2017 has been a magical year for games thus far. The first few months were crammed with more amazing titles than we’ve seen in entire years before. But this hot streak must end sometime, right? Well, Arkane Studios – specifically, the company's second studio in Texas – has ensured it's not the ones to end this streak, as its new title PREY is another in a string of successes.
This is an FPS adventure game set on the space station Talos-I. You assume the role of Morgan Yu – whom you can choose to be a man or woman at the start – a scientist doing some sort of experiment. During this experiment, something goes awry, and as this occurs the curtains begin to peel back on how dire the scenario really is. Pretty much nothing is as it truly seems, and this underlying sense of paranoia is one of the cornerstones of the game's impressively captivating narrative. An alien species known as the Typhon have infested the station, and it’s your job to keep Morgan alive through the horrifically mangled remains of the once-great space station.
Along the way, you’ll encounter plenty of enemies and occasionally even some allies that help you on the way to figuring out what truly happened to the station and why everything is as hopeless as it is now. Morgan’s brother, Alex, looks to stop you every step of the way and it’s up to you to come up with creative solutions to navigate around these roadblocks. This also introduces one of the game's strongest elements: its exploration.
Talos-I is a rather large station, and for the most part, all of it is open to you if you’re determined enough to find a way into wherever you’re looking. The game offers a number of tools to do this, ranging from weapons that can help you fabricate makeshift stairs – called the GLOO Cannon – to a nerf crossbow that lets you pop open doors. This open-ended freedom makes it possible to just find yourself wandering around the space station, opening one new room after another. There are a rather large number of rewards for doing this, too, ranging from weapons to ability upgrades to little Easter eggs and more. In fact, we got so side-tracked with just wanting to explore on several occasions that we practically forgot about our main missions.
The exploration element of the game isn’t flawless, however. There are a couple of sections where zero-gravity exploration is a large factor, and this brought the fun to a screeching halt for stretches of time. While you can exit the station to use airlocks as shortcuts to get from place-to-place on the station, the actual movement in Zero-G is rather finicky, and one area inside Talos-I, is a lengthy, almost exclusively Zero-G chunk of the game that both slows down the narrative and the fun.
Luckily, just about everywhere in the game is visually interesting. The locations all manage to feel unique from one another – no small feat considering samey environments are a constant problem for space station-based games – with the games alternate timeline Cold War playing a big factor in this. Rich woods coat much of the station, and retro designs from the Russian/USA co-operative space initiative play a big factor in the game's look and feel. Much of the game is so gorgeous, that we found ourselves wanting to just look at things for long stretches of time, which it turns out can be quite dangerous.
There is an enemy in the game called a mimic, the first variant of the Typhon you will encounter that can, well, mimic inanimate objects in the environment. They can be good for a quick fright, and enhance the paranoia elements of the plot. Because these mimics copy items you would pick up, too, like health packs and ammo, it’s exceedingly effective – especially early on in the game. As you grow more powerful, it becomes less problematic, but it’s an intense and horrifying cat-and-mouse in the early parts of the game. As the game wears on, you’ll also start learning the musical cues that indicate certain enemies, which unfortunately betrays the presence of enemies that we didn’t know were there rather frequently. It’s a weaker component of the sound design because apart from that, this game’s sound work is incredible.
DOOM composer Mick Gordon returns for another Bethesda branded title, crafting an exceptional soundtrack that helps to enhance and characterise the space station itself. It’s not just the music, though: the ambient noise of the station itself is phenomenal. Talos-I has been in orbit for decades, so it’s full of creaks and groans and rumbling.
The station's condition is a big factor in the gameplay, too. There are many hull breaches and things that are on fire or damaged. And should you so choose, you can have Morgan repair much of this: the GLOO Cannon can seal gas leaks, nullify electrical short circuits, and other things of that nature. It’s one of the game's several highly creative weapons, and while using the GLOO Cannon to climb is highly imprecise, it still feels like an essential and fun part of the game. In fact, just about everything in the game feels like it needs to be there, with one notable exception: the psychic powers.
The psychic powers are the abilities that the Typhon themselves use, and once Morgan gets the Psychoscope – PREY's “research camera” component, except with a really great UI – he can start using these powers. Except the game fails to offer sufficient motivation to do this. If you invest in these powers, the station's automated defences will begin to identify you as a hostile, and none of the powers feel essential enough to invest in, especially when there are plenty of non-psychic abilities that are very useful. It ends up making these powers feel like a stand-in for the Plasmids from BioShock, a game which very heavily and very noticeably influenced this title.
PREY continues the hot streak of big releases in 2017. While not flawless, this title offers an incredible sci-fi story about paranoia and the self, while sprinkling Arkane’s always excellent gameplay on top. While things like the psychic powers fail to justify being in the game mechanically, the creative weapons and multiple gameplay approaches help to make the exploration of Talos-I really shine. Between the rewards for searching through the environments, and the fact that the game is a visual treat, a venture through this deteriorating Cold War-era space station is definitely worth your time.