I might be the last guy to arrive on Talos 1, having just recently completed this game long after most of you have moved on. Given the praise I have seen heaped on the game by players and review outlets I decided a few weeks ago it was worth my time to try it.
The first impression I got upon starting the title was that it wasn’t exactly pretty. Graphically the environment, weapons, and people look a little last-gen for my tastes, with the facial animations bordering on accidentally cartoonish, especially the mouths for some reason which often don’t seem in sync to the excellent voice acting.
However, the twisty beginning of the story is compelling enough that it fosters a desire to dig deeper and find out what exactly is happening on this giant, eerily quiet, space station called Talos 1.
Drawing on the old saw that survival horror, which is as close to a genre as this one can be pigeon-holed into, must by law feature scarcity of resources, few-and-far between upgrades and jump scares, the first 5 hours or so don’t feel all that new or original. Early combat can be quite frustrating too as it seems the number and the strength of the enemies you encounter are far superior to your preparedness to deal with them.
But I did quickly come upon some elements of the game that I found quite clever. Prey utilizes a system for delivering your valuable resources that hinges on the use of a recycler and a fabricator. The recycler takes any of the useless items that you gather, from fried circuit boards to banana peels, and breaks them down into their core elements. These precious blocks of minerals and organic matter are then taken to a fabricator where, as long as you have recovered the fabrication plan, you can manufacture everything from shotgun ammo and medkits to the invaluable Neuromods that are used to upgrade your suit, scope and basic abilities. This makes exploration imperative as every little piece of garbage you can find suddenly turns into treasure you desperately need and I did find myself looking in every corner, cabinet and nook in every abandoned office or quiet hallway I came across.
Building on this system is the ever-present danger presented by organisms called Mimics, which are basically ambush predators with the ability to disguise themselves as any object in the game. Every chair you pass by and every banana peel you decide to pick up can instantly morph into an HP sucking monster. So while exploration is vital to success it is also perilous and nerve wracking. At least until you upgrade your scope to reveal the hidden creatures, at which point you can simply scan a room before entering it and know where the danger is. Personally, I think this option was a hit and miss success as far its inclusion. While it definitely removed some of the tension of exploring it also cut back on the number of jump scares which can quickly become tiresome.
Talos 1 is ostensibly an open world that you can explore at your own pace, discovering the labs, life supports section, shuttle bay and on and on. However the map is of little help other than for the level you are on. If your trying to find the quickest path from one side of the station to the other, you are on your own. There were plenty of times I was out adventuring and just wanted to get back to my office where I knew there was a fabricator and recycler yet finding my way back there without solid guidance seemed nearly impossible. Everyone has something about games that bothers them, some quirk that doesn’t seem to really annoy others that much, and mine is being lost. To me there isn’t anything that’s terribly fun about wandering the same corridors again and again trying to find a place you’ve already discovered but simply cant find your way back to. Especially in a game where resources are scarce and the longer you wander the more likely it is you will find yourself in a fight with no ammo and no medkits.
There is a pseudo fast travel system to the game in the form of airlocks that allow you to exit the station, fly through space in your space suit, and re-enter the station at a different airlock. Of course, there is a hitch. Each airlock must be unlocked from INSIDE the station before you can access it from the exterior. This was a maddening feature for me. Blindly making my way through zero gravity, trying to avoid conflict and searching for the area I wanted to travel to, only to find the door locked, could really angry up the blood. Again, with the poor map system finding your way around outside was damn near impossible, especially since half the time there is no way to tell which is up and which is down. If you exit the station early, as I did, in the hopes of exploring you’ll quickly lose track of the airlock you came from and discover all others are locked. This leaves you to blindly fly around stumbling onto locked door after locked door, wasting tons of time just trying to find your way back to where you started.
And this game does suffer somewhat from punishing exploration. There were plenty of areas I wanted to examine but I could not justify opening the door and possibly wasting precious medkits and ammo just to discover some sci-fi novels and rotten apples. Free, open world horror is fun but there is a fine line between making resources scarce so you have to really examine each battle and determine if it’s a fight worth having, and making them so scarce that you begin travelling through the game in a linear pattern from one main quest to the next because you’re trying to conserve them. Plenty of side quests were skipped for me during Prey because I didn’t want to expend the resources trying to solve them. At one point during the game, as I was desperately trying to find a fabricator, the elevator I was in stopped and an enemy appeared killing me in one shot. No matter the number of times I tried this sequence, hoping to squeeze out a victory with only my melee wrench, it could not be done. I had no health, no ammo, and was in an unwinnable situation. This forced me to abandon the elevator entirely and hoof it through the entire station back to my office.
