Thursday, July 18, 2024

Prey Is Just Fantastic

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Prey is an odd sort of reboot. The original, developed by the now defunct Human Head studios for the Xbox 360, debuted to modest sales but critical acclaim. As someone who played it way back when, I only have fond memories of it. After researching it to refresh myself on the specifics (I couldn’t recall if all of the Native American stuff in that game was actually awesome or appropriative) I can safely say that there aren’t any nostalgia goggles involved here.

Prey, the original, was a really good game. It did, however, get overshadowed by the likes of Bioshock and other games being released in that strange era where AAA gaming truly solidified. None of that diminishes its quality. The story stuck with me, I really liked the characters, and the environmental design was just…really cool. The game felt great to play and a lot of the mechanics were extremely inventive, especially when you consider how limited last-gen consoles were in terms of resources. And the narrative, hoo boy, that was just—it was very well done, let’s say that.

Additionally, the protagonist of the original, Tommy Towadi, isn’t your generic white dude space marine; he’s actually a full-blooded Cherokee living on a reservation. Also he talks and has a personality; crazy, I know! His girlfriend is, surprise, not a white woman. His grandfather is, well, actually a really important part of his life and identity. When I first played this game, I didn’t exactly have an understanding of how important that was (as opposed to Infamous: Second Son’s fictional Native American tribe which sort of defeats the entire point) but I’ve got a much better sense of it now.

Especially since a lot of the gameplay systems were based around Native American spirituality. As in, Tommy is literally the only person who could have won the day because of his heritage, and it’s done in such a way that brings him closer to accepting his own spirituality. Like, it’s not just a knock-off excuse for a mechanic; it works. Or, I think it does. I’m not Cherokee, or any part Native American, but from what I’ve read up on regarding the subject, it seems a rare example of a good thing?

So, when a sequel was announced, I got excited. When a CG trailer featuring Johnny Cash’s “Rusty Cage” dropped, I was pumped. And then, despite having a full neon E3 Demo reveal, it didn’t happen. I mean, the setup was pretty awesome, if silly. There was a passenger airliner that you see being abducted early on in the first game. The idea was that you play as the U.S. Air Marshal Killian Samuels (man that name is dumb), who was aboard at the time, as he tries to adjust to being a bounty hunter on some crazy alien space station.

Of course, that sequel never got made. It was scrapped. Bethesda tossed it over to Arkane Studios, the developers behind Dishonored (but not the sequel; that was a sub-studio) and what they came up with is…well, it’s fantastic. And probably a lot better than what Human Head was trying to make, in retrospect.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t know I’d actually be reviewing this game while playing it, so there are a few aspects of gameplay I cannot personally vouch for. I’ll explain why later, but it’s not anything remotely negative.

The Big Stuff

Prey is a game of paradoxes and subversion in the best of ways. The developers are clearly working under the fair assumption that you’ve played games like this before and they exploit the living hell out of it. And yeah, that honestly does include the fact that it runs just fine on PC with literally no finagling or frustration. That almost never happens.

The opening itself seems like a streamlined and modernized homage to the original Half-Life. Complete with re-using Dishonored 2’s idea of choosing the player character’s gender (both are named Morgan Yu, a brilliant scientist of mixed Chinese and German heritage). But within about 6 minutes or so of playing, it becomes something truly different. Sure, the first weapon you get is still a wrench (technically that was Bioshock but they were riffing off Half-Life) but soon after things go Total Recall.  The Paul Verhoeven one, not the crappy remake. That’s all I’ll say about the early twist, but rest assured there are far more and they are all pretty great.

Quick example: you both are and are not playing a silent protagonist. It’s seriously clever.

The long and short of the plot is that you’ve got to save the station, Telos I, and your fellow employees/friends/brother/ex-lover/life’s work from being eaten and/or exploded. How you go about that is rather straight forward, but there’s so much more to this game.

Prey as a subversion of itself: you’re on a giant science space station (more on that later) that’s been overrun by killer aliens. There was a containment breach, an experiment went awry, yadda yadda yadda, you get the idea. But, little by little, as you move through the massive station, something becomes clear: the turrets aren’t shooting at you.

I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to realize they wouldn’t do that, but in my defense I’ve been playing games for so long that this whole situation made me assume that the turrets would malfunction and gun down all the residents. That wasn’t the case. The turrets only attack things with sufficient Typhon (the aliens) DNA, so if you avoid upgrading your character in certain ways (which I did, hence me “missing out” on the super powers mechanics) that never changes.

What’s more is that, again, the further you explore and learn about this freaky-deaky alternate history where JFK’s assassination attempt failed and that changed the entire Space Race—and notice that there are like maybe all of four white people in the entire cast of the game—the more you realize that this station isn’t exploding.

I mean, I feel like that should feel a little obvious when explosions aren’t actively happening. But the fact of the matter here is that in any other game the environment would constantly be trying to kill you with scripted sequences. Here, there are contingencies and safety measures that more or less work as intended? Airlocks and bulkheads close. Power systems are just shorted out and secondary systems can be enabled by the player if you look for them. Fire containment is as simple as shooting your GLOO Gun (it does what it says, and you can jump on them for platforming!) at the fire and suffocating it.

