'Prey' Wrestles With the 'Shock' Legacy and Wins

'Prey' Wrestles With the 'Shock' Legacy and Wins

'Prey' manages to exceed the greats that preceded it, like 'System Shock' and 'BioShock' Bethesda

Arkane's latest is a treacherous sandbox that demands cunning and creativity

Arkane's latest is a treacherous sandbox that demands cunning and creativity

Five hours into Arkane Studio’s Prey, I found myself well and truly stuck. I had blasted so many of the be-tendriled "Typhon" that lurk through the game’s space station that I ran completely out of shotgun shells and pistol ammo. I was forced to hide behind anything stationary to avoid the creeping Phantoms out for my blood, with only a wrench to defend myself. In an adjoining chamber, a cache of ammo lay just out of reach – yet, since I lacked the requisite keycard or the appropriate hacking skill, I just couldn’t figure out how to get in that damn room. Eventually, I found an email on a dead man’s computer that said that one of the facility's drone-like Operators would walk into the room to clean it, once every hour. But after 45 minutes following the droid as it did its rounds, I wondered if I could shoot the glowing lock with my trusty Nerf gun. I shattered the window with my wrench, took aim, and fired. The door opened, with a satisfying clunk – all of my patience and effort rendered moot by a single thunderstrike of creativity.

Such moments constitute the full-metal-jacketed heart of Arkane’s new survival-horror adventure. Like the Nineties “immersive sims" Thief and System Shock that inspired it – and the studio's own award-winning Shock-like Dishonored Prey is a game designed entirely around enticing your sense of agency and creativity. From its clinical opening to its fiery closing act, Prey bends over backwards to give you the freedom to forge your own "a-ha!" moments at every turn, regardless of your approach to the game's many obstacles. But while it sometimes struggles to find its identity amidst the crowd of influences that it so clearly worships, the sheer fidelity of its open-ended design quietly outclasses anything seen in this micro-genre in a long while.

Don't come into Prey expecting to blast aliens with a handful of bees or a Tommygun – on the "Shock" scale, it hews far closer to 2000's System Shock 2 than BioShock, complete with blooming skill trees and alien opponents stout enough to easily dispatch you in a few strikes. Like Half Life's Gordon Freeman, protagonist Morgan Yu is a scientist, not a supersoldier, forcing you to rely on miracle nootropics known as Neuromods to whip you into fighting shape. Still, even with superhuman abilities, your journey through the giant Talos I space station setting is a crawl, not a jaunt. Combat further emphasizes the brains-over-brawn attitude: since the Typhon come in all the flavors of the FPS-RPG rainbow – electrical, flaming, and, my personal favorite, the suicide zombie – you have to match your weapons to the target, like sticking the skittering "Mimics" to the ceiling with your GLOO Cannon, or paralyzing pesky poltergeists with a well-timed "psycho-shock."

For the first harrowing half of Prey, it's hard not to find yourself rapt, cowering behind every object in sight, waiting for the precise instant when you can finally whack that alien asshole in his inky-black mug. This culminates in the game’s grandest turn, when you finally venture deep enough into the gleaming guts of the space station to gain the ability to scan and research the aliens in order to turn their supernatural skills against them – like the always-appreciated "lightning hand" and the various flavors of -kinesis. These abilities outclass your old steel stalwarts like the shotgun to a ludicrous extent, but, as your robotic pal January is quick to warn you, partaking in too much alien juice probably isn't great for your health. Unfortunately, it’s past this point where Prey’s immaculate impression of System Shock begins to unravel a little.

Slowly but surely, unavoidable fights with massive foes grow more frequent, burning out your "quick-load" key and exhausting your already-meager resources. Your sluggish slide through distinct areas filled with tiny, richly-rendered tales of workplace mischief, love, and loss give way to a sprint through endless stretches of gray hallway as sci-fi archetypes scream cliches in your ear about the research, the Typhon, the space station. Even at its best, between the capital-A "Alien" Typhon and its "space capitalists unleash armageddon" plot, Prey has very little claim to originality. In its closing hours, it somehow manages to fade into an even blander shade of metallic gray.

Despite this, it's hard not to shake the feeling that its familiarity is entirely intentional. Much like Dishonored, Prey represents Arkane’s attempt to recapture the “play-your-way” magic that powered Looking Glass’s mega-influential games, albeit in a more futuristic flavor. Yet unlike Dishonored, which took the sneaky soul of the Thief games and dipped it in whale oil, Prey sticks far closer to the original blueprint in both style and substance, for better and worse. Better, because it makes the magnitude of Arkane’s deft execution that much easier to discern; and worse, because it confines its appeal to those who can stomach its played-out premise.

But I suspect that few will care. Between its audacious design, its fathomless depth, and its commitment to the cult of Shock-dom, Prey doesn’t just live up to the legacy of Looking Glass – it actually exceeds it. Fans who've waited nearly two decades for a full-throated follow-up, your savior is here. And for Otherside, the team currently working on the actual System Shock 3 – best of luck. You have some stiff competition.