Prey Isn’t Prey, But That’s Okay

I enjoyed developer Human Head’s 2006 game Prey quite a bit. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one, though.

Admittedly, Prey hasn’t aged that well, but the gameplay still remains serviceable enough. There are a couple of neat portal sequences, for instance, that play around with your character’s size and perspective, which remain unique even in Portal’s long cast shadow. The game also features some trippy antigravity walkways, a fully-stocked arsenal of organic alien weaponry, and a spirit world where you can self-resurrect protagonist Tommy, who’s Native American.

Okay, so the plot isn’t always handled with the deftest of hands, but the premise is still as strong as ever: escape your captors and save your girlfriend, Jen. That’s it. And it’s hard not to be the least bit intrigued by a game that starts with an alien abduction accompanied by Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” That sequence alone made it a standout game during the first year of the Xbox 360, as well a game that I still remember fondly to this day.

More Cowbell

Despite my somewhat odd attachment to Prey, I didn’t have high hopes for a sequel, at least not at the time. Prey was given to Human Head Studios under contract by 3D Realms to complete, the software company most notoriously known for the Duke Nukem franchise. And until Prey’s long-awaited release, it had actually spent more time in development than the now infamous Duke Nukem: Forever, having been announced back in the mid ’90s. Quick turnarounds aren’t exactly synonymous with the 3D Realms name, but Prey did eventually make its way to store shelves as a finished product thanks to Human Head. Duke Nukem: Forever, though? Well, that’s another story.

After Prey became a modest critical and commercial success following its launch, the franchise was sold to Bethesda Softworks as 3D Realms continued to incur financial troubles given their low output. Human Head Studios was left out in limbo, and the future of Prey was uncertain to say the least. As time wore on the game was all but forgotten about. But then, at E3 2011, this happened:

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To be clear, the proposed sequel looked more like a cross between Blade Runner and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath than the original game, but most people weren’t complaining. The fact that there was any game called Prey 2 in existence to begin with seemed insane in the best possible way. The cinematic trailer above was enough to entice a broader audience as well, and with the backing of Bethesda the sky seemed like the limit.

Human Head Studios looked like it had a bonafide hit on its hands, but the game’s development quickly ceased for unknown reasons shortly thereafter. The years passed, and neither Bethesda nor Human Head Studios provided any further updates on Prey 2’s status. Eventually, in 2014, those still following the game’s development—or lack thereof—worst fears were realized. Prey 2 had been cancelled. Bethesda giveth, and Bethesda taketh away.

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What Doesn’t Kill You

After Prey 2’s official cancellation, and after enough time to grieve, most of us moved on. There are a myriad of exciting game releases that come along every year. Some meet expectations, and some fall well short.

Before long, though, our collective wounds were reopened. The Prey license was handed over to Arkane Studios, the developers of the Dishonored franchise. Initially, people thought they might finish up the work Human Head Studios wasn’t able to complete, reigniting interest. Soon enough Prey resurfaced, however, looking nothing like the proposed sequel that many had fallen in love with.

While Arkane’s reveal trailer was intriguing in its own way, yet again the game’s tone and story seemed to move in a totally different direction—this time without the original developers or any seemed connection to the 2006 game.

Furthermore, it was hard for me, personally, to get excited for Arkane’s Prey reboot as someone who never clicked with Dishonored. Despite being a huge fan of stealth games in general, Dishonored’s pacing never fit my play-style, and, overall, I was never drawn into the game’s setting as much as some of its contemporaries (e.g. Ken Levine’s Bioshock games). To keep it short and clichéd: different strokes for different folks, and all that.

So my interest waned accordingly. Sure, I was still somewhat morbidly curious about this new Prey game, but as someone who wasn’t a huge fan of Arkane’s prior work, and who is a self-proclaimed scaredy-cat when it comes to psychological horror games, Prey (2017) looked like a pass in my book—especially given the other juggernauts sharing its launch window. Then I tried the demo.

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I liked it. I liked it a lot.

We’re Not So Different, You And I

Watching Prey’s development has been quite the journey in itself, to say the least. But here we are, all these years later, with a finished product donning the same title that actually compares favorably to the game that preceded it more than a decade ago. In fact, the only crowd that Prey (2017) might not win over in its opening moments are staunch supporters of the concept trailer for Human Head’s sequel.

While Prey (2017) has no ties to the 2006 Prey’s story, there are a few symbolic and thematic commonalities between the two games to note right from the start. Maybe they’re complete coincidences, but there at least appears to be a nod to Human Head’s creation in a few instances. Intentional or not, Arkane’s game does—at the very least—beguile in a way very reminiscent to the original Prey.

