Prey Bends the Mind and Captivates the Soul [Hands-On Preview]

When it comes to making reboots of games, movies or TV shows, the creators often have to come up with ways to justify its existence. Especially when coming after an established and loved predecessor. But before I continue, let’s discuss the elephant in the room. In the case of Prey 2, development hit an impasse, and the publisher Bethesda Game Studios felt it was best to start fresh with a new developer. It’s certainly an awkward situation, and I was very much looking forward to exploring that cyberpunk style city that was shown in the trailers, but it wasn’t meant to be. So it was quite the surprise to see the reveal of the next Prey title coming from Arkane Studio’s new Austin branch, and for them to largely ditch the original premise and go for something new. Not uncommon, but it’s still taking some adjusting to.

In development for more than three years, the creators behind Prey (2017) certainly had a lot to think about while making this title. Pulling in experience from the past Dishonored titles, along with a story co-written by RPG veteran Chris Avellone, the new installment in the Prey franchise, is looking to do redefine what ‘Prey’ is. And with the eerie setting, a rather mind-bendy plot, and some unnerving foes that come in many unique forms — the new Prey is looking to do its own thing, while showing its taste for classic FPS games of the late 90s, early 2000s.

Set in 2032, you play as Morgan Yu, an employee of the TranStar corporation — a company that has pioneered space travel while making vast leaps with neuroscience in the process. On a day like any other, the main character heads to work at the TranStar facility, and then of course, things go horribly, horribly wrong. Suddenly, our hero finds out they’re actually aboard the space station Talos 1, and that the ‘normal’ life of living in a fancy apartment and being taken to work aboard a helicopter was all an elaborate ruse. On the station orbiting earth, much of the crew has fallen victim to black, tendrilled creatures known as ‘Mimics’, who can imitate any object they come across. While exploring the station, the main character learns that the life they lived was a lie, and that their ties to the strange and horrifying events on Talos 1 runs deep.

Right from the get go, players choose the gender of Morgan Yu. While this may seem like a neat feature for roleplaying purposes, it also goes into one of the core themes of the game, which is identity. It’s something the developers at Arkane Games Austin certainly had to figure out for this new title. As a reboot, Prey (2017) starts fresh and is in no way related to the original games other than a few motifs and situational similarities. You’re trapped and isolation on an installation in space, fighting aliens, while learning more about the sinister plans they have. Speaking with Creative Director Raphael Colantonio and Lead Designer Ricardo Bare, they talked about the tone of the game, wanting to start fresh, while still keeping some of the roots from the original game.

“It was definitely one of the theme that was important to us [regarding the similarities to the original game]. If you look at player motifs – one is very simple and visceral, it’s escaping this place and hopefully staying alive, but beyond that you have to answer ‘why are you here, who are you’, and it’s a constant drive for you to want to explore and find out more about the world you are in,” said the Creative Director, just as the Lead Designer jumped in to follow-up. “When we were very early in development, Raph was pushing for the beginning of the game to have this very ‘mind-bendy’ stuff in it. This image of shattering the glass and seeing that there’s this world and then there’s this other world,” stated the Ricardo Bare.

Unlike the original Prey, which was by and large a story driven run and gun shooter, Prey (2017) slows things down a bit in favour of a more story driven action RPG experience. Complete with some fairly robust resource gathering, grid inventory management, and extensive skill/power development. Similar to classics like System Shock, Deus Ex, and even the original BioShock, you’ll be tasked with exploring the setting, which has a deep of its own, in metroidvania style while completing main objectives and side-quests. Over the course of the game, you’ll acquire neuromods which allows Morgan access new human skills such as hacking, repair, and weapons handling, but also lets the player tap into alien powers such as pyrokenetics and shapeshifting.

