Written By: Erika Haase
This article is broken into three parts. A brief history behind Prey, my review, (which are both SPOILER FREE), and finally an analysis which DOES have spoilers. Each section is clearly marked so you won’t see anything you don’t want to. If you haven’t beaten Prey yet, avoid the analysis. Bonus photo gallery at the end of me in some “neo-deco” attire as well as being consumed by a Typhon!
After 35 hours on Talos I, I put down my controller, stared at the screen, and knew I’d just played gold. As with any new IP, (although Prey is technically referred to as a “re-imagined IP”) even from a developer as award laden as Arkane Studios, you never quite know what to expect. You hope for the best, but brace for mediocrity. Prey saw those concerns, and promptly smashed a wrench clear through, delivering nothing short of an awe inspiring, creativity laden, well-written masterpiece.
The Brain Trust of Prey:
If you’re a gamer over the age of 30, you may find yourself lulled into an odd sense of nostalgia as you play. Everything in Prey is new, but you know you’ve seen it before, or at least felt its presence in pieces from other games in the past. Tributes to the sci-fi and psychological thrillers that contributed to its creation are hidden (and not so hidden) in various places throughout the game, but one only has to look to the brain trust that brought Prey to life at Arkane Studios. Novelist and Game Designer Austin Grossman who contributed to System Shock, the original Deus Ex, and Dishonored was consulted in the early stages of plot creation to refine key aspects of Prey main character Morgan Yu’s progression – particularly in regards to recovering memories. Creative Director Harvey Smith, who was the QA lead on System Shock, and worked with Warren Spector at Ion Storm as Lead Designer of Deus Ex, was busy working on Dishonored 2 when Prey was being created. However, his advice was sought out in regards to honing the existence and motivating factors of the Typhon, the alien presence you face on Talos I. Finally, Prey Creative Director Raphael Colantonio reached out to one last legend. Game Designer and Writer Chris Avellone whose contributions include Fallout 2, DLC content for Fallout: New Vegas, Planescape: Torment, and Baulder’s Gate: Dark Alliance came aboard the Prey writing team. Together with Writer and Lead Designer Ricardo Bare, also of Deus Ex heritage, the A-team was complete.
Prey knows where it comes from, that much is obvious, but more importantly always knows where it’s going. The game, despite how it’s being described by many reviews, is not survival horror. It’s a psychological thriller. This point was clarified by Creative Director Raphael Colantonio in an interview shortly after Prey’s E3 2016 reveal who stated, “It’s not horror. The psychological thrill dimension is more around the theme of identity.” That specific point – identity – is the axis that the core plot of Prey orbits around, much like the slowly revolving space station that takes center stage.
Prey – A Spoiler Free Review:
Main character Morgan Yu has just broken out of a Groundhog Day-esque scenario which has had him/her (you can select your character’s gender at the start), repeating the same day for an unknown period of time. You’re trying the entire game to restore what you’ve lost, and more importantly, who you were. Prey brings up a lot of questions along the way that deal in the true meaning of personhood. Are you the sum of your actions? If you lose your memories and act differently afterwards, does it negate what you did before? Is re-invention actually rebirth? This higher-level part of the narrative is woven into the story, and depending how much research or scientific notes you find from the crew of Talos I, you’ll realize that the concept has been the focus of many studies outside of just Morgan. Talos I is privately owned by a massive company called TranStar, and they’ve invented something called Neuromods, a device that allows you to directly inject the skill sets of the world’s best pianist, soldier, singer, etc. into your mind. Think The Matrix and the famous “I know Kung-Fu” line. However, unlike The Matrix, you get to see the ripple effect of gifting accomplishments that took someone a life-time to learn, now transferable in an instant. It causes people to question the point in actually learning anything. Why work hard when “there’s an app for that”?
Prey isn’t just about one person’s quest to restore memories, though. Full of rich and multi-layered characters, there’s a stunning amount of backstory to be discovered and the side-quests branch off with growing complexity. To get the “good” ending variants, it’s not just about saving person A and moving on to saving person B. Person A will make increasing morally demanding requests of you that not only determine your character, but (in very intelligent game design) reveal things about Morgan’s past that you wouldn’t learn otherwise. I was constantly motivated to learn as much as I could, read every last person’s email chains, and help any survivor – not simply out of good will, but because I stood something to gain as well. No man is an island, and Prey reminds you that the way you treat others is critically important, whether you can remember what you did or not.
Gameplay is all the best parts of System Shock, Half-Life, Deus Ex, Bioshock, and Dishonored. With six different skill trees to fill out via the previously mentioned Neuromods, you have a lot of options of how your play style will go in comparison to the next player. There’s also an achievement to beating the game without ever using a single Neuromod, similar to Dishonored 2 and never using any of The Outsider abilities. Weapons are limited, as they should be on a space station. It’s very hard to be over-powered, although if you dedicate all your abilities to Typhon based Neuromods which allow you to use alien abilities it’s the closest you can get to making an “OP Morgan.” You are not the DOOM Marine and just when you get cocky enough to think you can take on all the iterations of the Typhon you’ve found so far, another evolution shows up that knocks you flat on your ass.
