Prey, despite the implied violence of its name, is a deeply playful game.
You can pick up a heavy office desk and use it as a shield. You can build globby GLOO barriers to keep the inky alien Typhons out of your personal space. You can, famously, turn into a coffee cup and roll around at the speed of sound.
Arkanes Studios’ 2017 FPS has next to nothing in common with the 2006 game it shares a name with. But in its deeply simulated physics and gloriously gonzo science weapon, Prey has an awful lot in common with the greatest PC first-person shooter series of all time. Before Half-Life Alyx added VR to Half-Life 2's famously groundbreaking use of physics in an FPS, Prey had taken Valve's nascent ideas and gone wild with them. Prey doesn't get enough credit for fusing the essence of Half-Life 2 with the play-your-own-way philosophy of the immersive sim.
The Half-Life connection
Prey almost feels like the missing link in Half-Life’s evolutionary chain. Like the original Half-Life and Black Mesa, Prey deeply explores a single location, the space station Talos I. Both Prey and Half-Life 2 are the rare first-person shooters where the most interesting things you can accomplish don’t require bullets.
Half-Life 2’s best moments are fueled not by gunpowder, but by gravity. When you gain access to the Gravity Gun, a Fanta-colored science cannon that allows you to manipulate and weaponize select objects in the environment, Half-Life 2 opens up like a Nihilanth noggin.
At just the moment that you might be growing tired of simple physics puzzles, Half-Life 2 hands you a tool so powerful it feels like it could break the game. “Here,” Valve seems to be saying, “have fun.” After a brief tutorial section during which Alyx teaches you to use the weapon during a fetch session with Dog, Gordon is forced into Ravenholm.
The memorably spooky village was once a thriving Resistance hub before being shelled by the Combine. Now all that remains are monsters; poison headcrabs, headcrab zombies and hulking behemoth headcrab zombies. There are paint cans scattered throughout the level that you can pick up with Gravity Gun and yeet into walls. More importantly, there’s precious little ammo to be found, so instead of leaning on your arsenal of traditional guns, you’re encouraged to use the Gravity Gun to manipulate traps and sling saw blades through zombie midsections.
Prey’s signature weapon invites the same chaotic experimentation. The Gloo Cannon fires off adhesive wads that can be used in a variety of ways. Web enemies in place, then whack them with a wrench. Create a sticky staircase along a wall and access places you weren’t meant to reach. Use a few well-placed globs to burst out of the confines of a level, on your way to a blindingly fast Any% speedrun. Like Half-Life 2, Prey’s best gun isn’t a means for direct harm. Instead it primes your pump for wild, inventive play.
As powerful as the Gravity Gun can be, the situations Valve concocted for it in Half-Life 2 tend to have straightforward solutions. Prey, on the other hand, wants you to be Thinking With Physics all the time. The Gloo Cannon radically expands how you interact with the game world with the same kind of open-ended problem-solving popularized by games like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex.
In keeping with Arkane’s other stellar immersive sim Dishonored, Prey offers skill trees with a variety of abilities that can completely change the way you play. Neuromods, injectable brain-reshaping drugs that you (queasily) jab right into your eye, are enhancements that enhance human characteristics like strength. They can also draw from the biochemistry of the alien Typhons, Prey's shapeshifting enemies.
Unlocking one skill might let you lift a couch that was previously too heavy and move it out of your way; another might let you turn into a roll of paper towels and slip under a door. It’s a game where ammo is often scarce and chucking a couch at an imposing enemy is as good as a bullet when your back’s against the wall.
Here’s an example that’s stuck with me since I first played Prey. There’s a moment where you need to bypass a voice-encrypted lock. But just about everyone who once inhabited Talos I is either missing or dead. To open the lock you need to play a song that the lock’s owner sang at an open mic back in happier times. Problem is, you need to play the song over club speakers, and that noise will attract a horde of Typhons.
At first glance, this seems like a bog-standard “survive the horde” level. When I tried to outlast the inky black alien waves with little health and even less ammo, I died over and over again. Then it hit me: Prey is a game where—with the right skills leveled up—you can pick up any object that isn’t bolted down. Before starting the music again, I lifted every table and chair, one at a time, and stacked them in front of the DJ booth. It looked like an electromagnet had drawn every piece of furniture into a haphazard metal barricade.
When I had finished preparing, I turned the music on and hid in the booth. Puzzled Typhons attempted to reach the source of the noise, trying and failing to attack me through the walls of my makeshift bunker. But, I stayed where I was and easily survived the onslaught. If I hadn’t been so pleased with myself it would have almost been boring.
That's the Prey experience summed up in one moment. It's easy to play it as a regular FPS at first, but the Gloo Cannon challenges you to rethink and realize just how many options are actually in front of you.
The physics-driven experimentation of Half-Life 2 pairs perfectly with the do-anything ethos of the immersive sim; no game has done a better job of building atop the crates Half-Life 2 stacked up as a foundation. Once you get it, playing Prey is all about bending the world to your will and then marveling, afterwards, that it actually worked.