Prey's first hour is promising fun hurt by performance problems

Watch the first hour of Arkane Studios’ surreal ode to System Shock.

Shocking systems?

Phil already went into depth with Arkane Studios about the strange alien abilities available to the player and how they interface with the world. Read about morphing into a mug and flinging yourself across the room there

Scroll down to watch the first hour of Prey running on a PC.

The first hour of Prey isn’t a great indication of the depth of its combat systems or the breadth of the player’s skillset, but it sure is a great indication of how screwed everything is.

The first 15 minutes is dedicated to setting up a safe, utopic space for the main character. It’s so cozy, I wouldn’t have minded if Prey was just a live-far-far-far-above-your-means simulator with a light retrofuture aesthetic. Give me a cream-colored couch and a deck, and I’m set for life.

But then the rug is pulled out from underneath you. Like full blown shotgunned from under your toes. Hard enough go from a clean, happy-enough apartment purgatory to a dangerous, expansive environment within moments. Swift enough that the next 15 to 20 to however many hours are probably going to be spent in complete distrust of anyone you meet—and reality itself. Prey sets up a fascinating, involved narrative bursting with potential. I wish I felt as optimistic about how it's technical performance.

You should've seen the PC Gamer HR test chamber.

 I’m Morgan Yu. Life seems good. I wake up in a nice apartment overlooking the city and it’s my first day on the job with the TranStar research crew.  

Before work, I take a breezy, energizing helicopter-ride (which doubles as a stylish credits sequence) over what appears to be a near-future San Francisco. A bright, thumping synth track plays in the background. It’s pleasant, really. I’m heading to meet some people from Human Resources. They need to run a few innocuous tests. Totally normal. 

Within a few minutes, I’m in Talos 1, a space station (yes, in space) smashing sentient alien spiders made of black, twisted goo with a wrench. How you get there and why is a clever reveal that’s better experienced firsthand, but you can watch the first hour if you’re so inclined. 

Spoiler warning, of course. 

TranStar, the forces that be, have ulterior and possibly sinister motives prior to unleashing the Typhon alien threat on Talos 1. Morgan Yu is a part of that scheme, but figuring out how and why (and surviving the alien threat) are central to Prey’s narrative drive. You can’t really trust yourself. Shit gets weird. Try to stay cool. Smash aliens.

Goo buster

In the most self-aware change for a very Bioshock-y immersive sim, the very trashcans you typically root through to eat hundreds of candy bars might spring to life and eats you. It’s been talked about before, but rarely experienced firsthand. Mimics, one of the early enemies in Prey, can morph into any static object at will.

With enemies like Mimics, Prey disarms and disorients in order to establish an omnipresent tension that encourages improvisational play. If any garbage can or book or agave plant has the potential to be a deadly sentient monster, then there won’t be much time to react. But with all the systems promised—hacking, shooting, super strength, and more—at your disposal, being hunted actually sounds like a pretty good time. But in the first hour, at least, Mimics still behave like fairly predictable videogame enemies.

A single Phantom required almost everything I had to take down.

The only time a Mimic truly surprised me was during a scripted sequence with a garbage can. Otherwise, they just skittered off, turned into objects, and then turned back whenever I got within a few yards. I hope to see more erratic behavior from Mimics, maybe staying in object form even while I pick up and read a book, or never leaving object form at all until I leave the room and hear them skittering around as the door shuts behind me.

The AI may not be as advanced as I imagined, but stressful combat nearly makes up for it. Ammo is still fairly scarce early on and a single Phantom, the tougher bipedal monsters, required almost everything I had to take down. I felt stretched and scared, so when I ran low on ammo I backed into the lobby where a sentry turret scanned for alien lifeforms. I ended up finishing the Phantom without it, but that the turret occurred to me at all is an early sign that whether or not the enemy AI is surprising, so long as they’re relentless, improvisation is still entertaining. I’m curious to see how Prey plays with all the powers and security systems and advanced creatures thrown in together. What happens when I panic with all that at my disposal?

Weapons have a nice heft and gorgeous models. The shotgun in particular may make the cut for A Great Videogame Weapon, and it’s not surprising why. Raphael Colantonio, the director of Prey was on-hand for questions, so I asked him what he thought made theirs feel so great.

“I have to admit we did consult a little bit with id.” Yeah, that's id Software, the team behind some of the best shotguns in the business. He laughs and continues, “They gave us a few pointers, they’re very smart with their ideas, like playing with the FOV on a shot. There’s a slight FOV opening which is really cool. And the sound is very important too, it’s amazing how many little checkboxes they had for us.”

