Playing the PlayStation 4 demo of Prey resulted in me quitting in anger, hurling my controller at the floor, and deleting the demo.
Getting around to playing it on the PC, I have reached a point seventeen hours in where I encountered a bug that, though it didn’t prevent my progress, would result in a bunch of things being messed up were I to keep going.
Both of those things are true, as is this: Prey is one of best immersive simulation games I have played; I even prefer it to System Shock 2. There are only two games I could make a case for being better at this style of game: Deus Ex and Dishonored.
It’s been a difficult time for me recently for a plethora of reasons I don’t want to dwell on. Prey was a game I had largely discounted, what Arkane Studios were saying sounded too ambitious, and in terms of a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 I’d already been burnt by BioShock. A game I generally like but one whose connection to the earlier “Shock” games seemed superficial at best. I had struggled with Dishonored 2, a superbly made game that I should have adored, but one I just never felt I could connect with. So when I played the demo for Prey and my immediately reaction was aggressively negative I resigned myself to just never being able to enjoy these types of games again.
I am nothing if not stubborn, I decided to try the PlayStation 4 demo again. I took it slowly and, instead of trying to rush in and smash the scuttling Mimics as quickly as I could, I treated them with respect. I made sure my attacks were deliberate. It was a revelation. Once I stopped trying to approach the game with the assumption that these were cannon fodder enemies that I could easily dispatch I realised what this game was. It’s slightly too clunky. It’s slightly too difficult. It’s also incredibly smart, both in terms of systems design and writing, and confidently erudite without being patronising. It builds on everything I found compelling about System Shock 2 in well thought out ways, and makes small but significant changes to certain core tenants of the immersive simulation style that are so obvious in hindsight it’s shocking nobody has attempted them before.
It’s also subtle, I joked that it was probably going to be too subtle for some (reviews appear to have borne this out). There are no caricatured characters spouting philosophy at you for ten hours. It’s a game about scientists and corporations and technology, but it’s handled with a deft touch. The TranStar corporation is engaged in some incredibly unethical experiments on board Talos 1 and the people involved know that. They argue about it, they attempt to justify it to themselves and others. Their responses are entirely, tragically, human. There are people who totally buy the corporate line about the benefits of the work they are doing. Others who are willfully ignorant regarding the extent of their complicity. Even some who are attempting to lift the lid on what’s going on and reveal it to the world at large. Each of these people have their own motivations, none of them are cackling super villains. Even your brother Alex has clear reasons for his actions, reasons that might even convince you.
When it comes to systems design, Prey is maybe a little too late 90s, though it updates the interface and presentation of those systems in ways that make them more comfortable to engage with. Combat can get awkward if you are overwhelmed but at all times you have a myriad of options with which to approach each situation; though your character build choices will push you towards a sub-set of those. I’ve already seen dozens of people citing very different – and often mutually exclusive – ability combinations and weapons as being “over-powered”.
Prey is also rough, Patch 1.2 has just been released fixing a bug that was corrupting save games and preventing further progress. My own bug is less severe but still frustrating. I’ve been assured a fix is coming soon, and yet I think I’m going to restart the game. Seventeen hours in, I’m going to restart a game I’ve not finished yet. A game that is reportedly 20-30 hours long, and I’m really excited about it. To me that tells me all I need to know.
I really like Prey. It might be my favourite Looking Glass Studios game.