When reading about the game like this, it sort of sounds like I’m describing a sci-fi version of Dishonored, and you wouldn’t be wrong for seeing it that. The Creative Director on Prey also happened to be the co-director on the original Dishonored, and many of the similarities are by design. During our chat, he spoke about how Arkane Studios’ games were about building ‘simulations’, which allowed players to express themselves in the confines of the game’s space. Raphael Colantonio spoke not only of his experiences with Dishonored, but also of the studio’s influences from the class action/adventure titles from the past.

“We were always inspired by developers such as Looking Glass [developers of Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock], who are not around anymore, and developers like Irrational, who aren’t really doing much right now. So it does seem like we’re the last devs making these style of games,” said Colantonio while elaborating on the influences Arkane Studios has adopted. “What’s common is more about the values themselves. A lot of it has to do with the simulation [the world and role you play in it], what choices we present to the player, etc. But what’s new to this one is more like the structure of it, it’s an enclosed area but you can exit it and go back in at any time. […]This game is all big sandbox in a singular and continuous area, similar to System Shock. Another thing we wanted to do in this game, which we couldn’t in Dishonored, was to let players kill any character they come across, even the good ones. We made it a goal from the beginnings to let players go about the story any way they wish.”

The world of Prey (2017) is a bit different from the original game. While Tommy was dropped into an alien ship with no real bearings of his environments, Morgan Yu will explore a human space station with an eerily familiar and lived in environment. Talos 1 is a fully explorable enviorment, you’ll be able to traverse and backtrack to previous areas at your leisure. As you unlock new powers and items, you’ll gain access to new areas, even venturing outside of the station and into open space. Along the way, you’ll come across dead crew members, various forms of the mimics, and some ally characters that are looking to help Morgan anyway they can.

Though I was only about to play up to the first hour of the game, stopping just after the next major story beat in the main lobby of Talos 1, I was very impressed with the scale of the world. It certainly had elements of BioShock and Half-Life, being a character that was known in the world, while still feeling like an outsider in some ways, and there was a number of areas of the station to explore, even early on. It felt very unnerving exploring the station, even though I had access to a decent arsenal of guns, such as the amazing GLOO Cannon, which plasters sticky gunk all over the place, intended for enemies, but also for improvised platforming. One of the challenges the devs had for Prey was finding the right balance between depth in setting, while also making sure the gameplay was sharp, and I was very pleased with the result.

“We had a global vision of the experience we wanted, what it is that we wanted players to feel and how they wanted to explore it,” stated the Creative Director. “Whether they felt lost or confused, but at the same time wanting to escape this place that is very dangerous, we developed these mechanics and aesthetics of the world in total isolation of each other, hoping that there would be some cool stuff happening when brought together in the broader experience. A lot of it was an act of testing and adjusting, to find that right balance between it all[….] We didn’t exactly know what it would create, those ‘jump-scare’ moments with the mimics, because fundamentally it goes against everything we like, we create simulations, and what’s great is that simulation is creating those moments, and that’s a win for us.”

To me, Prey felt very much like a call back to Arkane’s previous efforts with Dishonored, while at the same time honoring the past, specifically with games like Thief, Deus Ex, and System Shock. It’s very much like a modernized version of those titles, while at the same time doing things all on its own. The much touted Mimics, who are actually references to the famous D&D monsters, can be really unnerving to fight, as they have a penchant for darting off and striking while hidding in mundane objects. There’s a lot style and crispness to the game, which is made all the more inviting, yet equally odd by Mick Gordon’s synth score. The folks at Arkane Studios Austin definitely put in a ton of work, and I’m happy to report that it’s looking very solid here.

I’m very impressed with how Prey (2017) is turning out. While I can’t deny that it sucks that we’ll never get to play the intended follow up to the first game, this title is looking more than capable with standing out on its own. It’s easily more developed and dense than the original Prey, which makes me really interested to play more. There’s a lot unpack in this title, especially if the story goes further with its strange, mind-bendy plot, and I’m excited to see where it goes next after the opening hour. There’s a lot of ambition in this title, and I’m pleased that it’s more focused on doing its own thing, instead of retreading ground that so many other reboots have to do.

And make sure to keep an eye out for the Foam Dart Gun.