Like usual I pretty much skipped this year’s Game Awards and just caught the trailers as they appeared. I thought they looked pretty great. I’m hyped for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’m not sure yet what to think of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I’d really like to get a better sense of that game’s scale. I’m not going to say anything about Death Stranding until I see an actual game being played. The one game I actually have something to say on though is Prey.
Based on Game Informer’s nine-minute demo, Prey looks like it could be a terrific game of a type we haven’t seen in a long time, but it might be tough for some people to figure out why.
I’ve already heard Prey being called “Bioshock in space” which is going to infuriate people who know that Bioshock is really just System Shock under the sea. Prey really just looks like the closest thing to System Shock anyone has tried to make since System Shock 2, and that includes Bioshock. But people are going to describe things through the lens with which they are familiar. The distinction is an important one though when discussing why anyone should play the upcoming Prey.
In 2013 I did a post on why fans of games like Bioshock or Skyrim should try SS2. The first Bioshock is almost the same game as SS2 when you look at its overall structure and main game systems. In both you explore maze-like but lived-in areas completing objectives and fighting enemies with a variety of tools like elemental powers, various guns, regeneration chambers, and hacking equipment while upgrading your character. The difference is SS2 feels a lot more like an RPG because its upgrade system is deeper, and SS2 generally gives you a lot more options for how to handle situations. Rapture in Bioshock feels like a series of video game levels whereas the Von Braun in SS2 feels more like sandbox world.
Games like the System Shock series, the original Deus Ex, or the Ultima Underworld games had a certain philosophy to their gameplay their modern descendants mostly lack. They let you do things — mess with your environment, to a degree the modern Deus Ex games or Bioshock don’t. I’m still in the middle of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided as of this writing, and I see it more as a really good action RPG where you can toss random objects and break most doors, and not really an immersive sim which is what Prey looks like. Dishonored at least is more willing to let players use its super powers to mess with the game in potentially unexpected ways. From the perspective of someone who has only played the modern games, Prey looks like it wants to be the sandbox foundation of Skyrim combined with the smaller and more focused world of a Bioshock.
Several details in the Game Informer video point to this. The big thing developer Arkane Studios has pointed out is how you can camouflage yourself as just about any mundane object. Being a coffee cup in itself doesn’t mean much, but it’s a clue that players can take advantage of just about anything in the environment (again, like in Bethesda’s RPGs). Every object in Prey apparently can also be broken down into base elements and potentially re-crafted. Combined with being able to lift mundane objects this speaks to the range of gameplay possibilities Arkane is trying to give players, as well as to the tangibility of the world in Prey.
In the video Arkane mentioned off-hand that it modeled the whole exterior of the game’s setting — the Talos 1 station. I don’t know if you’ll be able to visit and re-visit every piece of it, but right now I’m willing to bet on it. This would give Prey a feeling closer to SS2’s Von Braun in which you could freely explore the various decks that each seemed to serve a believable purpose, rather than Rapture or Dead Space’s USG Ishimura, the latter of which was inspired by the Von Braun but locked players into each successive deck. If Prey gives players a whole station to freely explore, it would feel much more like a place and less like a set of levels.
At this point the main concern I have with Prey is that it might not catch on because the game doesn’t seem to have an immediately identifiable selling point to the general public. At an quick glance nothing about it really jumps out. Furthermore, it’s another purely singleplayer offline game in an age where those seem to be less successful. “Bioshock in space” might be what gets some people to try it, but the reason I and many others are interested in Prey is more because of Arkane’s pedigree and is allusions to System Shock. It’s like one of those indie games where the main selling point is it’s inspired by this one classic game, except Arkane isn’t directly saying that and it’s supposed to be successful in the mainstream market.