“PSYCHOSHOCK” – Prey Reviewed

The DNA of Arkane’s Prey is System Shock 2. You can sense it as soon as you pick up a wrench, break the glass and step into Talos I. “Psychoshock” would be a more appropriate title for this game –it is the name of one of the game’s psionic abilities – but whatever the name, it is clear Arkane wanted to create a successor to Looking Glass’ and Irrational’s classic, and they succeeded.

Even if you’ve never played System Shock 2, you may appreciate Prey if you’ve enjoyed Arkane’s other series Dishonored or the Shock spiritual successor of a decade ago, Bioshock. If you’ve never played any of those or similar titles but are interested in a game that gives you tools and powers to play with as you explore an open-ended environment, Prey is for you. The storyline, characters and environment aesthetics are not as intriguing as those in the game’s spiritual predecessors, and there are a few technical issues, but the gameplay and certain parts of the fiction make for a great game.

Prey’s setting is “Talos I” in the year 2032. Talos I is a space station owned and once-operated by the company “TranStar.” Exploring the station is half the fun. You’ll likely steer from the main quest in order to explore each of Talos’ decks on your own. But you won’t lark about freely, as the game’s alien enemies, the Typhon, haunt Talos’ halls. They were being studied on Talos I but have broken from containment, and you’ll be hiding from them, combating them, and, more often than not, killed by them throughout the game.

To fight the Typhon and explore Talos I, you – or “Yu”, as the main character is the TranStar executive named Morgan Yu – will use “neuromods.” These are like the cybernetic modules in System Shock 2 or Adam in Bioshock. The greater story behind neuromods is that TranStar had been developing them as consumer products that give people skills and abilities immediately – someone who has never taken a math course can become a mathematician, and so on. In the game, neuromods unlock passive and active abilities under “Scientist”, “Engineer”, and “Security” categories. They also unlock psionic powers – Typhon-based powers branched under “Energy”, “Morph”, and “Telepathy.” You may upgrade the three former skill sets without consequence (beyond spending neuromods), but choosing to unlock psionic powers makes you more Typhon. If you become too Typhon, Talos I’s turrets will see you as a threat and fire on you. Using turrets against the Typhon is a valuable tactic, so having them turn on you would be a loss. (Ingenuity could help you if the turrets start shooting at you, though. A “Hack” skill can turn turrets back on your side, even if you are still read by them as a Typhon.)

Choose which skills you upgrade carefully as neuromods go fast and are hard to come by. You usually pick them up at key locations during the main storyline. On the flipside, if you’re extremely cautious in spending them – like I was – then you’ll have a pile of them left over by game’s end (I had around 14 in the late stages). But early, you want to upgrade carefully. You may not be able to unlock a higher “Repair” ability if you focus on Hack, etc.

Other upgrades include “suit chipsets” for the TranStar suit you are wearing and “scope chipsets” for the psychoscope, a piece of technology you pick up early in the game that allows you to scan the Typhon. Suit chipsets include buffs like increasing your speed while sneaking or increasing the suit’s resistance to hazardous environments. Scope chipsets include decreasing time spent scanning Typhon or increasing the damage dealt with psionic powers.

Another upgrade you get early on is the “zero-gravity propulsion system.” This allows you to travel outside of the space station and through the internal, low-gravity “Gravity Utility Tunnel System”, or “G.U.T.S.” This transportation option allows you to get from between a few of Talos’ areas and is required to get to the game’s Arboretum deck for the first time.

Traveling in low-gravity is annoying, but doing so outside of the station provides scenic views of space. Traveling through the G.U.T.S. low-grav tunnels reminded me of traveling through cyberspace in System Shock (perhaps the developers intended this as a throwback), but even with this nostalgic flashback I was aggravated while floating about in low-gravity. I’m glad that low-grav travel is minimal in the game as, like swimming in water, floating about and spinning to get correct headings just isn’t fun in a first-person game. If you’re like me you’ll feel like a stooge banging into every wall and obstacle and getting annihilated by every enemy while in zero-gravity. (I was never that good at Descent.)

While you’re upgrading your suit and scope with neuromods and low-grav propulsion, there is a loot system to play with that’s quite fun. Pick up junk or duplicates of key items, like weapons, and process them through recycle stations to yield raw materials. Then use these to fabricate items at a fabrication station. For this you will also need that item’s fabrication plan. I used this process to create many medkits and ammo packs, and you must use it to create a few key quest items.

Prey has a limited arsenal. Its effect depends on how much you want to use guns. You can play Prey more like a shooter, or just sneak while using powers and the wrench (the wrench is very solid). There are weapon upgrade kits, vital if you plan on combating the Typhon head on. To fully upgrade guns you must spend precious neuromods on the “Gunsmith” and “Lab Tech” skills, and then find and use enough of the weapon upgrade kits. Even with fully upgraded weapons, you need some complementary skill or technique as guns alone won’t do the trick. You will not be able to play Prey as a straight first-person shooter except, perhaps, on Easy mode. The difficulty on Normal, even, is steep.

