“Talent borrows, genius steals.” That old axiom, most often attributed to Oscar Wilde, holds true in today’s AAA gaming space. It seems that most big-budget titles that reap big serious dividends are simple iterations on each other with slight shades of paint. The most “brilliant” developers, in that case, seem to be the ones who can fool consumers the most – the ones who can rip off other games wholesale, yet convince players that they’re playing something new. Instead of iterating on a style of gameplay or expanding on different mechanics through talented design, these strokes of “genius” rely on trickery and mimicry. While I’ll be the first to admit that some of these games can win me over (Ghost Recon: Wildlands was very fun despite being a rehash of other Ubisoft titles,) I’m mostly sick of the lack of originality being repeated and rewarded. With Prey, a game ironically centered on an alien species who can copy and imitate almost anything, Arkane Studios has produced the very definition of this type of “genius.”
By which I mean, they’ve produced a game that is almost entirely devoid of originality. Every facet— and I do mean every facet— has been done before, and done better in other games. There is nothing here from a narrative, mechanical, or visual standpoint that is not liberally cribbed from games that came before it. From top to bottom, this is a product that feels cynical – like a deliberate attempt to replicate games that have done well before. On a personal note, Prey deliberately tries to replicate games that I love, such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Bioshock, System Shock, and, most egregiously, Alien: Isolation. The problem is that imitations are always poor substitutions for the real thing, and Prey is a particularly poor substitute in that it seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes all of those things work.
Let’s start with the narrative. This is a plot that doesn’t just have shades of the original Bioshock, but instead, takes the general synopsis and flips some details around. An underwater city with art-deco aesthetics becomes a space station with art-deco aesthetics. The objectivist platitude-spouting Andrew Ryan becomes the science nonspeak-spouting Alex Yu. Plasmids become neuromods, steampunk becomes neo-futurism, etc. Countless narrative and plot elements from Bioshock are copy-and-pasted into Prey, but done without the nuanced writing, characterization, or world-building that made Irrational Games’ magnum opus such a grand slam.
This all culminates in a narrative that is predictable from start to finish. The game mistakes ham-fisted plot twists and constant reminders that the player’s choices matter for good storytelling and the result is a narrative that feels as vacuous and empty as the enemy Mimics themselves. What’s especially sad is that when the last two to three hours kick in, Prey does try to do some new things. Characters that I half-cared about show up, and a new antagonist is introduced. The problem is that it’s a case of too little, too late – these characters ultimately end up serving the function of solving plot problems with a line of dialogue, and the antagonist is the very definition of a “deus ex machina” there to either fix or ruin everything. Even when some early game choices factored into the ending, it never felt earned.
Particularly awful is the post-credit ending, which I called about an hour into the game, and laughed out loud when I was right the whole time. The way this ending is executed is clumsy and forced, yet it’s clear that the game thinks that it’s getting into heady, big-thinking stuff. It’s not. Instead, it’s setting up a forced sequel and sort of ripping off the original Doom a bit, while driving home the importance of “player choice” in a shallow, hollow fashion.
This is ironic to me because Prey is a game that gives players very little actual choice. From the outset, players are told that their choices matter, and to play how they want. But choices in this game are cut from the Grand Theft Auto IV cloth of decision-making, where “choices” translate to “sharp binaries that are absurd in their extremity.” Do you kill a sex trafficker and become a murderer, or let him live to show you’re a good person? Do you let a sick woman die, or do you almost die getting her medicine? Do you kill the villain, or Taser them so they can help you? They’re all the same kind of big video game choices that are often mistaken for good storytelling and player freedom, and they’re just as hollow and cheesy here as they were almost a decade ago. I will give props, though, that a number of humanoid enemies you kill actually does somewhat factor into what ending you get. That’s a good way of integrating gameplay and story, which is something that I’m a sucker for.
I’m not a sucker for the gameplay itself, though. That initial promise of playing Prey how you want rapidly devolves into two things – shooting your way through the game or not. Regardless of what the player chooses, it’s never particularly fun. Shooting your way through the game involves using unsatisfying firearms and powers that boil down to “make things explode,” with occasional dives into flailing your wrench and hoping the hit detection isn’t dodgy. Not shooting involves contending with the stealth mechanics, which while a step up from the clumsy combat, aren’t exactly fun either. Hiding behind crates and vents is old hat at this point, and unlike last year’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, there aren’t enough meaningful iterations on those mechanics to keep players interested.
