Prey Review (PlayStation 4)
The unknown is scary. Space exploration has always been so fascinating because we don't know what's out there, and our civilization is a massive collection of explorers with no place left to go but beyond. But we stopped exploring ourselves a long time ago. What Arkane supposes with its new take on Prey is a world where we didn't stop going further. Of course, reaching into the darkness has its disadvantages, too. Arkane takes its time unfurling all of Prey's secrets, but that methodical approach makes every moment worth it the deeper you dive into the world the developer created.
In Prey's version of the 1960s space race, the United States and Russia were both aggressive in their efforts to outdo one another. Thanks to the failed attempt on President Kennedy's life in Prey's timeline, the US kept pushing harder and harder, as his optimism and tenacity in beating our Cold War enemies never wavered. That rivalry is part of what attracts the alien race known as the Typhon to our galaxy. As JFK predicted, the hazards of space were dangerous to all of humanity, and the US and Russia band together to create a space station to imprison the Typhon.
For years, scientists would study the alien race in secret, including using some rather duplicitous methods, but an incident in the 1980s brings about the decision to shut down the station. For decades, the Typhon were left to fester in orbit. It wasn't until the 2020s that TranStar bought the original space station and built a new one around it dubbed Talos I. This new venture, completely independent of government meddling, would allow Earth's top scientists to continue experimenting on the Typhon to find new advances for humanity. That thirst for knowledge would be Talos I's downfall.
As scientist Morgan Yu, you'll be at the lead of this new scientific front by the side of your brother Alex. With him, you've developed a new technology known as Neuromods. Using some of the Typhon genomes, Neuromods were created to give humans any and every ability they could ever want, provided there was someone to copy it from. Want to pilot a helicopter? Just jab this needle with a pilot program into your eye. Interested in the piano? TranStar has you covered. Military applications? Sure, that's where are the real money is anyway, right? Think The Matrix's reprogramming filtered through the lens of 1960s science instead of a dystopian novel. Aboard Talos I, Neuromods are the discovery du jour, and it's thanks to the Typhon that they were even possible.
Like the incident in the 1980s that originally got the station shut down, the Typhon don't take kindly to being lab rats. Soon after you step into Morgan's shoes, things fall apart at a precipitous rate. It's a dang shame too because Talos I is a marvel of art and design that's more interested in optimism than the typical genre defaults towards militaristic endeavors.
The most impressive part of Prey is what Arkane has been able to build with regards to the universe you inhabit while playing. TranStar may be a privatized corporation that has more in common with Weyland-Yutani than Apple, but you wouldn't know it from just looking around. Talos I is wonder of science-fiction, and brings out a side of the genre not often seen in video games. The hardened interiors of a military ship or the dark mysteries of an alien vessel are nowhere to be found. The heart of TranStar's Talos I is an Art Deco dream that could easily be mistaken for Rapture in space. Surrounding it though are areas from all eras of the station's lifespan, including those days in the '60s. The stark contrast between "modern" design and the calculated efficiency of early Russian/US space technology makes for some tremendously diverse locations, even though you're actually still confined to one true location.
Wandering the halls is a delight despite the many things out there trying to end Morgan's life. The space aboard Talos I feels lived-in and authentic, and to Arkane's credit, that goes a long way in immersing you in Morgan's story early on when Prey is still very much playing hard to get. It's almost as if the game itself is pushing players away to keep them safe for the opening few hours. The threats on Talos I are very real, and for the opening third of Prey, the most dangerous they can possibly be to Morgan. She's virtually powerless to kick things off, and the panic and anxiety of staying alive on a space station overrun by an alien menace is all too honest. Cursing at the game and yourself through those introductory moments should be expected, but it's worth every bit of white-knuckled anguish to press on.
Exploration is the key to Morgan's survival, which makes perfect sense given the thematic undertones driving all the events in Prey. Arkane wants you to continually search for more meaning, more explanation, and more truth. TranStar isn't a shining beacon of human prosperity, the Typhon are more than just a fluky first contact, and it's up to you to piece together the lives and secrets of the people on Talos I in order to bring light to those shadowy areas. As has become typical, there are a number of audio logs and documents to find scattered about Talos I that will help you fill in the many, many blanks. In Prey, they don't feel superfluous, but rather necessary. This is scientific station after all, and data is everywhere. Paper trails slowly build to dramatic reveals, personal emails give glimpses into the ways the lives of security and engineers cross, and blueprints for new items can be found in just the right places.
Like the Dishonored franchise Arkane also developed, exploration is also a means to avoiding conflict. Video games, especially those in the first-person arena, typically condition you face opposition head on. Until Morgan is able to find enough Neuromods to make herself a competent combatant, looking for ways around the Typhon is key. Sometimes confrontation will be unavoidable, but the space station is both cobbled together from a mess of different labs and falling apart thanks to the Typhon attacks. Whether that means finding some key codes to previously locked doors, hacking your way through said doors, or using tools like the Goo Gun to create your own opportunities, where there is patience, there is a way around.
