I’m smashing coffee cups with my spanner. I’ve been doing this for almost ten minutes, the floor’s covered in shards of white porcelain. But I know, I just know, one of these bastard mugs isn’t what it appears to be. I’m in the kitchen of a massive space station, Talos-1, and I’ll not be leaving until the mimic reveals itself. Suddenly there is an ear-splitting screech and the next mug on my kill-list transforms into a spidery black monster that lunges at my face. I jump back and start swinging my tool like a madman, knocking over chairs and smashing glass. The mimic hits me; I start taking damage so I switch to my shotgun. I don’t have many shells left but I’ll be putting one inside this little bastard. I fire, the mimic dies and I collect its guts. I’ll be using them later to craft more ammo.
Welcome to the paranoid space madness of Prey, the latest game from Arkane Studios who recently gave us the wonderful Dishonored 2. Prey tells the tale of Morgan Yu (male or female optional), a protagonist who finds themselves part of a strange scientific experiment on a massive damaged space station, Talos-1. Why are you on the space station? Who is experimenting on you? What happened to your memory and while we’re on the subject, what the bloody hell are all those inky black monsters about? All these questions will be answered over your 15-25 hour playthrough.
Gameplay-wise Prey is a bit of a mimic itself, aping notable classics such as System Shock, BioShock, Deus Ex and Dead Space. You’ll explore the space station in a first person POV, fight mimics and other Typhon, discover secrets via computer terminals, audio logs and the occasional survivor. As the game progresses you can unlock powers possessed by the Typhon aliens. These powers include the ability to mimic objects – so you can finally live that dream of transforming into a coffee cup, hitting enemies with a massive blast of psychic energy and even necromancing corpses to get off the ground and assist you. Using these alien powers will occasionally cause a huge beast called The Nightmare to come and try to kill you, but it’s totally worth it. Although the game does include the option of staying totally human, if you’re a boring monkey.
As you slowly piece together your past, and what happened to Talos-1, you’ll have choices to make. People to save or ignore, sections of the ship to repair or destroy and numerous side quests to complete for needy Talos residents. Without getting too spoilery, these choices will greatly impact your game’s ultimate ending, although perhaps not in the way you might have assumed.
Ultimately, Prey’s best asset is the space station itself and the fascinating world-building that Arkane have achieved. The game is actually set in an alternate universe where JFK was never assassinated and the space race shifted into overdrive. I lost hours of time reading alternate history books, emails between colleagues and strange, sad little stories told dynamically through notes and environmental cues.
The more you explore the more materials you’ll find, which can be used in 3D printers to craft ammo, weapons, medkits and so on. The gameplay loop of exploring, killing a bunch of Typhon, breaking down your inventory items and crafting more useful gear becomes incredibly addictive. Combined with the slowly ratcheting tension of the story, the majority of the game is utterly compelling.
Prey does stumble a little in its final third, however, ramping the difficulty level to occasionally teeth-gritting extremes. Sporadic technical hitches also marred the experience, including one instance where a saved game file became corrupted and I was forced to redo a section that took a couple of hours. None of this is game-breaking, mind you, and Arkane have been patching away as I write this, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.
That said, lovers of cerebral sci-fi and outer space horror will find a lot to enjoy in Prey. The confused tension of the early hours, the more impressive monsters and story revelations of the middle section and even aspects of the game’s head-fucking ending will thrill and delight. Just make sure you keep an eye on those two coffee mugs over there. I swear there was only one a minute ago…