However, stealth for me resulted in me actually breaking the game to get what I wanted. Between both the PC release and a Redbox copy of the PlayStation 4 port, I was actually surprised at how easy exploiting Prey’s janky physics ended up being. I was able to clip Morgan up walls to get to places early, solve major story beats by catching on the scenery to open doors I should’ve had to solve a puzzle for, and do a number of things that the game very clearly didn’t intend players to do. It got to a point where I was able to bypass unlocking crucial areas of the game by simply jumping up walls with the right timing to get where I needed to be. While one might chalk this up to typical Bethesda jank, this isn’t a Bethesda game – this is a game brought to us by the studio behind the Dishonored titles.
I was punished for my hubris on a few occasions, though. Several times in each version, regardless of the control scheme, I managed to get Morgan stuck in the scenery whether I was trying to or not. Sometimes, I could jump and spin enough to get out of it. Others, an enemy caught me flailing around in a wall and killed me. The problematic part of this is, like I said, this happened even when I wasn’t trying to exploit the wonky physics. On two occasions, I was scrambling through a vent, and on another, I was vaulting over an easily accessible ledge. Both resulted, however, in the same thing – Morgan getting stuck in a scenery, then promptly killed by an alien. This isn’t a problem unique to any particular version of the game – it’s a persistent issue across PC and console, from my experience. And for a game that tells players to explicitly crawl through vents and vault over things to escape, well, it’s pretty unacceptable.
There are also control issues that contributed to a lot of frustrating instances of falling from ledges or missing jumps. Morgan will occasionally refuse to jump when the player hits the button, and there’s always a jarring delay between hitting the button and the action actually occurring. The weird thing is that this is a problem unique to jumping, so it’s not a widespread input delay problem – in both versions, it only happens with jumping and no other command. This works in tandem with the aforementioned clumsy physics, resulting in a game that just doesn’t feel good to control in both navigation and combat.
What also doesn’t feel good is realizing that Prey liberally cribs aesthetics from both Bioshock and the woefully underrated Alien: Isolation. There’s a fine line between drawing inspiration from something and feeling like a monotone Xerox copy, and it’s a line that I feel this game crosses. Whole set pieces feel as if they are lifted wholesale from both games, but lack the artistic flourish and defining characteristics that gave those two titles such memorable looks. It is, appropriately, an act of mimicry – an imitation and nothing more.
Something that does manage to stand out, at least, is a pretty solid sound direction. Mick Gordon, who did work for the fantastic Wolfenstein reboot and the decent Doom, is one of the most unique composers in the industry currently. Despite my misgivings with Prey’s dull art direction and bad gameplay, I couldn’t help but be pulled in on occasion simply because of the score. A good headset will make it clear how much effort Gordon put into making the most of stereo sound, with synths and beats weaving seamlessly from ear to ear constantly, creating a ruined future atmosphere that’s hard not to admire. While it doesn’t exactly inspire the same kind of dystopian dread or palpable panic as Gordon’s previous scores for Bethesda, or evoke as strong of a sense of pure terror as this month’s excellent Outlast 2, it still has a distinct sound to it that I appreciated in an otherwise rote game.
Rote may be the best word to describe the whole package of Prey, really. I would’ve liked to see more done with the concept and setting, considering I’m a fan of literally everything this game is trying to do. Instead, I came away with a feeling that the developers weren’t confident enough to fully commit to an original idea. Instead, they played it safe by taking elements from other, better games, then not expanding upon them in any meaningful way. Outside of the weird physics, Prey isn’t a particularly broken game, but it is a boring, derivative, and unoriginal one. Through the fifteen-hour slog and between endless sessions of backtracking, I began to question why the game exists at all. After all, it’s doing things that have been done before, done better, and done in titles that can be had for far less than the sixty-dollar price tag.
If talent borrows and genius does indeed steal, then Prey is arguably a masterstroke of genius. But sadly, it is the furthest thing from a demonstration of talent.