The Good: Dead Space meets BioShock while paying homage to Half-Life. Wahoo!
The Bad: Takes a little while to get rolling.
The Ugly: Nothing.
Being a game reviewer sometimes sucks for several reasons. Firstly, you end up playing some awful games – games no one in their right mind would devote more than 2 minutes to, and you end up playing them for 10 or more hours just to document how eye-searingly awful they are. I’m still trying to get the memory of Dukes of Hazard: Racing for Home out of my head, and that had to be more than ten years ago. But almost worse than the awful games are the awesome ones, games you would like to play for weeks and weeks on end that are inevitably shunted aside to make room for the next review title. I can distinctly remember playing Civilization VI for review, and thinking, huh, Civilization V – I always wanted to play more of that. The back catalog of games on my computer, games with 15 or 20 or maybe 25 hours of gameplay in them that I wanted to get back to, is ridiculous. Skyrim, Civ V, now Civ VI, Fallout New Vegas, Fallout 4, Amnesia, Star Wars Battlefront, Battlefield 1, not to mention games I occasionally purchase myself with the intent of playing (I know, that’s stupid of me, but I couldn’t resist Resident Evil 7, Dishonored 1 and 2, and Witness). So while I’m not expecting anyone to shed a tear for me, Prey is definitely adding to my woes. It’s a little slow off the chocks, but now that it’s rolling, I’m engrossed. The combination of alien powers you can get, the wonderful rendering of the enormous space station, the very human and interesting stories told through the side quests against the backdrop of a rousing space epic – it’s essentially everything I was hoping Mass Effect Andromeda would be and wasn’t.
The beginning, as I’ve said, starts off a little slow. Bethesda is as clever about their opening credits as ever, and there is some behind the scenes wonder similar to the first Portal, but then you pick up your first weapon – a wrench, harking back to shades of Gordon’s crowbar – and start slugging aliens, and that goes on for a long time. The first alien actually looks quite a bit like the Half-Life headcrab, but can disguise itself as ordinary objects (they call them mimics). There are some fair jump scares to be had there, and never before have I visited so much pre-emptive violence on coffee mugs and soda cans, but many (most) doors are locked to you as you lack both keycards and sufficient hacking skills to open them, indicating perhaps exciting stuff to do in the future, but not quite yet.
There is the basic plotline that you can engage with as the game leaves those doors open (or keycards conveniently lying about), but it feels very on-the-rails and the weapons you are given, a very weak, silenced pistol and a short time later a shotgun, are unsatisfying. Am I supposed to sneak past the aliens? Attempt to beat them into submission with my wrench or by pelting them with dozens of pistol rounds, each doing 3 points of damage (I know it is 3 points, BTW, because when you shoot them a little number pops off their body indicating the damage, so that sometimes, when shooting dozens of rounds, it looks like the alien is taking a shower in 3’s). You also pick up a gloo gun which fires a quick-hardening gel. It’s cool, temporarily goops up aliens, and leads to some interesting environmental puzzles, but it causes no damage on its own and ammo is scarce so you can’t go nuts. While doing this, you’re also collecting what can only be described as garbage – old baseball gloves, discarded cigars, burned circuit cards and bits of wire. You have no idea why you’re carrying these things, nor who is playing all this baseball and smoking all these cigars on a space station. The game holds you to the rails for about 4 hours (your mileage may vary), enough time to amass a mountain of crap, with only an occasional side quest to embark upon (that frequently dead ends at a locked or blocked something).
Then something kind of magical happens as you (if you choose) improve your hacking skills, or gain the ability to lift heavy objects that are blocking your way. Individual encounters start to have some options to them – I could fight this alien head on, or I could move this heavy box, uncover a ventilation shaft, and go that route avoiding the conflict entirely. All the junk you have been collecting you discover can be fed into recyclers, creating the raw materials you need to make just about anything you like – health packs, ammunition, weapons, repair kits, even (later on) the game-advancing neuro-stim which allows you to “level up” with new powers and skills. This freedom to create what you want, when you want, and go where you want, can lead to some awkward moments. I got somewhere I clearly wasn’t supposed to get with some clever jumping and gloo gun usage, and while I suspect this place will be very important later on, at that moment is was almost like showing up two hours early for a rock concert – all the instruments and stuff are in place, but nothing is going on yet and there’s nothing for me to do there. So despite feeling really clever for getting there, nothing came of it and I left.
Opening previously locked doors and safes reveal a plethora of side quests that tell the simple life stories of people, now dead, who lived and worked on this space station (fleshed out by the somewhat overused “discovered” recording devices and reading emails mechanisms). The plot line gets going in earnest, and you start to integrate alien powers into your arsenal, and some of these babies are powerful. Telekinesis, psionic blasts, brief possession, lightning, camouflage, and many others await you. Now, at about hour 15, I’ve got a dozen side quests I could be poking at, a main quest line that beckons me onwards, plus another dozen locked things I couldn’t get into previously that I could now go back and check out – see what further things they lead me to. About this time the alien variety also picks up, requiring you to develop new tactics to go with your new powers. You come to find that not everyone on the space station is dead and, if you can figure out how, you can save some of them, and be rewarded with key cards and other help.
Now that the game is fully rolling, I’m loving it. I love the space station – it’s not Rapture, but it has a beautiful environmental charm that’s right up there. The beasts are great. There are some really fun moments that are sure to gain entry into the FPS hall of fame. One has a lab where the guy working there knew there were mimics in the lab, and stuck post-it notes on everything he was sure wasn’t a mimic. Hilarious! Another has a group of people hypnotically controlled by an alien who try and kill you. Can you save them? Finally, despite all the death and destruction the aliens are causing, I’m going to hunt down and kill the guy impersonating the cook if it’s the last thing I do. That will make sense when you get there.
I’m having trouble remembering when I’ve had this much fun with a FPS in the dozens I’ve played over the years. The first Half-Life for sure, and BioShock. Dishonored probably. Prey is better than the recent Wolfenstein revival, as good as that was. Deus Ex? Solid, but IMHO not as good. So, anyway, bottom line, I’m giving Prey what I believe is the highest score I’ve ever given. It’s that good.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
This review is based on a digital copy of Prey for the PC provided by Bethesda Softworks.