Prey, from developer Arkane Studios and publisher Bethesda, landed on consoles with a demo this weekend, ahead of its full release on PS4, Xbox One and PC this Friday, May 5th. We tabbed the game as one to look out for in May, and wrote an extensive preview of it. Having spent a few hours seeing everything the demo has to offer, I’ve put together a hands on impression of how the anticipated game handles. Does it spin in the same orbit of Dead Space? Or does it sink beneath the weight of its Bioshock comparisons? Let’s take a journey.
After selecting your gender of Morgan Yu, you begin the game in your apartment. You can explore the schwanky loft for items to gather and read some interesting musings on high level science and philosophical concepts, all that set the stage for the game’s future events. You get your basic movement tutorials. Sprinting and attacking are tied to a stamina bar, but it is much more forgiving than a game like Dark Souls. You can do quite a bit of either before it depletes. It’s all very sleek and high tech.
Making your way to a facility to prepare to head into orbit, you’re put through some testing paces that bring up some grim questions. All hell breaks loose and you come to and realize that things are incredibly fucked up. This is where the game’s harrowing sound design comes into play, as the music is jarring and dissonant and makes you feel more than unsettled. There is a bit of a Half-Life 2 vibe here in how the game alternates between deafening silence and eerie soundscapes.
As for the enemies, they’re inky, alien creatures who can mimic other stationary objects. This presents a challenge beyond those of the jump scare variety, as they will also at times flee from you and morph to hide. If you’re not tracking them, you may lose sight of what exactly they morphed into. If you’re observant, you can get the jump on them and whack them out of their hiding spots.
You start off with a trusty basic wrench which can be used for up close melee attacks and repair of various pieces of equipment. You then will find a GLOO cannon which can incapacitate foes into a hardened foam. You can also fire a stream of this foam to use for climbing, which opens up new paths for you to progress. There are multiple ways to advance through the game, and it accomodates multiple approaches.
The Talos I space station has a lobby that behaves as a central HUB of sorts, letting you return to it to complete objectives and other side tasks you have planned. New sections of the station open up as you complete objectives and it gives the station’s setting a Bioshock meets Castelvania feel. You’ll return back through familiar areas, find access cards and passwords and progress to new areas to do it again. In just the early moments of the game, you can already see the intimate familiarity that you’re going to be developing with Talos I.
Eventually you gain access to new abilities via your neural mod which allows you to effectively hack yourself and upgrade your capabilities along several different skill paths. In the demo we saw Science which lets you do things like hacking and healing with medkits, better, Engineer which makes you a repair, mod and wrench of death master, and Security which boosts your ability and skill with firearms and other athletic gifts. We know that Alien mods are also an option in the full game, allowing for more exotic self hacks.
For character progression, you will be unlocking abilities from the skill trees via neuromods that you find. Each neuromod acts as an opportunity to hack yourself and function as a type of skill point currency. They can be found scattered all across the space station, and serve as a passive progression, since you can’t access certain areas until specific parts in the story. The skill trees presented are diverse and the skills offered are mostly tantalizing. I spent a good bit of time carefully choosing where I wanted to cash in my neuromods as the skills offer useful boosts, and the risk/reward element is heavily in play. It was almost agonizing to make a decision and that’s a good thing, because I couldn’t wait to find another neuromod to unlock a skill I had passed on before. I expect this to be an element that keeps players coming back, especially when the alien abilities become available.
As you progress through the game you are gradually introduced to the equipment mechanics. There are several different types of weapons you can use, from a trusty wrench, to standard firearms like a shotgun or pistol and more exotic offerings like the aforementioned GLOO cannon, which you can use to bind foes and follow it up with a melee or firearm kill. This is a useful 1-2 combo because the aliens are quick and small, making them hard to connect with even in melee. Weapons can be upgraded via something called weapon kits, and using them requires unlocking a couple of appropriate skills. You’ll tend to flail a bit in actual combat, and the shooting mechanics aren’t those you’re going to find in Destiny. You are limited to some basic aiming, which ultimately makes the game a mediocre shooter. Fortunately that’s not what the game is all about, but this does dampen the enthusiasm for the game a bit.
Along the way you’ll be gathering and harvesting all manner of materials, items, and plant parts that you will be using for some DIY crafting. You will gather them up and then feed them to recyclers, which will then convert them to usable materials. Once you find a blueprint for a weapon you can head to a fabricator and add the requisite materials to create it. It’s all very straightforward and fun to use and was successful in giving me a reason to pick up everything I saw.
Without going into spoilers, the story is fascinating, as you’re piecing together what has happened via found notes, audio logs and emails you can access from terminals. Going through terminals methodically also can result in finding keycodes you need to unlock certain sections of the station. Stopping to read all the books and notes is a fascinating way to both shed more light on the story and dig into some of the philosophical backdrop of the game, especially related to concepts of space and consciousness.
Guiding you along the way is a disembodied helper who makes periodic check ins with you via phone, giving you a nudge and clue here and there. This felt very Atlas from Bioshock to me, enough so that I had to wonder if there was some twist in store for me later. It remains to be seen if the game will continue to unfold along such a parallel to the first Bioshock game. If it does it will certainly be a great narrative, but too similar could make it ultimately feel derivative even if entertaining.
Overall, the early moments of Prey are a mixed bag. As a story and narrative experience it hints at the potential impact of Bioshock and Dead Space. As a game, it handles well in some parts (skills) and mediocre in others (combat). I think the shortcomings of combat will lessen over time, as certain skills improve your passive ability with weapons and others are weapons all to themselves. I would wager that towards endgame you could likely eschew the use of firearms altogether to focus on your plasmid like options. If the skills and story payoff as much as they’re teasing, the game is heading towards quite the memorable conclusion. However, I hope that its branching out towards the game’s claimed multiple endings that it begins do develop a stronger identity for itself apart from Bioshock. Otherwise it runs the risk of standing in the shadow of that big dome under the sea.
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