With special powers, first-person gunplay, and a damaged art-deco setting, some have wondered if the sci-fi shooter Prey (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC) was going to be like BioShock in space. And in many ways, it is. But thanks to a lot of little things that collectively numbed my enthusiasm, this action game just never grabbed me as much as BioShock.
When Prey begins,
you wake up in your nice, high-rise apartment, then take a helicopter to a medical facility where you undergo some curious tests. But after a coffee cup turns into a gooey, spider-looking alien and kills someone, you come to realize you don’t live in a nice, high-rise apartment, but in a space station called Talos I, and it’s overrun with aliens. Which means that if you want to figure out what’s going on — and, y’know, survive — you’re not only going to have to kill every damn alien, but you’re going to have to do a bit of detective work as well.
In other words, it’s like if Dead Space was remade by the studio that did the BioShock games. And not just because the builders of Talos I clearly hired the same, art deco-loving architect who designed Rapture and Columbia.
No, what makes Prey so similar to BioShock is how it employs numerous elements from role-playing games (and other things I’ll get to in a moment). You have missions of both the story and side variety, you have to search every box and body for supplies and other useful items, and the deep customization system lets you decide what abilities you’d like to improve. You can even restore your health by eating food, as well as craft new weapons and items. Though while these systems do add a great deal of variety to Prey, none get as complex as the ones in such dedicated RPGs as Fallout 4 or Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
As for the times when Prey feels like Dead Space, that’s partially in the overall vibe, as this has jump scares, freaky bits, and moody sound design that will put you on edge. There’s also times when you’re in zero gravity, though unlike in Dead Space, you don’t have magnetic boots that kept you grounded. Instead, you float around like you’re swimming, much like what you did in Call Of Duty Ghosts, just with more room to move. More importantly, you don’t have a limited supply of oxygen.
When it comes to the combat, though, here Prey is decidedly more like BioShock than Dead Space. Or Call Of Duty, for that matter. While some of your guns are conventional, such as the shotgun and the silenced pistol, you have some that are uniquely sci-fi. Of these, the most helpful and versatile is the GLOO Cannon, which shoots a fast-hardening goo that can temporarily immobilize aliens, seal holes in gas lines that are on fire, and create make-shift stairs.
The similarities between Prey and BioShock…
become even stronger when you start gaining abilities from the aliens. Especially since they’re mapped to the left trigger and require regular injections to use. Chief among these is the ability to change your look and shape into that of a chair, a trash can, or, y’know, a cup of coffee. Though your most helpful is Kinetic Blast, which sends a strong and potentially deadly shockwave of energy.
What this all adds up to is an engaging adventure in the damaged remains of a once great space station. Though it also adds up to a lot of running around, since you often have to go multiple sections of the station to accomplish your goals, especially if you complete the numerous side quests. It is during them that Prey really works, since they not only add some variety to the proceedings, but they also put you in situations where there’s multiple ways to complete a task, even if that task is just getting into the right room.
As exciting and deep as Prey may be, though, it’s not without its issues. Starting with your alien powers, which are a lot less useful than the ones you had in BioShock. Sure, turning into a coffee cup is cool and all, but it doesn’t help you defeat aliens who’ve been doing that trick since kindergarten. Embracing your alien side can also have some negative effects, since it makes the automatic turrets think you’re an alien.
Prey also has a litany of problems if you’re a big fan of first-person shooters. And consistency. For starters, by mapping your alien powers to the left trigger, it means you can’t look down the barrel of your gun for added accuracy. Similarly, when you’ve frozen an alien with the GLOO Cannon, you can’t smash it with the butt of your gun, you have to switch to your wrench and use that instead. And while there is a reason for this, as explained by Lead Systems Designer Seth Shain at the end of this piece I did for GameCrate, it’s still annoying and feels like an unnecessary extra step.
There are also issues…
if you play Prey with a controller as opposed to a mouse and keyboard. First, you interact with computers and consoles by using typical point & click mechanics. Which is fine when you have a mouse you can point and click with, but it’s cumbersome when you have to do it with a controller.
The button configuration can also be problematic if, like me, you have a tendency to accidentally push in the right thumbstick during frantic firefights. Doing so alters your vision, and rather drastically once you get the Psychoscope, which is a scanner along the lines of Batman’s Detective Vision in the Arkham games or Aloy’s Focus in Horizon Zero Dawn, except it’s less helpful and but has a slightly narrow field of vision. Couple that with a spider-like aliens that hops around like they were cups of coffee, and you have some rather frustrating firefights.
Using grenades in Prey is also not as easy as it should be since, like in Gears Of War 4, you have to equip one and then throw it, you can’t just hit a button to toss one off like you do in most first-person shooters. Which is really too bad because some the grenades are quite helpful.
Prey also employs gameplay mechanics that, while common, have never added much to any game. Your flashlight, for instance, loses power rather quickly, but then recharges, which is infuriating when you’re on a damaged space station that isn’t well lit. Similarly, there’s a stamina meet that drains whenever you run or use the wrench, and oh that’s so much fun given how often you use the wrench in combat.
Lastly, there are times when the difficulty in Prey is wildly inconsistent. While some enemies can be tough if you haven’t yet upgraded your weapons or life meter, you occasionally run into one that’s so overpowered, especially compared to others in the same area, that being killed by them feels like a cheap shot.
On their own,
none of these issues would ruin Prey. Especially since some, like the lack of iron sights, are things you get used to after a little while. But collectively, they do keep it from being as compelling as it might’ve been. So much so that there were times when it killed my enthusiasm and I considered quitting. Which is why Prey may be like BioShock in space, but it’s not as good as BioShock.