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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Publisher: Bethesda
Developer: Arkane Studios
Release Date: May 5, 2017

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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Xbox One Review - 'Prey'

by Brian Dumlao on May 10, 2017 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

In Prey, you awaken aboard Talos I, a space station orbiting the moon in the year 2032. You are the key subject of an experiment meant to alter humanity forever, but the space station has been overrun by hostile aliens, and you are now being hunted.

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It's unusual for a game to have the same name as its predecessor and not be a straight reboot or at least associated with it. Take Prey, for instance. The original game was an oft-delayed first-person shooter that had you playing as Tommy, a Native American who was abducted by aliens and tries to rescue his girlfriend while awakening his dormant powers. While the game didn't seem out of the ordinary, it gave the player some fascinating environments and great action gameplay. The new Prey, however, is a much different beast. Knowing that Arkane Studios worked on it should give you a fair idea of what to expect.

You play the role of Morgan Yu, scientist and new employee at TranStar Corporation. It's your first day on the job, and your brother, who's president of the company, welcomes you as you participate in a mandatory testing session before being permitted to board Talos 1, the company's orbiting space station. The tests are going fine, but one of the scientists evaluating you is attacked by an alien life form, and you're knocked out in the process. When you come to, you're back in your apartment and preparing to go to work for the first time. It doesn't take long for you to realize that something is wrong, and you learn that you've been reliving the same day over and over again. You're already aboard the Talos 1, and the station has been overrun by the same type of alien that killed the scientist. Your job is to find out what exactly is going on.

The story unfolds in modern adventure game fashion. Cut scenes are done in-game but minimally used. The story is driven through radio transmissions as you roam around the space station, and the backstory is discovered via scattered emails and voice recordings. Though the storytelling conventions aren't new, the tale is strengthened by two factors. The first is the slow burn method used to tell important segments. The revelation that you're repeating your first work day could've been prolonged a bit, but the other story beats come in at a much slower pace. It takes an hour or two before you get your first major objective, and other details and twists come in at a similarly relaxed pace. Despite this, the slower pacing doesn't make the game feel like it's dragging .

The story is also strong because of intentional confusion. From the beginning, you're not made aware of what's going on, and the incidental emails and audio logs you encounter don't provide a clear picture. Each major story reveal generates more questions than it answers, and that trend follows through to one of three possible endings. There are a few junctures where it's obvious that the choices will have an impact, but the choices don't matter as much as the big one you'll make close to the end.

The best way to describe the gameplay is that it is a cohesive amalgamation of dissimilar games. The first and most immediate influence is Bioshock and System Shock. On a smaller scale, this means there is a hacking minigame when you're dealing with door locks, and you'll heal yourself with food and drink along with med kits. Another influence is in your neural modifications. Some modifications are buffs to more human elements, like lessened stamina drain and better health refills. The alien modifications, which are accessed later on, make the game much more interesting since you're given a suite of new powers that include teleportation and generating energy balls. They provide a number of advantages, but it also means that you're classified as an alien, so the automatic turrets that left you alone before will now hunt you down, and you'll have to worry about another enemy type.

The abilities also feed into Prey's idea of using almost any approach to solve a problem. You're told this quite early, as you're given a chance to either hack a door, find the keycode to open it, or circumvent it by using the air ducts. That kind of approach continues later on, as previously inaccessible places can be easily reached whether you power up for it, find the right key, or take alternative routes. The whole thing feeds your ingenuity, and even dire situations become more fun because of it.

Dead Space also comes to mind as another influence due to the "horror in space" theme. Everything is out to kill you, and that produces some scares. Phantoms see you and may fire projectiles, but they'll also teleport toward you to launch a strong melee attack. Other aliens will brainwash humans into shambling toward you and exploding. Mimics are probably the signature enemy, since they can take on any form before starting an attack. There are a number of jumps scares in here, but other forms of fear also come into play. There's a constant sense of unease in wondering when a mimic will appear, so you'll want to hit everything in your sight. Unless you know an area is clear, a creepy feeling always permeates the game.

