Hands-on Preview: Prey hits the ground running

An hour of hands-on time with the opening or Arkane Studios’ first-person action Prey reboot shows a lot of promise.

Hands-on Preview: Prey hits the ground running

For the longest time, I refused to get on board with Arkane Studios’ Prey reboot. I was unimpressed with what was revealed at E3 2016, but it was hard to shake the feeling that was because I was so enamoured by what I’d seen of Human Head Studios’ Prey 2 many years before. Clearly, I wasn’t ready to let go of Prey 2, but Arkane Studios started to win me over when I saw a hands-off demo of Arkane’s take on a Prey follow-up (read: reboot) at Gamescom 2016.

Now, after playing through the first hour of Prey on PC at a recent event, I’m well on board. It helps that Arkane was already working on an unnamed new IP that adopted the Prey brand, which is fair enough given the fact that Bethesda owned the name and news of Prey 2’s cancellation was more than two years ago. Time to move on.

There’s a lot of System Shock 2 in Prey, and that’s coming from someone who’s never played that particular classic. I did, however, used to watch my brother play it, and I also loved the hell out of the spiritual sequels in the BioShock series. While I could have called Prey “BioShock in space”, that seems redundant given that System Shock 2 is a sci-fi space-based game set aboard a space vessel, which also sums up the basics of Prey. Funnily enough, I just learnt that System Shock 2 started out as its own IP before EA slapped the ‘System Shock’ IP on it.

What Prey does differently is its Groundhog Day-like setup (or Edge of Tomorrow, if you’d prefer a more recent sci-fi reference). Everyday life seems pretty mundane for playable character Morgan Yu, in an opening that’s not dissimilar in feel to Gordon Freeman’s descent into the disaster-sparking test chamber.

Yu, as it’s revealed mere minutes into the game, is a test subject in a bit of a twisted experiment (after one of the funkiest game credit sequences I’ve seen in a while). The research station he’s on has been overrun by the mysterious Typhon alien threat. Except for one instance, I exclusively encountered smaller spider-like aliens that have the ability to morph into everyday objects. What this does is create a fantastic sense of paranoia about objects in the game world. Anything you see doubled, like two mugs sitting next to each other, is a potential attack waiting to happen.

The aliens do make a noise as they transform back to their natural, hostile forms, but it meant my usual loot-obsessed play style wasn’t always safe. By balancing safe spaces with threatening areas, it meant I was always on guard, and never sure whether I was truly alone. Prey has an inventory system, crafting, and a three-tiered upgrade system, with an obvious Metroidvania approach to level design.

Early on, I came across rooms that had been barricaded with heavy items. As I neared the items, there was a tease that I could remove them and explore the rooms beyond them if I unlocked a level-three lifting ability. That wasn’t going to happen in the first hour of the game, but I did unlock the first lifting upgrade, as well as a handy repair ability. There are also plenty of doors locked by key cards, damaged doors you can see through but can’t bypass, and areas blocked by combination locks.

Interestingly, I only got to use the repair ability once to fix some faulty lifts, but that wasn’t the only way to get up to the level above me. Arkane throws one of its coolest weapons at you early on, the Gelifoam Lattice Organism Obstructor (GLOO) Cannon. As a weapon, it can slow and eventually solidify enemies for easy shattering with your handy wrench.

As a traversal utility, though, it can be used to create platforms, ramps and paths to places that aren’t easily accessible. Instead of using my hacking ability on those lifts, for instance, I could have used the GLOO Cannon to create a path to the level above me. It’s a very cool feature, in terms of navigation potentiality and also for (hopefully) forcing you to choose between using the GLOO Cannon as a weapon or saving ammunition for potential pathfinding.

This is just one instance of how player choice is one of the key pillars in Prey. I also appreciated the simplicity of interacting with the game world. Prey still has familiar mechanics to comparable titles, in that you can enter a screen to manage your inventory or collect items. Alternatively, you can interact with computers and searchable things/corpses in the world with simple commands that let you stay in the world without having to jump to a menu.

It took a while for me to wrap my head around it, so conditioned am I to the usual (bad) way, but it’s a small change that shows Arkane’s willingness to tweak the familiar to create something that feels new. We were instructed to play on Normal difficulty, so the combat wasn’t particularly challenging (I intend on playing on Hard when the game launches on the 5th of May). Fingers crossed the harder difficulty makes resources and ammunition scarcer, as well as upping the difficulty of the alien threat.

Hopefully, there are a lot more Typhon archetypes than the spider-clones, because they weren’t overly threatening unless they were in groups. I did sniff out a potential other Typhon type locked behind a keypad-locked door, but the only other threats I encountered during my first hour of play were environmental.

It has a different feel to Arkane’s recent Dishonored series, but that sense of freedom, hints at a compelling narrative, and plenty of rewards for exploration are familiar (and welcome) pillars that help to make Prey one to keep your sights on.

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