Prey (PC) review: System Shock's spirit lives in this mammoth, intertwined space station

With Prey, Arkane cements itself as heir to the immersive sim genre.

There’s a story I like to tell about Prey. It was back in February, at a preview event—my first ever hands-on demo with the game. Twenty or thirty of us were packed into this room to play the opening hour, which is filled with all sorts of tantalizing areas just out of reach: Locked doors you can’t yet hack open, a room blocked by some crates too heavy to lift.

And a broken-down elevator, the words “REPAIR II NEEDED” appearing in red as you approach. “A whole second floor to return to later,” I thought, made a note of it, and wandered off.

Except no. As I left I overheard someone say (paraphrasing), “I used the glue gun, made makeshift glue-ledges inside the elevator shaft, and used the ledges to climb up to the second floor.” That’s the moment I got excited about Prey.

Skeleton key

And that feeling’s what I kept coming back to this weekend as I wandered the halls of Talos I, Prey’s alien-infested space station.

Prey (2017) Prey (2017)

Both before and after release I’ve heard Prey compared to Dishonored, BioShock, Deus Ex, Thief, and System Shock. It doesn’t really matter which one in any comparison, because the point is it’s one of those games, the so-called “immersive sim” genre. The hallmarks of immersive sims are a strong sense of setting, a focus on environmental storytelling, and (most importantly) a game in which the way a player accomplishes a task is more interesting than the task at hand.

In Prey that task is most often “Entering a room.” Talos I is enormous, and by the time credits roll you’ll have explored it from toe to tip, from the drab warehouses of the Cargo Bay up to the Bridge and Arboretum with their art deco flare and enormous arched windows.

Aliens, black shadow-beings known as the Typhon, are an omnipresent threat throughout the station, but this is like System Shock—not Dead Space or even Doom. Combat is more palatable in Talos I than in Dishonored, at least insofar as the game won’t give you the “bad ending” for killing off inky aliens, but this is still not a game about killing aliens.

Prey (2017) Prey (2017)

Like Dishonored, and like BioShock and System Shock and that laundry list of games I mentioned, Prey is about discovering a space. Reviewing Dishonored 2, I compared its more extravagant levels to “Swiss Cheese,” where a seemingly straightforward collection of rooms and hallways is actually pocked with vents to clamber through and ledges to climb on and all manner of secrets to be found.

Prey is more constrained, in some ways. A space station is a known quantity, hemmed in both by decades of pop culture and (to some extent) by actual science. Prey delivers on those expectations—a bit more art deco than the cleanroom futurism of something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, sure, but the angular corridors, revealed pipes and vents, gleaming metal walls, and overlarge windows are still standard science fiction.

It’s familiar, in other words. Much more than Dishonored, with its bizarre whalepunk aesthetic. More even than BioShock, which was basically just a space station under the sea. It turns out “under the sea” was enough of a reinvention to feel unique, whereas Prey’s characters just prattle on about escape pods misfiring or supplies gone missing or the standard “I think we’re all about to die but none of the crew believes me. Oops.” Same old, same old.

Prey (2017) Prey (2017)

But Prey doesn’t really need to surprise when the design is just that damn good. What Prey does best—better than any of its modern peers, actually—is feel realistic. My main complaint about last year’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was how game-y it felt, how obvious its alternate routes through any given area. Locked door? Look for a nearby vent, or an open window. Wide open space? You know there will be guards, all going about their pre-programmed routes like an ornate puzzle game.

Dishonored 2 felt less like a game and more like a lived-in world, but even there it was hit and miss. City streets in particular suffered, with open spaces seeming to give the player a ton of freedom but actually underscoring the artifice. A fork in the road often wasn't “two paths to the same objective” and instead became “a place you’ll want to return to and test out the other path to make sure you’re not missing anything,” at least for completionists.

Prey's more restrained design avoids that trap though. A “large” area in Prey is the equivalent of a single building in Dishonored 2, and as with Dishonored 2’s brilliant mansion-bound levels Prey feels more like a self-guided tour than a game shuttling you down various paths. Rooms always seem to have two or three different ways to gain entrance, but not in the contrived “let’s just put a vent there because we need a vent” way.

Prey (2017) Prey (2017)

Instead it’s stuff like the elevator anecdote above. Or holes too small for a human but large enough for you to take advantage of the much-touted Mimic power, turning yourself into a coffee cup and slipping between the bars in a window. Or using your not-a-Nerf gun to shoot a dart through a window, hitting the button to open the door.

