Prey

Arkane’s risky im­mer­sive sim is happy to take any shape the player wants

EDGE - - GAMES -

PC, PS4, Xbox One

De­vel­oper Arkane Stu­dios Pub­lisher Bethesda Soft­works For­mat PC, PS4, Xbox One Ori­gin US Re­lease May 5

We’re feel­ing a lit­tle silly af­ter just hav­ing opened fire on a bin. In our de­fence, it was rolling at us in a provoca­tive man­ner as we crested a stair­case, and to lend fur­ther con­text, many of the other waste-dis­posal con­tain­ers we’ve come across prior to this mo­ment have turned out to be mim­ics. These skit­tish, shapeshift­ing alien crea­tures can take on the form of any ob­ject, and tend to turn back into their smoky, arach­noid form and at­tack when­ever you get too close. In this par­tic­u­lar in­stance, how­ever, our ha­rasser re­ally was just a bin.

It’s an amus­ing mo­ment that high­lights Arkane’s de­light in toy­ing with play­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions and wrack­ing their nerves when­ever pos­si­ble, and the darkly an­ar­chic sense of hu­mour that runs through the game. Ear­lier in our play ses­sion, for ex­am­ple, we find our­selves do­ing a se­ries of bizarre lab tests while a dis­in­ter­ested sci­en­tist takes notes on our per­for­mance. In one test we must find some­where to hide in a glass-walled cham­ber that only con­tains a chair (“Is he… He is, he’s ac­tu­ally hid­ing be­hind that chair”). And in a mul­ti­ple-choice quiz ap­par­ently de­signed to gauge our moral com­pass, we’re re­peat­edly pre­sented with the op­tion to push an over­weight man onto a train track in or­der to save our­selves or oth­ers. It feels like a se­quence from Por­tal, but some­how even more un­hinged. What hap­pens at the end of this ap­praisal – which is too good to spoil here – pro­pels pro­tag­o­nist Mor­gan Yu into a night­mar­ish strug­gle for sur­vival.

“We wanted to cre­ate a big sur­prise, and to make that sur­prise as shock­ing as pos­si­ble,” cre­ative di­rec­tor Raphael Colan­to­nio tells us. “The be­gin­ning of the game is very bright, and very happy. You travel in a he­li­copter, there’s a nice vista of a city, it’s sunny, and there’s this mu­sic play­ing that’s very heroic and cool. But you get this sense that there’s some­thing off. There are things that don’t quite make sense – you think [the tests are] a tu­to­rial, but they don’t quite feel like one. And so there is this light tone to the be­gin­ning, and then we go in the ab­so­lute op­po­site di­rec­tion to that.”

Colan­to­nio also ac­knowl­edges that the game’s un­usual en­emy de­sign is a risk. While play­ers will en­counter hu­manoid ag­gres­sors – though they won’t be­have ex­actly as you ex­pect – mim­ics in par­tic­u­lar are far from tra­di­tional first­per­son fod­der. They leap quickly from floor to wall to ceil­ing while charg­ing at you in groups; they’re small, and hard to hit with stan­dard weapons; their smoky forms fizz and ap­pear blurry and in­dis­tinct; and they’re rather par­tial to dis­guis­ing them­selves as of­fice sup­plies be­fore am­bush­ing you. As a re­sult, they pos­sess an air of enig­matic dis­qui­etude that feels en­tirely fresh.

“When we started the game there were two things that we wanted to put em­pha­sis on,” Colan­to­nio says. “We knew the over­all vibe had to be sur­vival and an im­mer­sive sim, but if we were go­ing to have aliens we also didn’t want them to be tra­di­tional aliens. We saw it as an op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing spe­cial. The eas­i­est path would’ve been to go with one of the three archetypes: the lizard men with the laser guns, or the in­sec­toids or what­ever. In­stead we wanted to go with some­thing play­ers hadn’t seen be­fore. We didn’t know ex­actly what it would be; it’s hard be­cause a lot of things have been done al­ready. But we thought the para­nor­mal, hard-to-grasp di­rec­tion was in­ter­est­ing and al­lowed us to ex­plore alien pow­ers.”

While our un­for­tu­nate bin en­counter is a scripted one, for the most part mim­ics’ chang­ing forms are a re­sult of AI de­ci­sion mak­ing and the cas­cad­ing sys­tems of an im­mer­sive sim. These crea­tures will search for cover when un­der threat, and what’s avail­able to them in any given sit­u­a­tion will dif­fer from game to game – not least be­cause they can be­come any ob­ject that the player drops or dis­lodges. While this com­plex sim­u­la­tion sounds like a pro­gram­mer’s night­mare, cre­at­ing an as­sort­ment of strange alien pow­ers wasn’t the prob­lem – rather, it was in work­ing out how those pow­ers would be re­con­tex­tu­alised when be­stowed on play­ers.