The arsenal includes a silenced 9mm pistol, a shotgun, a stun gun, and a laser gun (the “Q-Beam”). The “GLOO Cannon” shoots hardening gel that freezes Typhons. The small Typhons, called “Mimics”, can be gelled to the point of freezing quickly. The bigger “Phantoms” take more shots to solidify. You’ll want to upgrade your GLOO Cannon as much as the other weapons to effectively fight the aliens. Weapon upgrades for the GLOO Cannon, and others, include range, power, and magazine size.

You will also find EMP grenades and other throwing items like “Typhon Lures.” The latter draws Typhon in the area to one spot. The “Nullwave Transmitter” prevents Typhon from using psionic powers – very handy. All matter of throwing items and weapons in Prey should be used sparingly, as ammo depletes quickly, pickups are few, and any one battle with the Typhon burns a lot of resources.

Undulating, dark, and to varying degrees formless, the Typhon are a nightmare. The Mimics scurry about like spiders and may assume the form of any object. You may stoop to pick up an item only to see it change suddenly into this headcrab-esque creature. Phantoms mutter muffled phrases and pound the floors as they patrol. Several times I was crouched under a desk or table in terror as a Phantom walked by. “Telepaths” and the eerily formless “Weavers” loom creepily. More Typhon types exist, one especially frightening. These are some of the scariest creatures made in gaming.

You may scan the different Typhon forms with the psychoscope to learn more about how to combat them. This is like researching annelid organs in System Shock 2 or taking photos in Bioshock. Scans of any Typhon type yield data on that Typhon’s weaknesses and immunities, such as to “Nullwave” or “Fire”, notes written by player-character Morgan, and new psionic powers you may unlock with neuromods.

You will get the most out of Prey creeping about Talos I, discovering new areas and grappling with new objects and environments. The way the station is designed you may travel from one area of each deck to another and from one deck to another deck without being held within a straight path. As you go, you may learn about the characters and their stories via PDA audio logs, emails, and notes.

You may proceed down the main storyline or veer off to a side quest. You’ll likely step in and out of both as you explore Talos I. I cared more for finding new areas of the space station and soaking in the atmosphere than for progressing down the main plot. The waypoint markers for objectives may annoy as you explore, so turn them off by setting all objectives to ‘inactive’. (As of now there is no HUD option to turn off waypoints.)

The central storyline is built from good parts – the Typhon aliens and the story of the neuromods are fascinating – but, as a whole, the narrative is bland, amounting to a story of aliens and the tragic fall of humans tampering with new technologies. As gamers, we’ve experienced this many times. A specific problem to Prey is the lack of intriguing characters. I will not delve into spoilers here, but there is no condescending Dr. Polito, egomaniacal Shodan, energetic Marie Delacroix, or larger-than-life Andrew Ryan. Your character’s brother, Alex Yu, intrigues slightly as a tired CEO who clings to big dreams about his company and its technological innovations. There are also some amusing backstories between crew members gleaned from PDAs and emails, but on the whole Prey doesn’t offer the memorable narrative or characters of System Shock 2 or Bioshock.

On the technical side, Prey suffers from one consistent flaw: long load times. On a PC with an intel i7, a Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060, and 16 gigs of RAM, I typically waited anywhere from thirty to fifty seconds for the game to load a new area or a save file that I hadn’t recently loaded. Quick loads and loads of a save I had last loaded were quick, but all other load times took too long. Thirty seconds isn’t unbearable, true, but the fifty second or more loads are much.

Another technical flaw occurred when transitioning from normal gravity to zero gravity at a couple points. One of these was a transition zone that was horizontal, whereby you traveled into the low-grav area downwards and back to normal gravity upwards. Here I consistently remained in the “airlock” transition between the two zones, only being able to get out into normal gravity after several tries and pressing the “jump” key repeatedly. At another point transitioning into low gravity sent me, briefly, into “game space”, as if I had turned on “noclip” mode.

Aside from gravity transition problems, another technical slight I discovered was that a few of the NPC characters in the last third of the game sounded unusually muffled when they spoke, as if speaking in a small room. This isn’t the case with all of the NPCs, but the vocals of the ones affected stood out.

If, like me, you want more of a fantastic sci-fi setting, Prey’s Talos I may feel too close to home. Aesthetically, the game has a consistent 60s “retro-future” space-station design. Talos I feels like a mix of touring a NASA space center and walking through a cutting edge office building based on a 60s idea of the future. There’s a lot of wood paneling, a lot of white walls, and a lot of tubes. Personally, I wanted more blue. I also wanted a spaceship adrift in uncharted territory. There is plenty of sci-fi in Talos I, don’t misinterpret me, and you will feel a sense of the fantastic, especially on the Arboretum deck at the top of the station. But I’d take an adrift spaceship in uncharted territory over a space station orbiting the moon any day of the week. (One aspect of the setting I did like is its similarity to Shock’s Citadel Station, but I’m more of a Von Braun guy.)

Despite aesthetically not being my perfect cup of tea, a bland storyline and some technical blemishes, Prey has most of what an old-school gamer like me wants in a Shock-like: System Shock 2 style skill upgrade systems and an open-ended environment. Prey solidifies Arkane as the only game studio giving us these “immersive sim” experiences with player choice and open design that work. If you get excited about these traits in a game, or want to roam around a space station with creepy aliens and tools and abilities to use, check out Prey.

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