The title also takes on Resident Evil as an influence because it handles encounters similar to old survival-horror games. Enemies are strong, and your ammo reserves are scarce. It gets to the point where you'll run out of ammo even if you use exploits. You'll depend on stealth to keep enemy encounters to a minimum, and that means throwing objects to distract foes and lead them into turrets or chucking heavy objects at them as an ammo replacement. If you're forced to fight, you'll do so with weapons beyond the typical pistols and shotguns. For example, the goo gun lets you create pathways to higher elevations, patch up leaks, and immobilize lesser enemies. Another great weapon is the recycler grenade, which takes time to activate even when detonated but transforms anything caught in the blast into elements for use elsewhere.

General crafting and Diablo-style looting form another of the game's building blocks, though it is rather unusual compared to other titles. Crafting is usually a two-part process where you have to place objects in a recycler so they can be broken down into base materials. From there, you move the elements to a 3-D printer, where you can craft anything if you have learned the plans for it. The unusual part is that you'll be hoarding all sorts of otherwise useless junk in order to get those elements. Everything from asteroid pieces and alien organs to used cigars and crumpled-up paper qualify as viable objects, and you'll soon be upgrading your suit with the express purpose of making room so you can efficiently loot a room.

All of this comes together to create an experience that is both deep and memorable, especially since it provides a lengthy single-player campaign that beckons for multiple playthroughs — something that few big games do nowadays. The free approach to almost any situation is satisfying, and this is especially true of alien battles. Shuffling back and forth between areas gives you a Metroid-like feeling, as you'll likely see something new the next time. Little things, like using personnel directories to find people, feel clever because few other games use it. Even the ancillary characters have enough going for them that they'll stand out although they have no real impact on the story. In short, the game may borrow from other greats, but it puts everything together well enough to create its own identity.

Gameplay flaws are few and far between, like enemies briefly becoming unresponsive or service bots that constantly move to hidden spots of a floor. The one consistent gameplay issue you'll run into are load times. The areas you can explore are just as sizeable as BioShock or Dishonored, with appropriately themed sections split off accordingly by loading doors. Load times can be upwards of a minute, and a loading bar and a spinning TranStar logo keep you company. That's then followed by another load screen before you're given a prompt to proceed. The whole thing is long enough to be annoying but not unbearably so, and the respawns go through much shorter loading times, which is a blessing considering how often you can die in the game.

It is surprising to learn that this game runs not on an iD Tech engine (or variant thereof) but on CryEngine. For console players, that name would ring alarm bells since the engine's performance on anything but the PC hasn't had the best record. The bad news is that the engine once again brings issues to this title, despite Arkane's talent. The frame rate can drop at any hint of vegetation, though it seems fine if you visit the atrium. With the game topping out at 30fps, things can look choppy once any greenery appears. There's quite a bit of texture pop on some surfaces, and the faces of anyone who isn't a main character look bad and animate poorly. The good news is that the rest of the game looks great. The environment's art style echoes the original BioShock and succeeds in making the station look like a living place despite being run-down. Enemies are mostly faceless blobs, but their designs look nice.

The sound is excellent all around. The soundtrack is industrial material that is sparingly played throughout the game but still manages to make an impact. From the opening helicopter fly-by that has the vibe of a CHVRCHES track to the high-pitched horror elicited from an enemy encounter, this is excellent listening material. The voice acting is also top-notch, and the right emotions come from every situation. You will need the subtitles turned on to capture everything, as the phantoms can be unintelligible at times, robbing you of their tragic tales.

Prey is simply exceptional. The story is twisting and confusing in a way that is exciting, and it makes you crave the next scene. The survival-horror approach to combat and gameplay creates the right amount of tension, while the crafting elements and ability to use almost anything in the world allows for emergent solutions thanks to the different approaches to almost every situation. Most of the flaws are technical in nature, and they're not enough to severely impact the game, so Prey earns its place as one of the hallmarks of this platform generation.

Score: 9.0/10

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