Bethesda’s Prey turned out to be a surprisingly engaging game for me. It reminded me of BioShock and its progression system where I became more and more powerful in dealing with frightening enemies. But I also felt manipulated and frustrated. More than once, I slapped my head about why the developers at Arkane Studios, who clearly agonized over this game in the multiple years it took them to make it, made the choices they did. I felt they tortured me.
The game itself had a tortured history. The original came out in 2006 from Human Head Studios. The sequel got lost in development hell, and Bethesda acquired the rights to it. It finally cancelled the sequel in 2014. Meanwhile, Arkane Studios in Austin was making an interesting sci-fi game after creating a title called Arx Fatalis. It was an open-ended space station game. And then it was given the Prey name, though it had no resemblance to the original title. They eventually completed the game and shipped it a few weeks ago (it released on May 5 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC). It took me a while, but I finally got to see the final outcome.
The enemies in Prey were far from traditional. Dubbed the Typhon, they are an alien species that scientists were trying to study and graft their best qualities onto the human mind. The experiments went bad, the aliens took over the spaceship, and it’s up to you, as the character Morgan Yu, to stop them from spreading to Earth. The Typhon have no stable form. The weaker Typhon, called Mimics, are inky black beings that can take the form of anything around them. That means they can hide as a coffee cup and then strike at you when your back is turned. This made for a ton of jump scares that gave me a heart attack every time. You also encounter tough Typhon such as Phantoms who can give you a lot of grief in a duel, and other Typhon are truly nightmarish.
Sadly, in this game, you are woefully under-equipped. And that’s why, even on the normal level, Prey is definitely a difficult and frustrating game. It’s one of those games where you have to scavenge for every weapon and the ammo that goes with it. The developers chose to make the ammo very scarce, and that turns the game into a test of survival. If you scrounge and become a completionist in scavenging every single scrap you can, you stand a better chance of living.
The enemies can inhabit just about any place on the ship. But I have to believe that the developers were very precise about how they didn’t allow me to replenish my ammo as I needed to do so. In fact, ammo was so scarce that finding it became the primary object of the game for me. I didn’t want to find out what happened to the main character. I just wanted to have enough shotgun shells. My kingdom for a shotgun shell….
When I had a pistol, I needed bullets. In the game, you can craft these bullets if you find the right materials and recycle them. You can recycle and craft items at specific stations within the maps. But everything is scarce. I was elated when I got a shotgun, until I found that I had to make every shot count and scrounge for shotgun shells. And when I got the shotgun, I found that the enemies had also gotten tougher. At one point, I wanted a rocket launcher. And the cruel developers made no such weapon.
Some games do a good job of balancing ammo scarcity. The original Halo had me looking all over for assault rifle ammo, and I was happy to find every single bullet in The Last of Us. But Prey is definitely a game where it would have been much more fun if I had only had access to unlimited ammo. I got so angry at the Typhon hunting me, I just wanted to mow them down. But if I did so, I would have run out of ammo. In trying to acquire more ammo, I did something that I almost never do in games. I went back to levels that I had completed to search for ammo that I might have overlooked. That was nuts, and I blame Arkane.
Now the developers could say that they gave me the means to create plenitude in the former of the recycler and the crafting station. I had a recycling grenade, which reduced everything that wasn’t nailed down into raw recyclable materials. It was a great way to take out enemies, but it also produced raw materials that I could use to make things. But I found that it wasn’t a cure-all. I gathered a huge number items into a pile and threw my last recycler grenade into it. And it only produced a couple of raw materials. I couldn’t even use those materials to create another recycler grenade. If the developers had simply turned open the spigot a little more and given me more ammo, I would have been delighted to take the fight to the enemy.
On the PS4, the game suffers from ghastly load times that will send you off to the kitchen for a snack.
The moments of frustration occasionally turn into elation. In one scene, with survivors rallied by Sarah Elazar, you get to ambush the Typhon. They come through a door and a bunch of human and mechanical defenders set up in a semicircle. As the door opened and the Typhon rushed in, I tossed a Nullwave grenade (it messes with the minds of the Typhon) and an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) grenade. It broke the back of the Typhon assault. Then I just started firing my shotgun. Here’s a video of the scrounging I did to set up the ambush and the actual firefight.
But such glory was fleeting. Instead, I had to hide and try to get away most of the time or try to outrun the enemies.
Prey also gave me a false sense that I could level up my character to become something truly powerful. The game gives you the choice of leveling up as a human or as a hybrid Typhon. But since the automated defense robots on the space station were attuned to shooting at the Typhon, I chose not to level up as a Typhon. That mean I lacked some very powerful abilities that I could have used to finish the game. Instead, as a leveled up human, and I was a pathetic character always starving for more ammo.
You could say that I made some poor choices, but I felt like the developers forced me into them. And, as it turned out, I really didn’t have the right information to make good choices in the first place.
That’s where I thought the game was clever, as it went beyond the mechanics of scrounging and killing. The Mimics took the form of objects around me, and that made me very paranoid. But Ricardo Bare, lead designer, told me that nothing was what it seems in Prey. It’s an existential nightmare, made more interesting for me because it had an Asian American main character, a rarity in games. I felt like I was Morgan Yu. But Morgan also wasn’t what he seemed to be.
In fact, the first scene conveys that so well. You wake up and go to work and something goes wrong. Then you wake up again and find that the apartment where you woke up before is in fact a soundstage where everyone is watching you in a simulation. Once I realized that Morgan had been tricked into thinking he was Morgan, I then wondered who the heck he could be. I was intrigued by how this storyline was going to turn out, and whether Morgan’s older brother Alex was going to turn out to be a creep or someone I could tolerate in the end. Morgan has amnesia, but he has to make critical decisions about Alex and the Typhon.
I became so paranoid that I was being manipulated by the game developers that I started making choices that were based on countering what the developers expected me to do. Prey comes down to making a few very important choices, but you don’t realize until the end just how important those choices are. I really want to like this game, but I hate it at the same time because it put me through so much torture. I guess that’s the nature of an addiction. You love it and you hate it. That’s how I feel about Prey.