It’s been over 10 years since Prey was released on the Xbox 360 and PC, and those that do remember it, I would imagine remember it fondly. The Native American inspired galactic conquest featuring heavily in portals and anti-gravity impressed audiences with its graphics and gameplay, and resulted in the breakout hit to sell over 1 million copies in that very same year.
By 2009 Bethesda had bought the rights to Prey, and by 2014 they announced Prey 2 would be cancelled. The original developers Human Head Studios had their product taken away from them, and Bethesda announced in 2016 that development had been handed over to the well-established affiliate of Bethesda and developer of the Dishonoured titles – Arkane Studios.
It was soon announced that the upcoming release would no longer be a direct sequel of Prey, and would instead be a re-imagining of the intellectual property. As experience would have us subscribe, this makes plenty of sense with the long list of sequels released after extended periods that truly failed in their mission. Duke Nukem, I’m looking at you…
But as with any of these long development cycles, it does leave a certain level of mystery and intrigue that surprise releases don’t, and with the recent release of the “1st hour” it’s time to take a look at what’s been delivered.
Let’s set the scene. Stay with me now. You wake up in a beautiful apartment overlooking a modern city. You receive a call from your place of work, and are told you need to head in for your first day for some tests, and that a helicopter will be there to pick you up. (Check you out, big shot). So far so good.
At this early point in the game, I found myself immediately drawn to the slick graphics and the stunning view over the city. A towering metropolis coinciding with natural beauty, but I find myself unable to open the balcony door and step out into this bright, flourishing outdoors. A mild inconvenience. I wander round my much more claustrophobic apartment, fiddling with every interact-able object I can find. I pick things up and throw them aimlessly at the walls. I pack my pockets with consumables from the fridge and what appear to be spare electrical parts from my desk. I always do this. No room in any game is safe from my pillaging and destruction.
After exiting your apartment, and saying hello to the friendly janitor working on some pipes in your hallway, you’ll climb into your helicopter and be given a cross city flight with some snazzy opening credits sitting neatly amongst the skyscrapers. All the character models are consistent and you can definitely see some resemblance to Arkane studio’s Dishonoured character modelling – Not hyper-real, but real enough to make a game’s violence gritty.
As I wander into the testing chambers at my place of employ, I’m spoken to by a senior Dr at the facility. He’s running me through some guinea pig exams, telling me how great I’m doing – the condescending prick – and as I begin moving boxes and pressing buttons the opposite side of the glass to the researchers, I’m feeling something familiar. An ambiance that I haven’t felt for some time. An ambiance of a Half-Life, and familiar sense that something is about to go wrong. Very very wrong.
And would you bloody believe it…
Very quickly and with much gusto, we’re forced to jump into action as the primary enemy of the demo jumps into play – The Mimic.
These little dudes are essentially the head crabs of Prey and scuttle around trying to face fuck you. But there’s a catch, and this is where Prey attempts to separate itself from other Science Fiction titles. The Mimics are named as such because they can transform into any object around them. Many times throughout the demo, I lost track of a Mimic only to go try to pick up a mug on a table and have it transform back into the little spider-bitch it is, and leap at my face.
They really do catch you off guard, and are utilised well in the tight spaces of small offices. However, I did find that the game often used their unique abilities without much inspiration, and just had four objects immediately turn into Mimics as you entered a room. I thought it would have been much more effective to have one change and attack when you’re not looking, and then another and another, or even have multiple Mimics change when they decided you were in the most effective place in the room to ambush. But I did find more often than not that they would just change en-masse as soon as I walked through a door. Very disappointing.
The other enemies introduced in the game are actually incredibly similar to Half Life’s Alien Slaves, in both form and method of attack, and that’s pretty disappointing when the Mimics were such a novel idea.
None of this is helped by the fact that the game plays like a clunky old woman. I played on the PS4, and would imagine that this would operate better on PC in terms of aiming, but there really is no excuse for gameplay feeling as tired and slow as this did. Movement felt too floaty. Jumping felt hard to judge and often caused me to fall when I really felt like I’d landed my mark.
The combat was flavourless. We’re quickly introduced to a wrench (how original), and are able to use it to beat the hell out of the Mimics. We’re also introduced to some other weapons – a goo gun that allows you to slow down enemies to a stand still (although for such a short period of time that it doesn’t feel worth it). What’s more interesting about this gun is that you can use its projectiles to create your own climbable pathways to reach new areas; although in the demo I found little reward for doing so, but there’s potential there. The pistol initially feels a God send after all this slowing down and wrench battering, but is immediately found to be heartlessly difficult to aim; and not in a way that you feel any skill lies behind it – but in a way that leaves you feeling that the whole combat system was an afterthought. The shotgun made life a lot easier, but with that you’re scrabbling around looking for shells the whole damn time. In the end I found the most effective way of taking out enemies was to pick up one of the little mobile turrets you can find scattered around the level, and drop them in a room I knew was full of enemies. But this soon got old.
Now can we mitigate any of these faults? Yes, we can. The game boasts a skill tree system so painfully similar to Deus Ex that it’s laughable, but it is extensive. The game ensures that we’re aware that we can “play it our way” by finding multiple ways through buildings. Hacking, repair and physical strength are all ways to progress, although you’ll never be able to do all of them on one play through. Other skills include combat and stealth among many others which may explain why picking up a gun for the first time feels so stiff and redundant. But considering this is Bethesda supposedly showing us the sparkling fruit of this long labour, I would have expected them to make the game as accessible as possible and put efforts into delivering a gameplay experience as slick as they’ve put efforts into making it shiny.
Finally, I can’t finish up without commenting on the worst aspect of the demo by far. The sound. In particular one element of the sound. They’ve attempted at what they must think suspense music sounds like. Any time you’re in a room with an enemy, a very loud and jarring motif suddenly starts blasting out of your TV, and it feels incredibly out of place. Not only that, but the music doesn’t seem to ever fucking stop. I could only assume by the end of my play through that the music doesn’t give up until you either get far away enough from the enemy or you kill it. Am I the only one that thinks that’s a really dumb design move on a game that’s trying to make enemies blend into the environment as everyday objects? Every time I heard the music play, I’d run around a room smacking every plant pot, whiteboard and coffee cup until I found the little shit. It was exhausting.
I may be a little angrier about this demo than I should be. But as a fan of the original and with so much developmental drama, and having the development taken away from those best suited to do it, I can’t help but feel this should have been a finely polished product out of principle alone. It’s fair to say I was captivated for the first 15 minutes by the mystery of my surroundings, and the mimic enemies are a nice idea. As the story developed I found myself even more eager to uncover the purpose of my being there. But Arkane Studios really have made it hard to enjoy yourself in this game. There’s very little originality, and what they have produced is either under-powered or underdeveloped.
It feels a little bit Half Life,a hell of a lot of Deus Ex, but certainly nowhere near as good as either.
But we’ll see with today’s release of the full game, whether they pull out some last minute magic. I Pray I’m wrong.
Ha. No, really.