You have to stay clever in Prey and keep your head in the game. The oft-mentioned GLOO Cannon is your best friend as it allows for pathway creation out of hardened white foam. When you’re running low on combat weapon ammo (which is most of the time), you can get into locked rooms or flat out avoid areas full of enemies by strategic use of this invaluable piece of your arsenal. It was honestly refreshing to never feel “safe” no matter how many upgrades I had. I died a lot, I cursed a lot, I kept coming back for more.
Space walks in Prey were possibly my favorite parts of the game simply because they’re so different from the rest of it. The silence of space, the loss of up and down, and the view. I spent many times simply floating around outside of Talos I just taking in the beauty of seeing Earth and the Moon from the perspective of a lone human in the deadliest frontier of all.
Space walks aren’t just for scenic amusement, however. Several portions of the story or side quests require you to get outside the space station to make a rescue, repair something, etc. Doing so lets you really appreciate how well designed Talos I is. Being in space essentially lets you see Prey as a game in its entirety, while staying within its confines. Prey is one giant level broken into segments, and each is detailed with precision and accuracy to be appreciated as you float past on the outside. It’s a testament to the level design how familiar you become with Talos I over the course of the game. I found myself referring to the map less and less, even when obstacles would come up over the story line, because the layout of Prey’s world had already been etched into my brain the way you know the ins and outs of your own home.
Talos I is the other main character of Prey, and full of personality. There is rarely one way in or out of anywhere, and rewards are always given to those who take detours. While many comparisons can be made to the styling of Bioshock’s crumbling underwater city of Rapture, the similarities end there. Rapture had an ever-present claustrophobia from being surrounded by water and nearly being drowned on a few occasions. The goal was always to get out as it was very actively falling apart. In Prey, Talos I is home. If you get jettisoned out an airlock, you have a suit that lets you survive in space. You can repair certain hull breaches, or broken machinery. If it weren’t for those pesky Typhon trying to murder you by mimicking every other coffee cup you pick up, you can tell this is a place made to go the distance.
The Recycle and Fabricator machines are great strategic additions to gameplay, and put in intelligent places around the station. They allow you to break junk down into one of four kinds of materials which you can then use to make nearly anything you need – weapons, ammo, even more Neuromods. The implications of this approach are that you could hypothetically be drowning in ammo and upgrade potential if you’re diligent enough to collect every recyclable material you trip across on Talos I. If you weren’t motivated already, I guarantee that when you’re down to 5 shotgun shells and have a Voltaic Phantom bearing down on you, you’re going to wish you’d rifled through way more desks and garbage cans.
The story doesn’t let you down – make sure you stay around post credits – and has you questioning things until the very last second. Paranoia and identity issues plague Morgan, and even if you as the gamer have a hunch of the direction the story is going, Prey will make you doubt what you think you know just when you’re sure. Believe me, Prey sticks the landing, especially when you go for the best ending and see all the side stories play out in their entirety.
You’re A Big Arkane Fan. Are You Staying Objective? Is Prey perfect?
No, of course Prey isn’t perfect. No game is. However, that being said, I encountered shockingly few technical issues for a game within its release week. With how many games ship in broken states, this was a breath of fresh, recycled air. I had only two incidents of frame-rate stutter (once in a reactor room, and another out in space randomly). These took place hours apart, however frame rate slowed down to a crushing frame by frame pace for several seconds at a time in the Reactor area of the station. The game crashed on me only once, however due to a very well managed quick-save/auto-save system, I didn’t lose more than about 15 minutes of progress.
EDIT 5/19/2017: The below audio issue has been addressed to some extent in the most recent patch, now available for all versions of the game.
There are some odd audio choices that result in people sometimes talking over each other if you trigger one event while listening to another. The other is the volume level of the “alien discovery” music that plays, particularly in the beginning areas where it’s mostly just Mimics. I have a feeling that’s something that will eventually be patched, as it can be remedied by going into the settings and lowering the music volume to about 70-80%. It seems to be an audio mixing issue and is hardly game breaking.
There are moderate amounts of texture pop-in issues, and I’m sure on PC this game looks absolutely amazing and this probably isn’t an issue. For the most part, text on whiteboards, posters, sticky notes, and even on the side of the space station, stayed in focus and crystal clear at all times.
Loading times are this game’s second biggest issue. Moving between the main station hubs takes way too long on the Xbox One version, I’m unsure if it’s faster on PC. I’d routinely check Twitter or reply to a text message while waiting, and that’s just ridiculous (and not an exaggeration). Especially considering that you will die a lot in this game, having to wait on loading times is more frustrating than it needs to be.
