Prey is an addictive modern-day masterpiece

Arkane Studios has rebottled choose-your-own-gameplay lightning with its Prey reboot.

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Prey is an addictive modern-day masterpiece

I honestly intended on writing up some First Thoughts for Prey last week, much closer to launch. But the conceptual problem with that is if I’m writing about Prey, then I’m not playing Prey. Fast-forward a week, and I’ve invested 24-odd hours into Arkane’s latest time-sink. And I couldn’t be happier. Well, except for a couple of major QA gripes towards the end of the game, but we’ll circle back to that towards the end of this piece.

The closest I got to playing the System Shock games was watching one of my older brothers play it. This means, despite my age, I’m one of those gamers that first experienced System Shock indirectly via its submersed spiritual successor, BioShock. I adore the BioShock series, warts and all.

The original Prey, on the other hand, was a game that I played—I had to, of course, it’s a shooter—but I never really got into it, despite its powerful opening and clever toying with gravity and player size for interesting shooter spaces. I did, however, fall in love with the pitch for Prey 2, so much so that I was pissed at the announcement of Arkane’s space game called… Prey.

That changed when I finally saw gameplay for Arkane’s reboot of the Prey property, and more so when I finally played it. That opening hour of Prey definitely had the makings of a great game. And, if my 24-hour playtime is any indication, Arkane has built such an addictive gameplay loop that the hits just keep on coming well beyond the opening, too.

I really don’t want to talk about the story, because if you’ve managed to avoid the previews and trailers that give away early (and, potentially, later) revelations, you’re in for a treat. Right from the outset, Arkane masterfully sets the scene for a space thriller which, thematically, works really, really well for driving player intrigue. There are mysteries everywhere and life-or-death stakes abound.

When the gameplay starts proper after an appropriately punchy (but effective) opening, completionists will moan in delight at the obvious Metroidvania design philosophy at the heart of Prey’s game world. Locked, barricaded or otherwise impassable (at first glance) doors abound, and getting close to them teases that they can be accessed if you just had the right code, the right keycard, or the right special ability.

What’s more, there’s almost always more than one way to skin a space cat in Prey. You can use Neuromods to upgrade your character in a particular way, and your decisions early on will impact how you approach both exploration and combat. In terms of combat, Prey is a tough mofo, even early on.

I’m so used to multiplatform games treating difficulty levels equally across platforms (big mistake, developers) that I started Prey on Hard, as I do with most games on PC. It didn’t take long for me to drop the difficulty to Normal which, let me tell you, is still satisfyingly challenging at times. Not towards the end, mind you. If you’re a side-quest-loving completionist like me, you’ll have Neuromods to spare from hours of off-the-beaten-path exploration.

There’s no reason to not explore given how engaging Prey’s world is. From reading emails and listening to audio logs to crawling through the vents of this lived-in space, Arkane continues to flex its skill as expert world builders beyond the Dishonored series. In many respects, Prey is more Skyrim than any sort of Shock game, because your attention will be ripped away from what you fully intended on doing moments ago to some new shiny distraction. Or, more accurately, new shiny distractions, plural, because it feels like there are times when it’s hard to walk down a corridor without stumbling across some new mission or intriguing side venture.

For those who choose to play Prey as a shooter, you might be initially disappointed by the smallish arsenal; I know I was. Certain weapons lack the damage feedback you’d expect from their booming sound or screen-dominating presence, but that changes when you start upgrading them. Fully upgrading your arsenal requires other upgrades across two categories (cue Xzibit ‘Yo dawg’ meme about Prey’s love of upgrades), but max out the damage of any shooter and it feels suitably powerful.

Of course, you don’t have to solve combat spaces with weapons. I say “solve” because Prey constantly reminds you that it’s an expansive puzzle game with multiple solutions. For instance, my combat experiences in Prey have been bookended by an obsession with turrets. There’s an awesome sense of satisfaction to be found in setting up a turret ambush point and baiting enemies back to it.