“The hard-to-grasp di­rec­tion was in­ter­est­ing and al­lowed us to ex­plore alien pow­ers”

When devel­op­ment be­gan there was no in­ten­tion of mak­ing them part of the game’s avail­able skillset, but af­ter ex­ten­sive en­emy pro­to­typ­ing it be­came clear that let­ting play­ers turn into, say, a pen or cup would open up a num­ber of in­ter­est­ing new doors – or al­low the player to by­pass them en­tirely.

“We’ve had to work a lot on the physics, and also put some re­stric­tions in place,” Colan­to­nio ex­plains. “If the ob­ject the player turns into is too tiny, then you can’t see your­self, you can get stuck in cracks, and so on. But there are some ben­e­fits to that, too. Fall­ing through some of the cracks turned out to be a cool way to ac­cess an area that you couldn’t be­fore, so that ac­tu­ally cre­ated an­other type of game­play that we re­ally liked. Once you have these ideas, it’s all about de­cid­ing what you want to do with them.”

An­other po­ten­tially game-break­ing ad­di­tion is the mul­tipur­pose Gloo Can­non. This bul­bous con­trap­tion fires off gobs of ad­he­sive gel that can be used to slow or stop en­e­mies (a good whack with a wrench af­ter the sticky sub­stance takes ef­fect will shat­ter them), block up leak­ing gas vents, or even to build plat­forms and stair­ways that en­able you to get around. But de­spite its ap­peal, it al­most didn’t make it into the fin­ished game.

“It’s a great tool, and a great idea, but it’s also been very hard to im­ple­ment,” Colan­to­nio says. “We were con­sid­er­ing re­mov­ing it be­cause it was tak­ing up a lot of devel­op­ment time. It was a chal­leng­ing thing to do be­cause it cre­ated a lot of con­flicts with the physics sys­tems. And it’s a bit of a dis­rup­tor, be­cause you can use it to climb any­where. We had to ac­cept and em­brace all of that, but I’m glad that we stuck with it be­cause even­tu­ally it ended up great. We re­ally like it, peo­ple no­tice it, and it has its own iden­tity – I have to give credit to Ri­cardo [Bare, lead de­signer].”

It proves par­tic­u­larly use­ful while try­ing to get about in a tow­er­ing of­fice sec­tion of Ta­los-1, the space sta­tion on which is set. Due to the out­break of alien crea­tures on board, the cen­tral el­e­va­tors aren’t work­ing and many of the door­ways lead­ing off from the stair­cases in this ver­tig­i­nous space have been locked or bar­ri­caded by sur­vivors try­ing to es­cape death. Stick­ing some blobs of glue to the wall next to a bal­cony al­lows us to reach a sweep­ing in­te­rior de­sign flour­ish that’s sus­pended be­tween floors, and from there we can get onto the next floor up. There are other ways to achieve the same goal, but this seems to be the most di­rect. It’s a con­ve­nient, time­sav­ing op­tion, but we won­der if of­fer­ing the player such flex­i­bil­ity has proved a stern chal­lenge for the de­sign teams.

“Our level de­sign­ers have cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment that’s a space of pos­si­bil­i­ties – it doesn’t mat­ter to them so much how the player gets some­where,” Colan­to­nio says. “The level de­signer will sug­gest a few things – maybe pro­vide a ledge that you can man­tle onto – but they also leave some space for other things that the sys­tems al­low to hap­pen mag­i­cally. Our level de­sign­ers don’t rely on us­ing the en­vi­ron­ment as a puz­zle to block the player, so it doesn’t mat­ter if the player finds some cool in­stant way to get some­where – all the bet­ter for them! There’s a sand­box as­pect to our level de­sign, and this game is more about do­ing the best with what you have – and what’s avail­able might vary from player to player.”

This re­liance on, and trust in, a flex­i­ble yet com­plex weave of sys­tems is a cen­tral tenet of the im­mer­sive-sim genre. But it’s also one Colan­to­nio feels should be more wide­spread. “In a way, part of me won­ders why every game isn’t an im­mer­sive sim,” he laughs. “What is an im­mer­sive sim? It’s re­ally a mix of FPS and RPG, and the par­tic­u­lar thing about them is that they rely on the sim­u­la­tion as­pect. I would hope, as a player, this is the di­rec­tion that every game is tak­ing, be­cause that’s what com­put­ers are for. The more sim­u­lated an en­vi­ron­ment or game, the more unique your ex­pe­ri­ence is go­ing to be. But un­for­tu­nately it’s not the case. I just hope that, lit­tle by lit­tle, things move in that di­rec­tion, so that at some point we don’t even talk about im­mer­sive sims any­more – we just talk about games.”

“Fall­ing through some of the cracks turned out to be a cool way to ac­cess an area”

The Gloo Can­non is ef­fec­tive at halt­ing large groups of en­e­mies by glu­ing them to the spot. Mim­ics can break free of the bonds if left for too long, how­ever

The first sec­tion of Ta­los-1 that we ex­plore is or­nate but vast. A huge glass win­dow looks out onto Earth and the moon

Ta­los-1’s col­lapsed sci­en­tific so­ci­ety, fancy ar­chi­tec­ture and fallen grandeur of course evokes Rap­ture. But the tone here’s very dif­fer­ent

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