It’s almost like the “evil corporation” (TranStar) running the station actually has a vested interest in keeping its employees safe. And also cared about workflow and habits, since back-tracking never feels like a chore despite the fact that Telos I is freaking huge.

This is very atypical for modern games, and it’s one of Prey’s greatest strengths. It’s player-driven in ways most “player-driven” games simply aren’t. How you play sets the pace in a way I don’t think I’ve seen outside of the original Deus Ex. If you want to take your time exploring, you absolutely can. In fact, the way it’s presented with the narrative, at least for the first half of the game, you should be exploring and figuring out just what the hell is going on. So you never really feel compelled to rush to the next story mission outside of wanting to see what happens next, which you probably do.

For example, there isn’t a lot of combat in this game. Sure, combat exists, and there are some fun visual cues for when an encounter starts, but on the whole it’s not overwhelming or wave-defense-y. Fighting three Phantoms at once is difficult enough, and even the giant Nightmare kaiju is a “kill it or hide” scenario with an actual timer. There aren’t really any boss battles, either.

Again, these are all positives. The actual combat mechanics work wonderfully, all the way down to the little touches where your wrench has a pretty small hit-window that makes Mimics (think facehuggers that can shape shift into most smaller objects) a constant threat throughout the game. They require your full attention to take out, and though they don’t do a ton of damage, it adds up. Like I said, it’s the little things.

Like how this game is pretty spooky, but not unsettling or stressful. Or that the emergent narrative you discover by reading emails and listening to audio logs is both engaging and even requires critical thought at times. None of it is filler or padding, and it all works towards supporting the larger narrative.

Even better is that there’s an entire system in place where you can select a crew member at a security station and follow a waypoint to actually find them in the game itself. So, if you listen to an audio log, and want to find that person, there’s a way to do that. Chances are that they’re dead, though many aren’t, but it’s so refreshing that no one in this game is faceless or background fodder.

And all of those stories add up to the big one at the end in a way that’s truly impressive. I won’t spoil it, or all the fun revelations you get to have along the way about what the Typhon are, how first contact happened, or how this space station works, or even the story in any deeper level of specificity. It’s way more fun to experience it on your own terms and at your own pace.

The Other Stuff

There’s a lot more I could say about this game. I could gush about the UI/UX and how it’s so clearly designed for PC gaming in mind. I could talk about how I never once questioned “WHAT KIND OF ARCHITECT DESIGNS SOMETHING LIKE THIS?!”. Or that the crafting system is the first one I’ve seen in a single player game in recent memory that I couldn’t exploit to hell and back, and yet is just complex enough to be interesting without being a nuisance. I could talk about all the intelligent world-building, or how the EVA sections are surprisingly intuitive. Or maybe I should spend some time on the sound design, or how polished it all feels?

But none of that is what I want to focus on, since everything there is just really good game design. Not to diminish that accomplishment, as it should absolutely be celebrated. This, though…this shouldn’t.  

No, what I want to focus on for a bit is rather unfortunate. It’s probably the only real problem I have with this game. Remember that ex-lover I mentioned that you can choose to save? Yeah, regardless of the gender you choose, it’s always the same person: Mikhaila Ilyushin. She’s a Russian cosmonaut and Chief Systems Engineer of Talos I, and suffers from a rare neurological degenerative disorder called Paraplexis.

You can probably see where I’m going with this: Male Morgan is implied to be straight, while Female Morgan is very explicitly not. There’s no sexual content in the game, or anything remotely close to that. It’s still something of a problem that’s difficult not to notice when there are other queer couples, and individuals, you come across in the narrative. While it may have been more expensive to hire another voice actor and model another character for a male love interest, I think it’s something Arkane should have sprung for if they intended to have this be a significant part of the protagonist’s backstory, and the story itself, at all. Since, really, it’s just reinforcing the fact that wlw couples are more “acceptable” in media in the sense that straight men can and do fetishize them while many actively recoil from mlm.

There’s also the stranger aspect of this, wherein the love interest for the female protagonist of Dishonored 2, again developed by another studio under the Arkane banner, was purposefully kept gender-neutral so the player could decide what they felt worked best. It was kind of impressive how the letter writing back and forth between Emily and her lover, Wyman, was done in such a way that it read as both queer and not. However, in Prey, there is no such nuance in sexuality. It’s entirely possible that Male Morgan isn’t straight, but that’s not the narrative being presented to us.

Now, this aspect of the game is not a deal-breaker by any means, but it is, as I said, unfortunate and frustrating to see. Still, even with that hiccup, I have to give Prey my full recommendation if you’re on the fence about it. It’s a constantly engaging ride, and it’s got backtracking down to a near Metroid Prime-level of competency. Also, it’s got some pretty huge replay value. So, you’re certainly getting your money’s worth, that’s for sure.

Final Score: 8/10

Image Courtesy of Arkane Studios

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