Horror games are popular these days, but it’s not a genre that lends itself to excellence. Just how scared can you get under the protection of massive artillery to help fend off the darkness, right? It only makes sense to deprive would-be survivors of their precious weapons and drop them in the middle of a another first-person hide-and-seek thriller, with just enough to let them survive and possibly conquer all they can see – and often can’t. I’m looking at you, Resident Evil 7.
OF course, that’s not necessarily true, as we see in Bethesda’s new sci-fi horror extravaganza Prey. This much-needed reboot proves that while you can have a nice, scary shotgun and psychic powers at the ready, but when the enemy could be right under your nose, the tension remains intact.
Welcome to your first day on the job with the TranStar corporation! You’ll be conducting research and helping out on board the Talos One station in orbit around the Moon. I mean…it IS your first day, right? You’re definitely not already a TranStar employee? Surely things aren’t worse than they seem, you aren’t already on Talos One, you don’t have amnesia and the station isn’t infested with alien creatures out for blood? Well, if none of that’s happening, then I guess things are all good! Enjoy your new job!
Naturally, all of that is happening, and as either a male or female take on TranStar employee Morgan Yu it’s up to you to get to the bottom of things. That’s not going to be easy, of course, because things have kind of gone to Hell. Your main issue is the Typhon – a race of extraterrestrial creatures that specialize in wiping out humans.
Unlike your average gun-wielding alien or giant monster from outer space, though, your average Typhon is a more insidious foe. They’re able to take the form of objects, for instance, meaning that mug you’re about to pick up probably isn’t actually a mug; when they’re not doing that, they’re blinking around, blasting you with psychic powers, taking over the station’s automated defenses and so on. The mug thing, incidentally, still manages to get me hours later. It’s hard to shoot a mug monster when you’re jumping from being startled.
You’ll need an arsenal of your own to fight back, so it’s a good thing that Talos One was on the cutting edge of research and technology. You’ve got your stock weapons like a wrench, shotgun and pistol, of course, but the real star of the show is the GLOO Cannon, which fires a sort of rapid-hardening cement that’s useful for freezing enemies in place, building impromptu staircases, sealing hull breaches and so on. There aren’t many problems that you can’t solve with copious application of GLOO. Other interesting options include the Boltcaster, a literal toy gun that nevertheless can activate devices remotely; by being creative you can get a lot of use out of Prey’s unconventional gear.
That’s not all, though; you pick up a scanning helmet early on that lets you analyze the Typhon and incorporate their genetics into your own via the Neuromod process that most of Talos One was working on. Neuromods allow you to incorporate new skills without actually having to learn them, and traditional uses include becoming better at hacking, repairs, gunplay and so on…but scanning Typhon unlocks the option to incorporate Typhon skills as well. This includes bizarre abilities like turning into objects (handy for both stealth and getting through small spaces), mind-controlling organics, machines or both, and warping all over the place leaving decoys in your path. You’re playing with fire when you do this, though, for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Talos One’s automated defense systems determine what is and isn’t hostile by how much Typhon physiology it has…
Altogether what we’ve got here is basically Bethesda’s take on a System Shock or Bioshock game, and it works out pretty damn well. The ability to customize your character with Neuromods and approach problems in multiple ways makes for a game that lends itself to exploration and creativity; inquisitive players are sure to do well here, and Prey’s designers made a point of rewarding an unorthodox approach with loot and secrets. What’s more, it’s a game that encourages replay. The particulars regarding what’s going on with the station and the Typhon are…interesting, to say the least, and your second approach to the game is almost certain to differ from your first once you’ve got a better idea of what’s going on.
There’s no question that Prey looks great as well. Once again, I played on a PC with ludicrous hardware and the game ended up running perfectly; my experience with the PS4 version was a little choppier and certainly much more difficult to control, so I’d recommend the PC version here. As for sound design, Prey nails the 80s horror feel that the overall aesthetic is aiming for with a campy synth-heavy soundtrack. One issue is that there’s a bit of an over-reliance on “scare chords” in situations that would probably be startling enough on their own. The piano cue will have probably lost some of its impact the fifth time or so that a beaker turns out to be a Typhon mimic. It’s also worth noting that this Prey doesn’t really connect to the original game at all. Don’t expect any Native American spirit journeys or anything like that here.
Piano-slamming and lack of spirit bows aside, though, this new Prey is a smart, lovingly detailed take on a formula pioneered by the System Shock series. It doesn’t lend itself especially well to running-and-gunning since ammo tends to be in short supply; you’ll want to stick with another Bethesda game, last year’s DOOM, for that. If you’re willing to play around with the tools that Prey gives you, however, you’ll be surprised at how far you can push the limits and how willing the game is to accommodate your innovation. It’s a solid horror experience and a worthy pseudo-successor to the System Shock games.