Developer: Arkane Studios Publisher: Bethesda Platform(s): PS4, XB1, PC
Our 50 best games of the year countdown isn’t in any order, we’re just going through fifty of the finest the year has given us. Find out more here.
Arkane Studios has had quite a busy schedule lately. Between their two major teams, they’ve released Dishonored 2, a standalone expansion, Death of the Outsider, and the sci-fi first-person survival-shooter Prey, all within just over a year of each other.
Each falls into the “immersive sim” blanket designation – they are open world games divided into smaller levels that make up for their lack of breadth with compelling depth, designed with many approaches to enemies and obstacles in mind. The levels are littered with lore and narrative material to find and a host of other details and flourishes that make the setting feel alive and, well, immersive.
Despite their vastly different subgenres/settings (Dishonored being a combination of Steampunk/”whalepunk” and the supernatural while Prey is all about aliens and futuristic sci-fi), all of these titles attempt to tackle the idea of the player’s choices and actions having consequences. Dishonored tracks this aspect of its world with a fairly binary “Chaos” system that almost universally punishes violence and aggression with more-or-less objectively bad consequences, including more obstacles and worse endings. While the series has gotten better about how it handles choice, consequence and morality, I can’t help but feel punished by its fairly arbitrary approach.
Prey is one of my favorite games of this year because it managed to succeed in this area for me where Dishonored has mostly stumbled.
Prey puts you in the shoes of brilliant scientist Morgan Yu, one of many top minds working on the space station Talos I in orbit around the Earth. Set in an alternate future where humanity has made significant advances following first contact with a violent alien entity, the Typhon, that they managed to control, Prey thrusts you into chaos aboard the station after a brief introduction as containment has been broken.
Ahead of you lies tens of hours of exploration and thrilling struggle for survival as Morgan is confronted with their past, the alien threat of the present and how their actions and the fate of those around them will affect the future. What makes this unfolding narrative so compelling is the fact that it plays out through gameplay choices and actions – you can count on one hand the number of times the game stops and gives you a “this or that” text or dialogue-based choice. All other outcomes are determined by what you’ve done when you’re in full control – what you destroy or preserve, who you save or kill and many other factors and variables are determined fully by your actions, not a dialogue wheel.
This adherence to player control is what makes Prey special. The themes and twists and turns of the plot aren’t necessarily going to be new or innovative to most folks, but the way the game allows you to shape and experience it is what makes it that much more effective. I’ve been thinking about Prey all year since I’ve played it initially, and it takes a lot for me to obsess over something like that.
I went over the combat extensively in my review, and my opinion still stands that it could use some punch, some variety and some polish. However, the navigation, physics and crafting still stand as sufficient gameplay pillars on their own – shooting buttons in a locked room through a tiny window with a Nerf gun to open them up never gets old. The Gloo Cannon is one of my favorite video game tools/weapons of all time – from freezing enemies in their tracks to blocking environmental hazards and creating makeshift staircases and platforms to get to where I normally shouldn’t be, this thing makes for some of the most satisfying gameplay I’ve experienced all year, and more than makes up for the lackluster shooting.
Prey deserves your attention for so many reasons, but I’ll close with this – from its compellingly presented interactive narrative to its immaculately constructed, interconnected levels and the fascinating setting in which they reside, Prey represents perhaps the apex of “immersive sim” gaming, from the studio that is doing the best work in the genre.