Naturally, like any good game of this ilk, certain choices have consequences. Some of those consequences play out in the narrative, while others restrict your gameplay options later on. I could tell you about them, but being forced into a lateral-thinking situation in Prey is one of the many features that makes it shine so brightly.

Look at me, I’m gushing again.

In all seriousness, though, it’s like Arkane took some of my most beloved gaming experiences—Half-Life 2, Alien: Isolation, BioShock, Dead Space, Deus Ex—and threw them into a blender. The result isn’t something that tastes so familiar that the gameplay experience becomes a Pepsi Challenge. Instead, these legendary gaming influences are both comforting and compelling, all the while Arkane is putting so much of its own spin on the tried and proven that Prey comes out feeling like so much more than the sum of its familiar parts.

But let’s circle back to the bad stuff I mentioned at the beginning. Prey on PC has some kooky bugs. It’s not the poorly optimised mess that Dishonored 2 was at launch; in fact, it runs gloriously on my GTX 980-powered rig in 1080p resolution with full settings (at a near-constant 60fps). I guess the fact that it’s on CryEngine, and not Arkane’s internal Void engine, helps with that.

Throughout the game, there’s quite a bit of weirdness with objective markers. They confidently point you one way, then disappear when you go through a loading screen to the indicated zone. That’s more a casual annoyance than anything else—especially when being distracted in Prey by new shiny things is such a constant reality—but things have gone positively awry for me towards the end of the game, so much so that I’m currently unable to finish the main campaign.

It started with some inventory weirdness. At first, my spare parts disappeared. Although odd, I assumed that I’d accidentally (and foolishly) scrapped them at a Recycler machine. My bad. But then, not even 10 minutes later, I went to switch to one of my weapons and it was gone. I hadn’t visited a Recycler since I’d last used it, so I knew something had gone horribly wrong. The worst bit is I’d fully upgraded that particular weapon, which was incredibly effective at taking out some of Prey’s bigger foes. A quick look online revealed I’m not alone in this weirdness.

Now I was paranoid that, like that iconic and horrific scene in Looper, I was going to start losing essential parts of my hard-earned stuff before I made it to the end of the game. Worse still, my most recent saves are filled with automatically populated slots when I was shifting between loading screens. If I want to go back to when I had my missing items—and there’s no guarantee this won’t happen again—I stand to lose four hours of gameplay.

I’m not willing to do that.

The good thing about this particularly nasty bug was that it provided laser focus for finishing the game. Considering how close I am to the end, this was a good thing. But even this proved to be problematic. Without spoiling stuff, there’s a particular mission towards the end of the game that randomly spawns something in one of four main locations and then—at least, as far as my internet research suggests—spawns at an unfixed point within that randomised location.

It’s all well and good if your objective markers are working as intended, but mine’s broken for this mission. What’s worse, I got screwed with the worst of the four spawn locations for this particular thing, and it’s spawned in space. With no objective marker, my remaining alternative is to spend hours (as others reportedly have online who’ve encountered the same bug) searching every external nook and cranny of a massive space station in the hopes of finding this particular thing, which I can’t help but feel might not even actually be there.

This is, after all, a glitch, and the prospect of fruitlessly searching for hours is a bitter pill to swallow after the overwhelmingly delicious experience I’ve had up until this most recent hour. There is a beta patch that I’ve downloaded, which claims to fix this problem, but there’s still no objective marker for the space thing, which means I’m stuck with the same conundrum: lose hours searching, wait for a patch, or don’t finish the game.

As maddening as this is, it’s testament to the sheer addictive engagement I had with Prey up until that point. I’d stopped playing my regular multiplayer games, and all of my gaming time in the past week has been dedicated to plumbing the depths of Prey’s fascinating game world. I really hope Arkane can patch it to a point where I can finish it sometime soon, because I’m so close to the end that I feel I’ve earnt a sense of closure. For those unlucky enough to encounter similar bugs, I feel your pain. For those who don’t, you’re in for one hell of a treat with Prey, and considering the inherent replayability and wealth of side quests, this isn’t a game that should be missed.

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