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Monday, June 5, 2017

Prey Review: Just who do you think you are?

Prey is something of an anomaly. It's either a waste of time or everything you've ever wanted. I happened to love it, but there are solid arguments to be made about it being almost a failure. It depends on what you really want from a game and what you can ultimately put up with. What I'm trying to say is Prey is my "settling soul mate."

It's selling itself as a shooter while intentionally putting as little effort into the actual shooting mechanics as they can. I mean, sure you shoot at things, but it's all so maddeningly imprecise your reflexes don't count for squat. The thing is Prey has a lot more going on then then gooey black aliens. This is a massive escape room that is about all exploring and gathering resources.

And I promise it's so much more interesting than how I just made it sound.

It is nearly all because of level design. The kind of thing you only notice when it's done wrong, unless it's as gob smackingly perfect as it is here. This is a metriodvania, all areas of TALOS-1 bleed in and out of each other flawlessly. The enemy encounters are random all the time. After two playthroughs I hadn't seen all the troop variety tricks it had to show me. Again, the combat isn't the greatest. But your run ins with amorphic terrors from beyond serve a purpose: draining your reserves to force you to find more stuff. And again that's much more fun than it sounds.

"If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't."
Nothing about the nuts and bolts of Prey is sexy, but so much of it is interesting. Every item in the game is made of material that can be broken down. Banana peels, bullets, ramen noodles, emp grenades... gum drops. All can be broken down to their basic components and reassembled into something you actually want. I mean anything. Including this game's version of Adam (upgrade points). It turns every little discovery into a step towards whatever you want in that moment.

If you're inches away from that shiny new stealth upgrade or you need a fatter stack of shotgun shells, there is some combination of random junk in your bird's nest of an inventory that can get you what you want. It's the greatest inventory system I've ever seen... again, that sounds boring and I'm sorry. But Jesus Christ, it's perfect. Every item has so much personality. Frozen unagi rolls, Shaker Lemon Pie, Captain Spree's Fish Sticks, I adore this kind of detail.

MotherF**kin' Glucassist!

It's no accident that item discovery matters so much, because this is one hell of a sci fi haunted house. The best since the first Dead Space. The offices and living quarters are bursting with intrigue hidden on computers or notes. The station's "Guts" force you to become an anti-gravity fighter pilot. The outside is it's own wilderness pockmarked with treasure troves blown out into space. In other words, getting lost on TALOS-1 is the most fun I've had exploring a game since I... I honestly can't remember. Maybe New Vegas.

But sadly, all those unique strengths can't hide it's obvious weaknesses. The small character moments shine while the grand set pieces bore. The exploration and looting loop breaks down in the ultimately dull combat. The enemy variety eventually devolves into unimaginative literal blobs. The ending twist will not work for everyone. But it certainly worked for me!

Prey is what Warren Spector would have made if he had started out in this generation, for good and ill. The question is how much you like exploring. Did you tear Rapture upside down trying to shake out every last audio log? Then this. Is. Your. Sh*t. It may not go down as well as the other System Shock games; but it remains the closest thing to it in almost 20 years.

 I hope you like it.

Let's take a walk outside,

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