This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Prey.
I wonder how far they're willing to push this. I'm already having to call the Sequel Police every time they reboot an old game and not change the title, and now look. The first game to be named Prey isn't particularly old and, more to the point, is somewhere on the low end of bugger-all to do with this new game called Prey. Watch it, Bethesda; this is the kind of bullshit that brings down the Sequel Feds!
All right, both games are about alien invasions, but by that logic, it might as well have been called Space Invaders Episode 973. This really goes to show how utterly allergic these bean-counting, creatively bankrupt loaves of chunky shite are to new ideas: they had a perfectly acceptable original IP and still felt the need to slap on whatever pre-existing name they could find clinging to the side of the rubbish chute. Prey 2017's more of a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 than Prey 2006, not to be confused with the official spiritual successor to System Shock 2, BioShock; or Doom 3; or Dead Space; or basically every sci-fi horror game since 1999. Blimey, how many spiritual successors does one game need?! There'll be bloodshed at the reading of the will, I'll tell you that.
Prey 2017 - God, that's awkward to say, but Prey '17 sounds too much like a teen gossip mag - gains a few spiritual successor points by having basically the same plot as System Shock 2 as well: there's a spaceship, the crew encountered something alien, some kinky weirdo got it into their head to put the alien thing inside themselves, and now you've woken up on the ship with no memory and have to piece together what happened and firmly discipline the newly-monsterized crew by bonking them with a wrench. There's also plenty of influence from BioShock on display in that the whole place has a retro aesthetic about it like you're trapped inside an episode of Tomorrow's World from the 70's, you upgrade your character and skills by taking a foreign device and doing something harrowing to your soft, fleshy parts, and there's a bit of a moral choice thing going on, but don't panic; it's the sneaky kind of moral choice mechanic that creeps in so gradually, you barely notice, like a beetle in a package of liquorice allsorts. But whether you're good or bad, you're always the kind of person who searches every cabinet in the kitchen and then eats eighteen bananas in five seconds like a video of your mum on fast-forward. Another game I'm reminded of is The Evil Within, because Prey also opens with a somewhat interesting setpiece that's largely fuck-all to do with the rest of the game, but bollocks to it; maybe the hype videos will sell a few more copies. Get past that, and the game proper begins.
Your character is Yu. Morgan Yu, that is: scientist-executive-let's-face-it-probably-responsible-for-this-whole-mess-type person, and roughly the first direction you're given is a little note from your previous self instructing you to feed the cat and pick up some corn flakes, and if there's any time left, maybe think about blowing up the entire station to save Earth from the alien menace. Hey, fuck you, myself! You don't know me! Maybe while I'm going through the extraordinarily prolonged process of unlocking the self-destruct, I'll explore the vessel, meet survivors, and learn more about the backstory so at the end of all this, I can make an informed choice on whether I want to blow everything to space-Hell or find a less drastic solution, like hold the alien menace down and make it watch Independence Day on a loop for three days.
So since Breath of the Wild is so popular with the kids these days, open-endedness is back in fashion, and Prey is strutting up and down that catwalk with an enthusiastic goosestep. When the introduction's over, the game informs us we have the run of the entire ship, except for all the locked parts. But what's neat is that you can leave an airlock, explore the entire ship's exterior, and re-enter it by any airlock you want, though, hang on, they're all locked as well. All right, it's not that open-ended, and besides, I didn't see much point in exploring beyond where I had to go for the main missions because monsters continually respawn, a chest of drawers can only be looted once, and I wasn't convinced that I'd find more resources than I'd use up going walkabouts. Ammunition is always scarce, even though you can load armfuls of kitchen appliances and medical equipment into the recycler and turn them into more ammo as part of a rather on-the-nose metaphor for recent changes in American foreign policy, because at least early on, I was going through pistol ammo like a boarding school dormitory goes through tissues the night after free Wi-Fi is installed.
Combat took me a while to get a handle on, the way one gets a handle on a horse when the vet with the big testicle-clippers closes in. Like BioShock combat, it gets very chaotic very fast. It loves taking you by surprise; the starting enemy is a mimic that can disguise itself as small objects, so you're merrily searching a desk for old Dictaphones and breast milk pumps when a mug jumps up and sticks its tongue down your throat, then it runs out of your field of view and starts nibbling your bum while you blindly spin around looking for it, smashing your wrench about, and you feel like a gorilla in a phone booth with a wasp. The next enemy zips about like a nervous party host and has a really hard-to-avoid projectile attack that chops up your health bar like a fun-size Snickers.
On that note, Prey just can't get enough of murdering me without warning; I'm sure it never stops being funny for it. "Oops, the enemy created a big bomb right next to you where you didn't look and it didn't have line of sight. Why didn't you dodge it, you loser? Oh, you thought you could increase your spacesuit's thrust speed and lightly brush against a wall? Dead! That's what we do to Hurrying Harolds. Oh, what's this now? You're trying to walk across an empty room? I think someone forgot to stay at least ten feet away from broken electrical panels. Zap!" Blimey, was that built by the same contractor that made the consoles on the starship Enterprise? But the combat, at least, I eventually figured out; all you have to do is stick fistfuls of alien drugs in your face until you can psychic-beam all the motherfuckers to death, remember where all the robots are that restore your psi-points for free, and quicksave like a twitchy drinking bird toy. And Prey is, in all aspects, a game that you have to figure out, which I suppose is to its credit. It will be no bad thing to my mind if the trend for vaguely retro-style open-ended game world structuring continues; it's all tasty millet seed for the exploration parakeet.
Once it gets going, Prey is an effective enough self-contained action-RPG. What it isn't is an effective horror game. Part of it's the way most of the ship's lit up like a fucking IKEA showroom, but I think a lot of it's the old Arkane Studios character problem again. I'm not saying there's been no improvement; it's not as bad as Dishonored, the "Old Dunwall Most Monotone Voice" competition, but what survivors are on Talos I don't act much like their former friends and crewmates are having their nostrils split by space horrors two rooms over. They come across like they're just having a bad day at work. "Urgh, Mr. Henderson was in a foul mood this morning. I only stopped in to drop off the figures and then he tried to dissolve my arms and legs off with his acid-spitting maw."
- Predator and prey: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I just think that any consumer-grade pharmaceutical that you take by shoving a spike in your eye wouldn't make it past market research
- "Prey 17" also sounds too much like an instruction for Catholic priests