Prey 4

First off, there’s a comparable vibrant opening. At the beginning of Prey (2017) you’re given the choice to play as a male or female version of the lead character, Morgan Yu. Then, you wake up for your first day of work at TranStar Corporation. TranStar is a giant, high-tech conglomerate specializing in scientific research, which also happens to be operated by your family. I assure you, nothing nefarious is going on there—wink, wink, sarcasm, haha.

What’s most intriguing about how the game opens, though, is that Morgan, just like you, is completely ignorant to what’s happening at TranStar. As such, Prey preys upon your curiosity, and immediately you start role-playing.

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You explore Morgan’s apartment, browsing her emails, books, and maybe even her refrigerator before putting on your work uniform, riding the elevator to the roof, and being escorted via helicopter to TranStar’s offices. This is when you are treated to the game’s elaborate title card sequence, which features a scenic jaunt overlooking a city skyscape, and some ethereal beats.

While it isn’t “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”—and really, what is?— this introduction is just as brazenly confident as the original game’s. It asserts a bold style without taking control away from you, as the player. It’s immersive, and it’s immediately captivating.

Deja Vu

After your brief flight ends you’re introduced to Alex, Morgan’s brother. He’s there to greet Morgan and prepare him or her (her in my case) for a few rudimentary tests. After being gawked at by a few scientists through a glass pane during orientation, Morgan sees one of them get attacked by a creature disguised as a coffee mug. She’s promptly sedated as chaos continues to unfurl through her hazy eyes. Then she wakes up, back in her apartment.

This isn’t so different from Prey (2006) either. Tommy meets both his grandfather and girlfriend—the two driving forces of the original game’s story—at the reservation’s bar before all hell breaks loose. Morgan and Alex have a similar rendezvous at Prey’s (2017) outset and, without saying too much, their close relationship continues to play a vital role in the game’s story arc after all hell breaks loose, also.

Prey Wrench

The Groundhog Day scenario that follows is a bit different, yes, but when no helicopter comes to pick Morgan up this time you’re forced to find a way out of Morgan’s eerie solitude—to escape. You begin retracing your footsteps and find a corpse in the hallway. It’s here where you find your first weapon—a familiar stalwart tool from the original Prey—a wrench. This is followed by a startling discovery, and what is perhaps the largest parallel between the two games.

You use the wrench to break out of your apartment, and what do you find out? You’re not actually in your apartment. You’re at TranStar already. Furthermore, TranStar isn’t located at the heart of some city, overlooking the bay. No, no, no. Morgan is aboard their Talos I facility, somewhat functioning as a guinea pig. Also, and this is kind of important, Talos I isn’t an office building, it’s a space station. Like, out in space. And that weird, ominous creature you saw attacking scientists and doctors? There are several, and they’ve kind of overrun the now derelict ship you’re on. Good luck!

This is where most of the comparisons between the two games end, but being marooned in space, combating a bunch of hostile enemies, and trying to survive is about as Prey as Prey gets.

Risky Business

Obviously, there are a bunch of changes beyond this “stranger in a strange land” concept worth noting too. That’s mostly because the differences in Arkane’s game are what makes it the superior experience.

First off, there’s the game design, which sets the tone for each respective game. The original Prey was a linear shooter. Tension was manufactured by making the player square-off against increasingly grotesque looking creatures that, despite their malevolent nature, usually succumbed rather easily to a combination of weapons conveniently dropped in Tommy’s path before each encounter.

The ship’s corridors could also be superficially unsettling. This was mostly due to their viscous, sinewy appearance. To be blunt about it, Prey (2006) was more gross than it was terrifying. I mean, who could forget those…orifice doors.

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Conversely, Prey’s (2017) Talos I space station setting is grandiose, purposeful, and was, until recently, kept in pristine condition. As such, the crew cabinets, offices, and other sections of the ship aren’t frightening because of what’s in them, but what’s not: people. The absence of life where it once had been thriving—in space no less—is inherently disturbing. As you find notes and listen to the audiologs of employees stationed on Talos I, it’s hard not to fill in the blanks of your colleagues’ disappearances in the most horrific ways. Arkane is nothing but masterful as it drips these stories of despair and chaos around the ship.

Prey (2017) is far less of a shooter than Prey (2006) also. You’re underpowered for a vast majority of the game, forced to sneak around enemies and scour for resources. This is a double-edged sword, as going out of your way to find medkits, fabrication plans, and upgrades is necessary, but can also spell death.

