Put your hands together for our hands-on with Arkane’s riskiest game yet
The original 2006 Prey (for those whippersnappers among you who missed it) was a big deal. Developed by Human Head Studios, it was a first-person shooter that used an ancient, forgotten technology to render mirrors with actual reflections (a technique most developers since have failed to replicate, despite having considerably more processing power at their disposal). It did portals before Portal. It did aliens before… well, okay, nobody. But it did feature a sensitive portrayal of Native American culture and a non-white protagonist at a time when character diversity in games was even more of a problem than it is today. Like we said, it was a big deal, and that makes it one hell of a hard act to follow.
Enter Arkane Studios. Prey 2 had been in the works for some time at Human Head Studios, but after it stopped work on the game in 2011, a new project was started by one half of the Dishonored team (while the other half got on with that game’s sequel). There are loose connections to the original narrative– it’s set on a space station again, for example, and there is an inscrutable alien threat, as usual – but this is very much a reboot rather than a follow-up.
You play as Morgan Yu (who can be male or female) and the game begins with you waking up in a rather swish, high-rise apartment complete with all the usual videogame mod-cons – like useable taps and openable cupboards – and a really lovely view over a futuristic city. Your brother is expecting you at a space programme testing facility, and you head out to the roof, chatting with an electrician as you walk, to get into your nice chauffeur-piloted aircraft.
Once at the testing facility your bro offers some words of advice before you head into the first chamber and face a trio of dispassionate, dismissive scientists. It’s here that the game’s wry sense of humour makes itself apparent. We’re made to leap over a ledge to hit a button, and asked to hide in a featureless room with a huge window looking in on it. (“He appears to be hiding behind a chair… make a note.”) And we’re asked a series of questions designed to test our moral judgement – for the record, we chose to push the overweight man onto the rails in every scenario it was presented as an option.
Some rather intriguing things happen at this point, but we’re sticklers for not spoiling it for you, so let’s skip ahead a little. We’ll simply say that, through a series of unexpected events, you find yourself on the space station, Talos I, a little sooner than you might have expected. It’s a sprawling location, but ornately furnished – bronze statues and opulent flourishes combine with cathedral-high ceilings to create an awe-inspiring interior.
There’s a pair of malfunctioning elevators in the centre, but there are also two perfectly serviceable, and extravagant, staircases. These provide access to three stories of offices and labs, opening out into bridge-linked balcony walkways.
Outside the ship, beyond a massive viewing window at one end, two looming planets hang in space, illuminated by an unfamiliar star. It’s quite the sight.
Unfortunately we’re not alone, and must share this grandeur with a host of shadowy, spectral, shapeshifting alien horrors. We encounter two variants during our time with the game, but both are formidable. The first are called Mimics, and are a spirited bunch of crawling monsters milling about like dark, ethereal headcrabs. These things are bolshy, and will rush you given the chance. They also like ganging up into packs and surrounding you. Their most disquieting tactic is to take on the shape of any existing object in the world, a bin or a cup, for example, and then lie in wait for you to pass them or to try to pick them up.
Arkane gleefully toys with this design, and the player, by making sure you lose trust in absolutely everything that surrounds you, even health packs. When you’ve seen a storage crate turn into a smoggy quadruped and then skitter up the next staircase you need to climb, surely it’s entirely understandable that, when you reach the top, you shoot in panic at the bin rolling your way. Fine, turns out it was just a bin, but it shouldn’t have been rolling like that. Don’t judge us.
Mimics move with alarming speed, but they’re soon put down by a shotgun, or even a few blows from a wrench if you get your aim right. However, a more reliable tool against their swift, unpredictable movements is the GLOO Cannon. This stubby weapon fires globs of adhesive foam in rapid succession, which quickly arrests advancing aliens. Once they’re stuck fast, you can smash them with a heavy tool, bullets – or even that once terrifying bin, if you’re into poetic justice (or just petty justice). The GLOO Cannon isn’t only a defensive gadget, though. It’s also key to solving some environmental puzzles. It can seal burst, ignited gas pipes, enabling you to make your way down what was previously a sweltering death trap. And you can also use it to build platforms and ramps, to help you get around the malfunctioning space station – a function that comes in particularly useful when we find the doorway into Talos I’s weapon labs is blocked. A series of sticky steps gets us on top of some dangling corporate art, and from there we leap onto another balcony and are on our way.
Which is where we meet the Phantoms. These ghouls are the wandering remains of Talos I crew members whose bodies have been corrupted by an alien energy. Perhaps not as lucky as the people attacked by Mimics, who are left as dried-up, motionless husks, the Phantoms are forced to act as soldiers, fighting against their former species. They come in a variety of flavours: some throw flames, some emit toxic clouds and duplicate themselves and others shock you with electricity. They’re not shy, either, and will launch at you on sight. On the bright side, given their lack of mimicry powers (at least in the examples we encounter) they would still be rather visible even if they crouched down in the corner and pretended to be a bin.
Though we weren’t able to toy with them in this demo, there will also be neural implants, which allow Yu to scan the aliens. He (or she) can then adopt their powers for himself, and turn them against their former owners. Like the GLOO Cannon, these powers will enhance both your attacking and navigational abilities. The infamous coffee mug example, in which Yu turns himself into a beverage container before rolling through a gap in a security window, is still the best illustration of how wonderfully silly Arkane intends to make them. This is in no way a po-faced sci-fi shooter, and it’s all the better – and all the more true to its roots – for that.
Prey is shaping up to be an exceptional, and liberatingly imaginative shooter. Its dark sense of humour, variety of smart gadgets and horrifying creatures drum up memories of the Half-Life and Portal games, as well as its own otherworldly predecessor. Prey also feels like its own distinct beast, however. One we can’t wait to tangle with.
Main The mystery of why Morgan is going through this horror will likely push the plot forward.
below Alex, your brother, is a kindly presence during training.