EDIT 5/19/2017: The below robot operator issue has been addressed in the most recent patch, now available for all versions of the game.
The biggest issue I encountered was one near end-game objective to find a robot operator. The objective marker disappeared, and its location isn’t always where the game tells you it is. If you are unlucky enough to be told the operator is on the Talos I exterior, you can spend hours looking for it, hoping it spawned into one of at least two different locations. I spent about two hours looking for him because he wasn’t where the game told me he’d be. The only fix I could find seems to be hard saving before the mission starts, so you can have the game “re-assign” the robot’s location. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that beforehand, so I had to pray to the video game gods that he’d eventually show up.
There you have it – Prey reviewed. This is an absolute must own. I already want to play it again to complete objectives I didn’t get to before end-game events kicked in. I loved every minute I spent in this game, and I’ve already bought the OST which was done mainly by Mick Gordon (Wolfenstein: The New Order, DOOM) and is already available for purchase.
The hype is real. Prey is Arkane’s best work yet – and that’s something I didn’t anticipate saying. Much like the running joke goes about Deus Ex, where every time it’s mentioned someone re-installs it, I believe Prey is going to have the same kind of longevity. Prey has a hypnotic quality to it, and draws you in to discover every last secret it’s hiding.
Prey is pure sci-fi, psycho thriller, neo-deco gold.
The following analysis is full of spoiler riddled thoughts. Do not read any further if you haven’t already beaten Prey or unless you have no intentions of playing the game. HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.
I’ve been very spoiled in the last year and a half. Games like DOOM, Quantum Break, Horizon Zero Dawn, Dishonored 2, and Uncharted 4 have indulged every creative neuron in my brain with incredibly designed worlds, award winning level design, storytelling that has brought me to tears, and even stellar soundtracks. I mentioned having tempered expectations when approaching Prey simply because of my own built in cynicism. Things can’t be this good for so long. Something will let me down. Well clearly, the streak is still going. Prey is no mimic of talent. If this game isn’t sweeping up GOTY awards like confetti after New Year’s Eve in Times Square, then the world has truly lost its mind.
Morgan Yu is a fascinating character, but he doesn’t seem that way at first (I played as male Morgan for my initial playthrough, so I will refer to him as male for my own purposes). I loved the idea of exploring the philosophy behind “what makes a person.” I also really got into the side character quests, initially because I have a hero complex, but then I started noticing how they all pretty much thought Morgan was a jerk. This was a bit of a wake-up call because it made me start wondering if I wasn’t playing as the villain after all. When I found the recording where I watch myself telling my brother to “let them judge us later” in defense of human-rights violating experiments in the name of advancing science, I realized that there was a pretty good reason everyone hated me. Morgan Yu is…pretty horrible. Except….I’m Morgan Yu, and I’m not doing horrible things. So how could there be such a huge disconnect?
The paranoia elements for me didn’t kick in with the “not a mimic” post-its. They started happening when I thought I could guess the plot, only to have white light flash on the screen and have my own voice say “they’re lying to you.” I know what’s going to happen, or do I? It turns out I was half right, but I could never have predicted to the extent.
The post-credit reveal that “Morgan Yu” is really a Typhon that’s been injected with human abilities, and the memories of his namesake, confirmed what I had glimpses of throughout the game’s many transcribes and psych evaluations of the staff. I didn’t guess that I was actually running through an Inception layered simulation, however.
This realization of Morgan as a character suddenly made me recall the original Prototype. Prototype had you play as Alex Mercer, a man who wakes up with no memories in a morgue and soon finds he has the same abilities as a virus that’s taking over Manhattan. Long story short, you find out the Alex Mercer that you play as actually is the virus and that this virus took over Mercer’s body when the original Alex killed himself in Grand Central Station as an act of bio-terrorism that unleashed the virus in the first place. Similar to Morgan, you also find out that the original Alex Mercer was a selfish monster willing to kill millions simply because he was about to get caught for stealing the virus. In short, the “monster” you played as was a better human than the human it looked like. When I reached the final scene of Prey, what struck me was listening to each main character who I’d helped talk about the things I’d done to prove my ability to “be human.” They didn’t simply list my achievements like bullet points, but instead talked about what surprised them and what touched them the most.
The most painful of these decisions for me was revealing to Morgan’s ex-girlfriend the fate of her father, a Russian prison camp “volunteer” for TranStar experiments who was sacrificed to the Typhon at the OK of Morgan himself. Not only does she ask you to find the record of what happened to her father, you are given the option to delete it and spare her the pain (and make yourself look better). When you decide to send it to her, she lets you know she’ll wait for you to listen to it. She’s thanking you for sending the proof that you killed her father – a man she risked lying about a chronic medical condition to get to space to find – because she doesn’t know the truth yet. Prey makes you watch her listen to it and take the verbal attack she unleashes on you afterwards. Mind you, this is after you’ve saved her life by obtaining her medicine so she won’t suffocate to death by her own malfunctioning muscles.
