Players are going to find plenty of jump scares in Prey. That’s just the nature of the action-adventure game that Bethesda and its Arkane Studios division are launching on May 5. Amorphous black enemies come out of the walls and attack you at any moment, leaving you with a paranoid feeling that nothing is what it seems. It’s a theme that runs throughout the story of the sci-fi tale.
I had a chance to play part of the game at a preview event that Bethesda held in San Francisco. It was my first chance to play both the beginning of the game and a segment in the middle. It felt pretty special, as it’s been 11 years since the original Prey came out. Fans are counting the days until the debut of this suspenseful title.
The original Prey debuted in 2006. Prey 2 was under way at Human Head Studios, but it went into a development hell and Bethesda Softworks acquired the rights to it.
Meanwhile, Bethesda’s Austin team, Arkane Studios, was working away on a science fiction shooter game set on a space station where you could visit every piece of it. It had create a new kind of monster — black, inky aliens known as Mimics — that could blend with the landscape. So when they jump out at you, you have a moment of fright before you start attacking.
“Part of the fiction of Prey, one of the core themes, is not really believing what you see. If you play the beginning of the game, there are lots of recurrences of that theme in the world and with the enemies,” said Richard Bare, lead designer of Prey, in an interview with GamesBeat.
“We wanted the enemies to be somewhat mysterious,” he added, “That’s why they’re this black inky substance with these amorphous shapes. One of them can imitate objects in the environment. Key to gameplay is that none of that stuff is scripted. The mimics imitate things on their own. Level designers don’t tell them to do those things. It’s just part of their behavior.”
In the beginning of the game, you can choose whether you want to be male or female. Then your character wakes up in a high-rise apartment. Your brother Alex calls you and you get dressed, walk out the door, and get in the elevator. You go to the roof and a self-driving helicopter picks you up and takes you to the TranStar Corp. There, you meet your brother and he tells you to head into a testing room, where you meet a Dr. Bellamy.
The doctor tells you to perform some simple actions that pretty much tell you how to use the controller. Then he gets attacked by an ink spot.
You wake up again, and you’re back in your apartment. But this time, something has gone wrong. You walk out of your apartment and the maintenance person who previously greeted you is dead. You have to get off the floor, but the elevators don’t work. It took me a while to figure out, but I had to bash through the glass of a display on a wall. That revealed a room behind it, and then I found that the entire apartment and skyscraper was a sham. It was more like a movie sound stage, all set up to observe Yu in his room. He is more like a laboratory rat, and various computers show that the brother’s voice is fabricated.
Eventually, you discover that you are on a space station that TranStar owns. Here’s where a little backstory is useful. I didn’t encounter the details of this in the game so far, but Bethesda has disclosed it.
Prey takes place in an alternative universe where John F. Kennedy survived the assassination attempt in 1963. Kennedy pours money into the space program. But an alien race known as the Typhon attacks Earth.
The United States and the Soviet Union team up to fight off the Typhon. They build a huge space station, Talos 1, as a prison for the Typhon. Over time, the U.S. takes over ownership of the station, as the Soviet Union falls apart. It starts a research lab to study the Typhon, but a fatal incident leads to its shutdown.
Years later, TranStar acquires the station. Its corporate scientists figure out the neuroscience to harness and control the Typhon. And they use that research to create Neuromods, which can restructure the human brain to gain new superhuman abilities. During the course of my play, I leveled up a Repair capability via a Neuromod, and that helped me fix a broken electrical circuit that was in my way.
Waking up again
But as Yu breaks through the illusion, he finds that there’s nobody on the space station and that the Typhon have broken out again, killing a bunch of the crew on the ship. In the soundstage area, you have to start trying to find away out. But the Mimic creatures just keeping popping out at you.
Fortunately, the dead maintenance worker bequeathed a monkey wrench to you. So you have to spend a bunch of time whacking the Mimic creatures until they are little black ink stains. But I found that the Mimic creatures were pretty deadly, and they killed me a few times before I figured out how to evade and club them.
Lost in the middle
Then I was whisked into a new level in the middle of the game. I had some greater abilities and a large gun that was dubbed a Gloo gun. It fired glue that hit an object and then hardened, encasing the object in glue. This was exactly what I needed to freeze the speedy Mimics in mid-movement. Then I clubbed them with the wrench or shot them with my pistol. In this part, I felt lonely, but also stupid because I didn’t know where to go. It was hard to start in the middle because I didn’t know what powers I had now.
I traversed through a locker room and then needed to make my way to another part of the station. But I found that my way was blocked. So I had to double back and look around for an object that gave me special analytical powers. It was like an augmented reality helmet. I wore it and found that I could understand more about the enemies that I focused on, and I could also get through various glass doors.
The problem with the Gloo gun is that it wears off, and eventually the Mimic breaks out of it. So I had to act fast and kill the Mimic while it was frozen. That turned the tables, and it made me into the hunter, not the prey.
I was having such a great time with the Gloo gun and pistol combo that I didn’t realize I could run out of ammunition. And once it was gone, I was in big trouble, because the creatures were still coming out of the walls. I had to use my monkey wrench a lot.
I finally found myself in the director’s office. There were a couple of big machines, and a big desk. The desk was a no-go area because of a big electrical short, which sent deadly arcs of electricity within a certain area. I had a problem.
Here’s where Bare’s words came back to me.
“One of the things we love about the games we make—there are more games like these now, but they’re still very special, where they ask a lot of the player,” he said. “It’s not paint by numbers, following a very scripted path. We invite the player to improvise a lot with the game mechanics. That’s our main goal, to give the player a bunch of cool weapons and powers and say, ‘This is your playground now. Here’s a challenge. How you approach it is up to you.’ I love watching people play because it’s fun to see how they tackle things differently.”
I learned with Bare’s help that you could take the Gloo gun and build a ladder that you could climb. I went downstairs, picked up some objects, and came back up. I went to one of the big machines, which was a fabricator. I could order it to create some ammo by punching in a request and then feeding materials into it. Then it spit out a fresh box of 9 millimeter shells. I did the same for the Gloo gun ammo.
Next, I upgraded one of my engineering Neuropods so that I could get some more Repair skills. And finally, I had a solution to my problem. So I went to the desk area and froze the electrical arc with the Gloo gun. Then I repaired the circuit with my wrench, and I was on to the next task.
Moving from the start of the game to the middle was jarring, as I didn’t feel like I knew enough about what was going on in the game. But I got a feel for some of the fun. You can solve puzzles in Prey any way that you like. And the enemies can attack you in so many different ways that you always have to be on your guard. You have to conserve your resources, like Gloo and gun ammo, and figure out how to solve problems. I especially liked it when I could use the Gloo gun to cover a flame as I moved through a corridor. It is this kind of emergent gameplay that should make Prey into a fascinating experiment.
But I sure hope that the game developers exercise enough control of the story to make sure that it holds the player’s attention throughout what appears to be a very suspenseful and engrossing experience. Whatever happens, I know that my favorite gun is going to be the gloo weapon.