It seems crazy that, even though we live in a technological whirlwind, space exploration these days has become more or less the exclusive domain of videogames, film and literature, while in real life no human has set foot on another astronomical object since 1972.
Prey does a fine job of expanding the great space-fixated pop-culture cannon, while adding an effective survival-horror element rooted in believability but with plenty of imaginative leaps – to such an extent that one fears it might make potential astronauts think twice when mankind finally gets around to the serious business of at least visiting, if not colonising, other planets.
Prey review: Fly Me to the Moon
After a false, Groundhog Day-style beginning, you discover that you are playing Morgan Yu (who can be either female or male), stranded on the space-station Talos I, which orbits the Moon.
But there's one slight problem: Talos I has been overrun by malevolent aliens called the Typhon, which come in many forms, all out to kill you.
The Typhon's most basic level, the spidery Mimics, jump on you face-hugger-style, but as you progress through the game, you encounter ever more fearsome foe: there are bipedal Phantoms which can attack with fire or energy bursts; invisible Poltergeists that can levitate you; giant black blobs called Telepaths that can take a vast amount of damage; even Talos I crew-members who are now under alien mind-control (who are much easier to dispatch).
Make no mistake: Prey is very much a survival-horror game, along superficially similar lines to the likes of Dead Space – as you make your tortuous way through the giant and wonderfully imagined Talos I, you will die a lot.
Prey review: Dead Space meets BioShock
Luckily, Prey also borrows – and hugely develops – an element from BioShock: through injecting so-called Neuromods into your eye-socket, you can acquire a vast arsenal of abilities, including those possessed by the Typhon. Thus, you can learn to unleash the likes of a Kinetic Blast (very handy, since it requires no ammo beyond a supply of Psi Hypos which keep your psionic abilities topped up) or even to take on the form of various inanimate objects, just like the Mimics.
On the human side, Neuromods provide more prosaic abilities which are often more akin to buffs for your statistics – such as the abilities to repair machinery, hack or lift heavy objects, acquire extra health, increase weapon-damage and so on. So whenever you come across any Neuromods (which generally take some finding), there's a constant debate between whether to upgrade your basic attributes or to go for something a bit more glamorous.
You can also make Neuromods (along with vast amounts of other useful items) in Fabricators – essentially sophisticated 3D printers – but they eat up resources (cutely, Recyclers let you turn the junk you accumulate into raw materials), and are also in short supply.
The Neuromod-based Abilities tree is the beating heart of Prey: how you negotiate it determines your approach to the game, and as you discover its hidden depths, it throws up all manner of possibilities for developing an entirely different set of skills. So Prey is a game with plenty of replayability.
Cannily, it generally costs just one or two Neuromods to acquire an ability, but if you find that ability useful, it costs much more to level it up.
Prey review: Modifications to master
Prey's main story is of the wild goose-chase type: early on, you discover a video you left for yourself instructing you to destroy Talos I if a Typhon-escape should occur, and in order to achieve that, you must navigate back and forth across the station, performing tasks that range from the mundane to the esoteric, working out how to access locked areas and acquiring vital objects.
There are no cut-scenes, but you're able to piece together a vast and involved back-story from personal logs, people's emails, books, magazines and the like. Plus you discover how Talos I came about (Prey exists in a parallel timeline in which John F Kennedy's assassination was averted, and the US and Russia got together to conquer space much more comprehensively than in our reality). And you get more information from an AI assistant, January, and your brother, Alex Yu, who is the game's unseen baddie.
If you crave a conventional narrative, delivered on a plate, you won't find such a thing in Prey. Yet as you restlessly traverse the nooks and crannies of Talos I, various rich and multi-layered stories emerge, especially when you find the small band of survivors in Cargo Bay.
The plentiful side-missions all have imaginative storylines, and while Alex Yu is a remote adversary, only occasionally interjecting via video-link, you glean vast amounts of information about recent events on Talos I, how the alternate-universe space-race panned out – and build up a vivid picture of its staff.
There's even a certain amount of humour in the game: for instance, the Typhon breakout interrupted a big game of Dungeons and Dragons.
The undoubted stars of Prey are the Typhon: even the first ones you encounter are sufficiently scary to raise the hairs on the back of your neck (an effect enhanced by deliciously sinister music), and the later, more boss-like ones, with their psychic abilities, are uniformly terrifying.
Not unlike Dead Space, the weapons are pretty weedy (one, the Huntress Boltcaster, is actually a toy, amusingly), although the pistol and shotgun are decent and can be upgraded. And while you don't get grenades exactly, you do find their equivalent: Recycler Charges operate over a tiny radius, but recycle everything in the vicinity into their constituent parts, and EMP charges are useful against rogue Operators – the hovering repair-robots that can be corrupted by Typhon.
Prey review: How does it play?
Gameplay-wise, it's all about making the most of whatever you have at your disposal – be it psi-powers, ammo or lures which you can use to draw Typhon towards explosive canisters. When you run out of ammo, you can always batter a Typhon with your wrench.
Thinking laterally is the order of the day – just as it should be in a top-notch survival-horror game. It is possible to fall into slightly annoying gameplay loops, however, when you respawn with little health and seemingly no means of overcoming the Typhon facing you, but you can also employ stealth (another set of abilities you can ramp up), and there's plenty of satisfaction to be had from prevailing when you're in a seemingly impossible scenario. Frequent quick-saves are very advisable, though.
Bucking the modern trend, Prey is a very meaty game: it doesn't lend itself to speed-running (even though the hackers have already been belting through it by finding its weak spots) since you need to hunt for every resource in order to survive, but the absolute minimum time you will have to invest is 15 hours – and completing all the side-missions plus visiting every inch of Talos I could easily take double that.
Prey feels much like starring in your very own version of one of the better Alien movies – and it's just as scary.
It's both utterly believable and spiced with some cutely observed flights of fancy, and will prove agreeably thought-provoking for anyone with an interest in space exploration, as well as neuroscience: the ethics of enhancing humans with Neuromods is a subject which it explores in depth.
The prospect of cutting a swathe through Talos I with a completely different of skills and a different path in a second play-through should prove irresistible to most, too, making it a game worthy of repeat.
Prey is a classy, absorbing, intelligent and technically accomplished addition to the world of sci-fi that games, films and literature have built over the decades. If you're into sci-fi, it's a must-buy.