‘PREY’: Through the Looking Glass

There’s a million ways out of this freezer.

That’s what I was thinking to myself about 9 or so hours into Prey, the latest Immersive Sim game from Arkane Studios. Trapped in a freezer through circumstances not of my own design, I had found what appeared to be a way out, a maintenance shaft squeezed between giant slabs of ice. The only problem was that they were too heavy for me to lift. I thought I might be able to find something to blow them up, or use one of my bizarre psychic powers to lift them, or just plain old shoot them, and all of those might have worked, but the most elegant way out was what I ended up choosing. I remembered the baseball glove. Using one of the strange alien abilities I had unlocked, I turned myself into an exact copy of the old glove I had found and laid out on one of the slabs, did a couple of quick, disarmingly cute looking jumps, and was soon on my way.

While it shares a name with Human Head Studio’s 2006 offering, this Prey has nothing to do with Cherokee spirit guides, Cronenbergian alien horrors or even the infamous butthole doors (while I don’t hold that first game in the same esteem some quarters of the internet do, it was if nothing a lot of interesting ideas). After that franchise was vaporized by incompetent management, the rights fell to Bethesda, who wisely handed it off to Arkane, their resident Immersive Sim team. What resulted is equal parts System Shock, BioShock and Dead Space, which is sort of an imbalanced concoction, since those latter two games were naked attempts to replicate the former, to varying levels of success.

If this code is familiar to you, rest assured. This game lives up to it.

Set on Talos I, an orbital research station in the 2030s from an alternate universe where Kennedy lived and NASA got a lot more funding, you play as Morgan Yu, a scientist/board member/test subject who, as is tradition in these sorts of games, wakes up with no memory of who she is or how she got there (that it isn’t particularly notable that Morgan can be either man or woman speaks both to how casually the game presents it and the strides the gaming industry has taken). After an incredibly absorbing opening, things predictably fall apart, and Morgan is beset upon from all sides by hideous, shifting, amorphous blobs of black goop known as the Typhon. That’s all the backstory I’ll give you, and that’s all the backstory you need.

Conjuring a mood that is almost immediately reminiscent of both Half-Life and John Carpenter’s The Thing, you quickly learn that on Talos I, the most useful attribute one can have is distrust. Mimics, the first and most common form of the Typhon, can transform themselves into just about any item one could imagine, ranging from the benign (chairs, telephones) to the critical (life-giving medkits). They lie in wait for you to stumble upon them and then screech to life, skittering around like spiders and doing their utmost to rip you in half. They aren’t tough, and they sometimes can be more annoying than scary, but they quickly instill a paranoia that follows you around in every room, a very apt feeling for a game concerned with the morass of unregulated science, memory loss and corporate deceit. When you realize that most of the things Mimics turn into are things you might want to pick up, another layer is coated on. There are other enemies, some of them terrifying beyond utterance, but the Mimics are what will make this game sink or swim for most players. The signature enemy, like the Headcrabs in Half-Life. What this turns into is an ingenious inversion of Dishonored‘s love for world-building through objects in the environment. Not only do the random phones, bins and collectible bundles of wires in this game have actual purpose, they contain actual danger.

What we do in the shadows

You want to pick these things up because someone finally made a good crafting system in a video game. All the trash (and every spare gun or enemy corpse) can be collected and recycled in any of the handy stations that litter the facility, and the raw materials received therein can be used to fabricate new guns, ammo, medkits or even upgrade kits (the wonderfully envisioned Neuromods) at another station. What makes these things feel cohesive isn’t just their wonderful art and sound design, but it’s how they make sense. The Recyclers are often found where you would expect trash cans to be, and the Fabricators often locked away as personal property and in various kitchens or baths. The sort of places people might actually use personal 3D printers.

There are a lot more ways in which this game feels as cohesive and thoughtful as anything I’ve played. Since you play on a research station, research plays a large role in player progression. Partway into the game, you access a special helmet (with a special HUD) that allows for BioShock style enemy research to take place. Not only does this make you more effective, in some cases it identifies the foe entirely (seeing “???” above a new enemy is very unique sort of thrill, and just the smallest touch of Metroid Prime goes a long way with me). A subtle touch is how, aside from the basic pistol and shotgun, every weapon is something cobbled together by the station’s engineers and scientists. Like the GLOO Gun, a wonderful adhesive cannon that freezes enemies, puts out fires and even creates staircases and ramps wherever the user deems fit. The Recycler Charge, a grenade/trap that pulls anything movable (including Morgan and her foes) into a singularity that pops out resources, and even a handy nerf-like Crossbow, which does no damage but proves invaluable as a way of distracting enemies or better yet, triggering hard to reach buttons or touch screens, because yes, this is a game that allows you to remotely trigger touch screen devices by throwing this at them.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish?