Another moment that made me pause was when January starts making me question what I’m supposed to do. I’m being asked by a machine to postulate that if I was created, like January was, then was I created for a purpose? January is a robot and therefore knows it’s purpose from start to finish. Humanity, however, is an unfinished book. Is my purpose already determined? To prove that it isn’t, everything Prey says you have to do, you don’t. In fact, you can even get to a special escape pod very early in the game, say “to hell with it,” and leave the station without completing any mission at all. While readying the pod, your communication device is filled with January and your brother telling you you’re better than this, and yet you can do it anyway. What game lets you do this?
Then there’s the scene where you can choose to sacrifice a volunteer left in an experimental chamber. Prey has already let you know that these “volunteers” came from prison camps, so they must be bad. Right? It gives you the option to read the man’s criminal record. It’s all heinous. As you read it, he reacts saying “You reading that list of things they say I did? They made that up to make you feel better about what you have to do.” They’re lying to you. They’re lying to you. If you linger on the choice, the prisoner starts to admit to what he did do, but swears it’s not what’s on the record. I let him free, he helped me, and never once tried to kill me. I was left wondering if he’d been telling the truth until I found out about my ex-girlfriend’s father who seems to have had no criminal record. Then of course there’s the fact that Morgan and Alex have been murdering people to create Neuromods for the wealthy to use simply so they can play piano like a professional or be able to speak French within minutes.
It’s unclear what happened to the real Morgan Yu, although based on a recording at The Yellow Tulip lounge in which Alex Yu makes an announcement that Morgan went back to Earth to “work on marketing” makes me think that Morgan fell victim to his own experiments of injecting Typhon abilities into himself. While it hasn’t been confirmed to me by anyone, the Nightmare Typhon that seems to have one purpose – stalking you across the station – is probably the “real” Morgan. We already have seen the Weaver Typhon create Phantoms from dead bodies at this point. We also know they retain certain traces of memories, and if you stand around in a corner you can actually listen to the Phantoms “speak.” What do you see through the glass. The volunteer should step back. ….Inside us like some kind of disease. Those phrases are a few off the top of my head that I could make out from regular Phantoms.
The Nightmare on the other hand, is the only Phantom of that size (aside from the Apex at the end, of course), and the only one that your Psychoscope scanner tells you to refer to another Doctor for updated information. Since you discover at the end you’re existing inside a simulation of Morgan’s memories, it would make sense that Morgan wouldn’t have been lucid (or even alive anymore) at this point, so there would be no information for the simulation to give you. Simply put, the Apex phantom and the Nightmare would basically have been the only two Typhon that Morgan didn’t come in contact with once he actually became one of them.
The best advice I can give you if you sped through the game to finish up a playthrough is to go back and immerse yourself in the world. There are so many things to find, and since I didn’t get the achievement for finding all transcribe recordings, it means there was even more for me to discover. I’ll be honest, it gnaws at me. Talos I as an environment tells the richest story through place that I’ve seen since Bioshock’s Rapture or Fallout 3’s destroyed Washington D.C. The nods to the games that inspired Prey are obvious, but they feel more like tributes than trying to leech off another’s greatness. I really appreciated this because while many people want to neatly box it up as “Bioshock in space,” that’s selling it short. Prey is not a mimic.
Bonus Art Gallery:
Arkane Studios created a fantastic alter-history of an America that allied with Russia during the Cold War and avoided the assassination of President Kennedy. Rich with the styles of “Neo-Deco,” a futuristic take on art-deco, and a space station built from a fusion of Russian architecture and American bravado, you can only imagine how style might look on Earth. I took a crack at it for the Prey pre-launch party held around the US at various Alamo Drafthouse theatre locations and nearby bars. Below is my costumed take in what I call “The TranStar Recruit.” I’m not on the space station yet, but I’ve already received some official materials…
For anyone who missed my art project back from February where I collaborated with body painter & artist Caitlin St. Angelo, I pulled a Morgan Yu of my own and let myself become one with the Typhon. I’ll include the photos below, but feel free to follow the link to the original article that has a video of how we made it happen.
PHOTO CREDIT: ERIKA HAASE, CAITLIN ST. ANGELO
Disclaimer: My review is based on an Xbox One copy of PREY which I purchased with my own money. I have received no compensation or promotional materials for a positive review from Bethesda or Arkane Studios. All opinions are my own. I make no money if you click any of the links here. All screenshots used in this article were taken by myself during gameplay. Photos were taken by myself and copyright to me. Photo credit: Erika Haase, Caitlin St. Angelo