The Goo Gun is one of Prey's core tools/weapons you'll rely on from start to finish. It's a fantastic and fun device that promotes platforming experimentation, and can keep you safe in a non-lethal way. Rather than dispersing of enemies with an attack, the Goo Gun merely freezes them in place. That's handy when you've spotted some Mimics, the Typhon buggers that can turn into everyday objects like boxes and lamps, and want to keep them in their transformed states so they can't attack you. It's also good for buying you a slight advantage over more powerful Phantoms, as the Goo stalls them for a brief moment and allows you to sight up an actual gun.
There are actual ballistic weapons on Talos I as well, but don't go hoping for anything out of the ordinary. Talos I is a place where most denizens are searching for knowledge, not looking to cause trouble. As such, security on board is only armed with pistols, shotguns, and stun guns. There are automated turrets scattered throughout the station as well, many of which will save your life, but the weaponry in Prey is grounded and fairly authentic given the circumstances. Some scientists put together some experimental armaments like EMP charges and a beam weapon, but even those are sparingly found. Because of the relative rarity of ammunition and those more fantastic weapons, you'll definitely have a fear of using resources... at least until you gain fabrication plans or earn some Neuromods for Typhon powers.
Fabrication plays a major role in keeping Morgan alive. In Prey's future, recycling machines can take all your items, garbage or not, and turn them into raw materials. Those raw materials can then be taken to a fabrication machine, and if you have the right recipe and ingredients, you can craft just about everything you'll need from med kits to bullets to weapons themselves. It's a bit Minecraftian in its execution, and is much more interesting than the now-standard ideal of finding generic crafting items to improve characters in so many other games. Just watching the items break down in the recycling machine into blocks and balls of raw materials is fascinating. Though it's arguably an unnecessary extra step in getting you what you want, it's one that brings much more personality to Prey's world than just pushing a few buttons in a menu to get what you want.
When you do finally get to the point in Prey where those wonderful Neuromods expose Morgan's body to Typhon powers, the difficulty curve begins to straighten out. Where once she was but a simple scientist armed with a wrench and a sense of self-preservation, the addition of Typhon abilities gives Morgan the strength to set enemies ablaze, mimic simple items, and even control the minds of other human survivors. The modifications on the human and Typhon side of things all start out relatively cheap, but get progressively more expensive when it comes to Neuromod resources later in the game. You can eventually craft Neuromods, and thus turn Morgan into an unstoppable beast of chaos and destruction. Even with just a few abilities cranked to max effort, Morgan becomes a formidable force that's a far cry from her first steps on Talos I.
In fact, Morgan becomes so powerful by the final third of Prey that it's almost unbalanced. Where the early elements of Prey kept you on your toes by making your purposefully weak, the enemies you face don't evolve like Morgan does. You can quickly overpower Typhon of all sorts that gave you near-death fits just a few hours before by the time most of Prey's secrets have been laid bare. You may have been searching every nook an cranny of the station for ways to avoid contact with Typhon for the first dozen hours, but in the back half, you'll be able to walk through most combat encounters with Typhon being nothing more than a mild irritation.
That said, it does make revisiting areas of Talos I a bit more tolerable later in Prey's story. You will frequently hop back and forth between different sections of station, all of which come with loading times, as you attempt to check objectives off your list before coming to the final handful of story missions. With Typhon respawning constantly, giving players the strength to persevere is a bit of a blessing. You could fight every Typhon you see over and over again. Or you could save yourself the effort and just run past them to your goal. The Typhon don't chase you very far once you're out of their line of sight, and with health and med kits to spare, there's no reason to give most of them a second glance on return visits to different wings of Talos I.
The bulk of those return visits will often deal with objectives that have a moral bent to them. You can't have a game in the modern era without some morality meter to "define" the player character, and that's especially true of Arkane's games under the Bethesda banner. What consequences there are on either side of the coin aren't really all that relevant to the outcome of Prey's story. They do all offer you different Trophies however, so having a few save files handy wouldn't be the worst idea. There are some small rewards for Morgan for doing the "right" things at certain times, but it all depends on how cold or caring you believe Morgan should be based on your concept of her based on the audio files and emails across Talos I.
Prey's pacing may turn off players unwilling to let the story unfold in due time, but Arkane has crafted a special, authentic world that's worth combing over for every last detail. The things we do in the name of science are surprising and sometimes shocking. The events of what happened on Talos I definitely fall into the latter, and exploring them as Morgan Yu was a terrifying and thrilling experience. JFK was right when he said exploring space was "the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."
This review was completed using a digital copy of Prey provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.