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Among first-person shooters there’s a subset that tends to value open-ended gameplay and level design over tight combat. That’s not to say they don’t have good combat, but titles like System Shock, Deus Ex, BioShock, and Dishonored emphasize the variety of experiences offered, from lockpicking doors to stealthing past foes. Prey is an unexpected addition to this list for a lot of people, taking its name from a mostly-forgotten early-2000s sci-fi shooter and holding few similarities aside from shooting aliens. But what may be even more unexpected is how masterfully Prey utilizes this gameplay style in all aspects, culminating in a game that outstrips many of its more well-known peers.
Following the terribly clever intro sequence that I won’t spoil for you, Morgan Yu finds himself stranded on the Talos I space station in orbit around the moon. There he was involved in the development of neuromods, an injectable that plants new skills and memories in the user. Unfortunately this tech was derived from an incredibly hostile alien species that has of course broken out of containment, and it’s up to Morgan to deal with them. The only problem is that neuromods can cause some rather dramatic memory loss and he’s got to piece together what he was doing before everything went to hell, and that could lead to some unpleasant surprises and some very different approaches to dealing with the situation on Talos I.
Fans of System Shock will be right at home with this one, and especially those different approaches I just mentioned. Once you’re past the intro the game places you right in the main lobby of the station with an objective, but also the option to simply wander the place and explore. You’re sure to come across locked doors or blocked passages but neuromods make all things possible, giving you super strength to move crates, repair skills to get devices back on line, hacking (with a nonsensical but genuinely fun minigame attached) to unlock doors and computers, and more exotic skills derived from your foes. The game almost takes on a metroidvania feel, even moreso than its peers, because of how open the levels are and how many options you have in getting around.
I shouldn’t even be calling them levels, really. Deus Ex had levels, open and sprawling as they were. System Shock 2 had decks you could revisit but your path through them was mostly linear. But Prey has Talos I, a fully-modeled space station inside and out. It’s laid out like a real place, with elevators and access tunnels to all of the different departments and modules, and all you need is the right keycard or skill to access them. Yes, they’re gated in a way that invites story-based progression but there are so many ancillary areas you can explore at any time that it feels like a real place. And I wasn’t kidding about being modeled inside and out. You’ll spend a fair bit of time outside Talos I as well, drifting around in microgravity to seal breaches, move between airlocks, or locate crewmembers sucked into space.
You’ll have plenty of reasons to wander these polished halls and examine the hull segments too, because the station is loaded with loot that will keep you alive. Aside from the many weapons and tools you’ll find, there’s loads of junk like snacks and scrap electronics and crumpled papers to collect. These can be stuffed into recyclers to produce base materials, from which you can 3D-print useful items like more weapons, ammo, and neuromods. Exploring will also turn up side quests and logs that answer questions about the station and your background, new licenses for fabrication, access keys for optional areas, and upgrades for your suit.
Despite collecting literal junk to recycle, this isn’t a junk-collecting sim like Fallout 3 or BioShock. Every item has a purpose, and you’ll need an actual spread of gear to combat the creatures infesting Talos I. You’ll find out real fast that they can appear from anywhere, even taking the form of common items to get the drop on you. They’re also remarkably deadly, so incapacitating foes before striking them down is key. Many of your unusual weapons are designed for this, including a stunning disruptor, EMP and psionic grenades, and the GLOO cannon, a gun that shoots hardening goo that can trap enemies and even make stairs and barriers for you. Complementing this lineup are more common weapons like pistols and shotguns, exotic weapons like the Q-beam, and seriously fun toys like the recycler grenade that literally recycles anything in its radius.
All of these elements combine to form a living, functional space station full of adventures and dangers. Every new room is brimming with potential for new story revelations, new item upgrades, or new secrets to uncover. But your devious enemies could be lurking anywhere, so as exciting as exploring is you’ll need to be cautious and methodical about it. You’ll get a handy device for scanning and detecting foes (and researching them, too) but you’ll need to use it until you get familiar with them. And it’s not a perfect system either, as the enemies lose a bit of their luster once you get used to fighting the same weird smoke monsters over and over. New ones are always a thrill but seeing them again and again gets a little old, especially when you’re having to hike back and forth across the station in the closing hours of the game.
That was about the biggest complaint I could muster about the game, though. I seriously haven’t been this enthralled by a shooter since System Shock 2, and I’m tempted to say this is the better game. Prey looks and sounds phenomenal, setting a new bar for detailed environments and ambient effects. The style of the station feels realistic and natural, evolved from the space race of the 1960s to the clean, familiar lines of the 2030s. The enemies sound disturbing and imposing, your weapons have heft and character to them, and every switch and screen feels good to mash. Prey is nothing short of a masterpiece, a new pinnacle in the open-ended shooter genre, and something so gratifying to play that anyone should be able to find something to love about it.