Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox One, PS4
This review will avoid significant spoilers.
If you played Prey's opening hour demo, you can be forgiven for being a bit underwhelmed. The game starts slowly, and aside from a stylish credit sequence and some intriguing sci-fi mystery elements, there isn't a lot to grab your attention and really let you know that you're about to experience one of the best games of 2017.
Prey is a game that gets bigger and better the more time you put into it. The sprawling space station Talos I unfolds around you, giving you access to new areas full of new challenges. Objectives multiply along with your abilities and gameplay options. Prey's tougher enemies become more common as you unlock more powerful ways of defeating or avoiding those enemies. At its best, Prey feels like a blend of BioShock (or its ancestor System Shock), Deus Ex, and Arkane's Dishonored, with a setting more open and dynamic than what you'll find in any of those titles.
For this review I completed Prey on Normal difficulty. The process took me a little under 25 hours of play time, and I left a number of optional objectives unfinished. As soon as I was done, I started a new game so I could try out new strategies, because Prey is the sort of game you can (and should) play over and over again in different ways.
Open world sci-fi survival
About eight hours into Prey I was struggling. That's about the point where the game opens up and throws a number of objectives at you, and the enemies become both more frequent and more challenging.
I was struggling because I had been playing Prey as if it were Dishonored or Deus Ex, fighting my way through the game's alien Typhon enemies with my guns and abilities, using health kits and ammo without really keeping close track of them. Then I reached a point where my bullets were almost gone, I was clinging to a single health kit, and everywhere I might choose to explore to find more resources was full of aliens.
Oh, I realized at this point, this is like a survival horror game, not an action game. I've been playing it all wrong.
Your particular experience in Prey will vary (that's part of what makes it so great), but for me the gameplay really clicked once I made this realization. Bullets and health kits are plentiful for the first few hours of the game, but you'd be wise to make these resources last as long as possible. This is a game that rewards smart and careful play, and while the basic Mimic enemies aren't too much of a challenge it doesn't take long before you're fighting ultra-fast Etheric Phantoms, which can easily take off a significant chunk of your health and suit integrity if you charge at them head-on.
There isn't a huge amount of enemy variety in Prey, but the fact that each foe requires different tactics makes even small differences meaningful. Each Phantom type is a threat in a different way. The elusive Poltergeist enemy is more scary than threatening, but can become a huge problem when combined with any other Typhon. The stalking Nightmare remains a threat throughout the game until you finally feel ready to confront it directly.
Every Neuromod is a whole new game
One of the big hints that Prey isn't your typical sci-fi shooter is the fact that the game's normal guns, the silenced pistol and shotgun, just aren't particularly good. The gunplay in Prey is rudimentary, and if you're anything like me it will take you a long time before you stop right-clicking in an attempt to use a scope or iron sights (features which just don't exist in this game). The fact that this accidental right click will activate whatever alien-based psionic ability you have equipped, wasting precious psi points and potentially damaging you, never really stopped being frustrating for me.
You can kill basic enemies with a bunch of precious bullets, if you like, and if you spec your character properly these weapons can become a lot more effective, but it's easy to imagine playing Prey and barely touching these mundane weapons. That's because the game offers a deep upgrade tree and a wide variety of combat and stealth options to explore, all of which are more fun than the game's rudimentary gunplay mechanics.
As you can see in our Prey livestream, I dropped a lot of early Neuromod upgrades into the game's Leverage tree, which allows your character to lift and throw heavier objects. I did this mainly as a challenge to the game, since most games that allow this sort of upgrade fail to make it really worth the points you put into it. In Prey, however, my new lifting strength became the centerpiece of my combat strategy for a large portion of my playthrough. Picking up a heavy piece of furniture was slow and awkward, sure, but nailing an enemy with a table took a huge chunk of its health away.
What could have been a minor, mostly silly upgrade path totally changed the game and the way I played Prey, but it would also be totally viable to play the game without ever upgrading the Leverage skill. It's astounding, really.
Because there are more upgrades to unlock that you will realistically explore in a single playthrough, Prey is a game that begs for repeat visits. I can't wait to start fresh and explore more of the stealth side of the game, which I barely touched, using evasion abilities and the often-hilarious Mimic-based powers that allow you to disguise yourself as objects.
