prey’s credit, it does allow you to just run past the enemies, so much so that sometimes I wonder why Akrane even bothered including the Typhon in the first place.
Especially when sometimes you enter a room, the doors lock, and suddenly Prey is doing its best impression of a Doom boss fight, sometimes with a floaty-head enemy that shoots exploding objects at you too.
These segments show how bland and flimsy the combat really is, especially due to no dedicated dodge or healing button to make the combat sections engaging.
Nothing says “satisfying combat encounter” quite like having to pause the game every ten seconds to scoff some jellied eels to get your health back up, before diving back into the boss encounter that’s asking you to dodge its attacks like a madman.
In fact, the whole game kind of has an identity crisis of sorts too, with the first hour or two being creepy, paranoid intrigue, then the next few hours are about trying to mop up the mess your brother made, before slowly forming into an “escape the station at all costs” type of action game… It never feels focused from a direction stand point.
All of this is before I talk about the load times present in the game, because there are a lot of them and they are as lengthy as they are frequent.
They can range from anywhere between one-minute-ten-seconds, to sometimes upwards of two minutes, and these can be chained together, with only thirty seconds worth of gameplay on between. What’s worse, there isn’t a fast-travel mechanic in the game.
“Okay Limo, but what’s so bad about that?” I hear you ask.
Nothing. Not on the surface.
But back tracking and thorough exploration is the core of Prey’s game play loop. And as such, sometimes you have to pick up an item that is four areas away, with a load screen in between each one.
Basically, you spend upwards of eight to ten minutes just watching the game load.
This could be a console issue, mind you. I have no idea what the load times are like on PC because my PC would dry heave at the thought of running anything more graphically powerful than Pong.
And I am intrigued to see how this issue is handled with the new Xbox and Playstation consoles, as I hope their Super Sayaian Drives buff those load times, and make them no longer an issue.
So, with all this bitching about Prey, do I recommend it?
Surprisingly, yes actually.
There’s something about it that made me chew on every single area of the game for hours on end, exploring every nook and cranny and getting ganged up on by shadow monsters.
The gameplay is wonky, the storytelling is naff, the load times are unbearable, the enemies aren’t interesting and neither are the characters… Yet I sit here not feeling bad that I played it.
Maybe it’s the years of playing shovelware that’s got to me, but Prey, on paper, has so many quibbles, and yet it is also something I definitely see people enjoying, maybe even loving.
It’s not something that is ever going to stay with me, for even now its characters are fading away from memory with similar rapidity as the memories of my dad, but the layout of Talos 1 is going to be burned into my core memory bank until the end of time.
There’s a lot to find frustrating in Prey, but a lot to appreciate too, and is a very rough gem of a game, buried deep in a lot of people’s backlog, and I can wholeheartedly tell you to give it a go, so long as you aren’t more cynical than I am of course.
And if you are more cynical than I am, then I’d love to know your opinion on Control sometime.