(Warning: Mild spoilers below.)
For a game with such an elegant title, "Prey" sure is the epitome of complicated history.
Consider, first, the history of Arkane Studios' new game: It arrives 11 years after the first "Prey" and three years after the cancellation of its sequel, both helmed by Human Head Studios.
Previews of "Prey 2" stirred hype with open-world bounty hunting evolved from the first game's generic alien shooting. But after publisher Bethesda Softworks ended the sequel's stalled development and quietly gave the property to Arkane, the "Dishonored" studio kept only the series' extraterrestrial threat, transhumanism and marketer's dream of a name. Otherwise, it started from scratch.
In a way, though, the studio didn't. Another complication of "Prey" is its gameplay DNA: "System Shock" filtered through "Thief," "BioShock," "Deus Ex" and other first-person action-adventure classics. Identifiable as those and other influences are, however, they don't feel disrespected or cheaply invoked. "Prey," in fact, honors its "System Shock" family by earning its own place in the tree.
Its stealth and wayfinding systems reward patience and wit much like "Thief" did: hacking to unlock doors, strength to dislodge obstructions and even a glue gun to spit puffy white platforms so you can reach high points. However, "Prey" much more often forces lethal encounters with its enemies, the walking Rorschach blot Typhon aliens and the humans and robots they possess. Mimics disguise themselves as everyday objects only to spring at your face with damaging swipes, and Phantoms teleport out of sight only to blindside you with energy blasts. Fighting them mixes terror, frustration and exhilaration in a way less like "Thief" than "Dark Souls."
"Prey's" setting, the space station Talos I, is a ruined paradise like "Bioshock's" Rapture, if not as novel. However, it splices the underwater world's art deco with mid-century modernism and other aesthetics, and roughs up those clean surfaces with traces of scientific catastrophe and some zero G when the Typhon descend. The station's carnage asks for the same slow, attentive crawl as "Bioshock," and its email and audio logs ask for the same deductive assembly of its personnel's history. Exploring the station as you unseal its rooms and humanizing secrets may be "Prey's" strongest pull. For all you learn about the Talos I crew's guarded same-sex relationships or internalized body shame, though, the game struggles to bring its distant characters into your orbit.
Steampunk suits "Dishonored 2."
"Prey's" story takes place along an alternate timeline that started with JFK surviving his assassination attempt, leading to more aggressive space exploration, leading to the Typhon's attack and subsequent capture. It revolves around not only the aliens, but the scientific breakthrough their biology allows: neuromods. Like augs in "Deus Ex," neuromods let the humans of "Prey" transcend their limits in ways mundane (instantly becoming a piano virtuoso) and mutant (projecting psychic energy). However, "Prey" twists its transhumanist plot device with compelling narrative results.
That leads to yet another complication of "Prey": Its protagonist, Morgan Yu, is a neuromod guinea pig. Not only is the Chinese-American Morgan a protagonist of underrepresented ethnicity like the first "Prey's" Tommy, who was Cherokee, but Morgan can also be a man or a woman per your choice. (That's why I'll be using feminine pronouns, as I chose a woman Morgan.)
Because removing neuromods means removing any memories formed while they were installed, mystery clouds Morgan's experience aboard Talos I. She struggles to survive the Typhon and piece together her life outside the laboratory in tension with her researcher brother, Alex, who doesn't want his progress on neuromods destroyed alongside the aliens. As he and other voices provide Morgan guidance and you decide whose to follow, the story of "Prey" is shaped by continual revelation about Talos I, about the Typhon and, of course, about her.
Morgan's neuromod proficiency also forms the foundation of "Prey's" open-ended gameplay. Like "System Shock" and other games it inspired, "Prey" lets you shape your experience with it via an extensive skill tree. You can invest the neuromods you collect into gun damage or Typhon attacks so you feel a little less frightened in their staticky presence, or you can max out your hacking, repair and strength skills so nothing stands in your way of sneaking around them. A dilemma also arises when, by scanning them, the Typhon's own abilities become available. Mind control and object mimicry are tempting, but the cost to Morgan's humanity has moral and logistical consequences, such as turrets recognizing you as Typhon and therefore firing on you.
Like "Dishonored 2," "Prey" cushions death with a speedy save/load option that becomes muscle memory early in the game. But Arkane's follow-up falls short in a few other presentational respects: Morgan frequently drifts or bobs back and forth despite not touching the controller, in-person voices frequently vie with those of audio logs for your main speaker channel, and I was locked out of a side quest because the game didn't register my acquisition of a quest item. Maneuvering Morgan in zero G can also fluster, especially when suicide-bombing Cystoid Typhon swarm you from every conceivable angle. "Prey" may be a game of complication, but when it comes to its gameplay, some of its complications are more welcome than others.
If you play
TL;DR: Arkane Studios ("Dishonored") takes its talent for absorbing open-ended adventure to the moon's orbit in this sci-fi thriller, though its characters are as cold as the hull of its space station setting and its gameplay hybridizes genre predecessors like something out of its transhumanist labs.
GENRE: Action adventure
CONTENT RATING: Mature for blood, language, use of alcohol and violence
DEVELOPER: Arkane Studios
PUBLISHER: Bethesda Softworks
PLATFORM: PlayStation 4
PLAY: Single player
DISCLOSURE: I received a review code for this game from Bethesda Softworks and completed its main story and several side objectives on normal difficulty in about 25 hours.