Arkane Studios is a developer with a burgeoning reputation for crafting games with an unusually intelligent agenda. It's best known for the two Dishonored games, with their steampunk vibe, intrigue-ridden plots, intricate puzzles and stealth gameplay.
So, Prey, out on 5 May for Xbox One, PS4 and PC, can be seen as a departure for the studio. It's a lush-looking sci-fi-action game, set on an alien-ridden abandoned space-station in an alternate-timeline future in which John F Kennedy's assassination was averted, and should become the first instalment of a new franchise. We're fairly sure of that.
In order to delve deeper into Prey's psyche, we visited Arkane Studios in Austin, Texas (the company also has a longer-established studio in Lyon, France), and were rewarded with insights from lead designer Ricardo Bare and Lead Producer Susan Kath, plus a satisfying chunk of hands-on gameplay which was far enough into the game to provide a decent handle on its distinctive gameplay.
Prey preview: Shooter, RPG or survival-horror?
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Prey is that it feels very different to Dishonored and, while it does feature weaponry, it most certainly isn't a run-and-gun first-person shooter. We would venture that its nearest relative, in terms of general gameplay feel, is Dead Space. There are similarities with the BioShock games, too.
In truth, describing Prey's gameplay is a difficult task, since it has been designed - in accordance with Arkane Studios' core philosophy - to let you play however you want: chiefly by endowing your character, Morgan Yu, with powers, which you can select from a vastly diverse range. Lead Designer Ricardo Bare said: "Stealth is at the centre of Dishonored, whereas in Prey, stealth is an option.
"Because we have way more RPG elements in Prey, you can build your character towards stealth, or you can just ignore stealth if you want. So you could build your character to be a hacker and use turrets, or to be someone who uses alien powers: there are all kinds of permutations."
If you take a weapon-centric route, you'll find that ammunition is in pretty short supply - although Prey does include 3D printer-style Replicators which, provided you possess the necessary raw materials, allow you to build more ammo, and even the likes of Neuromods, which let you add new powers when you inject them into your eyeball.
Prey preview: Play your own way
The powers tree is so huge that you will never be able to acquire them all during the course of a single play-through - so there is every possibility that different players will have completely divergent gameplay experiences.
That prospect makes Bare and Kath very happy, as both maintain that Arkane Studios' primary design philosophy is to create games that allow gamers to play their own way. As Kath said: "I'm excited about our play-your-own way design philosophy - whatever the player wants to do, how they tackle the puzzles in the game, makes for a whole lot of emergent scenarios and emergent gameplay. One of the things I'm most looking forward to is seeing how people play this game."
Countless games have been presented as play-your-own-way in the past and failed to deliver on that, but Prey may just have cracked that particular conundrum.
Bare gave an example of how Arkane Studios has seen emergent behaviour - something of a Holy Grail for the games industry - when watching people play through the game: "For instance, we have a power that lets you mimic things, and there are explosives like oxygen canisters in the game. Then there are hazards like electrical junctions that spark. So we've seen people, in order to escape a Phantom, mimicking an explosive canister and starting to roll away. But they rolled past an electric junction, the electric spark hit them, they exploded and it killed the Phantom.
"It's an unintentional, really cool side-effect. But when that happens, you start to learn, and think: 'Hey, I'm going to do that on purpose now, as a strategy'."
Prey preview: Mimickry can be fun
Of all the game's powers, Mimic is definitely the show-stopper: the ability to turn yourself into any inanimate object you come across definitely hasn't been seen in any mainstream game before.
We noticed that the powers tree includes three levels of Mimic. Bare talked us through them: "You can't mimic the aliens - you can only mimic non-biological things. The lowest level of the power lets you mimic physics objects - so that's useful for traversal. You might find that you can't fit through a gap, but if you mimic something tiny, you can roll through it.
"It's also useful for stealth, if that's how you want to play - you can turn into a box, a coffee mug or something like that to hide from the [alien] Typhon. Then, if you continue to upgrade the power, you can mimic more interesting things like the defensive turrets. You might come upon a defensive turret that is broken, and you don't have the Repair skill. But you do have a higher level of Mimic, so you can mimic the turret, and now you are a turret and you can gun down the aliens coming down the hall.
"The next tier of Mimic lets you imitate Operators, which are floating robots, so it's an indirect way of allowing you to fly."
Prey preview: A properly open world
Adding a power like Mimic must have created a headache when developing an open-world game which is all about traversal, and Kath acknowledged that: "I have found myself, in the last year, saying: 'Maybe next time, let's not have a power where you can turn into a little object and go anywhere you want to in the world, please?' This is really fun, but it's really hard to develop for."
But the openness of Prey's world is another area in which it diverges from Dishonored - and harks back to an earlier phase of Arkane's development history, as Bare explained: "This time, in terms of level-design, we tried to go even further with the open structure of the game.
"Dishonored is a mission-based game, where you finish a mission and move on. Whereas with Prey, we went back to Arkane's roots with Arx Fatalis, where we tried just to make one big world, that is a lot more open, and that allows the player to re-traverse and go back to earlier areas -even to go all the way outside the space station - and carve their own path through the game."