On that note, I have to mention perhaps the single strongest aspect of this game’s design; it’s art style. While BioShock is obviously the biggest influence, right down to the Art Deco marquee and even the same font, the color palette here is as foreign to Rapture as the Sun is the Moon. Arrogant golds, burgundy and autumnal orange make the residential and commercial areas of Talos I shine, while clinical blue, grey and stark black makes the research sections oppressive and weird. What’s more amazing, thanks to both the cohesive and consistent design, is that these two different areas (and all the others) feeling wholly of a place with one another, more believable than Rapture’s cordoned mini-kingdoms and theme parks. The various signs and notices, longtime a favorite side-thing of mine in games, are as great as any I’ve ever seen, and definitely on par with any Walking Sim, with which this sort of game shares a similar design ancestry. What results is a game without true levels, more just small sections of a larger, believable space that you have to crisscross over and over again, bit by bit unlocking more places to like a Metroidvania game (appropriate, given System Shock 2′s own predilection for backtracking).

The station itself exists as one of the best gamespaces I can remember seeing, set in the kind of fun, off-kilter sideways universe that contemporary sci-fi thrives in. It’s sort of what the future would have looked like to the 1980s, a world where touch screens and fringe science live side by side with projection screens and rotary phones, an aesthetic choice consciously echoed in the synth-y, groovy tunes on the soundtrack. Combined with the paranoia and confusion present in the main narrative, and there’s a heaping helping of Philp K. Dick’s worldview in here, another influence consciously echoes by the name of an early side-quest.

What does a scanner see?

Speaking of side content, maybe the most remarkable thing Prey does is finally contextualize that old Immersive and Horror Sim standby, the littered corpses and all the other humans alive, by giving each person a specific name, a specific face, and a specific backstory. While not every dead NPC in this game is important, they all came from somewhere, and the lives they led before the Typhon are echoed in their audio logs, their emails and the private correspondences. Coming across the body of an intrepid explorer surrounded by dead enemies and the scars of battle, whose name you saw in another place a half-dozen times, is never not affecting. A scant few survivors still remain, and they trigger what is generally the most well-written narrative stuff, about which I won’t say much for fear of spoiling. Suffice it to say that this game’s best story takes place in the small spaces, between the cracks of the basic plot, and is greatly enhanced both by an interesting voice cast (Mae Whitman! Walton Goggins! Benedict Wong!) and industry high-water mark environmental storytelling. Just look at how long I stared at these floating globs of water, realistically formed by low gravity, something I’ve never ever seen in a game before.

Of course, there are some cracks in this game, some flaws. You’ll note I haven’t talked much about the combat, which while certainly tense and challenging, seems to lack the razor-sharp tuning of Dishonored or the frantic pace of BioShock. Fitting that it most resembles System Shock, where player creativity was welcome but usually less advantageous than just whacking something with a wrench until it stops moving. Certainly not bad, but lacking the immediacy and focus of Arkane’s recent efforts. Another problem for me is the main story, which gets necessarily side-tracked by the great side-quests and generally ambling, exploratory, scavenging pace the gameplay elicits. The climbing controls aren’t as slick as I would like, and the low-gravity segments are perhaps over-long (but fittingly rarely necessary).

It was impossible to build it anywhere else

The result is certainly a great game, though perhaps as I said in my Breath of the Wild review, one that exists as a pastiche of other, greater games. It’s a game full of heart, great art and level design, and wonderfully open and detailed systems. It’s got the weighty hubris of BioShock, the sumptuous detail of Dishonored and the weary, long-dead beating heart of System Shock. Certainly worth the wait, certainly worth the effort, and certainly worth the time to really poke and prod at. These games are the sort that last long beyond their supposed shelf life and continue to provide new and strange surprises for the people that play them forever. The Immersive Sim is well and truly back, finally.

Long may it reign.

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