Prey dead guy

The aptly dubbed “mimics” can hide in plain sight around Talos I, and are fairly nimble. They disguise themselves as innocuous objects, pouncing toward you at the least opportune times. Their larger Typhon brethren, which are more humanoid in form, are tougher and more powerful to make up for their inability to conceal themselves. Then there are the telepaths, phantoms, and the ultra-intimidating “Nightmare” behemoth to contend with as well.

In true survival horror fashion, Prey keeps your resources scarce and, as such, death can occur at any moment if you’re not adequately prepared or simply ready for an encounter. Morgan’s fragility makes you play timidly, attempting to avoid encounters almost entirely. Almost.

But Satisfaction Brought It Back

Here’s the thing, though: despite the danger, every risk is worth taking in Prey (2017). The game thoughtfully meshes story-driven role-playing with survival horror. There are decisions Morgan makes that have implications for her, the people and research projects aboard Talos I, and all of humanity—whatever that means. Learning about who Morgan is, what happened to Talos I, and what it will take to survive this outbreak shapes the ending of the game in a variety of ways. Are you helping the remaining people on the space station? Do you care about the outbreak spreading? Is Morgan’s life worth more than the lives of others?

Maybe those are questions you’ll already have answers to, but given the gravity of Morgan’s actions I found it important to seek out as much information as possible. The emails, notes, books, and audiologs scattered across Talos I act as jigsaw pieces. Each one that you collect brings the bigger picture into focus. The game’s premise is compelling enough to override the palpable tension you’ll endure throughout the game’s robust runtime, but it becomes even more satisfying with each clue you uncover while playing detective.

Even if none of the particulars ultimately matter to you, Prey’s (2017) world is so fascinating that its lore is still worth finding. The alternate history, the corporate conflicts, the privatization of space exploration—it’s pure sci-fi gold. The environments themselves have stories to tell with their intricately detailed interiors, scattered carnage, and gorgeous views. From arboretums to research labs to recreation rooms, there’s always something unique to see as you wander Talos I.

If anything, the original Prey suffered from a lack of context. It didn’t matter much at the time given that the game was mostly about vanquishing every enemy between Tommy and Jen. It was only important that you survive and save the woman you love.

Arkane’s game, on the other hand, inundates you with minute details. The developers build Talos I from the ground up, tear it apart, and leave it up to the player to decide what’s ultimately worth saving. It’s still about survival, absolutely, but it’s also about philosophy. It’s about how fear can manipulate your morality and force you to do the easy thing, which is seldom the right thing.

Prey

Inside Your DNA

Arkane’s Prey ties this abundance of information even into its gameplay. For starters, the guns themselves tend to have research and development notes, but far more fascinating are the Neuromod upgrades found scattered around Talos I. The Neuromods are what Morgan uses to upgrade her abilities. They’re essentially points that you assign to a skill tree, separated into two categories: Human and Typhon. The human abilities fall in line with what you’d expect to find in a Fallout or Deus Ex game. You can become a better hacker, learn how to use medkits more efficiently, and gain access to better weapon upgrades.

The Typhon abilities, on the other hand, resemble the Plasmids in Bioshock. They give you powers, such as being able to hide in plain sight by mimicking objects like the smaller Typhon creatures. Or maybe you’re more interested in controlling the will of your enemies and making them fight for you. There are several Typhon upgrades you can bestow Morgan with, which basically feel like superpowers. The catch with using the Typhon side of the skill tree is that, despite the effectiveness of these abilities, you will actually start to become a Typhon. Their DNA meshes with yours, which has both gameplay and story implications.

The Final Frontier

Ultimately, which Prey you like better is dependent on a few things. If you’re looking for a shooter in the vein of Quake 4 or Doom 3, Human Head’s Prey is still an enjoyable game with a few caveats. That being said, the last time I checked the audience that loved id Software games during the 2000s was somewhat niche, and a bit crazy. I say that as one of those people.

Arkane’s Prey, while not the game I imagined or even wanted, somehow wildly exceeded my expectations. That’s quite the accomplishment; to supplant a game that I have garnered a bit of nostalgia for, then surpass a cancelled sequel that I was also highly anticipating. Granted, any game that comes after another by more than ten years should be the better experience, but Prey (2017) does more than exist on better hardware and benefit from the collective knowledge of the industry as a whole. It’s narrative-driven, painstakingly detailed, and highly immersive survival horror. More importantly, it’s redefined the Prey license—which seemed lost long ago—for the better.

 

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