At first, I wasn’t tempted to spec my Morgan towards weapon and ammunition synthesizing. Now, I’m not so sure.

Get lost

Besides my shotgun lust, what really stuck with me was something a bit more old fashioned: Prey’s level design gave me serious Metroid vibes. After the linear intro bits play out, you’re dumped into a massive lobby where you can wander off into any direction you like. As is the PC Gamer way, I checked out the bathrooms first.

After completing a few early objectives, Prey opens up and you can go anywhere your abilities and creativity allow. Somewhere more interesting than the bathrooms, probably.

I wouldn’t know because bathroom toilets are hypnotic, and an hour wasn’t even close to long enough to upgrade my human abilities with Neuromods, collectible skill point upgrades. They’re inserted via a first person needle-to-eye implant animation that will no doubt ruin somebody’s day. I only found a few Neuromods, which was enough to purchase the ability to hack low-level robots. How it’s helpful, I’m not sure. I walked up to a medical bot, ‘hacked’ it, and it whirred up and puttered away, never to be seen again. Hooray?

There are signs of what I might be able to do all over the place. Heavy objects have strength requirements to pick up, drones and security require high-level hacking, and the few weapons I had felt bare, missing all the mods and ammo I’d inevitably want to synthesize somewhere down the line.

I’ve been told I can absorb the alien powers to become a mug and hide from enemies or fling myself through small gaps. I’ve read about using the GLOO Cannon to build sequence breaking platforms. Colantonio even told me about how a playtester used a gravity-bending skill on turrets they’d hacked to make a floaty mobile defense force. I just didn’t get to see any of it for myself. So long as the systems are surprising and result in dumb stuff happening regularly, we'll be good. 

Fans of sequence-breaking and speedrunning dream about this stuff.

The potential toolset and signs in the level design indicate that returning to areas regularly with new powers in tow is expected, as you might be able to slide through tiny crevices as an object or hack security systems that were impenetrable (and easily able to penetrate you with bullets) before. Eventually, you can even traverse the entire outside surface of Talos 1, which Prey writer Ricardo Bare compared to the “woods of Skyrim” in that it’s a vast, dangerous membrane connecting disparate parts of the station together. Fans of sequence-breaking and speedrunning dream about this stuff.

I didn’t get to see the hull myself, but it’s a promising concept, one that completes the illusion of Talos 1 is a real place with logical design and not just some complex arrangement of tunnels and doors hanging in a void.

Where's the guy who carries my luggage for me?

In the opening area, an observation deck and lobby make up the first hub, branching off into several wings of station, including a trauma center, a visitor’s lounge, shuttle bay, and so on. I ignored my objective completely and explored.
Within that short hour I found a few sidequests, medical records indicating every deceased and living passenger still on Talos 1, hidden passages and obscured doors, platforms just out of reach, and another Phantom in quarantine saying human words, which is not something I expected a swirling shadow person to do. I feel like I barely got a grasp on the opening area, and like I’d still want to come back and see what I missed 10 or 20 hours in.

If the player abilities, enemy behaviors, and supporting systems all come together, it could be the deepest immersive sim we’ve had since System Shock 2—if the final build runs well, that is.

Technical difficulties 

Prey is being developed on PCs and Arkane Studios is intent on releasing a fully-featured PC version, but in my hour of playtime it didn’t run like a dream. The framerate wasn’t consistent at all, objects clipped through walls regularly, I saw object and texture pop-in when opening doors on occasion—it wasn’t unplayable, just surprisingly rough and not up to the standards I’d expect from a retail release, yet. Keep in mind that this was an early build and that I couldn’t pinpoint the specs of the PC it was running on. There are still a few months to go, but skepticism is warranted after Dishonored 2’s shaky launch.

Colantonio knows the pressure is on. “The Dishonored 2 release came as a surprise to us. PC is difficult because there are so many configurations out there, and a new driver just came out, so it’s just a difficult thing. And we did underestimate a little bit, so this time we’re really aware of it,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we can guarantee there won’t be any problems, but we’ll do our best so that it’s pretty smooth.”

We’ll know just how smooth soon enough when Prey releases May 5.
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

At only 11 years old, James took apart his parents’ computer and couldn’t figure out how to put it back together again. As an Associate Editor, he’s embarked on a dangerous quest to solve Video Games. Wish him luck.
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