Prey preview: Replayability
Refreshingly, in this age of games with blink-and-you'll-miss-them single-player campaigns, Prey should be pretty meaty. Bare said: "Unless you're trying to do a speed-run, I think it will take at least 16 hours. But we've seen players spend all the way up to 24 or 30 hours on a play-through: it just depends how much of a completionist you are."
The ability to take different power-tree routes and adopt wildly differing play-styles in itself gives Prey plenty of replayability. But, according to Bare, that's not all that Arkane has put into it in order to encourage you to indulge in multiple play-throughs: "We've gone a little broader in this game on the RPG systems, so we have the chipsets [which let you customise key items like the Psychoscope and the space-suit], you can even customise weapons, and there are all the human and alien abilities which you can't possibly find all of in one play-through, so that's one axis of replayability.
"The other one is just the story, or your play-through of the game. There are different endings, and different characters which you can choose to interact with in different ways, so you might want to play again and see what happens if you take this in-game route, or if you rescue this character instead of letting them die."
Prey preview: Gameplay hands-on in Psychotronics
In Austin, we were given the chance to play through an area of space-station Talos I called Psychotronics. Having played the first hour and a bit of the game previously, it was refreshing to actually get a feel for the full-blown gameplay, rather than the inevitable early-stages scene-setting.
It was something Ricardo Bare acknowledged: "One of our core values is that we love overlapping systems of gameplay. But we also love creating games with strong worlds, settings and narrative backgrounds. So what that means is in the early part of the game, we can't just jam a fire-hose of game systems into the player's mouth and go: 'Good luck with that'.
"We have to ease you into the game a little more with storytelling and a slow trickle of game mechanics. Then, by the point when you pick up the Psychoscope, we're like: 'Hands off, have fun: you're on your own'."
After a few initial encounters with aliens - mainly the small, spidery Mimics and more human-shaped Phantoms, which we took out with the handgun (helped by a combat-focus-style power which temporarily slowed time) or by immobilising them with the Gloo gun and smacking them with the trusty wrench - we came to the entrance of Psychotronics. Which, we were informed, we couldn't enter without a Psychoscope.
After solving some traversal puzzles - such as temporarily stopping a wall-outlet from sparking by plugging it with Gloo, enabling us to search a dead body and find a keycard granting access to a new area - we found the Psychoscope and headed up to Psychotronics. Where it became clear we were at a key juncture in the game.
The Psychoscope is a Typhon-scanner, so it comes in pretty handy when you're exploring new areas and are worried about Typhon jumping out at you. But it doesn't just alert you of its presence: it allows you to scan their DNA.
Psyhotronics is the area on Talos 1 in which the Typhon were kept under observation - and from whence they clearly escaped to wreak havoc throughout the space-station. In its central area, we found a number of isolation tanks containing different types of Typhon. Scanning them with the Psychoscope started to open up the alien section of the powers tree, and the more we scanned, the more alien powers we opened up.
Excitingly, the first Typhon power we were able to equip was Mimic, which we had to try out. Sure enough, we found a coffee-cup - an iconic object in Prey - triggered Mimic and turned ourselves into a coffee-cup. Thus transformed, we could roll around, and that was just about the extent of Mimic's usefulness, given that we weren't in a situation where we had to manoeuvre through a tiny space. But it was undeniably fun.
In Psychotronics, we encountered one of Prey's decision-making moments. In one part of the area, there was a large glass room containing a live human - an ex-convict who was a research subject for Psychotronics' now-deceased eggheads. That glass room was connected to a tank containing a Typhon; a control panel allowed us to open and close various doors which, performed in a certain sequence, would have released a Typhon into the room, where it would have killed the man.
However, the ex-con said that he knew the door-code to the nearby armoury, so we decided to keep the Typhon where it was and open the access door to the glass room. Sure enough, we were rewarded with the code for the armoury, where we picked up a very handy shotgun. We could still have killed the ex-con, but opted for compassion.
We also encountered a side mission, discovering that there was a breach in the hull (in a fairly far-flung part of the space-station), which required tracking back to the main lobby area. Alas, as we were playing a closed demo in which access to other areas of Talos 1 was locked, we couldn't complete it, but it demonstrated that Prey is emphatically not a single-path game.
After a cumulative two-and-a-half hours of hands-on with Prey, we were left itching to get our hands on the full game. It feels very distinctive and original: both highly atmospheric and the sort of game that gets your mind working, whether you’re trying to figure out how to reach your destination or to unravel what took place on Talos 1.
Bare said that he has a fascination with neuroscience, for example, and we came across plenty of evidence of that fascination during both hands-on sessions we've had so far. That’s one illustration of why Prey should prove a massive hit with those who prefer their games to demonstrate a high level of intelligence.
Prey will be available from 5 May for PS4, Xbox One and PC. A demo will be available to download and play on Xbox One and PS4 from 27 April. It will provide the first hour of the game to play for free.