Prey has about as many ways to open a room as it has actual rooms, and that’s important when gaining entrance to a room is the main obstacle. Even 20 hours into Prey I still found myself impressed by its level design, wandering into a room and then realizing there were four or five equally viable means of entry that I hadn’t even noticed before. It helps that you can revisit old areas at will, a touch of Metroid design that makes areas feel even more expansive. Hours after entering some of the larger zones I was still finding new paths, secrets I’d left untouched—not because I’d breezed through the first time, but because I simply hadn’t thought there might be a way into that crevasse or up that ledge or whatever. Hint: If you think there might be, there probably is.

I’m over a thousand words into this review and I’ve barely touched upon Prey’s story, its weapons, its powers, all the glitzy stuff we typically cover in reviews, but that’s because I’m just so damn impressed by the “sim” aspects, particularly the meticulous way Talos I has been constructed. It lacks Rapture’s glitz, but it nails the mundanities—the way every room in the crew quarters is the same drab brown, for instance. Right there, that’s a story. This isn’t a madcap amusement park or a luxury hotel or what have you, decked out to the nines. It’s where people live. It’s where they work.

Prey (2017) Prey (2017)

Those small aspects seem insignificant, but it’s what makes Prey a joy to explore. Like BioShock and Rapture, it feels like you’ve stumbled into this nightmare scenario, found people’s lives there interrupted by catastrophe and you’ve been left to pick up the pieces. The fact that “exploring” is just a hundred ways to get through a locked door doesn’t feel quite so contrived when the small details work so well.

Supporting cast

As for those other aspects, the story and all that? They’re solid enough to bear weight. Combat is the weakest aspect I think, especially if you stick to human abilities and eschew the various psychic Typhon powers. The shotgun is the only gun worth using, and even it requires a half-dozen shells before most enemies go down. This is not a game about shooting.

Creative solutions are more welcome, though. For instance: Your pistol is terrible for shooting enemies directly, but great at shooting holes in pipes and causing them to spew flames, killing most weaker foes immediately. Throwing objects is also surprisingly effective, especially explosive barrels.

Prey (2017) Prey (2017)

Typhon powers are the more interesting half of the game, allowing you to shield yourself from damage or hit enemies with a burst of energy, but the game follows in Dishonored's footsteps and strongly hints that those powers lead to tragedy. It’s Arkane’s biggest flaw—attaching too many strings to cool ideas. I hope this specific aspect of Arkane's games disappears for the inevitable Dishonored and Prey sequels.

The story's fine as far as inventing contrivances for you to explore new areas. That’s about it, though—especially for the main through line, which is a pretty generic “aliens invade and we don’t know what they’re capable of” tale of humanity’s hubris. Prey’s better in its side stories, dozens of small vignettes about some random crew member’s life (or death) on Talos I, scattered across the station. Again: Exploring a space. Talos I is, in spite of some flaws, just a fascinating place to explore. Prey doesn’t do much that’s new or especially unique, but it nails wandering around an abandoned space station.

Performance

I already talked about performance in PCWorld's Prey impressions piece last week, so I’ve chosen not to focus on it too much here. Suffice to say, the game runs great—for the most part. I spent most of the game waiting for the other shoe to drop, and unfortunately there were some hiccups, particularly in the Power Plant and Reactor Core area, where not only was the frame rate on average about 30 frames per second lower but I also dealt with serious load-streaming and stuttering issues. Think of it as ”Prey’s Dust District.”

Prey (2017) Prey (2017)

Over the course of 25 hours I also encountered a few crashes, though nothing obvious or reproducible. Just three or four random lock-ups followed by the inevitable crash to desktop.

Prey's still infinitely more playable than Dishonored 2 was at launch for me, though. Most of the game stayed above 100 frames per second on my 1080p display and GTX 980 Ti, with everything maxed out, and I’ll call that a win in spite of one problem area and a handful of crashes.

Bottom line

With Prey, Arkane cements itself heir to the immersive sim. Dishonored reinvented the genre, particularly the Thief branch. By contrast Prey feels very old—it’s precisely the System Shock 3 successor Arkane pitched it as.

The mastery is no less apparent though. Sure, it doesn’t add much to the ol’ audiolog/email/locked room paradigm pioneered by its predecessors, nor does it reinvent the space station, but Prey and Talos I are so well-constructed I honestly don’t care. You’re given systems, you’re given spaces, you’re given a goal, and how you exploit the former to accomplish the latter is a source of so many surprises in Prey it makes up for the overfamiliar setting and story.

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Hayden Dingman

PC World (US online)
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