Prey is a game about trust. I mean, it’s about lots of things, but it’s mostly about trust. And not only the sort of trust that involves an unreliable narrator whose own questionable credibility and ambiguous purpose keep you guessing until the game’s astounding conclusion – that too, though – but also a more ordinary, a more banal sort of trust. The sort of trust, for example, that a coffee cup is a coffee cup.
And maybe a coffee cup is a coffee cup. But maybe it isn’t.
The point is, you can’t trust coffee cups.
The year is 2032. But not 2032 as we might imagine it – rather, this is the 2032 that happened as a result of John F. Kennedy surviving his assassination attempt and funding the US space program in collaboration with Russia, and aliens (inevitably) turning up to exterminate humanity. Operated by TranStar Corporation, the Talos I station – “The 8th Wonder of the World is in Space!” – orbits the moon, and while ostensibly a corporate facility, it’s actually top secretly a alien research laboratory. And now the aliens have busted out of containment.
You’re Morgan Yu, a scientist and one of the only survivors on the Talos I, and you’re about to have a very fucking bad day.
I don’t want to tell you what happens next, because this is a game you want to play without knowing much about it. Despite a somewhat abrupt finale, Prey‘s unique context, ideological agendas, and consistently intriguing plot – supplemented by hundreds of emails, notes, voice memos, pulpy sci-fi novels, and even a Dungeons & Dragons campaign among crew – make for one of the most compelling narratives this side of BioShock. Don’t miss the post-credits scene.
But back to coffee cups. The thing about the aliens in Prey – called the Typhon – is that some of them can mimic other inanimate objects in the environment. This isn’t a scripted event here and there, it’s an unpredictable constant throughout the game, and it’s not just coffee cups. It’s oxygen tanks. It’s chairs. It’s rolls of toilet paper. It’s that medkit or ammo you desperately need, OMG NO WHY THAT’S SO WRONG NOT OKAY YOU GUYS.
Also, unlike most games, the ongoing unresolved drama on the Talos I means that no location is ever completely emptied of enemies. As events progress, more conventionally intimidating monster-type Typhon start to appear – even in the first areas – but you’ll be accidentally stepping on mimics until it’s game over. The suspense is unrelenting, and not exactly mitigated by the game’s inconsistent difficulty. Without spoiling too much, you can unlock upgrades and abilities using collectible Neuromod implants, but the, uh, special stuff is only available about 10 hours or so into the game. Until then, engaging the Typhon using regular weapons is a tedious and overwhelming series of tactical retreats that too frequently end in a reloading screen. Even the… other augmentations don’t help much, and in the last two or three hours of the game when shit gets real, you’re probably going to die a lot.
But, oh, what a place to die. The Talos I mixes wood-panelled art deco elegance with retrofuturistic chrome and Soviet utility, its corridors sprawling between a glasshouse, office suites, a zero-gravity server bay, a power plant, and a “Psychotronics” division that’s about as messed up as you’d expect. Every room is a new problem to solve, but those solutions are not necessarily simple or otherwise obvious, and sometimes observation and clever thinking can circumvent them entirely. This kind of emergent gameplay, so often promised, is seldom delivered with such extravagance and ingenuity, and the level design is an immensely impressive accomplishment on its own.
Besides the main story, there’s also loads of other things to keep you busy, and not the obligatory junk that so many games like this serve up. You could blitz through Prey in about 15 hours, but I clocked over 30 because the distractions were so, you know, legitimately distracting, and I don’t want to elaborate much, but the ending I got wouldn’t have been possible if I’d not previously completed a series of totally optional tasks.
On a more technical note, however, the load times between main locations in Prey are absurd on console – even up to 90 seconds at a time. Although it’s unimportant for most of the game, this becomes an issue towards the finish when you’ll be moving from one side of the Talos I to the other, and back again (… and back again) because reasons.