I can also imagine that it would be a lot of fun to preserve enough "humanity," by avoiding the alien-based powers, to keep the Typhon-hunting turrets on your side throughout the whole game. Carrying a friendly turret from one area to the next, using it as your main source of damage while you defend it and repair it as needed...that sounds like a blast, and it's something I didn't really get to try in my 25 hour playthrough.
The upgrade and resource economy at work in Prey provides a great feedback loop, driving you to explore further, load up your inventory with everything that isn't nailed down, then recycle all the junk you can carry to produce more useful items. You can even manufacture your own Neuromod upgrades—quite early in the game, if you're up for a challenge—but doing so will require exotic materials that are most reliably found by killing Typhon enemies, which in turn will encourage you to seek out and destroy aliens rather than avoiding them.
So much of the success of Prey's gameplay for me was a matter of fine-tuning. Recycling items gave me just enough resources to be worth it but not enough to ever make me feel like I had could waste anything. Throwing objects did enough damage to justify it as a combat tactic, but not so much that it was overpowered. A single Neuromod was always a significant find, but the cost for upgrades scaled at a pace that always left me with more abilities to covet.
Exploring Talos I
Prey isn't an open world game in the typical sense (the developers call it an "open space station game"), but it delivers the same depth of content and exploration rewards that make good open world games so fun. Making your way around the Talos I space station involves overcoming or bypassing a number of obstacles, both alien and mechanical, and the sheer variety of options that are available to you once you're deep into the game can be a bit overwhelming.
It can sometimes be unclear if you simply can't complete a specific objective yet, because you don't have the necessary ability or item, or if you're just not understanding what you're supposed to do or where you're supposed to go. This issue is made worse by the fact that the game's objective waypoints can often fall frustratingly short of useful, and will point you towards a blank wall or seemingly empty room with no indication of what you're supposed to do next or how you're actually supposed to get where you need to go.
Talos I is a fantastic place to explore, full of hidden depths and multiple paths to every location. The zero-gravity portions of the game can be disorienting and frustrating at times, but since there are relatively few sections that absolutely require exploring zero-gravity areas it's a minor issue. For those players that like floating and rolling around the exterior of the station, there are plenty of optional objectives to complete and resources to gather no matter which way you turn.
Prey doesn't set any new high standards in terms of graphics, but the overall design of the Talos I space station, the game's menus, and your alien foes all works together well. It would have been nice if the human crew members had more polish and more to make them visually distinct, especially considering how important your interactions with the crew (both living and dead) are to many of the objectives and the larger story of the game.
The audio in Prey is a mixed bag, and I found the music to be much too loud at default settings for some reason. Even with the music turned down a bit there were times where the soundtrack, sound effects, and whatever dialogue was playing would overlap and clash in confusing ways. I was often unable to tell whether a specific sound was coming from an enemy or was part of the game's music, and fights can be cacophonous affairs full of screeching electronic audio that isn't much fun to listen to.
A story about morality and empathy
One of the first things you do in Prey is complete a personality questionnaire. You provide answers to classic philosophical questions dealing with morality, humanity, sacrifice, and responsibility. Your answers to these questions don't change the game in any significant ways, but what plays out over the next twenty hours or so is a deep exploration of these same challenging questions.
Prey wants to make you wrestle with the why of your actions in the game in a mature and often emotionally affecting fashion. Early on you're told by one of the game's main characters that you'll need to destroy Talos I—and everyone on it—in order to contain the Typhon menace. Anything short of this solution, you're told, represents an enormous threat to all human life. And while other options and viewpoints are presented as you play, this pronouncement colors everything else you do.
Prey's moral questions don't have easy answers. Do you bother helping the people you meet if you're just going to kill them all later on? Does it disturb you to kill humans operating under alien mind control, if non-lethal alternatives are more challenging? And how much of your own humanity are you willing to trade away in order to unlock powers that might help you achieve your larger goals?
Prey tells one of the most successful open-world stories in recent memory, and part of its success is that it pays just as much attention to the small details as the big ones. Audiologs and personal e-mails are standard story tools in games like this, but they've rarely been so engaging, touching, funny, or heartbreaking. If you let it, Prey will have you truly caring about the fate of the survivors or Talos I...which will make the choices you have to make as you head towards one of the game's multiple endings all the more challenging and significant.