The game does innovate a little in terms of getting you through dangerous areas and locked doors. The GLOO cannon you have essentially fires blobs of instantly hardening foam. While of questionable use in combat it is really fun using it to build staircases damn near anywhere in a quest to find hidden paths and ways to circumvent locked doors. Most areas can be accessed in multiple ways: Search around hoping some idiot wrote the passcode down or emailed it to someone, build up enough strength to just rip open some sealed doors, or search around for alternate paths, like open vents you can climb through if you can make it up there or hatches hidden behind boxes you can access. Like a lot of things in Prey I found this to be fun and clever but overdone. There is only so much time I want to spend thinking “How do I get in this place” and then often times “how do I get out of this place”. Not every door needs to be a puzzle.
As far as the leveling system goes it’s pretty run of the mill. There’s a hacking skill, there’s a strength skill that allows you to move larger objects (to access rooms that have been barricaded, primarily), a way to boost your HP to new levels and on and on. Later in Prey you’ll discover some additional abilities you can acquire, such as the ability to mind control an enemy for a period of a time or push them away with your mind. There is a clever ability that allows you to essentially become a mimic by disguising yourself as an object like a chair or piece of trash. The trouble is all these “Psionic” abilities are fun and you can see how they’d be quite useful, but the Neuromod upgrades are so scarce you wont scratch the surface of them. I wound up picking one and just maxing it out, but there were others I wanted to experiment with had I the chance.
In addition, here is another pet peeve of mine: When you have the ability to upgrade your pool of health but the upgrade system also forces you to upgrade the efficiency with which you use medkits. Essentially this means that every time you upgrade health you must, logically, upgrade the healthpack stat. This forces you to burn two upgrades because one is quite useless without the other. If my available pool of HP is upgraded to 300 and I don’t upgrade my health packs, which are scarce, then what’s the point? If I must use 5 of them to attain full health I might as well not upgrade health in the first place, so the two upgrades are inextricably entwined. What’s worse is that Prey does this twice! The pool of available Psionic power (think magic were this an RPG) can be upgraded but if you don’t also upgrade the efficiency of the injections that restore it then it’s pointless. So choosing one upgrade is really choosing two in a game where upgrades are scarce. The easy, and to me obvious, solution would have been allowing you to find a fabrication plan that produces upgraded medkits that restore more health; this leaves the scarcity factor intact but doesn’t force you to burn 8 Nueromods on what is essentially one skill.
The variety of enemies is another area in which Prey let me down a little. All of them being formed from the same black sludge, with slightly different shapes and a few slightly overdone abilities like shooting electricity or fire they quickly became old. Given the other ways in which Prey tried to innovate and stand out it was a little surprising that the same shapeless blobs of colorless sludge kept appearing over and over. The Telepath creature, while remaining a blob, was a little different in that it would grab available electronics and turn them against you. So, for example, repairing a turret to help you fight quickly back fires when the Telepath takes control and turns it against you. But that’s a one trick pony really, you wont make that mistake a second time. Overall the enemies here are suffering from a lack of imagination in a game that prides itself on that. Same with the weapons really, standard shotgun, standard pistol and one single melee weapon that is always a last resort, with the GLOO cannon being the exception. Very ho-hum selection that also suffers from routine and boring upgrade options that, in contrast to all other things in the game, were in abundance—finding weapon upgrade kits was a snap and I quickly maxed out my favorites.
Overall I did find Prey to be a satisfying experience that came so close to being exceptional that, at its rather anti-climatic conclusion, I was left torn between being thrilled with the experience and frustrated by how much better it could have been. Was it worth playing? Absolutely it was. But developer Arkane has already demonstrated that it can do some of the elements in Prey that were very clumsy, exceptionally well. Which makes Prey falling short on things like stealth mechanics and options all the more disappointing. The team that gave us Dishonored could have done better. And while some of the mingling of old and new technologies that were cool in Bioshock and gave it a sort of Populuxe feel just felt weird here because there was no supporting art style. So while finding a turn table record in Bioshock seemed to fit the game somehow, finding a rotary phone and projector in an otherwise super modern space station just seemed ham-fisted and odd in Prey.
Having said that if Arkane makes a Prey 2 I will return to Talos willingly hoping that enough improvements have been made that its elevated from “so close” to “awesome” and doesn’t leave me saddened at what might have been.
Note: The story of Prey has been capsulized ad-nasuem already so I opted to focus on the gameplay in this review. The story was very solid, the characters somewhat one-dimensional, but you can read that in every other available review. My focus here was pretty much on just answering: Was it fun?
3 baconstrips out of 5.